The identity of Jack the Ripper, the infamous Whitechapel murderer, remains a mystery to this day.
And as to what happened to the brutal killer once his reign of terror ended, is equally intriguing.
Here, local historian Dorothy Ramser, delves back in time, and uncovers a suspected link between Jack the Ripper – and South Shields.
“The Shields Daily News reminded readers that the theory most favoured by the police at that time was that the Whitechapel murderer managed to evade capture by boarding a ship trading from London,” explains Dorothy.
“The killer’s destination was believed to be Bilbao, and all vessels were closely watched. However, it was observed that it had not been considered necessary to keep watch on ships bound to and from ports in Britain, and it had to be considered that the Ripper could have made his escape by this route.
“At that time, the sea traffic between British ports was huge and it would have been simple for anyone wishing to leave London quickly to board a vessel bound for the Tyne.
“In 1891 a story was rife in the area purporting to lend credence to this theory.
“It concerned a young man named Williams who had come down in the world and spent much time near the docks, and attracted attention because of his strange behaviour.
“It was noticed that on many occasions he disappeared for about a fortnight and then he would reappear and resume his habits by the dock, although each time his behaviour was more and more repellent.
“He seemed to have an extreme hatred and aversion to women and freely threatened them. Then nothing was heard of him for many weeks until he was discovered on the outskirts of a north-country town and he died in a state of delirium.”
Williams was allegedly an outcast from his family. Apparently he had been a soldier of fortune abroad and had been involved in at least one bloody battle.
It was assumed he had been well educated because he had good handwriting and supposedly possessed a considerable amount of medical knowledge.
Dorothy explains that at that time, the Jack the Ripper rumours were at their peak, and the folk of Shields began to recall the fact that the disappearances of the man at the docks coincided with the dates of the Whitechapel murders.
“It was known that a life of debauchery had been his ruin, and they believed he wished revenge upon the women who he believed had brought him down.
“The conclusion was that he was no other than the infamous Ripper.
“The newspaper article went on to say that ‘strange as the story may appear, it is a fact that since his death no crime has been perpetrated in Whitechapel which could be without doubt ascribed to this notorious murderer’.”
Four years earlier, at the height of the Ripper’s killing spree, the Gazette of October 15, 1888, featured the headline ‘The Whitechapel Murders – A Suspect at Shields’, which reported that the week before, a man had been present at Mill Dam and was extremely anxious to get work on an outbound vessel.
Dorothy told us: “It was said he had a considerable amount of money and had told other seamen he had come from London to Liverpool then to Shields.
“He finally managed to board the Brig Louise which sailed for Courseuilles in France.
“Superintendent Farmer, of the River Police, said the man answered the description circulated of the Whitechapel murderer. He signed to board the vessel and two seamen were struck by the resemblance of his signature to the handwriting of the murderer published in the newspapers.
“He was about 30 and about five foot eight inches in height. He had told seamen he was an Austrian from Trieste.
“The article continued: ‘The arrival of the brigantine will be awaited with some interest as those who saw the man having now seen the description of the person wanted by the London police, are confident as to his identity’.”
Returning to the question of handwriting, Dorothy goes on to reveal that there appeared to be a link between letters purported to be written by the Ripper and Williams.
For although the handwriting was believed to be disguised, the editor of a national newspaper, who had been sent articles from Williams, compared one with the other and “was struck with the resemblance in many of the handwriting characteristics”.
Dorothy said the Shields Daily News reporter concluded: “Taking all the circumstances into consideration, there is some reason to suppose that the Whitechapel murderer and the destitute tramp were one and the same. The theory may be deemed far-fetched but it has to be borne in mind that no fresh crime has been committed and nothing has actually been heard of Jack the Ripper since.”
“One thing is certain,” adds Dorothy, “even if these rumours, which abounded the length and breadth of the country, led nowhere in solving the notorious Whitechapel crimes, it is without a doubt that travelling by ship was definitely an easy option for someone wishing to escape capture.
“Paying for passage to any destination in the British Isles or the world would be quick and easy as advertisements for passage filled pages of the national press.
“The hunt for Jack the Ripper will continue for a long time to come, and new theories will proclaim his identity as proven beyond a doubt – but one thing is certain, he never paid for his gruesome crimes, and he took his grim secret with him to the grave.”
And that includes any possible link with Shields!