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Was my great-great grandfather 'Jack the Ripper'?

Updated: Feb 25, 2021


I am not sure what I was expecting to find when I began delving into my family history six or seven years ago. So it was a surprise to come across some intriguing stories involving one or other of my ancestors – stories that prompted me to dig deeper into their lives and into the events in which they had become entangled. For example, William Charles Graygoose, one of my great-great grandfathers, who made a gruesome discovery in his water cistern; and Samuel Warr Buckler, a great granduncle, who was murdered in his grocery shop. These are stories for another day. Here I want to write about another of my great-great grandfathers, Septimus Swyer, who has been cited as someone to be considered in the quest to unearth the identity of the serial killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’. [1]

Who was Septimus Swyer?

Septimus was born in 1835 in Shaftesbury, Dorset, the youngest of seven children born to Walter Swyer, a brewer, and his wife Sarah. By the time he was 15 years old, Septimus had left Dorset for London where he was employed as assistant to his brother, Robert, an accoucheur (obstetrician) and chemist. Septimus went on to become a surgeon himself, and a Fellow of the Obstetrical Society of London. By the time of the 1881 Census he had collected an impressive list of letters after his name: ‘Sec RCP, MRCS, LSA Lond. SM’ (RCP-Royal College of Physicians; MRCS-Member of the Royal College of Surgeons; LSA Lond SM-Local Supervisory Authority, London Region, Supervisor of Midwives).

Septimus married Agnes Christina Heckman (or Heickman), the daughter of German immigrants, in 1857 and in the course of the next fifteen years the couple brought into the world no less than seven children. Sadly, only four survived beyond childhood – one of these being their second child, Alice Sophia who was to become my great grandmother.

Septimus in 1860 Until Christina’s death in December 1874, the family lived in Brick Lane, East London, where Septimus worked as a General Physician. Then, in August 1880, Septimus married Hannah (Annie) Markin – or did he? That’s a story for another day! Nevertheless, by the time the next census was taken on 3 April 1881, they were living together in Marquess Road, Islington with a four-month old daughter, Sarah Blanche. Also with them were three of Septimus’ children, Annie’s two children from her first marriage, a niece of Annie’s, two domestic servants and an errand boy.

Septimus in 1880 At some point between 1881 and 5 April 1891, when the next Census was taken, the family moved from Islington back to Whitechapel Road in East London. We may be able to get a more precise timescale from a report of one of Septimus’ occasional visits to the criminal court. An article in The Weekly Dispatch of 21 March 1886 informs us that Septimus had appeared as a witness in a case to testify that he had been walking with his boy through Osborn Street, Whitechapel, on 28 February. This suggests that, by this date, the family may already have made the move from Marquess Road to the Whitechapel neighbourhood; if this was indeed the case, then Septimus would have been living in Whitechapel in 1888 when the Whitechapel murders began.

What were the ‘Whitechapel Murders?

It was on Tuesday 3 April 1888 that the first of the crimes now known as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ took place. On that day Emma Elizabeth Smith suffered a vicious attack in Osborn Street, Whitechapel, and died from her injuries the following day. By the time Frances Coles was found dead on 13 February 1891, a total of eleven women had been murdered in the area around the Whitechapel Road. Of the eleven murders it is believed that at least five (the ‘canonical five’) were almost certainly the work of the same man – the man who would become known as ‘Jack the Ripper’. All five occurred within the space of ten weeks between 31 August and 9 November 1888.

The identity of Jack the Ripper has never been established although many theories have been put forward. According to the Whitechapel Jack website [2] the police favoured seven suspects at the time, while press speculation provided a further three.

Interest in establishing the identity of Jack the Ripper has continued to the present day and has succeeded in delivering over one hundred new suspects. However, as the website acknowledges, ‘While many theories exist, some more advanced than others, none of them have proven to be indisputably convincing.’

Why is Septimus a person of interest?

Claiming that not just five but eight of the Whitechapel murders were committed by the same person, the submission in goes on to explain the reasons why Septimus should be treated as a person of interest.

First, a process known as geographic profiling leads to the address at which Septimus was quite likely living in 1888. Geographic profiling involves looking at the locations of a series of crimes which are thought to be connected and extrapolating from the findings the most probable area in which the perpetrator lived at the time. Enquiries are then focused on that area. According to this submission, if the locations of the eight murders are subjected to this process, the area in which Septimus was living is pinpointed as an area on which to focus investigations. The submission goes on to say that, although the process is not intended to establish the exact location of the offender, ‘on a coincidental level, the resident of the pinpointed premises in 1891 was a Dr Septimus Swyer. The address was 23 Whitechapel Road.’ As we have seen, it is indeed possible that Septimus was already living at this address three years earlier when the murders took place.

A second feature of the murders cited in support of this proposal is the nature of the injuries on the bodies of four of the victims. These injuries suggest that the perpetrator had anatomical or surgical knowledge and may have been a medical man or slaughterhouse worker. As an obstetrician and surgeon, Septimus fits this profile perfectly.

Plausible, but only just, are the tentative conclusions drawn from two incidents in which Septimus had been involved. The first of these occurred in 1877 when he carried out an examination of a murder victim whose injuries were similar to those inflicted on the Ripper’s victims. ‘Was this a seed planted that lay dormant until 1888?’ [3] The second took place 2½ years before the Whitechapel murders when Septimus was attacked by a gang of men who hit him over the head and then snatched his watch and chain. ‘Do these two events have an effect on Swyer, and are they the catalyst that starts the Whitechapel homicides?’ [4]

Finally, the submission points to the fact that Septimus and his family left the country in 1891 or 1892 to live in the United States of America. Although the last of the ‘canonical five’ murders took place in November 1888, four more were committed between that date and 13 February 1891, after which there were no further murders in the Whitechapel area. The cessation of the murders coincides with Septimus’ departure for the USA at some point between April 1991 and May 1992, following which Septimus remained on the move (on the run?) for several years.

Septimus Swyer in America

The first indication that Septimus had emigrated to the United States comes in newspaper reports of a claim he made for damages in August 1893. The claim was made against the landlord from whom he had rented ‘the dwelling 715 West Fayette Street’ in Baltimore, Maryland on 12 May 1893. It is possible, however, that this may not have been his first city of residence in the US, and he may have already spent some time in Detroit, Michigan. He certainly moved, or moved back, to Detroit at some point after 1 August 1893.

Within twelve months Septimus had left Detroit, and by March 1895 was living in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where, in 1894, he had been registered as an allopath (the term ‘allopath’ indicating that Septimus practised this branch of medicine as opposed to homeopathic medicine).

From Pennsylvania Septimus moved to Manhattan, New York – probably in 1895 or 1896; and here, except for a brief period in Newark, New Jersey, Septimus was to spend the rest of his life. He died on 10 December 1906.

What about our fascination with serial killers?

Having discovered the widespread and continuing interest in the Whitechapel murders, I cannot help but ponder why we are fascinated by such macabre crimes. Why, for instance, has a ‘Jack the Ripper Museum’ been established in the area where the murders took place; and why do people pay money to be guided on a ‘Jack the Ripper Tour’? It seems that psychologists agree that such interest is not a sign of a weird or unhealthy mind – unless, of course, a person pursues this interest to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps we want to find out what kind of person commits such crimes and why. Perhaps we accept that the world we live in is a world where horrible things happen, and that we cannot really come to grips with this world if we turn our backs on the darker side of human existence.

To pursue an interest in the actions of Jack the Ripper is not to make a celebrity of a notorious killer – which means it is important we remember the victims of his horrific crimes; the women (or should it be some of the women) who suffered at his hands; Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. It is good to know that their memory has been honoured by identifying their places of burial. The graves of Mary Jane Kelly and Catherine Eddowes, both marked by plaques, are in the City of London Cemetery. Annie Chapman, who was interred in a public grave in the same cemetery, had a plaque placed there in 2008; the inscription reads: ‘This Plaque is dedicated to the memory of Annie Chapman died 8th September 1888 a victim of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Her remains are buried within this area.’

Elizabeth Stride’s grave, with a headstone that reads ‘Elizabeth Stride 1843-1888’, can be found in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow.

Mary Jane Kelly’s body was interred at St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone. A simple marker reads ‘In loving memory of Marie Jeanette Kelly. None but the lonely hearts can know my sadness. Love lives forever’.

Finally …..

….. was Septimus Swyer a respected, diligent and skilled general practitioner and surgeon – or was he a murderer clever enough to avoid the attentions of the police?

This is – and will remain – an unanswerable question. But I have not found anything like enough to convince me that I may have inherited the genes of a serial killer.

I do, however, want to find out more about my great-great grandfather and his work in the Victorian slums of the East End.

[1] [2] [3] [4]

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