The 'Jack the Ripper' letter dated 17 September 1888 was discovered by a drummer called Peter McClelland who lived near the National Archives in Kew and, having gained some experience in genealogical research regarding his own family, took an interest in examining the Police and Home Office files pertaining to the Whitechapel Murders during the 100 year anniversary of those murders in 1988 after having watched a television programme on the subject. He made a number of online postings in 2007 and 2008 and, from those, I have attempted to put together the story of his discovery into one article.McClelland appears to have obtained a reader's ticket for the National Archives on 28 November 1988 (although a reader's ticket is not required to consult microfilm so it's not entirely clear if he visited the National Archives prior to this date). On a regular basis he trawled through the Home Office files on microfilm (he said 'microfiche' in his postings which must have been an error) but found that he couldn't see the documents very clearly so asked to be allowed to see the originals. He had to fill out a form with his card details and then waited for the boxes to arrive. He was put at a desk with an invigilator who watched him examine the files. In his own words:
'Security was tighter than you would have thought for the period...I was sat at a desk near a room security man who watched me like a hawk the entire time I was looking at these files.'
He had to show everything he was carrying to the entrance staff on entry to the reading area. He was given three large boxes. He didn't complete his inspection of them in one sitting and he believes that he found the 17 September letter on his second or third inspection of the boxes. As for the discovery itself, he said:
'Whilst browsing the files I came across what I thought was a single sheet of brown card and thought why is this here then? I couldn't see what purpose it might serve other than a divider of some sort. On closer examination I found it was a very thin folder which was stuck together with what I can only describe as age. That's when I used my thumbnail to crack it open. '
The divider (which he also refers to as a 'non-standard cardboard folder' which was very thin and brown) was described thus:
'The folder that contained this letter wasn't glued down, it was stuck with age in my opinion. I think I have mentioned previously that I spent many years researching my family tree and I came across many documents that hadn't seen the light of day for possibly 80 or 90 years. They behaved in the same way, cracking upon opening, slightly musty smell etc.'
Inside the divider/folder he found the letter. He has also pointed out that:
'The folder this damned letter was in was also attached as per the other documents; with a hole punched through the corner and stringed with the rest of the stuff.'
He says that the right hand top corner of the letter was dog eared when he found it, folded over by about a quarter of an inch. He doesn't indicate in his account if he immediately flagged the letter to the staff at the National Archives (and it would be interesting to know if he did) but he said he contacted both Donald Rumbelow and Paul Begg to inform them of it in the hope that tests would be carried out to establish its authenticity.
In his online account, McClelland said one thing about his discovery that turned out to be not true. He claimed that the cardboard folder was visible on the microfilm that he had examined at the National Archives: microfilm that had been created only a few months earlier in 1988. This would have been very important but when it was checked by a poster called Chris, it was found that there was no such image on the microfilm (something that I can confirm myself). McClelland responded that he was relying on his memory from 20 years earlier although, unfortunately, he became rather irritated at being challenged so didn't spend long on the point and never clarified whether he accepted what he was being told.
The part of his story that I feel requires some clarification is in respect of the fact that he said he was being watched like a hawk throughout his inspection of the files yet, when he came across the cardboard folder, he carried out a destructive act by cracking it open with his thumbnail. That's not something that I feel most people would have done to part of a file while under close observation at the National Archives but that's not to say that he didn't do it.
The existence of such a cardboard divider, inserted into a Home Office file, with a treasury tag through it, is not something that I have ever seen myself in my own perusal of many Home Office files. Home Office documents were placed in paper folders, also known as skins, docket forms or jackets, the last page of which is as below (right), being reinforced paper rather than cardboard.
A cardboard divider of the type McClelland describes should not have been there.
As to the possibility of a researcher having slipped a copy of the letter into a pre-existing 'divider', or placing both the divider and letter into the file at the same time, the much respected researcher and former police officer Stewart Evans has noted that security was not very good at the National Archives at the time. Thus, he has said: 'I used the PRO for research during the 1970s and the 1980s and I can assure you that it would have been simplicity itself to have put a piece of paper into any of the files I was accessing.' He has also remarked that, 'Hunched over the files with a page to be deposited hidden in your notepad, or inside jacket pocket, it would have been very easy at some moment, of maybe hours poring over the files, to slip in the page. I'm not just saying this for goodness sake - it would have been easily done.' The one caveat I would make to Evans' remarks is that it's not entirely clear if he is speaking of files available for general inspection or of special files that would have required supervision while being inspected. If, as he says, McClelland was being watched like a hawk during his inspection of the files, and assuming this applied to all researchers, that would presumably have made it somewhat more difficult and risky to attempt to insert a document into the files.
As to that, it is interesting that McClelland recalls that the divider or folder in which he found the letter was hole punched. The early photographs of the letter show no hole punch in the top left hand corner. But more recent photographs show that it has now been hole punched by an archivist at the National Archives with a treasury tag run through it. The document, which appears to have been found (inside the divider/folder) in the file numbered HO 144/221/A49301C between pages 103 and 104 has also been newly numbered 103B in the top right hand corner by an archivist, while page 103 has been re-numbered 103A. This is, in my opinion, a dreadful piece of administration because the copy in the microfilm retains the old page number of 103 meaning that the same document now has two different page or folio numbers at the National Archives.
This is the file as it has now become, with a hole punch added in the top left and a reference number written onto the top right hand corner.
As for the paper and ink, McClelland seems to have believed it was of the period although Stewart Evans disagrees. He has said that: 'the paper used in this letter is cheap and modern looking' and that, based on the fact that there was no obvious sign of variable thickness as is displayed in writing with a nib dipped in ink, the text of the letter 'appeared to be written in ball point.'
The National Archives appears not to have done any proper scientific testing of this document, leaving it to researchers to make up their own minds as to whether it is genuine or not. In his online posts, McClelland said that he had been interviewed by some 'bigwig' with an Italian name at the National Archives and 'was told that the letter stays where it is because they consider it to be genuine after tests they had themselves carried out'. He then became non-cooperative when Chris (referred to above) asked him for further details, and it's a shame that he became annoyed when he was questioned about such matters which were simply designed at getting to the facts.
McClelland appears to have been mistaken that the National Archives consider the letter to be genuine. A Casebook Forum poster called 'Phantom' contacted the National Archives in February 2018 and was told in response by the National Archives Library Manager, Paul Johnson, that, 'The content and date of the letter suggest it is a forgery, placed into the file at a later date.'. He added that, 'The circumstances surrounding its discovery also give rise to suspicion' but doesn't seem to have been terribly well informed because he stated that it was 'claimed to have been found in a sealed envelope'. If the posts of Peter McClelland are to be believed, it was not found in a sealed envelope at all. If it was, then that would change matters enormously but one can only assume that Mr Johnson was mistaken. In any event, Johnson goes on to say that, 'The presence of a sealed envelope is contrary to policy' but that's irrelevant if the letter wasn't found in a sealed envelope. It is troubling that a manager at the National Archives doesn't seem to be aware of the precise details of the discovery. Johnson also informed 'Phantom' that there are no plans to label the document as either genuine or fake, 'although the caption to the digital image we supply refers to a letter 'purporting to be' from the Ripper'. That wording doesn't strike me as terribly helpful because all the Ripper correspondence purports to be from the Ripper; the issue here is whether this is a genuine Ripper letter purporting to be from the Ripper!
That seems to be as far as we can take it regarding the details surrounding the discovery of this letter, and it can only be hoped that more work is carried out on this and that the original notes of the National Archives that must have been made following its discovery in 1988 are published.
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