Jack the Ripper - can there really be anyone in the world who hasn’t heard that name? I doubt it! But how many know the name of the detective who led the search for him, back in 1888? There have been a myriad of books, plays and films about Jack the Ripper, all featuring Inspector Abberline but the character we read about, and especially the one we see on our screens seems to change as if by metamorphosis, with each variation of the story.
In the 1978 film, ‘Murder By Decree’, the Abberline character is almost dispensed of in its entirety, and the Ripper murders are solved by none other than Sherlock Holmes. Ten years later in the TV series ‘Jack the Ripper’ Michael Caine played Inspector Abberline as a tough, no-nonsense, Cockney alcoholic. In the latest film, ‘From Hell’, in 2001, Johnny Depp portrays Abberline as a drug-addled opium fiend, who spends much of his time flat on his back, high on whatever he can lay his hands on.
The reality surrounding Frederick George Abberline’s life couldn’t be further from the truth. He wasn’t a Cockney; he was in fact, born in Blandford in Dorset, he certainly wasn’t an alcoholic, and neither was he ever known to throw his weight around. As for being a drug addict, nothing could be further from the truth.
At 20, Abberline moved to London and joined the Metropolitan Police and settled in to pretty mundane work for the first year or two. He started to prove himself when he discovered the art of disguise and infiltration, and managed to notch up a good deal of arrests and convictions, which saw him promoted to sergeant and moved to Y Division, Highgate. He was then put in charge of an undercover squad, which infiltrated an Irish terrorist group known as the Fenians, who blew a massive hole in the wall of the Clerkenwell House of Detention, in the hope of springing two of their associates. The associates did not manage to escape and eight innocent people were killed and 120 injured. There was public outrage at the incident, Abberline’s team was disbanded, and the Government set up the Secret Service Department for the first time.
In reality Abberline was not the lady’s man he has been portrayed as on screen. In fact he often found it quite difficult to converse with women. He did however meet 25-year-old Martha Mackness, and married her in March 1868. Within a few weeks after their marriage, Martha was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and promptly died two weeks later. He was then promoted again, this time to Inspector, and transferred to H Division, Whitechapel, where he promptly went to war against a protection gang known as the Bessarabians, who specialised in extorting money from stallholders and publicans. He managed to smash the gang, which ended in a mass brawl, with one man being killed.
In 1876 Abberline married again, this time to Emma Beament, who stayed at his side for the rest of his life.
He was promoted yet again, this time to Local Inspector in charge of H Division's CID, and eventually moved to Central Office Division at Scotland Yard. On 1st September 1888, however Abberline was seconded back to Whitechapel to investigate the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, (the first of the Jack the Ripper murders) whose disembowelled body had been found only a few hours earlier lying on the ground in in Buck's Row, White chapel. From 31st August when the first victim, Mary Ann Nichols’ body was discovered, to 9th November 1888 when the body of Mary Jeanette Kelly was found in her room, a total of just five Ripper murders had taken place, over a period of just ten weeks. The name of Detective Inspector Abberline, was involved in each case.