One of the most enduring mysteries surrounding Jack the Ripper is the question of how many murders were actually committed by one single killer. The death of Emma Smith, while it is the first of the Whitechapel murders, is generally not attributed to the serial killer who would later be called Jack the Ripper. The second Whitechapel murder, however, has generated much more controversy among Ripperologists.

The body of Martha Tabram was discovered just before dawn on 7th August 1888 by John Reeves, who lodged in George Yard buildings. Reeves was on his way to work, making his way down the stairs, when he came upon a body on the first floor landing. This wasn’t especially unusual, as homeless people and drunks often sheltered in the stairs. However, upon closer inspection, he noticed that the body was lying in a pool of blood, and he summoned the police immediately.

Martha Tabram had been stabbed some 39 times (coincidentally, she was 39 years old), mostly in her abdomen and pelvis as well as her neck. The savage nature of the crime prompted a massive police investigation. Witnesses were able to assist police in reconstructing Tabram’s movements in the hours before her death.

Mary Ann Connelly, aka “Pearly Poll”, was a friend of Martha Tabram. Both were prostitutes, and both had been drinking in and around Whitechapel Road on the night of August 6th. Around 11.45 pm, they parted company, each with a soldier she had met earlier in the evening. Poll stated that she went up in to Angel Court with her companion, and she saw Tabram and her partner disappear into George Yard (modern day Gunthorpe Street). No one could give any account of Tabram after this time.

The police investigation continued, with ID parades and extensive investigation, but no one was ever convicted of Martha Tabram’s murder. Such a brutal crime, unsolved despite the best efforts of the police, sparked a media frenzy which continued throughout the period known as the “Autumn of Terror.”

Opinion at the time was mixed as to whether Martha Tabram was in fact a victim of the same meticulous killer that eviscerated prostitutes over the months that followed. Nearly 124 years later, the debate continues. On the one hand, Martha Tabram might have been an early victim of a killer who would eventually evolve the ritual and calculation which characterised the Ripper murders. On the other hand, she may well have been a victim of one of the thousands of gangs, thieves and other criminal elements which ran rampant in the East End of London in 1888.

What do you think? Was Martha Tabram an early Ripper victim? Does she belong at the head of the list which includes Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, and Mary Kelly? Or is she, like so many of her fellow “fallen women” of the East End, merely the face of a thousand faceless victims of the poverty and crime that prowled Whitechapel along with Jack the Ripper?