The Whitechapel murders were a series of brutal attacks on women in the Whitechapel district in the East End of London that occurred between 1888 and 1891. Five of the murders are generally attributed to "Jack the Ripper", whose identity remains unknown, while the perpetrator(s) of the remaining six cannot be verified or are disputed.
After the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes during the night of 30 September 1888, police searched the area near the crime scenes in an effort to locate a suspect, witnesses or evidence. At about 3:00 a.m., Constable Alfred Long of the Metropolitan Police Force discovered a dirty, bloodstained piece of an apron in the stairwell of a tenement, 108 to 119 Model dwellings, Goulston Street, Whitechapel.
The cloth was later confirmed as being a part of the apron worn by Catherine Eddowes. Above it, there was writing in white chalk on either the wall or the black brick jamb of the entranceway.
Long told an inquest that it read, "The Juwes [sic] are the men that will not be blamed for nothing." Superintendent Arnold wrote a report which agrees with his account. Detective Constable Daniel Halse of the City of London Police, arrived a short time later, and took down a different version: "The Juwes are not the men who will be blamed for nothing." A third version, "The Juws [sic] are not the men To be blamed for nothing", was recorded by City surveyor, Frederick William Foster. A copy according with Long's version of the message was attached to a report from Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren to the Home Office. A summary report on the writing by Chief Inspector Swanson rendered it as "The Jewes [sic] are not the men to be blamed for nothing." However, it is uncertain if Swanson ever saw the writing.
Since the murder of Mary Ann Nichols on 31 August 1888, rumours had been circulating that the killings were the work of a Jew dubbed "Leather Apron", which had resulted in antisemitic demonstrations. One Jew, John Pizer, who had a reputation for violence against prostitutes and was nicknamed "Leather Apron" from his trade as a bootmaker, was arrested but released after his alibis for the murders were corroborated.
Police Superintendent Thomas Arnold visited the scene and saw the writing. Later, in his report of 6 November to the Home Office, he claimed, that with the strong feeling against the Jews that already existed, the message might have become the means of causing a riot:
I beg to report that on the morning of the 30th Sept. last, my attention was called to some writing on the wall of the entrance to some dwellings at No. 108 Goulston Street, Whitechapel which consisted of the following words: "The Juews are not [the word 'not' being deleted] the men that will not be blamed for nothing", and knowing in consequence of suspicion having fallen upon a Jew named 'John Pizer' alias 'Leather Apron' having committed a murder in Hanbury Street a short time previously, a strong feeling existed against the Jews generally, and as the Building upon which the writing was found was situated in the midst of a locality inhabited principally by that Sect, I was apprehensive that if the writing were left it would be the means of causing a riot and therefore considered it desirable that it should be removed having in view the fact that it was in such a position that it would have been rubbed by persons passing in & out of the Building."
Religious tensions were already high, and there had already been many near-riots. Arnold ordered a man to be standing by with a sponge to erase the writing, while he consulted Commissioner Warren. Covering it in order to allow time for a photographer to arrive or removing a portion of it were considered, but Arnold and Warren (who personally attended the scene) considered this to be too dangerous, and Warren later stated he "considered it desirable to obliterate the writing at once".
While the Goulston Street graffito was found in Metropolitan Police territory, the apron piece was from a victim killed in the City of London, which has a separate police force. Some officers disagreed with Arnold and Warren's decision, especially those representing the City of London Police, who thought the writing constituted part of a crime scene and should at least be photographed before being erased, but it was wiped from the wall at 5:30 a.m.
According to the police officer supervising the Whitechapel murders investigation, the writing on the wall did not match the handwriting of the notorious "Dear Boss" letter, which claimed responsibility for the killings and used the signature "Jack the Ripper" (though it is widely thought that the letter was not written by the killer). Contemporary police concluded that the text was a semi-literate attack on the area's Jewish population.
The police interviewed all the residents of 108–119 Goulston Street, but were unable to trace either the writer of the graffito or the murderer.
According to historian Philip Sugden there are at least three permissible interpretations of this particular clue: "All three are feasible, not one capable of proof." The first is that the writing was not the work of the murderer at all: the apron piece was dropped near the writing either incidentally or by design. The second would be to "take the murderer at his word"—a Jew incriminating himself and his people. The third interpretation was, according to Sugden, the one most favoured at the Scotland Yard and by "Old Jewry": The chalk message was a deliberate subterfuge, designed to incriminate the Jews and throw the police off the track of the real murderer.
Walter Dew, a detective constable in Whitechapel, tended to think that the writing was irrelevant and unconnected to the murder. Whereas Chief Inspector Henry Moore and Sir Robert Anderson, both from Scotland Yard, thought that the graffito was the work of the murderer.
Author Martin Fido notes that the writing included a double negative, a common feature of Cockney speech. He suggests that the writing might be translated into standard English as "Jews will not take responsibility for anything" and that the message was written by someone who believed he or she had been wronged by one of the many Jewish merchants or tradesmen in the area. Historian Philip Sugden has said that the spelling of "Jews" as "Juwes" could reflect a local dialect on the part of the author of the grafitto.
In the controversial book Jack the Ripper: British Intelligence Agent, author and "master of the paranormal" Tom Slemen claims that "Juwes" is a Manchurian word meaning "two", and that Sir Charles Warren, a respected archaeologist who had knowledge of both the Biblical and Manchu languages, must have recognised the out-of-place word, and yet claimed he was baffled by the reference. In 1909 (says Slemen), Warren presided over a lecture with Claude Reignier Conder entitled "The Origins of the Chinese" at London's Caxton Hall, in which the similarities to the Manchu and European languages were pointed out, and the word Juwe was said to be the root of the English words dual, duet, duo. Slemen uses this theory to finger Conder as the Ripper.
A contemporaneous explanation was offered by Robert D'Onston Stephenson, a journalist and writer interested in the occult and black magic. In an article (signed "One Who Thinks He Knows") in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1 December 1888, Stephenson concluded from the overall sentence construction, the double negative, the double definite article "the Juwes are the men", and the unusual misspelling that the Ripper was most probably French. Stephenson claimed that an "uneducated Englishman" or "ignorant Jew" was unlikely to misspell "Jew", whereas it was similar to the French juives. He excluded French-speaking Swiss and Belgians from his suspicions because "the idiosyncrasy of both those nationalities is adverse to this class of crime. On the contrary, in France, the murdering of prostitutes has long been practised, and has been considered to be almost peculiarly a French crime." This claim was disputed by a native French speaker in a letter to the editor of that same publication that ran on 6 December.
Author Stephen Knight suggested that "Juwes" referred not to "Jews," but to Jubela, Jubelo and Jubelum, the three killers of Hiram Abiff, a semi-legendary figure in Freemasonry, and furthermore, that the message was written by the killer (or killers) as part of a Masonic plot. There is no evidence that anyone prior to Knight had ever referred to those three figures by the term "Juwes". Knight's suggestion was used in fictional treatments of the murders, such as the film Murder by Decree, and the graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.
In addition to the confusion over the exact wording and meaning of the phrase, and whether it was written by the murderer or not, author and former homicide detective Trevor Marriott raised another possibility: the piece of apron may not necessarily have been dropped by the murderer on his way back to the East End from Mitre Square. The victim herself might have used it as a sanitary towel, and dropped it on her way from the East End to Mitre Square. In Marriott's own words, it is an explanation that "many experts will regard as unbelievable".
To this day it is not fully agreed upon whether or not the graffito is relevant to the murders. Many modern researchers prefer the latter explanation, believing the apron fragment was discarded rather than placed and the presence of the graffiti was coincidental. They cite that antisemitic graffiti was commonplace in Whitechapel at the time and that such behaviours as specific placement of evidence and taking the time to write a message while evading the police is inconsistent with most existing profiles of the killer. However, if the murderer had discarded the piece of apron, there must have been places where he could have done so between Mitre Square and the Goulston Street building. If, as some writers contend, it was taken for the murderer to use to wipe his hands, he could have discarded it, immediately after it had served that purpose, by the body. If that had been his purpose he need not in any case have cut it away but could have wiped his hands on it without removing it.