A Brief History
On October 15, 1888, George Lusk, the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received a letter purporting to be from the infamous mass murderer known as “Jack the Ripper.” Known through history as the “From Hell Letter,” this bit of mail remains one of the most famous letters of all time. Perhaps because the letter included a piece of human kidney from a murder victim? Today we look at 5 letters that remain of either great historical importance or of great human interest and/or amusement. As always, please nominate the fascinating letters you would include on such a list.
1. “From Hell” Letter, 1888.
An incredible amount of conjecture, research, and pure fiction has been written about Jack the Ripper, a serial murderer that killed 5 women in 1888, possibly more and possibly active until 1891. The identity of the man also known as “The Whitechapel Murderer” or “Leather Apron” is not known, despite claims of various “researchers” that purport to have discovered the most famous of villain’s identity. Jack sent his famous letter to George Lusk, thus the alternate name of the letter, “The Lusk Letter.”
I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer
Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk”
The police had received numerous, hundreds, of letters and cards claiming to be from the infamous murderer, but this one in particular has more credibility than the others because of including the half of a human kidney from victim Catherine Eddowes, the other half kidney he claimed to have eaten! This particular letter of the 1000 or so received is different than the others, although 2 other letters in particular are often given some credibility as possibly being from the actual murderer, namely, the “Dear Boss” letter” and the “Saucy Jacky” postcard. Was there actually more than one murderer given credit for being Jack the Ripper? Did the Ripper kill more than the 5 women usually considered the “canonical 5?” Was the murderer of the lower classes as the letter would seem to indicate, or was the rough spelling and language a red herring to throw investigators off the trail of a more cultured perpetrator? Other killers (notably the “BTK murderer among others) have also written chilling letters to authorities, but the From Hell letter is perhaps the most famous of all.
2. Elvis Presley writes to President Nixon, 1970.
Elvis the Pelvis, the King of Rock and Roll, and patient addicted to prescription drugs, saw himself as a crusader against illegal drugs, totally missing the irony of his own drug use being out of the normal realm of prescribed use. Elvis also had a lifelong fascination with police and lusted after being officially commissioned as a “real” police officer, getting a real badge and not just a ceremonial honorary badge. To this end Elvis decided on the spur of the moment to scribble a letter to President Nixon while aboard an airliner headed to Washington, D.C. In his letter, Elvis offered his services as a drug enforcement agent to help with Nixon’s war on drugs. Elvis also threw in some complimentary observations about Nixon, quite possibly the trigger that Nixon needed to take the letter “seriously.” Elvis handed off his note written on airline note paper to a guard for delivery to the President, and bingo, a few hours later Elvis had an audience with Tricky Dick himself and given a real badge. Though not taped, the meeting included conversation that the Beatles were an anti-American influence. Unfortunately for the 2 main actors in this bizarre play, Nixon was forced to resign the Presidency in 1974 and Elvis died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 42, probably precipitated from over use of prescribed medications.
“Dear Mr. President:
First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concerns for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it, the establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out. I have no concerns or motives other than helping the country out. So, I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials. I am on the plane with Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.
Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507. I have two men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing I can and will do the most good.
I am glad to help just so long as it is kept very private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today, tonight or tomorrow. I was nominated this coming year one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Man. That will be in January 18 in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. I am sending you a short autobiography about myself so you can better understand this approach. I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.
P.S. I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America Also.
I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it”.
3. The Zimmerman Telegram, 1917.
For some reason many people seem to think the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire because of the sinking of the Lusitania or because of German submarine warfare in general. In fact, the precipitating event was the interception of the so called “Zimmerman Telegram” in 1917 sent by the German Foreign Office to the Mexican government in 1917 inviting Mexico to invade the United States to recover formerly Mexican territory for which Germany would ally itself with Mexico. This scenario would be a contingency to take place in the event that the US would enter World War I against Germany. Germany promised Mexico Texas, Arizona and New Mexico should Mexico agree to an alliance with Germany. Unfortunately for the Germans, British Intelligence intercepted the telegram and made the transcript available to the American government which was rightfully outraged. When the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, admitted the cable was genuine in March of 1917, the American reaction was to declare war on Germany and her allies in April of 1917. The original cable was encoded, and the decryption of the cable sent by electronic means is one of the first major instances of signals intelligence in military history. The fact that Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February of 1917 certainly aggravated the relations between Germany and the US and the Zimmerman Telegram was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. Another fact often missed is the offer by the Germans to Japan to switch sides and help fight against the United States, something the Japanese refused.
4. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” 1897.
Untold millions of letters are addressed to Santa Claus by children each year and have been for many decades. Back in 1897 a coroner’s assistant was asked by his daughter, an 8 year old girl named Virginia, whether or not Santa Claus was real. The father advised the daughter to write to The Sun newspaper of New York City on the premise that, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Upon receipt of the letter, editor Francis Pharcellus Church jumped on the opportunity to respond to the letter in an editorial titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” In the editorial, the famous phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” appears. The paper did not foresee the history in the making concerning the editorial reply to the little girl’s letter and ran the article down the page at the 7th slot. The public took to the letter by the girl and the newspaper’s reply and the editorial has become the “most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language.” Now part of American Christmas tradition, not only the actual editorial but the phrase contained within has become an American meme, often spoken as an answer vis-à-vis totally unrelated questions. The famous editorial has spawned television shows, traditions, made for television and made for the screen movies and other cultural references. The original letter written by little Virginia still exists as well. Laura Virginia O’Hanlon, the little girl that wrote the letter, later earned her PhD and had a career as an educator. She died in 1971 at the age of 81.
5. Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine, 1795-1810.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French as Napoleon I, fell in love with an older woman, a widow, before he took power in France. Known to Napoleon as Josephine, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, was born on the island of Martinique into a plantation owning family. She married an army officer that was executed during the Reign of Terror in 1793, Josephine herself narrowly avoiding execution herself. She met Napoleon in 1795 and the 2 married in 1796. The pair had a torrid love affair, and in fact the 2 of them probably had several other love affairs going on at the same time they were married! Still, Josephine was the love of Napoleon’s life, and his letters to her are among the most famous and romantic among historical figures. Napoleon’s anguish over separations due to being away at war are apparent, as is his anxiety over her alleged affairs. His focus on all things sexual is also readily apparent, as evidenced by this particular excerpt from a letter he wrote to Josephine, “A kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower.” This line accompanies another notable line in which he exhorts his wife “not to bathe” until he gets home. Wow! Kind of gross, but in its own way telling of the tremendous lust Napoleon had for his fickle bride. (Please click the links for expanded information about these highly entertaining and touching letters.) Unfortunately, the one thing Josephine could not give Napoleon was an heir, for although Josephine had children from her previous marriage, she apparently could not bear Napoleon’s child. We know Napoleon himself was not infertile, for he fathered children with his second wife and at least one mistress. Napoleon divorced Empress Josephine in 1810 so that he could marry Marie-Louise, a woman he referred to as a “womb” instead of a wife! On Napoleon’s death bed, his last word was simply, “Josephine.” Oddly enough, it is Josephine and not Napoleon that left a legacy of many members of the royal families of Europe today tracing their heritage back to the woman her family knew as Rose, including the current monarchs of Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Norway and the House of Baden. Napoleon III of France was descended from her, not Napoleon, and she also had blood ties to the Russian throne through her progeny.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other famous letters from history are you familiar with? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Emperor of the French Napoleon I. Napoleon’s letters to Josephine 1796-1812. Amazon Digital, 2018.
Sinese, Stephen. False Flag Jack The Ripper. Acorn Independent Press, 2018.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Zimmermann Telegram. Random House, 1985.
The featured image in this list, a drawing of a man with a pulled-up collar and pulled-down hat walking alone on a street watched by a group of well-dressed men behind him, is one of a series of images from the Illustrated London News for October 13, 1888 carrying the overall caption, “With the Vigilance Committee in the East End”. This specific image is entitled “A Suspicious Character”. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.