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How Jack The Ripper still stalks us

The opening of a controversial new museum about the 19th century murders demonstrates the changing meanings of the Ripper myth

The news had a lot of death, mutilation and Twitter rage of late. A dentist kills, skins and decapitates a popular and protected Lion in Zimbabwe, and Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe reveals the façade of his Jack the Ripper museum on Cable Street, east London.

Not only has Palmer-Edgecumbe opened a murder museum on a street remembered for its battle against Black Shirts, but his original application was for a museum of East End women full of images of suffragettes, match girls and multicultural women protest groups. It’s an ideal 2015 news story and social media bait with its constituent parts of East London heritage and change, perceived misogyny and Jack the Ripper.

At the end of last week another Ripper story was in the news, this time the answer to the killer’s identity. When researching his family history Dr Wynne Weston-Davies concluded that Jack the Ripper’s final official victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was his great aunt who had been murdered by a hitherto unknown husband, court reporter Francis Spurzheim Craig, as punishment for returning to prostitution. The four (or more) previous murders were committed to cover Craig’s tracks. In a sense the Ripper was creating his own myth as he was killing to cover himself. Weston-Davies has applied to have Mary Kelly’s body exhumed for a DNA test.

Despite Weston-Davies book being already written he confesses that “The only way of absolutely proving that the Ripper’s final victim was my great aunt is to exhume Mary Jane Kelly’s body”.

Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail and I has proved he’s not immune from the terrible cult of the Ripper. In September his "explanation" of the case, which he has been working on for 12 years, is published: They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper.

A solution to the mystery comes along roughly once a year. Last year polish barber Aaron Kosminski was fingered as the Ripper after antique DNA analysed from a shawl apparently found by victim Catherine Eddowes. Bruce Robinson is not the first surprising writer on the trails of the Ripper, in 2013 crime author Patricia Cornwell published her Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed book claiming that the artist Walter Sickert was the killer.

This is the news-worthy surface. Beneath these higher-profile books are depths of local press, vanity and self-published books. According to Amazon 22 books have been published or republished about or relating to Jack the Ripper in the last 90 days. These range from News Clippings from Hell – The Crimes of Jack the Ripper as seen through News reports of the time to Vampire Madam & Werewolf Constable: Shifters In Ripper's London. Fiction and non-fiction mix. Do not doubt that there is a collection of many differing Ripper cottage industries.

Ripper as chip wrapper

There is also the grimy Jack the Ripper theme park that Whitechapel and Spitalfields has become, to which the Jack the Ripper museum is the latest, slightly off the map, addition. When in the area you can get your haircut in a branch of Jack the Clipper and buy a scarf and t-shirt in the Jack the Ripper shop. Take a drink in one of the pubs the victims went to, the White Hart, with an entrance on Gunthorpe Street, that was run by George Chapman, a ripper suspect. Get your chips from Poppie’s and the paper they’re wrapped in has fake newsprint full of headlines about the Kray twins and Jack the Ripper. Get your chips from Happy Days on Goulston Street and you will find a recreation of graffiti supposedly left by Jack the Ripper after killing Catharine Eddowes on Mitre Square and dropping her apron here. It read "The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing". It’s a homage to the victims says the owner.

Walk through Whitechapel at night and you’ll happen on tours shuttling between each crime scene. Some are given by authors, some have "ripper vision" where hand-held projectors flash up crime-scene photographs over the places where they women died. Sit in The Bell pub on Middlesex Street on any night and a tour will pass at least once every half an hour for most of the evening. They thought about putting up a plaque announcing that "Jack the Ripper did not drink here".

Outside of the alleys and rookeries of ripper speculation, self-described Ripperology, is an informal funfair of Jack the Ripper entertainment and merchandising.

Blood libel

And this is how it always has been. In 1889 Dr N. T. Oliver (a pseudonym for E. O Tilburn) published The Whitechapel mystery; a Psychological Problem, a fictional story under the Global Detective Series. Guy London published the equally fictional The True History of Jack the Ripper in 1905. Jack the Ripper made it into a music hall in 1890 with The Ballad of Jack the Ripper.


“And when ‘is muvver asked him ‘Jack fetch me a piece of tart’

’E said ‘D’you want a change this week or the usual ribs and heart?”


In the twenty-first century there is the steampunk band named after the Goulston Street graffiti: The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.

Far more ink has been spilled about Jack the Ripper than blood by him. 1 October 1888 WT Stead wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette that “There is only one topic through all England which is Jack the Ripper.” The contemporary letters pages of the newspapers are a fascinating look at the thoughts of ordinary and extraordinary Victorians during the Ripper killings.

The idea of a single killer is supported while early ideas of a conspiracy emerge. Hermann Alder, of the office of the Chief Rabbi 16 Finsbury Square, writes of his dismay that a "correspondent from Vienna" thought “Jews might be justified in slaying and mutilating a Christian woman”.

This was a reconditioned return of the medieval blood libel stories. Another letter, 2 October 1888 to The Times is a report finding the woman caretaker found on the floor of St Mary Woolnoth church, Cornhill after a man came in and attempted to chloroform her. The letter’s author, who found her, speculated that sounds from workers on the church roof disturbed the would-be attacker. The point of this story seems as concerned with “solitary women who are in charge of churches” as it is with potential murderers.

The articles have never ceased, from the Betteridge Law busting likes of Was Jack the Ripper an American? Was Jack the Ripper hanged at Dundee gaol? Was Jack the Ripper a black magician? Jack the Ripper: sort of a cricket person? Did Jack the Ripper commit suicide? The books have more of a swagger to them and include two books named The identity of Jack the Ripper (1970 and then 1973), The true face of Jack the Ripper (1994) and the unfortunately titled Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution which was not the last word at all even when published in 1976.

I ask some Ripperologists and friends with an interest in Jack the Ripper what the appeal is. John Bennett, author and Ripper tour guide was drawn into the mythical Jack figure but then became fascinated by the politics and policing of the time and the lives of the victims.

Lorette Ferzackerley says the “social conditions, morals, lives of the women have always fascinated” her.

Emily Cleaver had an early interest in Victorian and Edwardian crime as “cases seem to me to open a door into the lives of ordinary people that would never otherwise have been accessible to us.”

Ripper researcher Trevor Marriott is more matter-of-fact about his purpose: “When I started to research the topic i found that much of what people have relied upon as being correct was not. So decided to conduct a cold case reinvestigation.”

Revenge or conspiracy?

What or who are these people interested in? There is no real idea who Jack the Ripper was, if he was one person. There are endless explanations about the crimes but the main ones can be divided into three two main motives: revenge or conspiracy.

The revenge narrative started early with early Ripperologist Leonard Matters named a psudononymous "Dr Stanley" in his 1929 book: The Mystery of Jack the Ripper. "Stanley" murdered and mutilated London prostitutes in revenge for his son’s death from syphilis before fleeing to Argentina. "Dr Stanley" was not ordinary doctor, having a large aristocratic practice which no doubt protected him, (the conspiracy angle sneaking in here).

Similar theories suggested the Ripper was the syphilis sufferer himself or the wife of a man afflicted with the illness: one of the Jane (or Jill) the Ripper hypothesis. Prince Albert Victor, the grandson of Queen Victoria, was suggested as a possible ripper suspect in 1960s – the theory being that he was driven mad and angry after catching syphilis from a prostitute – as was Lord Randolph Churchill.

Part of Patricia Cornwell’s Walter Sickert suspicion is down to him having some sort of defective penis and taking his rage out on women, including the supposed Ripper victims.

Some Jane the Rippers are childless women taking their frustration out furiously on Whitechapel’s women. A number of Jack suspects, such as Frank Miles, or Francis Tumblety, killed women because of their implied homosexuality.

Tumblety even becomes Dracula as one book suggests his friendship with Bram Stoker inspired the writer to base the Count on the actual Ripper. Thomas Barnardo, founder of the children’s charity Barnardos, murdered the women after a lonely children and religious zeal.

Dr Wynne Weston-Davies’ theory of the killings being a cover for a husband’s revenge against his wife, Mary Jane Kelly, for returning to Whitechapel and prostitution is a contemporary version of this narrative. In earlier theories the prostitutes are the recipients of rage by the homosexual, the unfertile or the STD sufferer.

The 21st century mind puts the emphasis on the actions of one of the women herself and it is her decisions, not those of someone outside her life, that leads to her death. This is often the way when seeking mysteries, the answers are often a mirror showing up our own culture and concerns which we can compare, in a 127 year old mystery, with the concerns of less compassionate ages.

Conspiracy theorising is older than the Ripper crimes themselves and the revenge narrative touches on them. How could someone commit these appalling crimes and not be captured? How could they pass through the crowds of Whitechapel with blood up their sleeves and on their collar? Because it was a conspiracy and a cover-up.

The current kernel is that the five victims had to be killed to silence them. Possibly it was their attempt to blackmail the crown after careless Prince Albert Victor made an acquaintance of the women pregnant.

The theory has been like a black hole, drawing all other pieces of circumstantial evidence into it: the Blackheath teacher who drowned himself, another homosexual maybe, being a stooge for the Ripper murders, the skilled doctor walking the streets of Whitechapel with his medical bag. Royalty. Freemasons. Each piece has been weaved in ever tighter, the graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore being the most artful crystallisation of the myth.

That the rich wander Georgian and Victorian London committing outrages with impunity is an old narrative. The Mohawks were a rumoured gang of drunken aristocratic men who, after drinking in their club, would wander Mayfair and beyond wounding and torturing people for their amusement. Despite a bounty put on their heads in 1712 and some arrests the existence of an organised gang was never proved, and was dismissed by Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe who suggested an "air of Grub Street" about them.

Later, in January 1838, a letter appeared in The Times from "a Peckham resident" describing a dangerous bet laid by an affluent group of men:


“The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families. At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses. The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject.”

This was an early introduction to what became known as Spring-heeled Jack, an uncanny villain who terrorised 1838 London and, despite acres of print and some arrests, was never identified. Because of the number of sighting there were also certainly more than one person in the guise of Jack attacked Londoners at night, or people across the city imagining they has been attacked.

Did Jack the Ripper even exist?

Some writers have doubted that there was a single Jack the Ripper. In his 1996 book The Killer Who Never Was Peter Turnbull attempts to build the case for there being no Jack the Ripper, the single killer being a media invention that has migrated into popular culture and folklore. Certainly the popular top-hatted silhouette of Jack the Ripper, as seen on the logo of the Jack the Ripper museum, is a construct and does not resemble any of the contemporary sightings of the killer.

Turnbull went further, picking through the coroners reports for discrepancies and suggests that twentieth century forensic examinations of equivalent murders would dismiss the idea of a single killer. Trevor Marriott has picked up the Jack the Ripper Never Existed thread.

Perhaps this is what Bruce Robinson is referring to in his book that is “a radical reinterpretation of Jack the Ripper, contending that he was not the madman of common legend, but the vile manifestation of the Victorian Age's moral bankruptcy.”

Put something emotive in a newspaper and myths with form in the reverberations. The outrage at the death of Cecil the Lion produced a myth less than a week after, that hunters had also killed his brother Jericho. They had not, but the story had a power that spread it quickly.

Everyone with an interest in Jack the Ripper is keen to discuss the mystery or the history of the case: the people and the poverty. These are important but the heart of the story is the deaths which are alluded to in words but often illustrated. It is as if their interest in the period features and occult imaginings of motive has occluded their eyes to the five women who were knifed to death.

That Jack the Ripper has and never will be positively identified is part of the key to his continued presence in the popular imagination and media. Jack is a faceless horror that can have anything placed in the absence of an identity, he can morph from historical horror to humour to fevered fantasy. If we can a definitive name and face we would have to confess a more frightening truth: that Jack the Ripper was just another human being.

Scott Wood writes regularly for Londonist, Fortean Times and The Skeptic (UK). He has contributed to the encyclopaedia Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies and Antony Clayton’s book Folkore of London. He is the author of London Urban Legends: The Corpse on the Tube and the host and co-organiser of the London Fortean Society.

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