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Jack the Ripper and the Mystery of the Smoking Gun

by Alison Hudson

September 15, 2014

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Donate Did you hear? Jack the Ripper was finally identified recently! Or maybe not. The press very quickly dismantled the claims about Aaron Kosminski, whose DNA was most recently said to make him definitely, absolutely the Ripper. For sure.

These sorts of bold declarations of "smoking gun" evidence for the identity of the Ripper come along every now and then, usually with a book in tow. The identity of the notorious Victorian London serial killer has long intrigued historians. Kosminski is just the most recent to make the news. In honor of this newest attempt to solve the great Victorian murder mystery, I thought it might be fun to look at a few of these "definitive" suspects identified over the years, just to see the company Kosminski has been placed in.

The Royal Conspiracy

In 1976, Stephen Knight published Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. You may not have heard of this book, but you've probably encountered the story. The Final Solution first popularized the Royal Conspiracy, which says that "Jack the Ripper" was in fact an elaborate series of staged murders undertaken by the Freemasons to hide a royal scandal. Sir William Gull, the Royal surgeon, is the man accused of actually committing the killings in Knight's book, with an associate helping.

Far from being the "final solution," Knight's book is actually an almost comical pastiche of anomaly hunting, pattern recognition, and special pleading about existing evidence and the lack of the same. It's also rooted in the story told by Joseph Gorman, who later told the Times of London that he'd made the whole story up. You'd think that this would be fatal to the story, but by the time Gorman confessed the theory had taken on a life of its own. The idea of a Royal Conspiracy still has its adherents today. It has also become the darling of mystery and horror writers, who love to use the Royal Conspiracy in novels, movies, and comic books.

The Killer's Diary

In the mid-1990s, James Maybrick skyrocketed to prominence in the Ripper case. Prior to 1993 Maybrick was best known as the victim in an 1889 poisoning case, but Shirley Harrison's 1993 book The Diary of Jack the Ripper turned Maybrick into a violent killer looking to take out punitive revenge on women because his wife was cheating on him. The diary is exactly the kind of diary you'd expect a deranged serial killer to keep: full of clear references to the Ripper killings and written in increasingly erratic and violent rhetoric.

If it were authentic it would be a damning piece of evidence, but there are several suspicious things about it. For one thing, the first 20 pages were torn out and page 21 conveniently picks up right as Maybrick is about to start his epic killing spree. Then there's the fact that Michael Barrett, who first brought the Diary to the public, has claimed that he forged the diary, only to retract his claims later. Harrison stands by her book, though, and has even written a second book which claims Maybrick committed murders in Texas.

The Maniacal Author

One of the stranger suspects ever to emerge is Lewis Carroll -- yes, the celebrated children's author who wrote Alice in Wonderland. Richard Wallace's 1996 book Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Fiend, argues that Carroll lived a Jekyll and Hyde life: quiet Oxford don by day, enraged, misogynist killer by night. Wallace's argument is mostly message-hunting in Carroll's more nonsensical works. He engages in some word-replacement and anagram shenanigans worthy of the Bible Code to build his theory, and then tries to tie the "discovered" messages to events in the Ripper story. Not surprisingly, his book is filled with a lot of implication and very little fact.

The Painter Theory

In 2003, mystery novelist Patricia Cornwall wrote Jack the Ripper: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which laid blame on Walter Sickert, an English painter. The Sickert theory is actually spawned from The Final Solution; he was the man from whom Gorman claimed to have heard the story of the Royal Conspiracy, and over the years Sickert was viewed as a suspect. Cornwall's case makes use of a lot of art criticism and some mtDNA evidence taken from the envelope of one of the Jack the Ripper letters. The mtDNA evidence has come under scrutiny though; not only does it carry all the problems usually associated with testing century-old DNA that hasn't been kept in a clean room, but it also came from a letter generally regarded as a hoax, one of many sent during the time of the Ripper crimes. Cornwall stands by her suspect, of course.

The Impossible Dream

So, who's Jack the Ripper? Is it Gull? Maybrick? Carroll? Sickert? Any of the twenty-some-odd suspects listed on Casebook: Jack the Ripper, the online clearinghouse for Ripper theories? We just don't know.

Further, so-called Ripperologists can' t even agree on some of the basic facts about the crimes. For example, how many women did Jack the Ripper kill? If you're passingly familiar with the Ripper case you might answer "5" because that is the most commonly attributed number. But Casebook: Jack the Ripper catalogs thirteen other women who have been attributed to the Ripper by one theory or another. In fact, when the first "canonical" victim was murdered the press were already connecting her death to the violent deaths of two other women whom Ripperologists now routinely dismiss (unless it suits their particular theory). And even the five "canonical" victims have been disputed. So did Jack the Ripper kill three women? Five? A dozen? It all depends on which suspect you're trying to implicate.

Here's another one: Did Jack the Ripper have anatomical knowledge or training? If your suspect is Sir William Gull, then of course he did! Only someone with anatomical knowledge could have made those cuts. If your suspect is Aaron Kosminski, then of course he didn't! No surgeon would have made such sloppy and random cuts. The truth is that even police at the time couldn't agree on the degree to which the killer possessed any anatomical training.

Or consider this: what if there never was a single killer? Author Peter Turnbull has argued that the media and police were keen to connect disparate and only superficially similar killings to the machinations of one "Whitechapel fiend," and that the Ripper may have been made of hype, hysteria, and copycat killings. Is it possible that Jack the Ripper was nothing more than an invention? It's not impossible to discount, given what we don't know.

Honestly, the most reasonable position to take is this one: We will likely never know the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Our information on the murders is woefully incomplete and over a century has passed since the last attributed killing. The crime scenes have all been paved over; the existing police files have all been pored over; and every known fact has been scrutinized. The idea of a "smoking gun" in the case of Jack the Ripper is compelling, but it's also unrealistic. Maybe in some forgotten chest in some old London attic,there is a smoking gun: a diary, a confessional letter, or a bloody knife. But as each year passes without such evidence coming to light, every claim to have found the suspect becomes more and more ... well, suspect.

by Alison Hudson

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