Ripperology can get pretty weird. The goals are ambitious (you’re trying to solve a series of 120-odd-year-old murders), the subject matter is gruesome, and the evidence for any one theory is pretty weak. Throw these facts together and you end up with suspects like…
1. An Unidentified Primate
If you’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), you know that Poe’s fictional detective, Auguste Dupin, pins a vicious double murder on an escaped orangutan. (And if you haven’t read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” I’ve just spoiled it for you. I’m a horrible human being.) Christopher J. Morley’s Jack the Ripper: A Suspect Guide (2005), which is fantastic and can be read online for free, quotes an October 1888 letter from an L. Painter, resident of the Isle of Wight, who followed Dupin’s conclusion, if not his deductive method, in writing that the Ripper murders were most likely committed by an ape who…
“…would be swift, cunning, noiseless and strong, standing over its work until a footstep was heard and then vaulting over fence or wall, disappearing in a moment, hiding its weapon perhaps high up in a tree or other safe place, and returning home to shut itself up in its cage.”
As one does. As one does.
2. Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
By the time the Ripper murders took place, the noted poet Algernon Charles Swinburne was 51 years old. That’s still young by most standards, but Swinburne—who lived like the love child of Hunter S. Thompson and the Marquis de Sade—was convalescing in the care of a friend, laid out by a combination of chronic alcoholism and unmedicated epilepsy. This isn’t to say he didn’t work hard to cultivate his badboy image even in middle age, mind you—already regarded as Britain’s leading authority on BDSM and necrophilia (quite an achievement in the Victorian era), he intentionally spread wild rumors about his own sex life that would have most people looking for a good libel attorney—but public speculation mostly centered on the sexual adventures he was said to have had with his pet monkey, Nip, and not with anything he might or might not have done in the Whitechapel district.
But if you’re a Victorian poet who publishes erotic poems about corpses, and there’s a series of disturbing unsolved murders on the other side of town, it’s only a matter of time before somebody suspects you of committing them. Some people suspected Swinburne, and he probably didn’t mind.
3. Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)
There are exactly three reasons to suspect New Age leader Madame Blavatsky of being Jack the Ripper, and none of them are convincing:
- She was living in London in 1888.
- She was having a rough year, having been forced into semiretirement by the skeptical Hodgson Report.
- In his essay “Jack the Ripper,” the noted fabulist Aleister Crowley half-jokingly name-dropped her as a suspect. (Crowley was actually trying to point the finger at someone else, but he had a roundabout way of doing it and not all of his readers caught on.)
4. Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes (1861-1896)
A number of writers have suggested that American serial killer “H.H. Holmes” traveled to London to commit the Ripper killings in 1888 and then came back to commit the murders for which he was convicted; most prominent among these writers is Holmes’ own great-great-great grandson Jeff Mudgett, who claims to have engaged in spiritual warfare with Holmes’ malevolent ghost. The truth is that there is no clear non-spectral evidence that Holmes ever left the United States, and the only significant resemblance between Holmes’ murders and those of the Ripper were that they were both horribly gruesome, targeted women, and received a lot of press.
5. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
Richard Wallace’s delightfully titled Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend (1996) makes the case that the author of Alice in Wonderland spent his late fifties teaching at Christ Church Oxford while gutting prostitutes in London in his spare time.
To support his case Wallace points out that if you rearrange the letters in certain passages of Carroll’s works to form anagrams, and replace a few of the letters with other letters from time to time (which technically means you’re not making anagrams anymore, but never mind that), you can spell out phrases that resemble ambiguous, grammatically incorrect murder confessions. This is obviously true of most writing, and to illustrate the point Christopher J. Morley tears this theory to shreds by using A.A. Milne as a counterexample:
Wallace’s theory is flawed by the fact that one could rearrange the words in any piece of writing anywhere and make half-connected sentences suggestive of just about anything. The very first sentence on the opening page of ‘Winnie the Pooh’, for example:
‘Here is Edward Bear coming downstairs now’
can be turned into
‘Stab red red women! CR is downing whores – AA’
(Obviously the ‘CR’ is Christopher Robin, who is thus revealed as an infant psychopath).
In fact all Wallace really succeeds in demonstrating is that Dodgson used the same alphabet as everyone else in the western world, and that therefore his words can be rearranged to make other words – including rather rude ones about ripping ladies open.
Most of us wouldn’t want to be judged by our anagrams; “Tom Head” becomes “hot mead” and “Mysterious Universe” becomes “messy, vitreous urine.” It just isn’t a good look.
6. Lizzie Williams (1850-1912)
It’s not completely impossible that Jack the Ripper was a woman, but the idea that Lizzie Williams murdered five prostitutes because she was infertile—the case made in John Morris’ Jack the Ripper: The Hand of a Woman (2012)—is pretty hard to swallow, in part because it relies in part on claims made in a factually inaccurate book, written seven years earlier, that argues her husband did it.
7. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Doyle has long been accused of being the Ripper and, if you follow the conventional wisdom that Jack the Ripper was a strong, inconspicuous young Englishman with medical training, he would have fit the bill; he was a licensed physician with advanced training in neurology, he was in excellent health, he would have been lightly pushing 30, and nobody would have suspected him. Much is also made of the fact that the first Sherlock Holmes story was published a year before the Ripper killings, and that Doyle left England for a bit (to study in Vienna) in 1890. He had a practice in Southsea—nearly 80 miles away from London—at the time of the killings, but never mind that. If people can really believe H.H. Holmes spirited himself from Illinois to London without anybody really noticing, that Southsea to London commute is no obstacle. The only thing that raises this accusation from mere implausibility to outright ridiculousness is the fact that Doyle would have had absolutely no reason to commit the murders, and had no known connection of any kind with the victims.
And let’s get real for a second:
All five of the Whitechapel murders took place in the same one-mile radius. They didn’t demonstrate any particular knowledge of medicine, or any particular skill or intelligence of any kind, really. They were sloppy, semipublic crimes that could have easily been solved by dumb luck if dumb luck didn’t happen to favor the perpetrator (and since he had no way of knowing dumb luck would be on his side, he deserves no credit for that). It is highly unlikely that anybody with any kind of unusual gifts or talents committed the crimes. More likely some random, obscure loser killed these women—and then disappeared from the face of the Earth in an unremarkable and unglamorous way, like most of the rest of us do.
The danger of Ripperology (and of “serial killer studies” as a field, really) is that it makes serial murderers out to be better villains than most of them actually are. Jack the Ripper was a pathetic human being who cornered and betrayed the most vulnerable people he could find because he knew that under any circumstances resembling a fair fight, he’d be doomed. His murders are famous, but he—because he lacked the courage even to own up to them—is not. It’s fine to try to hash out his identity, and it makes for an interesting puzzle, but we do ourselves a disservice when we expect Jack the Ripper to be larger than life. In his anonymity and pointless violence he was, in a very real sense, much smaller than life. If we ever peel back his mask, most likely we won’t find a great hero or a great villain; we’ll find someone who wasn’t that great at all, someone who was more ready to butcher people than he was to do anything worthwhile. In committing his murders, he—like all serial killers—ended lives that were much more meaningful and interesting than his own. What a waste.