One of the most fascinating cases in the history of crime is the unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper. The “Ripper” has featured in many movies and television series, in serial novels and literature. His identity has changed dozens of times, as has the reason for the murders. He has been confronted by Sherlock Holmes, kicked off a bridge in Shanghai Knights, and is a major character in a SyFy series. Though he always faces discovery and capture on film, the audience is left with the haunting knowledge that the real Jack the Ripper was never found—or if he was, it was never shared with the public. During the 1880’s in Whitechapel, five prostitutes were brutally killed and certain of their organs removed. While eventually the killings stopped, there was no official “closing” of the case.
Speculation as to what happened and whether or not the police solved it has enraptured crime enthusiasts ever since. One of my favorite far-fetched theories is that it was solved not by Scotland Yard but by Dr. Joseph Bell, the mentor of Arthur Conan Doyle and the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Joseph Bell was a forensic expert and it is believed that many of Doyle’s stories were based on actual crimes handled by Dr. Bell. The pilot for the BBC series Murder Rooms pits Bell against the Ripper when he comes to Edinburgh and explains why he was never caught. While the story is only “loosely” based on the Ripper murders, it does involve an actual and lesser-known suspect linked to the Ripper case.
There are several prevalent theories but the one that emerges as the most commonly-used in films and novels is that the murders were not the work of a madman choosing his victims at random, but intended to conceal the true victim. The prime suspect in is Queen Victoria’s son Albert, known as “Eddie” to his friends. The story is that Eddie fell in love with and secretly married a Catholic girl, who then bore him a child. When the royal family discovered this, the woman was institutionalized and her friends in the female working class murdered to learn the whereabouts of her child. The most popular film that supports this theory is From Hell, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, but it also features in Murder by Decree, in which a surprisingly good (albeit emotional) Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes unearths the truth, and with the fantastic Michael Caine in the television movie Jack the Ripper. This theory is so cinematically popular that it is difficult to find a film that does not go that route.
While intriguing for its political ramifications and scandalous in its suggestion that the royal family knowingly sanctioned murder to cover up an unwanted heir, the association between Eddie and Jack the Ripper is not widely accepted among Ripperologists (it is considered unsubstantiated and too unbelievable to be a valid theory), leaving a number of other suspects. Hundreds of individuals have been named as suspects, from children’s author Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) to the possibility that Jack the Ripper might have in fact been a woman. The main detective on the case posed this theory when witness statements contradicted Mary Kelly’s time of death, indicating the murderer might have left her room wearing her clothes. Some dismiss this as unlikely, but there are others who believe it is possible: the police were searching for a man, which meant a woman could go relatively unnoticed. Public concern toward violence might have made prostitutes less likely to trust men, where they would be more open to walking with a woman. The medical knowledge implied in the nature of the murders might have belonged to a physician, midwife, or abortionist. Some even believe Mary Kelly was pregnant at the time of her death and might have summoned an abortionist on the night she was killed.
When asked his opinion by the press, crime author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stated that he suspected the Ripper was not a woman but dressed like one in order to earn the trust of his victims. In almost all the movies, the primary detective (frequently Inspector Abberline) develops an unusual theory which he cannot prove, while becoming close to the future victims. Mary Kelly is usually the leading lady, since she was the final girl to be killed, leading to a dramatic rush to save her life. Quite commonly, she is the only one who “knows the truth” and so is silenced. One or two films even suggest she survives, and that another girl is murdered in her place in a case of mistaken identity. In order to make her more empathetic, Mary’s profession is commonly downplayed or sometimes excused entirely in people mistaking her for a prostitute, and almost always there is some romantic attraction between her and the primary investigator.
Another common character is Robert Lees, a Victorian Spiritualist who it was said experienced troubling “visions” of Jack the Ripper during the murders. One of the Ripper’s letters to the police claiming responsibility for the crime and taunting their inability to solve it possibly mentions Lees by name. In From Hell, Lees’ visions are given instead to Abberline, while in Murder by Decree, he is vital to the plot.
The most recent take on the crime is found in the television series Sanctuary, in which it is revealed that a group of Victorian scientists’ experimentation with vampire blood led to different supernatural abilities: Helen Magus was given the gift of longevity, John Watson increased his mental abilities, Nikola Tesla became a vampire, Nigel Griffin was granted powers of invisibility, and John Druitt became a time-traveler. But Druitt’s newfound abilities combined with his lingering psychosis sent him on a brutal murdering spree in Whitechapel. He appears over a hundred years later, and seeks to reconcile with Helen and their daughter, Ashley, who has inherited certain of his “gifts.”
While a sad and morbid tale, it is fascinating to contemplate the details of the Ripper case, and to be relieved that whoever was responsible was ultimately held accountable—if not in this world, then the next. ♦
Originally published in the Costume Chronicles.