18 September 2012

Saucy Jack

By David Dean

It was inevitable, I guess, that after doing postings on Lizzie Borden, the princes in the tower, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the child murders in the Bahamas, and even Uncle Jimmy, that I must, at last, come to this--Saucy Jack...that Jack...the Jack.  I do so almost reluctantly because of the emotions  he stirs to this day, and the controversy that continues to swirl round his legend.

By today's standards, Jack the Ripper's body count wouldn't even get him into the top ten of modern serial killers.  He had only five, though some argue there are one, or more, additional murders that should be attributed to him.  Whatever the true count may be, his savagery places him right up there with the heavy hitters of any age.  Additionally, he has the distinction of being both an original and uncaught.  After five (or more) unsolved murders of prostitutes, he simply stopped--his mystery remains.

Just like Lizzie, but much, much more so, there have been millions of words written about Jack--so much, indeed, that you might think he was still among us and practicing his devilish trade in murder.  There have been dozens of suspects offered up by writers and scholars that were unknown to the police of that time, or never considered by them if they were.  In fact, there has probably been no case in the history of recorded crime in which the public has done more second-guessing of the police than this one.  It went on during Jack's heinous career, and has continued to this day.  I will not be doing that.  I can't come up with a single theory or suspect that hasn't already been put forth by someone...somewhere.  So I'm not even going to try.  Why this case continues to fascinate us so long after the brutal acts were committed--that, I might can answer.


A number of elements conspired to make Jack the Ripper a household bogeyman during his own time: The emergence of the modern tabloid newspaper, a Victorian-era fad of philanthropic concern for the destitute of London's slums, the thwarting of the seemingly implacable Scotland Yard, and interest in the case from Queen Victoria herself.  For later generations, I would add that the glamor of a seemingly genteel, mysterious, and by-gone era, cloaked in fog and black lace, provided an irresistible backdrop to Jack's horrors.  He was a real-life Mr. Hyde, and the mystery lay in trying to uncover his Dr. Jekyll alter ego.

Of suspects, there is one for every taste; they run the gamut from butcher to surgeon, royal heir to crazed foreigner.  But Jack was no gentleman, whatever his day job might have been.  Though his murder spree only extended over a few months (much longer according to some), each killing was more brutal than the last.  The victims, all the poorest of prostitutes, were savagely killed, their throats sliced, their abdomens mutilated, and in several instances, organs were removed.  All, but one of the murders were carried out on the streets, the bodies left for a terrified public to discover.  The last was accomplished indoors, in a small, bed-sitter, as the British dub them.  There he was able to work without fear of discovery or interruption, and he, quite literally, destroyed the poor woman.  Then, he seemingly vanished.

There are as many theories about his disappearance as there are about his identity: he killed himself, he was imprisoned on unrelated charges, he was committed to an insane asylum, or he fled to another country; perhaps America.  These are just a few of the ideas put forth.  Of course, it is unlikely we will ever know who he was or what became of him, but his stealing away into the fog has impressed an indelible image into our collective minds; adding to his myth.

Jack was also his own publicist, which was a new wrinkle that contributed greatly to his legendary status.  He wrote several letters "From Hell," expressing his glee and enjoyment with mutilation and murder.  He signed himself, "Jack the Ripper" and also coined the coy moniker of "Saucy Jack."  The details leaked out to the public--the denizens of London may have been terrified of Jack, but they were also insatiably curious about him.  Jack was proud of his horrific deeds and didn't mind saying so; writing in  red ink, and once sending a piece of human kidney along with his message to the world.  He was truly a vile creature.

Much has been made of these letters, and like everything else about Jack, they have inspired debate and controversy.  The police and the professional ripperologists disagree over the authenticity of every letter attributed to the murderer.  Scotland Yard settled on two as being from the real Jack, the others they laid to "copycats."  None featured a return address, which  might have been useful.

Another factor that fueled the growth of Jack's hellish reputation was the slum of Whitechapel that he prowled.  This teeming, filthy neighborhood was no stranger to murder before, or after, Jack.  And the prostitutes that plied their trade there were often the victims of it, even as they are today.  But after the advent of the Ripper murders, every unsolved murder of a female in Whitechapel was laid at his door.  According to some his spree continued until February 1891; the police of that time lay only the five murders to Jack, the last being in November 1888.  In fact, the Metropolitan Police of London divide the murders into two categories: the Ripper murders and the Whitechapel murders.  They do so with good reason.  The details of many of the murders that took place in Whitechapel during the period of August '88 to February '91 show them to be clearly unrelated; the modus operandi, beyond the fact that the killing was of a prostitute, bore little resemblance to Jack's handiwork.  Ironically, some of these "Whitechapel Murders" may also have been the work of the same killer, an unknown person no less brutal than Jack who successfully operated in his shadow.  This, I caution, remains a possibility, not a proven fact.

In most minds, the shadowy, knife-wielding Jack remains the epitome, the touchstone of our acquaintance and fascination with serial murderers.  In spite of that, he was not the first.  Jack was predated by such bloodthirsty villains as Gilles de Rais, who may have murdered hundreds of children before being executed.  Sadly, there were others, as well...many, many others throughout history, and quite probably even before recorded history.  There's no particular reason not to think so.  But Jack remains the penultimate to much of the world because of a perfect storm of factors, not least of which was his penchant for self-aggrandizement and a voracious press.  Add to that mix a mysterious, fog-clad setting offering occasional and salacious glimpses of the seamier side of Victorian London and you have the makings of a dark legend.

On a personal note, I would add that Jack, just like those that come before and after him, was not, in any sense, a romantic creature.  He was a vicious, merciless killer of defenseless women--a monster, really.  You have only to look at the crime scene and autopsy photos to see that.  The last murder, that of Mary Kelly, is not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach.  Jack may have written his gloating letters "From Hell," but if there's anything certain in this case, it's that he's certainly there now.

11 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

As with many others who read and write about murder, Jack has always fascinated me. I can't help but wonder how much difference modern forensics would have made in his apprehension.

Janice said...

I've always wondered if there was not something about the atmosphere of gaslight London- the fog, the smog, the oppressive darkness as well as the darkness of poverty that combined to make the Ripper murders seem so exotic.

Eve Fisher said...

I lost my fascination for Jack decades ago. I'm thankful that you characterized him for what he was - a vicious, merciless, monster - an UNROMANTIC monster. I just wish that serial killers were presented that way today, instead of often being romanticized and made into the hero of the piece...

David Dean said...

Yes, Fran, that will always be one of the great ponderables of this case. Patricia Cornwell's book "Portrait Of A Killer--Jack The Ripper Case Closed" does some modern forensic work on the available evidence (the letters actually) and comes up with a surprising suspect. Doesn't actually close the case in my view, but certainly presents a convincing argument.

As I touch on in the posting, Janice, I certainly think that the atmosphere and setting contributed greatly to the legend.

Eve, I'm with you...a killer is a killer is a killer. Romantizing them does a disservice to us all.

David Edgerley Gates said...

David,
Really good post. I was going to mention the Cornwell book---I personally think she's off the beam, but who knows? The case will never be solved.

Herschel Cozine said...

I agree with both Janice and Eve. Time has added a certain romance to the killings and certainly the setting was right. If one were to write a story, they would find the London of that era would be an ideal setting.

We pay far too much attention to these monsters. The Zodiac killer here in Calif. generated more press than a major war, and only served to feed his ego. A killer is a killer regardless of his motives.

Leigh Lundin said...

I hadn't realized there were likely at least 2 distinct sets of murders– the Ripper murders and the Whitechapel murders. Great images, David, illuminating article.

Fran Rizer said...

I've never understood the "romanticizing" of killers, serial or single, nor the "romanticizing" of vampires.

I also think that our current news commentators' glorification of such things as 12-year-olds and even younger kids taking their parents' cars on trips is not something worthy to be reported as it is. Kids are so eager to be a star on Youtube that seeing an amused news report of a child who stole a vehicle, ran away, broke the law, and risked the lives of others on the roads only encourages more youngsters to try the same.

Fran Rizer said...

Sometimes I just can't hush. The word "fascinate" doesn't necessarily imply a romantic interpretation of an event. It can simply mean "to command the attention of.." When I say I've been fascinated by Jack, it has nothing to do with romanticizing his actions.
I was fascinated with the trial of the murderer of my best friend in 2011, and I surely didn't romanticize him.Same with the Susan Smith's murder of her children and the Goode twins' murder of their father and grand-mother--attention commanding,but despicable.

Anonymous said...

Maybe attention parasites. I think you all are right. I keep thinking of the BTK fool who loved attention. I wonder if he understands how little we think of him now.

David Dean said...

Fran, I'm sure everyone understood exactly what you meant--I did, and agree.