18 September 2012
by David Dean
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.
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.
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.