Reading The Ripper

Thursday, September 13, 2007 2:44 | Filed in Articles, Books

I’m not one of those people who is obsessed with true-crime books; nor do I stare for hours at grainy black-and-white photographs in some Marshall Cavendish partwork about horrific murders, trying to make out a dismembered limb or two.

Nevertheless, for some reason I’ve got caught up in the whole Jack The Ripper genre, and have had a fascination with it since my early teens.

I’m certainly not condoning the wanton slaughter of prostitutes in Whitechapel or elsewhere: you only have to look at any of the books and see any of the police photographs of the victims to realise what gruesome atrocities were inflicted on these people, and that there can be no admiration for someone who could do that to another human being, let alone repeatedly.

So why am I fascinated by the Ripper then? I can hazard a few guesses:

  • we have a name in common
  • his (?) identity is still unknown after almost 120 years
  • there are so many theories about who he was
  • and the fact that he seems to have captured the public imagination makes him more interesting

But this isn’t going to be one of those posts where I talk about pop culture, how the media has changed over the last 100 years, about a “media frenzy” or anything like that. Nope, in this one I’m specifically going to be talking about the Jack the Ripper murders and discussing some of the theories (and books) relating to them (my niece is going to be doing a school thing about Jack the Ripper and digging out the books for her to borrow set me off on this one…).

So if it’s not your cup of tea — and I don’t blame you — then feel free not to read on.

Just the facts, ma’am

Canonically, there are five murders associated with Jack the Ripper:

  1. 31 August 1888 — Mary Ann Nichols
  2. 8 September 1888 — Annie Chapman
  3. 30 September 1888 — Elizabeth Stride (‘Long Liz’)
  4. 30 September 1888 — Catherine Eddowes
  5. 8 November 1888 — Mary Jane Kelly

Depending on which sources you read, some earlier and some later murders are also ascribed to the same person, and some people doubt whether all five of these were committed by the same person, but these are traditionally the murders associated with ‘Saucy Jack’.

Everyone Knows Who It Was

Or at least, seemingly every writer who has written about Jack the Ripper has apparently managed to identify without doubt who the murderer actually was.

Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that if you’re trying to pitch your Ripper book to a publisher, and you’re describing the meticulous detail you’ve gone through to get to see as much first hand evidence as possible, the publisher isn’t going to be interested in that. The publisher will want to know if you’ve found out anything new, because that is what sells.

Portrait of a Killer

The American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, in her book ‘Portrait of a Killer: Jack The Ripper — Case Closed’ (and TV show) asserts that the Ripper was the painter Walter Sickert.

Patricia seems to have seen a couple of paintings by Walter Sickert (‘the Camden Town murder’ and ‘Jack the Ripper’s bedroom’) and to have decided that this point that Sickert was, definitively Jack the Ripper, and then to have spent the rest of her time trying to come up with evidence to support her theory.

I find it indicative of this book that Cornwell does not really appear to consider any other suspects seriously at any stage, and appears unwilling to find or discuss evidence which runs contrary to her theory — or simply to dismiss it. For example, contemporary letters from his family place Sickert in France at the time of the murders: Cornwell simply asserts that he could have travelled to London and back repeatedly.

Well, yes he could, but it’s also possible that it could have been someone else…

Then there’s the evidence she trumpets: the mitochondrial DNA evidence that ‘proves’ Sickert is the Ripper, which in fact does nothing of the sort. The mitochondrial DNA ‘match’ doesn’t give the millions-to-one chance you’d associate with modern DNA testing. Nope.

The chance of someone else having that same mitochondrial DNA sequence is about 100:1.

Nor is it a match from the crime scenes: she has managed to match Sickert’s DNA to two of the Ripper letters. There are still two more steps she ought to make before jumping from there to ‘Sickert was the Ripper’.

Firstly, it is believed that many (if not all) of the Ripper letters were hoaxes, and that they weren’t all written by the same person. Even if we could therefore establish that Sickert wrote one or more of the letters, we’d need to separately establish that he was the killer. This, to my mind, Cornwell does not do.

Secondly, the the mitochondrial DNA match would also have matched between 0.1% and 10% of the population, meaning that with a population of around 5.3 million, somewhere between five thousand and half a million other Londoners (people who presumably actually were in London at the time) would have matched that same DNA sequence.

That hardly seems ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

The Last Victim

The book The Last Victim is purportedly about the wife of Jack The Ripper, who is claimed to be the Liverpool cotton merchant, James Maybrick, mostly on the evidence of James Maybrick’s diary which appeared in the 1990s and contained his confession to being Jack the Ripper.

The only slight problem with this otherwise reasonably reason for concluding that he may have been Jack the Ripper was that the fact that in 1995 Michael Barratt (married to the author of ‘The Last Victim’ at the time the diary was ‘discovered’) to swore an affadavit stating that the diary was a hoax, that he was the author and explaining how he’d done it. This was then retracted by his solicitor, and then re-affirmed again by Michael a couple of weeks later.

This was backed up by further tests suggesting the ink seemed modern, the handwriting didn’t match James Maybrick’s handwriting, and there were apparently textual anomalies that suggested that certain landmarks were not known by the names used in the diary in Maybrick’s time.

The question therefore appears to be not “did James Maybrick write the diary?” but “is it a modern or an older forgery?”

Uncle Jack

(Yes, a very different “Uncle Jack” to the one I mentioned yesterday!)

Tony Williams claims to be a direct descendant of Jack the Ripper, who he names as John Williams (also founder of the National Library of Wales).

A lot of the book is spent covering John’s early years, and his later years, somewhat detracting about what surely is the crux of the matter — the time he spend in London in 1888 and more particularly what he was doing there.

Tony does a reasonably convincing job of allowing us that John had the means (as a doctor, he had access to big sharp knives, after all), the motive (wanting to study the internal organs for reasons of research into obstetrics), and that he was around in London at the time and could conceivably have just about had enough time to theoretically able to commit the murders.

Again, even if we buy this theory to this point, this doesn’t prove that he was the murderer, merely that with only access to historical documents that have survived until the 21st Century, we are unable to prove that he wasn’t.

Furthermore the suggestion that the Ripper murders were committed ‘for anatomical research’ seems somewhat ludicrous in light of the somewhat excessive mutilation carried out — particularly the lacerations to Catherine Eddowes face and virtual dismemberment would suggest something a little more excessive than simply wanting to remove internal organs to enhance medical knowledge…

Another ripping yarn, which tells us more about the attitude of the medicinal profession to the poor of Victorian London than it does about the actual identity of Jack the Ripper.

A 21st Century Investigation

What I particularly enjoyed about the first edition of this book is that while Trevor Mariott used modern techniques to paint a general picture of Jack the Ripper, and he wasn’t afraid to go through the usual list of suspects, in most cases tearing the cases against them to shreds, he wasn’t afraid, at the end, to admit that he couldn’t name Jack the Ripper, although he thought he could tell several things about him — and that he suspected he was probably a merchant seaman

He also highlights four other murders in London (and a few elsewhere) which he examines for similarities to the Jack the Ripper M.O and states that he also believes Alice McKenzie (died July 1889) was also a victim. This rather begs the question of what Jack had been up to in the mean time, since he’d generally only gone a few weeks between killings before…

…but Marriott finds a newspaper report which suggests that six prostitutes were murdered in a similar fashion in Nicaragua in January 1889, and another in Flensburg in Germany in October 1889. He later wavers over te Nicaraguan ones, suggesting as the only report he can find is from the Times, he’s not sure whether the Whitechapel murders have somehow been mixed up and then reported back.

The people behind the Jack the Ripper casebook have located various contemporary press reports from the Americas which discuss the Nicaraguan murders, although they themselves do seem to have been compiled from a single original source, so while the ‘Managuan Ripper’ seems more likely, we’ve still not proved it conclusively.

But it is suggestive that Jack the Ripper may have been a merchant seaman, and Marriott does a good job (or as good a job as is possible, considering the records available) of comparing crew rosters and the like to try and narrow down the killer.

In the second paperback edition, he goes as far as to name him as Carl Feigenbaum. Carl (also known as Karl Zahn and Anton Zahn) was executed via the electric chair in 1896, after having been found guilty of the murder of Mrs Juliana Hoffman by cutting her throat from ear to ear with a long carving knife. However, there was no mutilation (although he was interrupted) and it was his landlady rather than a prostitute, so it’s not quite the same MO.

However, after the execution, his lawyer (Lawton) made some statements suggesting he may have been the Ripper:

Lawton also claimed that his client had confessed to him that “I have for years suffered from a singular disease which induces an all absorbing passion. This passion manifests itself in a desire to kill and mutilate every woman who falls my way. At such times I am unable to control myself.” Lawton claims that he was able to ascertain that Feigenbaum had been in Wisconsin during a series of murders there as well as being in London in 1888. When he asked the gardener about the Whitechapel murders he was said to have confessed that he had indeed been in London in the Autumn of 1888 but that “the Lord was responsible for his acts and that to Him only could he confess.”Casebook: Jack The Ripper

In addition to this, Trevor Marriott’s second edition book looks into the possibility that Feigenbaum may have murdered elsewhere in the U.S., again with a Ripper-like MO.

In short, he makes a pretty darn good case, if not for definitively fingering Feigenbaum as the Ripper, then at least of putting him near the top of our suspect list.

Kosminski, Kaminsky, Cohen, what did you say?

In fact, the only thing that stands between me and a belief that Marriott is right, is the fact that Sir Robert Anderson, one of those investigating the case, seemed fairly certain that the criminal had been identified:

“…he had been safely caged in an Asylum.” Criminals and Crime, 1907

“In saying that he was a Polish Jew I am merely stating a definitely ascertained fact.” (The Lighter Side of My Official Life, 1910)

…there was no doubt whatever as to the identity of the criminal…” (Police Encyclopedia, 1920)

Casebook: Jack the Ripper [2]

What is puzzling is exactly how sure he seems to be when no-one has been brought to justice.

The seemingly most likely candidate for this was the Polish Jew Aaron Kosminski, but apart from being a barber (so he would have a knife), once threatening his sister with it, and having been detained in a mental asylum where they were worried about his spiritual wellbeing because of his “monstrous acts” — in other words, he would masturbate — there seemed to be very little of the, well, frankly the homicidal tendencies that you’d want to associate with Jack the Ripper, meaning that he’s generally dismissed as a suspect.

Which leaves us with the bizarre situation where the police seem to believe it was him yet he would presumably have looked an unlikely suspect even at the time. Why could this be?

Well, one option that has been put forward was that the murderer was a different Polish Jew who was also detained in an asylum, leading to the confusion between the two. This would seem a little unlikely, if it wasn’t for the fact that David Cohen, who might have actually been called Nathan Kaminsky (David Cohen being a ‘default name’ for an unknown Jew, much like ‘John Doe’ is used today), was, like Kosminski, a Polish Jew who was incarcerated at Colney Hatch asylum.

Kaminsky, whose profession would have identified him as a candidate for the ‘Leather Apron’ suspect, apparently disappeared in 1888 after having been cured of syphillis (which might have given him a motive to hate prostitutes). Later on in the same year, an unknown Polish Jew, who becomes identified officially as ‘David Cohen’, is moved from the Infirmary to Colney Hatch asylum because he is seen as destructive, spiteful and with violent tendencies.

He was initially taken into custody in December 1888, and none of the murders usually associated with Jack the Ripper occurred after that date.

Make your mind up, who was it?

But there is also seemingly a good case for Feigenbaum. The question is not “was it Feigenbaum or Kaminsky?”; we have not yet definitively established that it was either. All we have done is to suggest the possibility and draw connections. It may have been one, or the other. It may have been neither.

I don’t know. If I had to bet on it, I’d probably put money on Marriott’s original theory of a merchant seaman (without definitively stating ‘Feigenbaum’). Both stories have a few tenuous links in their chains, but I think there are one or two more with the Kaminsky/Cohen one (even though I find that version more colourful), but the merchant seaman one (whether or not it was Feigenbaum) also accounts for other similar murders around the world in the same time period.

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20 Comments to Reading The Ripper

  1. Mike says:

    September 13th, 2007 at 10:21 am

    Can’t be arsed to read all that, just wanted to say how the murders all happened within a 20 minute walk of my place. I took myself on a personal tour of the locations one afternoon. Few of the original locations exist these days (MJK’s home is now the site of an office block), but the surrounding buildings (old workhouses, soup kitchens, etc.) can still give a feel for what it might have been like round there – pretty grim. If ever you’re down here you should go on one of the guided walks; very good so I’m told.

  2. JackP says:

    September 13th, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    @Mike — to be honest, it was the fact that my niece is going on a school trip to London, with a London Dungeon trip and a Jack the Ripper tour and ‘theme’ for the trip that made me dig out the books (to lend her) which inspired this post in the first place.

  3. Kieran the AudiobookWormer says:

    December 8th, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    I wonder if any of you have listened to the Audiobook of the novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes entitled ‘The Lodger, a tale of the London fog.’
    To quote the synopsis: ‘An elderly couple living in Victorian London struggle against despair as their small resources dwindle. When an eccentric and mysterious gentleman answers their advertisement for a lodger, they celebrate. But as women begin dying at the hands of The Avenger, they start to suspect something too horrific for words.’
    Was the Avenger also known as Jack the Ripper?

  4. How Brown says:

    December 24th, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Nice blog and even nicer discussion going on about Jack The Ripper. Its good to see interest in the Case will never die.

    If anyone is interested in The Whitechapel Murders, please check out our website at

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