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The Hunt for Jack the Ripper

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William D. Rubinstein reviews the achievements of the Ripperologists and considers the arguments surrounding the so-called Ripper Diaries.

One of a series of images from the Illustrated London News for October 13, 1888 carrying the overall caption, "With the Vigilance Committee in the East End". This specific image is entitled "A Suspicious Character".The five prostitutes were stabbed to death in Whitechapel between August 31st and November 9th, 1888, always late at night. Then, for unknown reasons, the killings stopped. Each of the women – Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols (August 31st, 1888), Annie Chapman (September 8th), Elizabeth Stride and Catharine Eddowes (both September 30th, about half-a-mile apart), and Mary Jane Kelly (November 9th) – was not merely murdered, but horribly mutilated, with organs removed and a strong possibility of cannibalism. The last victim was mutilated almost beyond recognition. Even today, the photographs of the bodies are still deeply shocking.

It is probably the elusiveness of a true solution to the Ripper mystery that remains its central attraction to researchers. Most believe that some rearrangement of the evidence combined with a lucky new find will enable them to crack the secret. Perhaps it will. The association of the Ripper with the London of Sherlock Holmes, with fogs, riverside opium dens, the haunts of prostitutes and criminals, virtually adjacent to great wealth and the aristocracy, is enticing to many. Added to this, many amateur Ripper historians are Londoners, often with ancestral roots in the East End. For them, Jack the Ripper is a part of their heritage. Meanwhile, the prolific output of research on the Ripper has had many benefits for social historians. The five murdered women have been investigated in minute detail to see if any association can be found with any Ripper suspect or with each other (none has been discovered). As a result, probably more is known about the lives of these five than of any other group of working-class women in Victorian England. Detailed research on the Ripper crimes has also shed considerable light on a range of late Victorian institutions, from the police to the press.

Given the general air of mystery surrounding his life, it is not surprising that Druitt was the preferred candidate of many Ripperologists. During the past two decades, however, his star has waned. Extensive research has failed to find evidence clearly linking him to the Ripper crimes. In 1959, for instance, the Ripper researcher Daniel Farson was told of a pamphlet entitled The East End Murderer – I Knew Him, allegedly written by a Dr Lionel Druitt, Montague's cousin, and published in Victoria, Australia in 1890. It is now apparent that tales of the work are no more than a garbled account of several other works published around the same time, none of which relate to Druitt. MacNaghten's information about Druitt was also highly inaccurate: in the Memorandum he described him as a doctor rather than a barrister and overstated his age by ten years. It is curious and regrettable that MacNaghten destroyed evidence which may have been crucial. The suspect's suicide seems to have been occasioned either by a scandal at his school or by severe depression, perhaps inherited (his mother was in an asylum). Recently it has been discovered that Druitt was playing cricket at Camford, Dorset, six hours after the Polly Nichols murder. Further attempts to link him with the Royal/Freemason theory of the murders are often made, but are fanciful. Because of MacNaghten, Druitt will always remain a serious candidate, but one so far lacking in any direct supportive evidence.

Montagu was also a notable philanthropist to Jewish causes in the East End. If the Ripper had been a local Jewish lunatic, it is difficult to believe that Montagu and other Anglo-Jewish leaders would not have heard rumours about his identity, and moved to have him placed in an asylum as quickly as possible. Yet in September 1888 (after the second killing), Montagu offered a £100 reward for the Ripper's capture, and five weeks later (after the fourth killing) he sent Scotland Yard a local petition for police protection.

Equally plausible, at first glance, are the theories that the Ripper was an ordinary East End workingman, someone who knew the district well and could come and go without attracting undue attention. A number of such persons, including known associates of Mary Kelly, the last victim, have been proposed. However, the police did not believe that any such man was the Ripper. Had any evidence existed, it would have been relatively easy to secure the conviction of an impoverished workingman, but none did.

The Royal/Masonic Ripper theory appears to be palpable nonsense from beginning to end, without a shred of evidence to support it. The whereabouts of senior royals is known with considerable precision: Clarence was in Scotland or Yorkshire at the time of all of the murders. There is no evidence that any member of the Royal family ever set eyes on any Ripper victim, or that Mary Kelly was blackmailing a Royal or anyone else. There is no evidence that Clarence entered into an illegal marriage with anyone. Sir William Gull was seventy-one in 1888 and had suffered two serious strokes the year before. The five Ripper victims were not associates: there is no evidence that they had even met. If Gull and his collaborators murdered Mary Kelly, they would surely have lured her into a carriage, chloroformed her, hit her on the head, and thrown her into the Thames: the apparent drowning of a drunken East End prostitute would not have received five lines in any newspaper.

Numerous scientific tests have concluded that the diary appears to date from the late-nineteenth century or soon after. The facts of its provenance are as follows: it was allegedly seen by Anne Graham's father, William Graham, in 1943 while he was on leave from the army, in a black tin box in his mother's house in Liverpool. It was allegedly seen by Anne Graham herself, in a trunk in a cupboard in her house in Liverpool in the late 1960s. Anne Graham took possession of it in the mid-1980s when her father moved house. In marital difficulties, she gave the diary to a friend of her husband Michael Barrett (who was unemployed) to give to her husband to keep him intellectually occupied. For reasons related to her marital breakdown, she did not admit its actual provenance, leading to the spread of (untrue) stories that it was dug up from the floorboards of Battlecrease House. The diary became public knowledge in 1992, receiving widespread publicity thanks to the literary agent Robert Smith and the researcher Shirley Harrison. In 1993 Michael Barrett (apparently also for reasons related to his marriage breakdown) claimed to have forged the diary. This claim is not now accepted, even by those who are sceptical of its authenticity.

The case that Maybrick was the Ripper is strong even without the diary. Perhaps the most striking evidence for this is to be found in a number of unknown letters discovered by Paul Feldman from Liverpool sources. On October 9th, 1888, the Liverpool Echo printed a story (based on a letter it had received) that Jack the Ripper was about to strike in Dublin. The following day the same newspaper published the following, written on a postcard:

I beg to state that the letters published in yours of yesterday are lies. It is somebody gulling the public. I am the Whitechapel purger. On 13th, at 3pm, will be on Stage, as am going to New York. But will have some business before I go.

Yours Truly,

Jack the Ripper DIEGO LAURENZ
(Genuine)

Why the Ripper stopped killing after November 9th, 1888, has always been one of the central mysteries of the Ripper question. With Maybrick there is a good explanation. On November 19th, Maybrick changed doctors, consulting Dr. J. Drysdale, who treated him with homeopathic remedies. Drysdale treated Maybrick five more times before his death, apparently with a gradual improvement. (Drysdale gave testimony under oath at Mrs. Maybrick's trial.) It is clear from the diary that Maybrick slowly but surely lost interest in further killings, feeling considerable remorse just before his death.

Beyond this there is a good deal of indirect evidence that points to Maybrick as opposed to other suspects. All five murders were committed on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. (This obviously noteworthy fact is, rather curiously, almost never mentioned in the Ripper literature.) The idea of weekend slaughter is itself strange: prostitutes walked the streets of Whitechapel every night, but there were more potential witnesses around on weekends. There could be any number of reasons for this, of course. One suggestion is that workingmen were traditionally paid on Thursdays. This would seem pertinent but for the fact that the Ripper did not pay the women he killed. (Indeed, he appears to have robbed them.) The weekend pattern also appears at variance with the Ripper being an upper- or middle-class Londoner. Well-to-do men might have spent the weekdays in town, staying at their club or a flat, but were more likely to be with their families in a suburban villa or the country at weekends. This pattern, however, is consistent with the lifestyle of a Liverpool cotton broker who spent the weekdays at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange but was free to travel on weekends (as Maybrick was).

All the murders took place late at night or early in the morning. Few men can be about at that hour without attracting attention from their family, neighbours, servants, landladies, or fellow tenants, let alone covered in blood and carrying a knife and the organs of their victims. Anyone out only on the nights when the Ripper crimes occurred would arouse suspicion. But Maybrick went to London alone and lived alone in the centre of the Ripper district, coming and going as he pleased.

I am personally more than 90 per cent convinced that James Maybrick was Jack the Ripper. Both evidence and inference appear overwhelmingly to point to him. However, if it can be proved that he was definitely not the Ripper – if, for instance, irrefutable proof were found that he was in Liverpool on the night a Ripper murder was committed – the identity of Jack the Ripper remains a mystery; none of the other suspects is remotely convincing.

William D. Rubinstein is Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales.

Further reading: 
  • Paul Begg, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner, The Jack the Ripper A-Z (London, 1996)
  • Donald Rumbelow, The Complete Jack the Ripper (London, 1988)
  • Philip Sugden, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper (London, 1995)
  • Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund, eds., The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper (London, 1999)
  • M.J. Trow, The Many Faces of Jack the Ripper (Chichester, 1997)
  • Shirley Harrison, The Diary of Jack the Ripper (London, 1998)
  • Paul H. Feldman, Jack the Ripper: The Final Chapter (London, 1998)
  • Anne Graham and Carol Emmas, The Last Victim (London, 1999);
  • William Beadle, Jack the Ripper: Anatomy of a Myth (Brighton, 1995)
  • Andy and Sue Parlour, The Jack the Ripper Whitechapel Murders (London, 1997)
  • Rob Sindall, Street Violence in the Nineteenth Century: Media Panic or Real Danger? (Leicester, 1990)


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