HISTORY

A grisly allure

Jack the Ripper’s mystery defies explanation

NORA UNDERWOOD September 19 1988
HISTORY

A grisly allure

Jack the Ripper’s mystery defies explanation

NORA UNDERWOOD September 19 1988

A grisly allure

Jack the Ripper’s mystery defies explanation

HISTORY

It was about 4 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1888, when George Cross, a market porter on his way to work, discovered a woman lying on a dark, otherwise deserted street in London’s East End. At first glance, the woman appeared to have been been raped and left unconscious, and Cross went to find help. Then a policeman on his rounds of the working-class neighborhood looked more closely and found that the woman, later identified as 42-year-old prostitute Mary Ann Nichols, was in fact dead—her throat slashed and her face and body mutilated. Except for the brutality of the slaying, Nichols’s death would not have been unusual in crime-ridden Victorian London. But now, on the centenary of the Jack the Ripper murders, her name is a part of history—as the first victim of the still-unidentified killer who, in a 10-week period in 1888, mutilated and disemboweled five East End prostitutes. At the time, the man who called himself Jack the Ripper fasci-

nated newspaper readers in Britain, Europe and North America. And a century later, the shadowy murderer and his grisly crimes continue to exert a strangely powerful hold on the imagination.

Since the crimes were committed, about 250 books and countless articles as well as 50 plays, films and television programs have appeared on the subject. This year, at least six new books—including The Ripper Legacy—The Life and Death of Jack the Ripper by British authors Martin Howells and Keith Skinner—have been published to mark the ;] 100th anniversary of the killings that took place between Aug. 31 and Nov. 9, 1888. Londonbased Thames Television has produced a four-hour TV series called Jack The Ripper starring Michael Caine that will be broadcast in Canada by CTV on Oct. 21 and 23. Board games and computer games have recently appeared, and firms in London that provide tours through the Whitechapel area, where the murders took place, are doing a brisk business—especially among Canadian and American tourists.

Over the years, police experts, scholars and historians have compiled a list of 176 suspects for the murders, while amateur enthusiasts—who call themselves “Ripperologists”—have developed theories of their own. Sgt. Donald Rumbelow, a City of London policeman and author of the 1975 book The Complete Jack the Ripper, says that he, for one, is trying to cut away at the false glamor that now surrounds the murders. “The myth has taken over,” said Rumbelow. “Time has given a veneer which this case never had in real life.” Rumbelow and some other experts now strongly suspect that the killer may have been Montague Druitt, a Med lawyer and schoolteacher whose body was discovered in the Thames River shortly after the fifth murder.

During the past year, the recovery of key documents and photographs relating to the Ripper murders have sparked renewed interest in the case. Last year, an unknown person mailed a letter supposedly written by Jack the Ripper to William Waddell, the curator of Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, which contains a collection of macabre exhibits from famous British murders. The letter, which experts believe to be a hoax, was written at the time of the murders and disappeared from Scotland Yard files.

Then, last month, descendents of a Scotland Yard inspector who investigated the Ripper murders sent police other documents that they found among his papers, including photographs of the slain women and postmortem records. Still, experts concluded that the material contained no new clues to the

killer’s identity. Waddell, for his part, says that the weight of existing evidence points to one of the original suspects—a Polish Jew named Oscar Kosminski, who was confined to an insane asylum about a year after the murders and died there.

Over the years, numerous theories have been put forward about the Ripper’s identity. In 1970, British investigator Thomas Stowell caused a sensation when he published an article that suggested the killer was the mentally defective Duke of Clarence, a son of the future King Edward Vil. For his part, Montreal writer Don Bell, in his 1974 article “Jack the Ripper—The Final Solution,” theorized that a Scottish-born murderer, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, was the Ripper. Cream—who graduated from Montreal’s McGill University with a medical degree in 1876—poisoned at least eight people between 1876 and 1892 and was hanged in England in 1892.

But none of the theories has convinced Hellen Heller, a Toronto literary agent who has been meeting with three other people—a high-school teacher, a retired letter carrier and a librarian—once a month for the past five years to pore over details of the murders. Their prime candidate is Jack M’Carthy, who was the landlord of the Ripper’s final victim, prostitute Mary Kelly. For one thing, Heller says, Kelly had lost her door key and got into her apartment by reaching through a broken pane of glass and undoing a bolt. When her body was discovered, the door was locked, which, Heller notes, means that either the key was found or someone else—possibly M’Carthy—had a copy.

Meanwhile, commercial efforts to exploit the Ripper legend have angered some British women’s groups, who say that romanticization of the murders diminishes the seriousness of violence against women. Earlier this year, women’s groups successfully petitioned the proprietors of the Jack the Ripper Pub— a tavern on London’s Commercial Road frequented by some of the Ripper’s victims—to change the name back to the original Ten Bells pub. Said Susan Carlyle, a Labour Party councillor who has worked with the Action Against the Ripper coalition: “The facts are that women are still afraid to walk in this area at night, and men feel in a position of power.” She added, “Jack the Ripper got away with it, and maybe they can too.”

Heller agrees that there is a danger that the tendency to put an aura of romance around the Ripper murders can obscure their awful brutality. “People turn this into a game,” said Heller. “It’s not.” The fact that the killer’s identity is still unknown may be the key to the fascination. “The legend of Jack the Ripper has created its own identity,” said Waddell. “It was created by people who identified in their minds with who he was.” But, despite the brutality of his crimes, there is no sign yet that the powerful allure of the mysterious killer will soon fade away.

SUZANNE DENBERG

NORA UNDERWOOD with SUZANNE GOLDENBERG in London