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Jack the Ripper : Century-Old Killings Still Tease World

Times Staff Writers

“No one who was living in London that autumn will forget the terror created by these murders. Even now I can recall the foggy evenings and hear again the raucous cry of the newspaper boys: ‘Another horrible murder . . . .’ ”

-- Sir Melville Macnaghten

Assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police Department in late 1880s.

His reign lasted barely 10 weeks and was confined to a neglected slum in London’s East End.

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His victims are generally thought to number five--pitiful prostitutes, all but one them destitute, menopausal drunks.

But by the time he vanished unknown into history, his deeds and chilling nickname--Jack the Ripper--had transfixed a nation and spawned a legend that has only grown with time.

Macabre Fascination

A century after his last brutal crime, Jack the Ripper stands as the most notorious murderer since Cain--the subject of macabre fascination and endless speculation about his identity that has ranged from Czarist agent to Queen Victoria’s grandson.

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Whoever he was, his nickname came from his practice of mutilating his victims’ bodies--so deftly that he must have been someone with a medical knowledge of anatomy or a slaughterhouse worker’s experience.

At the time, his brief, ugly rampage embarrassed the police, rocked the government and triggered a brief crusade for slum clearance and urban renewal. Rumors that the Ripper may have been a Jewish immigrant touched off a rare wave of overt anti-Semitism in a country where such feelings have historically found little public expression.

Books, Films, Plays

In the years since, the crimes have been the subject of about 400 books, films, plays, poems and major articles, not to mention a vast array of comics, bubble-gum cards, board and video games.

The murders have preoccupied the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht and Alfred Hitchcock. They have generated an entire pseudo-science known as “ripperology,” dominated by the search for clues to the Ripper’s identity.

Although Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote his fictitious detective Sherlock Holmes onto the Ripper’s trail, film makers and playwrights in later years, unable to resist the idea, had Holmes track the Ripper through two full-length movies and at least one play.

“It’s a mystery that’s been going on for 100 years and it’s built up an entire industry,” noted Bill Waddell, Scotland Yard’s foremost authority on the Ripper. “They are the only crimes people seem to know about everywhere in the world.”

Promoters of a $9.2-million television miniseries due to be aired this month in Britain and the United States, starring Michael Caine as an intrepid police investigator on the Ripper’s trail, are merely the latest in a long line of those who have promised to identify the murderer.

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In and around the back alleys and narrow streets of London’s Whitechapel, where the attacks occurred, competing firms conduct guided tours in the footsteps of the Ripper. They stop at the spot of each killing to describe the victim and the particular form of dismemberment she suffered.

Not far across town, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum sports a Jack the Ripper display, while the Ten Bells pub, where most of the victims drank, is an unofficial Jack the Ripper museum, offering visitors a special Ripper drink (blood red in color) and souvenir T-shirts decorated with the faces of women he killed.

The pub also has a plaque with names and brief notes about those the Ripper is thought to have killed. The plaque lists six women, since even the number of his victims is disputed.

“Tourists come in and take pictures all the time,” commented the pub’s landlady, Yvonne Ostowski. “I just wish they’d buy a drink.”

Last month, the Ripper was the subject of his own London street demonstration, staged by a women’s group, marching to protest what they see as the elevation of a multiple murder-rapist into a form of folk hero.

“We feel strongly that this is very offensive, given that women today are still murdered and sexually assaulted,” explained one of the organizers, Anne McMurdie.

Just why five sordid assaults on an assortment of destitute women in a Victorian-Era slum should command such lasting interest is itself a subject of debate and study.

Minor League Murderer

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Certainly as a mass murderer, the Ripper was distinctly minor league.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, a member of 18th-Century India’s notorious Thugee cult by the name of Behram was convicted of strangling 931 victims, while a 17th-Century Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Bathory, was said to have kept lists of the estimated 615 young girls she murdered and in whose blood she bathed before her own demise in 1614.

But the sheer brutality of the murders, the unknown killer’s jaunty sobriquet and press embellishments, with their hints of a gentleman psychopath, all made for powerful stuff.

“It’s a question of quality rather than quantity,” noted Daniel Farson, a British “ripperologist” and author of a 1972 book on the subject.

Added Scotland Yard’s Waddell, “The Ripper affair seemed to capture an entire era of cobbled streets, gas lamps and fog.”

In August, 1888, as news broke of the first murder, genteel English society was already unsettled by declining public morality and deepening guilt about the waves of human flotsam which had been washed into the squalor of the East End by the Industrial Revolution.

Forty-two-year-old Mary Ann Nichols, who was found as little more than a bundle of rags in a dimly lit Whitechapel street, partially decapitated and her abdomen slashed, was the first victim of killings that would shortly trigger shock waves through the tranquil parlors of London’s fashionable West End.

The slaying became instant fodder for a newly emerged crop of English newspapers known as the “penny press.”

Crimes had been reported in the English press before, but rarely those involving severe sexual mutilation and none with such detail or such aggressive persistence.

As three other aging Whitechapel prostitutes met equally horrific deaths over the next month, including two in one night, a myth began to build, fed by penny-press descriptions of a crazed killer wearing a cape, a top hat or deer-stalker cap and carrying a black leather bag.

In fact, says Waddell, no one ever got a really good look at the Ripper.

The nickname “Jack the Ripper,” signed to a crank letter to police, purportedly from the killer but more likely from an enterprising journalist, captured the public imagination and stuck despite its doubtful authenticity.

Some are convinced that name remains largely responsible for the continued fascination.

Nickname Kept Memory Alive

Donald McCormick, author of “The Identity of Jack the Ripper,” commented that without the nickname, “in all probability the crimes he committed would have long ago been forgotten.”

The absence of credible witnesses to the killings merely fueled a collective imagination, unrestrained by fact. Rumors of a crazed doctor or a psychopathic Gentleman Jack raised the disconcerting prospect to a Victorian upper crust that the killer could conceivably live among them.

Letters, some offering help, others carrying insults and still others claiming to be from the Ripper, poured into the police at a rate of 1,000 a week. By Nov. 9, when police gathered together the partially flayed body and the dismembered organs of the Ripper’s last victim, a plump, 24 year-old Irish woman named Marie Kelly, London was truly terrorized.

Queen Victoria complained about a decline of police efficiency and called for improved street lighting in the East End.

Unleashed Wave of Compassion

Along with the fear, the killings unleashed a sudden wave of compassion for East Enders, focusing official attention on the terrible living conditions there in a way that socialist reformers had been unable to do in years of trying.

Even archconservative papers such as the Daily Telegraph suddenly took up the cause of human urban degradation. Subsequent efforts to improve housing in the area led some even to cast Jack the Ripper in the role of a social reformer.

“Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation and organization, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and, by simply murdering and disemboweling four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism,” George Bernard Shaw wrote at the time of the killings.

An unfortunately timed production of a play based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at London’s fashionable Lyceum Theatre closed after only 10 weeks in deference to public opinion, although one final benefit performance was presented to aid the East End’s homeless.

In time, London’s fear gradually ebbed, but the Ripper legend has only grown in the century since 1888.

Judith R. Walkowitz, a Rutgers (N.J.) University historian who has written extensively on Victorian-Era prostitution, noted that succeeding generations have tended to shape this legend to fit their own concerns. Thus, the Ripper has been cast as a Russian agent during a period of socialist fears in the late 19th Century; as a repressed homosexual during the early years of Freudian awareness, and as a royal renegade during the more modern “Palace Dallas” period.

Today, in an era of enhanced feminist awareness, Walkowitz seems to view the Ripper legends a symbol of misogyny.

“It’s overwhelmingly a male story,” she said.

For all the attention paid to the Whitechapel murders, police are no closer today than they were a century ago to determining conclusively the Ripper’s identity. Although Scotland Yard’s file on the Ripper today contains 176 listed suspects, there is no hard evidence against any of them.

Enthusiasm Remains High

Still, this dearth of evidence, the absence of a clear motive or even the origin of the Ripper nickname has failed to blunt enthusiasm for the search.

Among the numerous suspects are:

-- The Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s grandson and second in line to the British throne. The duke, known as Prince Eddy, emerged as a suspect in the early 1970s following revelations that he may have died of syphilis in 1892 at a private mental home and not from influenza as publicly stated. The prince, so this theory goes, conducted the murders as his deranged, syphilitic mind crumbled.

-- Montague Druitt, a 41-year-old Oxford graduate and failed barrister, who was found dead floating in the Thames seven weeks after the last Ripper murder. First on the list of Assistant Commissioner Macnaghten’s 176 suspects and an increasingly popular choice among modern “ripperologists,” Druitt had a cousin practicing medicine less than half a mile from Whitechapel and was said to have undergone a dramatic personality change shortly before his death.

-- Mikhail Ostrog, a Russian immigrant doctor, who abruptly left the East End after Kelly’s murder and was caught three years later in St. Petersburg in the act of mutilating a woman he had killed. One theory, based on a letter supposedly written by the Czar’s court adviser Rasputin, depicts Ostrog as a Czarist agent on a mission to undermine public confidence in Scotland Yard.

-- A berserk midwife-cum-abortionist--not Jack, but Jill the Ripper--taking revenge for being turned in to the authorities by a prostitute.

Others suspected to a greater or lesser extent include Queen Victoria’s physician, a slaughterhouse worker, a mentally disturbed Polish Jewish immigrant and a painter who was a friend of Oscar Wilde named Frank Miles.

Soup, Not Sex

Some have even brought up the name of Britain’s great 19th-Century prime minister, William Gladstone, in connection with the crimes, although “ripperologists” don’t rate him as a serious suspect. Gladstone, a devout Christian, was in the habit of bringing prostitutes home, not for sex, but for hot soup and sermons.

Amid all the speculation and the legend, the only certainty is that the uncertainty is likely to remain.

And if by chance, Jack the Ripper’s real identity ever were confirmed, according to one well-known British “ripperologist,” Donald Rumbelow, the probable reaction to his or her name would be:

“Who?”

Tyler Marshall reported from London and Patt Morrison from Los Angeles.


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