Our Fascination with the Macabre
The public's fascination with unsolved crimes, particularly unsolved murders, is well-established. Countless books, magazine articles, television shows, and movies have featured unsolved murders as their central narrative. Whether our cultural obsession is normal, whether it is because we find ourselves entranced by the dastardly deeds of others, or whether we simply cannot look away from a gruesome spectacle, we are enthralled by tales of unsolved murders. However, one tale stands far taller than any other.
Jack the Ripper
|The Illustrated Police News/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain|
From 1888-1891, several women were murdered in ghastly fashion in and around an area of East London known as Whitechapel. The killer was never apprehended by the police, and the "Whitechapel Murders," or least several of them, are attributed to the work of one man, acting alone. We know him today as "Jack the Ripper."
Although the grisly murders attributed to Jack the Ripper happened over one hundred and thirty years ago, enthusiasm for the crimes - particularly retellings that include sensational new theories about his identity - has hardly diminished under the cloak of time. If anything, public preoccupation with Jack the Ripper remains alive and well. Legions of "Ripperologists," the moniker for amateur sleuths and "researchers" devoted to studying Jack the Ripper, have helped keep the horrific events alive in our imagination and on library bookshelves. Over the years, these arm-chair "experts," some of whom have credentials in detective work and even historical studies, have proposed an ever-increasing number of theories about Jack the Ripper's identity. Since the murders were committed, nearly fifty different people have either been suspected by the police, were tried in the court of public opinion, or were marked as the lone culprit by the pens of later authors.
"Whodunit" Theories Abound
|Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale|
Photograph by W&D Downey, 1891
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Jullian's theory achieved greater attention, not just in "Ripperology" circles but also with the general public, when another author, Dr. Thomas E.A. Stowell, wrote a magazine article in 1970 implying that Albert was Jack the Ripper and that he committed the murders after going mad from contracting syphilis.
Although Stowell's theory has been largely debunked, its dismissal has hardly dampened the zeal of later conspiracy theorists who have made even more outlandish suggestions. One thread in their "whole cloth," as it were, alleges that Albert, a sexual deviant, secretly impregnated a Catholic commoner who resided in Whitechapel. Queen Victoria (along with a regiment of loyal Freemasons) sought to silence anyone who knew about Albert's transgressions. Lo and behold, this group included some of the murdered women who were allegedly acquaintances of the Catholic woman. For conspiracy theorists, this kind of yarn has everything a good conspiracy theory needs. It picks at the long-suffering wound of Protestant versus Catholic, the unjust struggle of rich versus poor, a hierarchical government engaging in a criminal cover-up, and the involvement of a "notorious" secret society for good measure. It is also complete hogwash.
|Carroll in 1855, Self-Photo, Public Domain|
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Whether a particular theory about Jack the Ripper's identity is based on fact or whether it resides in the world of rank speculation (or, tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, as is the case of implicating Sir Arthur
|Doyle, 1893, Public Domain|
By Herbert Rose Barraud
The Lone Murderer
|From The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)|
In this urban legend, Jack the Ripper is cast as the equivalent of an Industrial Era "bogeyman." Thanks to movie portrayals such as Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 classic, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog to the more recent, From Hell (2001), starring Johnny Depp, Jack tends to be imagined as cloaked from head to toe in black, wearing a top hat and long overcoat, and sometimes carrying a doctor's bag containing his tools of torment.
|Jack the Ripper (1959)|
|From From Hell (2001)|
However, are these images part a manufactured myth, engrained in our minds thanks to Hollywood, or do they represent reality? What about the descriptions of the murders and the victims? Were these exaggerated by over-eager reporters quick to sell newspapers? What about the apparent disdain for the area of London where these women lived? Was that simply Victorian-era classicism and "fear of the other?" How much did this fear contribute to our notions of who Jack the Ripper was as well as who his victims were? What was going on in the minds of Victorian Londoners that made these murders such a sensation? How have they withstood the passage of time? These and other questions will be tackled in the installments that follow.