Thursday, 22 September 2011

Hanging with the Ripperologists

"If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill came always together, who would escape hanging?" -Mark Twain

Even 200 years and countless homicidal atrocities later, the murder of five Whitechapel prostitutes by the tantalisingly anonymous 19th century serial killer known as Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate. 

Initially confined to the seedy streets of Nineteenth century Whitechapel, the ubiquitous Ripper now haunts endless academic papers, books of fact and fiction, popular movies and internet discussion forums.
The psychotic artist formerly known as ”Springheel Jack” quite literally carved his way into history with the murder and mutilation of five prostitutes in the East End of London over a period of just three months in late 1888.

Insatiable public interest in the macabre ensured that these grim little acts have become the substance of folklore.  The Ripper is often cited at the first modern serial killer, a phrase which implies that the Whitechapel murders marked some kind of Renaissance within the psychotic community.  This idea is absurd in the extreme, as the human race has exhibited a timeless brutality - the Ripper is rather one of the first celebrity psychopaths, whose exploits were covered in excitable and frenzied detail by fledgling tabloids.
I guess "Jack the Stabber" didn't have
the same ring to it
The sheer scale of the notoriety of the Ripper was primarily due to the fact that he was the prototype psychopathic media darling.  Long before grotesque Gein,  Manson, Micky and Mallory, hapless Harold Shipman or Fred and Rose West, the popular press transformed the Ripper crimes into salacious theatre.  The detailed news reports became episodic in nature, with each killing forming a new chapter, eagerly awaited by the public audience.  This wealth of spurious conjecture and information ensures that, even 200 years later, academic preoccupation concerning the identity of Jack the Ripper persists.

Amongst the conspiracy theorists and there are a number of particular obsessions involving the mystery still periodically ignite debate.  In ignoring the myriad of social and political problems that the twenty-first century has inherited, it would seem there are still far too many people with too much time on their hands.

A popular spin on the fable asserts that the Ripper was in some way connected to a much broader conspiracy involving the Church, the Masons or the Royal Family.  This is often associated with belief that the Ripper was actually some notable Victorian whose identity was kept concealed in order to preserve the reputation of that figure.  

The most highly pubicised Ripper Expose of recent times came with crime writer Patricia Cornwells book Portrait of a Killer – which was marketed with the tagline Jack the Ripper – Case Closed.  You may insert exclamation marks as you wish.

In applying a scientific criminological approach to history, we are remained of Karl Poppers assertion that scientific theory, and human knowledge generally, is irreducibly conjectural or hypothetical, and is generated by the creative imagination in order to solve problems that have arisen in specific historical or cultural settings.  Ripper suspects may only be analysed according to relative possibility - could they have been physically capable - and relative plausibility - is there any reason for their actions.  Ultimately, this analytical structure only allows potential suspects to be compared as being more or less probable.

HG Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the 20th Century 
in his time machine in 'Time After Time' (1979)
Cornwell's book accuses painter Walter Sickert of the Ripper crimes and admittedly makes a rather compelling case, at least within the parameters of possibility and plausibility.

To claim that this is a case closed, however, is a fiction; as is the case with all Ripperology.  The only way that modern science can resolve a cold case lacking in all hard evidence and whose protagonists are long since dead is with a time machine and we all know how that turned out.

The moment we observe history, we project our own narrative and inadvertently fill in the voluminous blanks with our own stories.  To demonstrate, using only the historical information available to me in the public domain and armed only with a Fine Art degree, an overactive imagination and the fact I am an East London resident, please allow me to present my own solution to the the Jack the Ripper mystery.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, later to become rather more well-known under the pen-name of "Mark Twain," was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30th, 1835. He was considered as being the both one of the foremost American philosophers and humorists of his time. Later he was acknowledged as America's chief man of letters and during the late 19th century he was deemed as her best known and best loved citizen.  He also had the means, motive and opportunity to be responsible for the crimes of Jack the Ripper.

First and most clearly verifiable, Twain certainly had the opportunity.  He made regular documented trips to Europe during the latter part of the century and, astonishingly, these neatly and rather chillingly coincide with the Whitechapel murders.

Next, it is also surprisingly easy to establish means, as Twain's profile neatly fits in with more modern revisions of the Ripper Myth.  Initially, much was made of the anatomical precision with which the Victims were dissected, leading to  the general belief that the Ripper was medically trained.  However, contemporary analysis of both the evidence and photographic records has led pathologists to suggest that rather than a suffering a clinical dissection, the victims were quite literally butchered.

Where organs had been removed, the victim had first had their throat slit and allowed to bleed, before any further wounds were inflicted.  This has much in common with general slaughterhouse practices before mass mechanisation of the process, where an animal would be bled first so that the butchering could take place unhindered by a messy excess of blood.  This would of course make the removal of organs and butchery of the carcass much neater and more effective.  In the rural communities of Tennessee, Twain would be no stranger to these practices and as a farmhand would undoubtedly have assisted in them.  It must also be emphasised that the so-called “surgical removal” of organs in the Ripper case was only judged against the fairly brutal surgical practices of the time.  With a basic knowledge of livestock butchery and a working knowledge of anatomy – which most learned individuals would have had -  the crude dissections of the victims would have been relatively easy.

Jack the Ripper, MD
A persistent, but fanciful, myth
Also weakening the “Psycho Surgeon” theory are the police records which suggest that the Ripper probably used only one large knife – possibly a broad bladed hunting knife – in all the known killings except the final murder of Mary Jane Kelly, where a second weapon was used.  This is often believed a hatchet or small axe – hardly a precision instrument.  These are not the specialist tools of the doctor or surgeon and do not fit with the image of the sinister gentlemen, in cloak and top hat, stalking Whitechapel with a Gladstone bag containing a selection of scapels and other diabolical surgical tools.  In fact this image of the Ripper is pure fiction – an early myth that was actually invented by a London journalist to support his own fanciful theory - with no credible police or medical statement ever supporting the particulars of this fanciful but enduring modus operandi.

Twain and the Ripper were left-handed and Twain was certainly no stranger to brutality.  In his youth, Twain was well known as a brawler and favoured a hunting knife as his weapon of choice.    Even as late as 1864, he had to flee Nevada after challenging a rival newspaper editor to a duel.  Whilst not acknowledged as a murderer, he had fought, albeit very briefly, for the South in the early stages of the American Civil War and undoubtedly killed.
Finally, the biggest challenge is to establish the motive.  It is generally agreed that the killings were sexual motivated, in that the victims were all female, involved in prostitution and the mutilations focused on the sexual organs; he cut out the uterus's of many of his victims, after opening the body cavity at the genitals with a knife or blade.  However, whilst these actions displayed hate towards women in general, there was never any direct evidence of rape or other sexual interaction.  The motivation seemed to stem not from an impotent frustration towards sex itself, but to an uncontrollable frustration directed towards the female.

Twains views on women are well known and his misogynism has been thoroughly discussed by other theorists.   In her book Mothers and Others: Myths of the Female in the Works of Melville, Twain & Hemingway, Wilma Garcia sees "recurrent elements in Twain's treatment of women", including their "overdependence on language. Women and girls talk too much".  These are simplistic accusations, but provides ample evidence that Twain found constant irritation in feminine traits.  Essentially, she finds this is manifested in Twain's literary presentation of the female as consistantly "stereotypical".  She writes that Twains women consist of “silly schoolgirls, fussbudget widows, narrow-minded old maids and victimized or harried housewives, with an occasional bright tomboy or perceptive older woman as exceptions to the rule that women are at best inane and incompetent, at worst mean-spirited and oppressive, but almost always incomprehensible by any rational standard.”

A misogynist attitude was hardly unique in the late 19th century and misogyny alone does not implicate Twain, but it does provide a compelling backdrop to the dreadful events of 1888.  On February 2nd 1870 Twain married Olivia Langdon and – bolstered by the crital and financial success of Innocents Abroad – decided it was time to settle down and start a family.

Mark Twain 
The face of a killer?
Twain hoped for a son and in November that year it seemed his wishes had been granted with the birth of his first child, a baby boy they named Langdon Clemens.  Sadly, little Langdon was never a strong child. By the end of the following year the Clemenses had arranged for a residence in Hartford, temporary at first, later made permanent. It was in Hartford that  Langdon died of diphtheria, in 1872.

Twain had always wanted a son, yet that Olivia would subsequently give birth to three daughters. The death of Langdon was said to cause a very noticable shift in Twains mood and behaviour and it also coincided with the intense period of travel during which Twain eventually ensure he was in London during the Ripper crimes.

The murder of Mary Kelly in November 1888 marked the final slaying attributed to the Ripper.  Whilst there has been an attempt to connect the Ripper to subsequent killings of prostitutes, there is no evidence to support that the same individual continued his murderous spree either in Whitechapel or elsewhere.  The Ripper simply vanished.

This leads to several assumptions.  Most obviously, one could assume that the Ripper simply stopped killing.  Study of psychopathic behaviour is inclined to disagree with this, in that Serial Killers are generally a victim to their own incontrollable urges and are unable to control their own behaviour until caught.  It is deemed more likely that the Ripper was himself killed – either through suicide, natural causes or in an accident – or apprehended and incarcerated for another unrelated crime.  Finally, the Ripper could simply have moved elsewhere, a sensible move considering the attention he was causing in the Metropolis.  The latter suggestion, combined with short period with which the killings began and ended, supports the theory that the killer was a visitor rather than a resident.  It is this time period which again appears to implicate Twain.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

Of course, this is nonsense. Mark Twain makes a entertaining addition to the crowded field of Ripper suspects, but there is little truth to be gained from such conjecture, we are only left with another contribution to an elaborate and ever expanding mythology.

These myths are important, as it is through mythologies that we can gain some access to history.  What makes the Ripper case such an important myth is the fact it was never solved.  As it is now unlikely that we will ever be able to solve this mystery with any certainty, there is enough subjective space for conspiracy theorists, historians, criminologists and all manner of academics to be able to probe the past and claim some part of that history for themselves.  In doing so, we are able to uncover facets of our past that would otherwise have remained forgotten.

One enduring element in urban or popular mythology is the obsession with well known figures being not what they seem.  This is due, in part, to the dramatic literary tradition of “unmasking”.  This a case of projecting our ideas of fiction on to our history.

The Ripper mystery is no exception to this theory and Twain is in auspicious company.  In addition to Walter Sickert, the Ripper has been identified as a member of the Royal Family, as writer Lewis Carroll and perhaps most intriguingly as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In fact, just about every notable Victorian appears to have been, at one time or another, a valid Ripper Suspect, each with their own supporting micro-mythology.

Mary Kelly before dying
by Eline
Courtesy of the artist

The attraction with this cross-pollenation of mythologies is that it expands our sense of historical place and opens up new and fresh sources of possible evidence.  By expanding our fields of study we begin to understand the further complexities of our own past.

In some ways, the celebrity of the Ripper lineup is explained by the fact that notions of history are informed by the grand and prominent, as it is the rich, influential and powerful figures of the past who are preserved for us.  They are the only clear footprints we have left to track.  Whilst probably less than thankful, the Ripper victims and supporting cast would have been unknown save for their dramatic demise.

Without the Ripper, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly would have joined the faceless ranks of the Victorian underclass, the anonymous mass of common people, their lives left unrecorded, while their possessions and all other traces of their existence turn to dust.

This article was originally intended to be a book review of Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed.  After failing to read the book in its entirety, I wrote this instead.  It remained unpublished until now.  To date there has been no legal action from the estate of Mark Twain. I take this as either a recognition of nonsense or admission of guilt.  You decide. 


  1. Couldn't Jack the Ripper be a girl??
    This could be why the crime was never solved...only men were concidered the prime suspects.

    1. It's possible, although there are two gender inequalities which make a Jack the Ripper more likely - or at least easier to put together a vaguely convincing case against - than a Jill the Ripper.

      The first is that there are far less records of female Victorians (eminent or otherwise) than males. This is simply a reflection of the patriarchal culture of the time.

      The second is that there are disproportionately fewer female than male serial killers, full stop. There are a lot of academic studies concerning why this is the case - and some disagreement - but there are key psychological disparities between the genders that could explain this.

      A short, interesting primer can be found here: