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Who was the real Jack the Ripper: 1888?

I will reprint three theories from The Ripper of our night mares: theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity, by Professors Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash. Then I will add a fourth theory that appealed to me.

1. Outcast/foreign rippers Between Aug-Nov 1888, five women were murdered and mutilated in the Whitechapel streets in London’s East End, some with their throats cut, faces slashed and organs removed.  Even today, the bare facts of the Jack the Ripper killings are unsettling. But for Victorian Londoners, the case was far more visceral. In their midst was a criminal cap­able of committing these most gruesome crimes. Who was responsible?

Given the Ripper’s sheer brutality, it was perhaps inevitable that many Britons concluded that they must be the work of an evil that had entered Victorian society from the outside. This meant that marginal figures from London’s ethnic minorities could find themselves in the frame.

The police keep finding women who had been killed 
in the streets of Whitechapel, 1888

Daily newspaper front pages, 1888, Yale Centre for British Art
Newspapers played a vital role in creating the Jack the Ripper horror.  In the papers, Whitechapel came to symbolise London's criminal underworld.

Russian Jew Michael Ostrog and Polish Jew Aaron Kosminski were cited as suspects in a contemporary memorandum penned by the Metropolitan Police chief constable. Ostrog had lived as a thief and confidence trickster before winding up in the south of England in 1888, where his latest app­earance in court was notable for him displaying signs of insanity. Aaron Kosminski was also seen as insane and as a misogynist, and had been confined to an asylum. He strongly resembled a man seen near Mitre Square, the scene of one of the murders in Sept 1888.

Jacob Levy was another foreigner placed by witnesses at Mitre Square and was apparently seen with Catherine Eddowes on the night she died. When it was revealed that Levy was a Spital­fields but­ch­er, skilled in the ritual slaughter of animals, he was marked! And David Cohen long aroused suspicion, for regular displays of violent tendencies towards women and because his incarceration in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum coincided with the cessation of the murders.

There’s little doubt that Ostrog, Kosminski, Levy and Cohen were victims of a wave of prejudice that had been precipitated by the influx of thousands of Eastern Europeans into London in the early 1880s, fleeing persecution at home. Their arrival brought to the surface widespread fears of the predatory outsider, a stereo­type that the police and government officials found hard to resist.

2. The royal Ripper What if Jack the Ripper wasn’t a predatory and solitary killer, but that he was part of a collective conspiracy? Such fears often surface at times when the Estab­lish­ment’s reput­at­ion is being called into question. So of course a number of theor­ies emerged during this period, linking Jack the Ripper’s kill­ings to some of the most powerful figures of the late Victorian era.

Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy Duke of Clarence and Avondale, had long been a suspect. One theory has it that in the later 1888, the famously dissolute prince was seized by a syphilis-induced psychosis that led him to murder the five Ripper victims. Or that Eddy’s crimes precipitated an elaborate cover-up. The Duke ran away to the East End, he married a Catholic woman Annie Crook and fathered a child with her. Faced with a scandal that could potentially bring down the monarchy, shadowy establishment figures split up the couple and masterminded the elimination of the five female acquaintances who “knew the truth”.

Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy Duke of Clarence and Avondale

As it would have required the involvement of stealthy agents of clandestine power, the theory that the establishment engineered a cover-up revived popular prejudices about secretive organisations eg the Freemasons. The theory would also have required macabre ritualised activities!

3. The medical Ripper. Doctors moved freely about the urban underworld. Their need for corpses for dissection stimulated a vibrant clandestine market in corpses. And their callous treatment of defenceless female patients – especially the forced examination of prostitutes – had made them popular folk devils. In the 1880s, many Britons believed accusations that the Ripper was drawn from their ranks.

One of the first medics to come under suspicion was Dr Robert Donston Stephenson. He was believed to have contracted venereal disease from prostitutes and to be a Satanist – giving him the perfect motive for removing his victims’ internal organs. Stephenson was also a magician, which explained his regular escape from detection.

The American quack-doctor Francis Tumblety was a suspect because he was a violent misogynist with an unstable personality and a penchant for collecting body parts.

Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir William Gull, who had been close to the monarchy for a decade, has also been cited as a Ripper suspect, either as a lone assailant or as part of a wider conspiracy. In the years since the Ripper case, the healer-turned-murderer narrative has been culturally reinforced in the popular mind by eg Dr Harold Shipman.

4. My favourite theory concerns an artist. Walter Sickert created Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1907, a painting that now hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery. Sickert was an eccentric man and his work was often difficult to understand and macabre; he often focused on painting shadowy interiors and lower class and suburban Victorian scenes. But it was the scenes that suggested violence against women that were most alarming.

Of course Sickert said he was only creating works that portrayed the unglamorous nature of everyday life in seedy, London’s working class East London. At the time, his personality and eerie paintings simply defined the cutting-edge modernist artist he was.

Sickert, Camden Town Murder, 1908

But what if Sickert was Jack the Ripper? According to American novelist Patricia Cornwell's theory, Walter Sickert had been made impotent by a series of painful childhood operations for a penile fistula. Or anal fistulas that caused pain in adulthood. In either case, impotency/pain had scarred him emotionally and had left him with a pathological hatred of women. This led him to carry out a series of murders, especially of prostitutes.

Walter Sickert was indeed born in Germany and I wonder if his "foreignness" made contemporaries somewhat suspicious. In any case Sickert certainly knew about their suspicions – he referred to the crimes frequently in his work.

Before and after Jack the Ripper, crime in general was rampant in Whitechapel, carried out by street gangs or in the form of domestic violence. Crimes referred to as “ripping”, back then, consisted of robberies and random violence to keep the public in fear.


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