Ripper Suspects Never Die

A family’s hope to keep a terrible secret is more fully explored.

Posted Feb 24, 2020

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

When I went to the Ripper Conference in London for the 130th anniversary of the unsolved infamous crimes of 1888, I watched a presentation by Australian high school history teacher Jonathan Hainsworth, who’d researched the Montague J. Druitt case and published Jack the Ripper – Case Solved, 1891. He had some provocative material in his presentation, so I read his book and wrote a review for this blog. Now, with coauthor Christine Ward-Agius, he’s updated his work in The Escape of Jack the Ripper: The Full Truth about the Cover-up and his Flight from Justice with more compelling support for his position. No fan of Ripper investigations can ignore it, even if Druitt isn’t their favorite suspect.

About half a dozen suspects persistently float to the top of Ripper lists, Druitt among them; he was the suspect favored by then-CID Chief Sir Melville Macnaghten. A barrister and assistant schoolmaster, Druitt apparently suffered from “spasmodic homicidal mania.” In mid-December 1888, he slipped into the Thames to drown himself. His brother identified the body. Thus ended his family’s desperate attempts to keep his dreadful secret: he was the Whitechapel killer the police were looking for. His death, they thought, would take the heat off and he wouldn’t kill again.

Montague "Montie" Druitt, a slender, five-foot-eight, athletic, handsome dabbler in law might be compared to Ted Bundy, except that he was from wealthy and was more mentally unhinged during the murders. He also worked faster and more visibly than Bundy. Yet at times he seemed normal.

The authors accept the canonical five sex workers as the Ripper’s total when they ID Druitt as London’s most famous fiend. They show awareness of other candidates, but their focus is on those that fit the 10-week time-frame during the autumn of 1888. This theory holds that Druitt had been detained by police, and those in higher offices with ties to the upper-class family had launched a cover-up. This intrigue alone makes the book worth consideration as Ripper scholarship. It rivals the so-called Royal Conspiracy.

There’s much more in this book about the mental illness from which Druitt apparently suffered, so it's more interesting, perhaps, to psychologists than most Ripper narratives have been. Apparently, Druitt's wealthy family found an elite asylum for him in France. When they brought him there, they reportedly assured the director that he’d accuse himself of terrible crimes that would resemble those currently in the news; that was the nature of his delusions. Whatever ravings he confessed to should be dismissed as mere imagination. The considerable fees they paid bought not only individualized treatment but also discretion.

Problem solved. But then it wasn't. Eventually, they had to move him, but this episode is a fascinating part of the story, apparently documented in a Philadelphia newspaper in January 1889 (offered in the appendix). Not everyone who worked at the place had been paid to be quiet, and some hoped to cash in.

Druitt was suicidal, like his mother and others in her family line. He’d practiced as a lawyer – even once defending a murderer – but couldn’t sustain a career. Ultimately, he succeeded in taking his life. There’s more in this book about his suicide method than is generally found in other accounts. The authors also discovered the last known photograph of Druitt.

They provide textual proof of earlier claims about those who knew Druitt as the Ripper. Letters from Druitt’s family indicated that they certainly knew, as well as being acutely aware of the price the entire family would pay should Druitt be accused and brought to trial. In addition, the absence of evidence is strangely present: for a family of prolific letter writers, the gap in letters from late 1888 to mid-1889 suggests that some were destroyed, presumably because they’d discussed or alluded to the family crisis. Those letters that surfaced after this gap, according to the authors, used cryptic phrasing not seen in prior letters.

There’s also a fun item in the appendices that tells the tale of how the Druitt story found its way into early twentieth-century fiction. One of these is "The Lodger," by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which was published as a short story in January 1911 in McClure’s Magazine. I’ve talked about that story here. It’s a psychologically astute tale involving cognitive dissonance about a nearly destitute couple with a small boarding house who believe that a recent lodger is Jack the Ripper. If they tell the police, they lose their badly needed income. The physical description of this mysterious, moody lodger fits Druitt, as do several allusions to his upper class bearing.

Hainsworth and Ward-Agius have done some very thorough research, so it doesn’t surprise me to see his most recent effort deliver on its promise. This isn’t just a rehash of an already-published narrative, although they’ve already covered the elite social network in London and the desperate need to dampen scandal. Social classes – and families – take care of their own. I doubt that anyone else will be able to offer a more comprehensive portrait of this Ripper suspect than these authors have done.

References

Hainsworth, J. & Ward-Agius, C. (2020). The Escape of Jack the Ripper: The Full Truth about the Cover-up and his Flight from Justice. Amberley.