Ripperology 101

Author lists and analyzes all known Jack the Ripper suspects.

Posted Apr 09, 2018

Vronsky Parker Publications
Source: Vronsky Parker Publications

Books devoted to Jack the Ripper are published every year. Some offer new suspects, a new angle on an established theory, or something new about 1888 London. Now at the 130th anniversary year of the Ripper’s “Autumn of Terror,” the flow of Ripper books has increased. A few, like this one by Paul Williams, stand out, with 333 suspects described.

“Jack” was never identified, but plenty of people have been accused. The authorities knew of some of them, but researchers have added many more. The truth about each and the reasons why someone came under suspicion are often lost in wishful thinking, over-reaching, and misinformation. Williams attempts to lay out the facts.

Not everyone agrees on when the murders began, but “canonically,” it was the end of August in 1888. Two prostitutes were murdered in separate events a week apart before the so-called “double event” in which two more were separately killed on the same night. Many letters were received purporting to be from the killer, and the final official victim was murdered in November.

Many experts – commonly called Ripperologists – disagree with police conclusions from 1888. However, most seem to accept that the murder spree began at some point that year. Maybe it ceased in November or maybe it continued for several more years, and possibly in other places.

In Jack the Ripper Suspects: The Definitive Guide and Encyclopedia, Williams describes the eleven victims most often suggested before focusing on nine. He then defines his list of suspects as those accused of one or more of these murders in the Whitechapel area from 1888-1891: the canonical five plus Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Alice McKenzie, and Frances Coles. Although not included among the top Ripperologists, Williams has nevertheless done an exhaustive job of collecting the names in one place.

The groundwork was laid in such books as Robin Odell’s Ripperology in 2006, but many other suspects have been proposed since then, especially given Odell’s decision to discount victims that others include. John J. Eddleston’s The Definitive Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia (2002, 2015) also falls short. Eddleston includes far fewer suspects, but like Williams, he evaluates them for credibility.

For manageability, Williams groups the suspects into categories such as those who falsely confessed, those accused during the Terror, and those whom the police accused vs. those fingered by contemporary researchers. One chapter features female suspects, another looks at lunatics, and others discuss aristocrats and surgeons. Williams also provides some key documents known to Ripper researchers, like the Littlechild letter and the Macnaghten memorandum.

My favorite chapter was “The Men Who Might Have Been the Ripper,” where Williams boils it all down to actual evidence for making a legal case. He recognizes that some researchers have gone to elaborate lengths to prove that their suspect is Red Jack, but shows that logic without solid evidence is merely speculative. No matter how many coincidences one can muster for weaving a “totality of the circumstances” case, no narrative rises to the level of being definitive.

Williams rules out suspects in groups (those who don't exist, those who had an alibi, etc.) until he has just ten who might still be considered with stronger evidence. Then there are only five.

I don’t claim to be a Ripperologist, but I’ve read my fair share of Ripper books. I don’t know if someone who’s been seriously considered was overlooked, but this list is impressive. I looked for a few unusual suspects, such as “Walter” the infamous pornographer, and he’s here. So are several outlandish ones, as well as those on whom researchers have spent considerable time and money. (I noticed that Oscar Wilde is not named, and he’s been suggested, but he’s mentioned in the text for other reasons.)  

One should never conclude that a lack of evidence proves innocence, but a case built primarily on logic and interpretation likewise does not prove guilt. Still, Williams tends to dismiss some without a satisfying explanation and to discount behavior as evidence, so there’s room for Ripperologists to quibble and perhaps add some suspects back to the “possible” list.

I’m certain that some will take issue with items in this book because the debate over facts and theories is at the heart of Ripperology. Yet those Ripperologists who can bear having their work reduced to a few sentences or paragraphs, with their favorite candidate dismissed, will have fun with this book. For others, it offers a wealth of material and an organized way to find primary sources. There’s even a helpful glossary that sums up who accused the suspect and the basic reason that he, she, or they don’t work out. The footnote section is also comprehensive.

I wasn’t a Ripperologist before I read this book, but thanks to Williams’ categories and lists, I’m getting closer. I recommend this book to anyone with a serious interest the Ripper case.

References

Williams, P. (2018). Jack the Ripper Suspects: The Definitive Guide and Encyclopedia. Vronsky Parker Pub.

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