Jack the Ripper and hypnotism

At the beginning of the year, I was contacted and asked if I’d be interested in writing the foreword to a book involving hypnotism (the author’s area of study) and Jack the Ripper (mine). I’ll admit that I was a little dubious even after I agreed, since I tend to avoid fiction about the Ripper but, once I had the proofs in hand, I was fascinated.

Donald K. Hartman collected two Ripper narratives from 1888 and 1889, both of which use hypnotism in their explanation of why the Ripper killed. Hartman also makes a case for both stories as having the same author, with one written under a pseudonym, and goes on to detail the life of Edward Oliver Tilburn. That’s an adventure in and of itself, but I’m going to stick to the Ripper here.

As I mention in my foreword, the obsession with the Ripper story isn’t just about discovering who the Ripper actually was, but also explaining why someone would kill like this. It’s a question of motive, and we ask it of every serial killer. It’s comforting to have an answer – for example, to say “Ted Bundy killed women who looked like the one who dumped him in college,” since that makes his choice of victims somehow explicable and also means that women could do something as simple as changing their hairstyle to keep themselves from becoming his next victim. (It is, of course, always up to women to keep themselves safe.)

The question was especially prevalent in the 1880s because the existence of someone who killed strangers for his (or her) own devices just seemed so foreign. This wasn’t the era of serial killers and CSI – there was no handy term to use for such a person. The backstory that seems done to death in 2021 didn’t exist in the late 19th century. There wasn’t the Crime Classification Manual or interviews with violent offenders to form a framework. The question of “What sort of person would do this?” didn’t have even a vague, profile-heavy answer.

Hartman provides us with reprints of two stories that respond to the question with “Well, hypnotism’s involved, so that explains a lot.”

Twenty-first century readers might have to force their eyebrows down over the hypnotism specifically, but the two stories here have much in common with contemporary narratives. One of them has so many similarities to NBC’s Hannibal that it’s almost a Ripper AU fanfic. There’s no cannibalism, but an innocent younger man crosses paths with an older man whose obsession is dangerous and immoral, and the two of them begin an intense, destructive relationship.

Once the author (or authors) establishes that at least part of the Ripper was due to hypnotism, it clarifies a lot for the Victorian audience. Already the Ripper is involved in something dark and mysterious, on the edges of society, that really shouldn’t be touched. Once a hypnotist is involved, there’s really not much of a stretch to include murder. One outsider easily becomes another, and the danger of the hypnotist is that of Charles Manson: he doesn’t have to be present at the murder to have caused it, and his powers are so great that he can influence someone who’s otherwise innocent to transgress enough and commit murder simply because he wanted them to.

Neither of these stories intends to actually explain who the Ripper was – that is, to honestly name a suspect or explain the crimes. They’re entertainment, and Ripper scholars can pick out all the details the author(s) gets wrong in the telling. But the really fascinating thing to me is how they’re so similar to serial killer fiction we see produced today, and how many themes and tropes we still share with the late 1800s.

What do you think – does a Hannibal-esque retelling of Jack the Ripper pique your interest? Is there value in reading these old attempts to explain the Ripper through outdated fears of hypnotism and control?

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