Musings on unsolved crimes, inspired by the Writing Community Chat Show

I was on The Writing Community Chat Show last week – here’s a link to the episode – as part of a panel of authors. Panel talks are cool but also challenging: you want to talk, but you don’t want to go on and on and make it all about you, or cut in if someone else has something to say, or veer back if the topic’s already moved on. So, for instance, when a really cool question comes up … you don’t always get to answer it.

But this blog is all about me, so I’m answering it here.

When considering True Crime, how important is it to the guests that the crime is solved? Are there any unsolved crimes that intrigue and have inspired the panel?

Darren Pengelly

First, thank you, Darren, because I love this question. I could go on for hours about it. So it’s probably good other people jumped in and we moved on.

The thing about true crime is that, as a genre, it loves crimes that have been solved. When Ann Rule signed the contract to write about “the Ted Murders,” she knew she wouldn’t be getting it published until after there’d been a trial and sentencing. The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980, after Bundy had been found guilty of two murders, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of burglary. It came out quickly enough that an update needed to be added when he received his third death sentence for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but it still wasn’t sent to print until Bundy had been found guilty.

True crime likes stories that get wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. It’s all about the solved cases and the plucky law enforcement agents who went toe-to-toe with the cunning criminals and came out on top. True crime doesn’t like unsolved cases or systemic problems that can’t be pinned on a single person in a catchy mug shot.

Okay, there are some exceptions.

Says the woman who’s written two books on Jack the Ripper. But, in that case, the Ripper isn’t still out there, ready to murder anyone reading a book about him. (Imagine the Golden State Killer reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before he was finally caught. That’s the premise for Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man. The Golden State Killer didn’t actually go on to murder because of the book, but in that case, it was a possibility. He hadn’t been caught. Not enough time had passed to be sure he was dead.) But the Ripper was in 1888, he only killed poor East End sex workers, and he’s dead by now – all layers of safety between the Ripper and the average true crime reader.

If someone writes about an ongoing crime that’s unfolding right now – say, a serial killer – then there’s not that barrier. Maybe, like the Green River killer, there’s a clear victim type and readers can assure themselves that they don’t fit it. If we don’t get into cars with strangers, and never go out after dark, and always take a buddy, and learn self-defense, and message our friends to tell them where we are, and check in with each other, then we won’t be the next victim.

That’s what true crime wants us to believe, and it’s so much harder when there’s an unsolved case out there. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, and the Monster of Florence are the exceptions that prove the rule. Two of them aren’t even American, and we all know America likes to think it’s the world leader in serial killers, both having them and catching them.

Considering Ripper’s Victims and Media and the Murderer (and the whole Jack the Ripper tag on my blog) I probably don’t have to go on too much about any unsolved cases that particularly influence me, but I’d like to mull on a related topic for a moment:

What about unsolved crimes in fiction?

This is where it gets tricky. We like fiction because it doesn’t have to follow real-life examples. We can add a full narrative structure, including a proper beginning and an end, the way we do when telling stories about our own lives, but we don’t actually live in a narrative structure. (Narrative theory was one of my three comprehensive exam areas. Can you tell?) We try to make real life into stories, but we’re often restricted by details like evidence and proof. If we’re making the story up, though …

I do think there’s a difference between a character solving the case and the audience knowing the answer. It could be that the main characters have to give up, for whatever reason, before finding the solution. Or, like was mentioned during the chat, there could be a Hitchcockian suspense scenario where the audience knows the killer early on but can only watch as the main character tries to figure it out. That dual cat-and-mouse layer features in true crime: the police hunt the killer hunts the victims. It’s like one of those math problems where two trains are moving at different speeds toward a destination and you have to calculate how long it’ll be before one overtakes the other.

I’m thinking of things like the Lincoln Rhyme series where you can have a character like The Watchmaker who gets identified as the criminal … but not truly identified. He’s the Moriarty or the Big Bad, Rhyme’s intellectual equal and therefore more than capable of keeping out of the clutches of the police. Even the “real” name they come up with for him might not be right, and he’s been behind some of the single-book bad guys who don’t get to come back for a curtain call. The case isn’t solved in a legal sense, since he’s never put on trial and sentenced, but Rhyme knows. And the readers know.

It’s not like The Colorado Kid, which might be the only completely unsolved fictional mystery that I’ve read. Stephen King wrote a book about how frustrating it is for a crime to be a true unsolved mystery, with an unsolved mystery at its center. The main characters even say multiple times that it’s not a story, not exactly, because there’s not a single mysterious element and a single “must-have-been.” A man from Colorado ended up dead on an island off the coast of Maine with a Russian coin in his pocket and a bite of steak caught in his throat. And … that’s about it.

You don’t even know for sure that it was a crime, or just a very weird accidental death. There’s enough to make you think that yes, you’re missing a lot of the pieces, but even the characters who have spent decades knowing the story haven’t been able to find them. It’s an incredibly frustrating story that isn’t really helped by the fact that the characters let you know from the start that it won’t be neatly tied up with a bow. You’re right there with Stephanie as she hears the story for the first time, asks questions, and keeps running up against the fact that there aren’t any answers.

And honestly, it’s probably something only a household name could get published on a grand scale, because that’s not what we want from our fiction, is it? It doesn’t matter if Stephanie and the two older reporters don’t know the full backstory for the Colorado Kid, but King doesn’t even relent and let Constant Reader in on it. We just get to the end and think “Wait did I just waste my time reading that or …?”

Have you read any fiction that deals with an unsolved crime that remains unsolved at the end of the book? Did it feel like a waste of time? Do you think all crime fiction needs to be solved in order to fit the genre? Share your thoughts!

Ripper suspect: Richard Mansfield

We must once again remember that it doesn’t take much to be accused of having been Jack the Ripper. If a man can be shown to have been near the East End in the fall of 1888, then his name has likely shown up on the list.

Richard Mansfield, an English actor, was accused of being Jack the Ripper in an anonymous letter dated 1888. It’s hard to determine exactly how seriously the suggestion was taken, especially considering how phrenology and atavism were still in vogue. People were (and still are, to an extent) convinced that the darkness in someone’s soul would have to show on their faces and in their bodies. The more “rough” a person looked, than the rougher his character, and brutal murders of strangers was about as rough as it came.

But what, people started wondering, if there happened to be a man who could change his appearance so that he only looked like his essential self – a brutal, ugly murderer – part of the time? Sort of like how people think Ted Bundy is attractive despite the whole murder thing. In part that explains how he was able to isolate and then murder so many young women, but it also makes things scarier when we can’t look at someone and immediately identify them as dangerous.

Promotional material emphasizing Mansfield’s shift from Jekyll to Hyde.

Enter Richard Mansfield, who happened to be playing the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a West End theater during the Autumn of Terror. Audiences at the Lyceum watched as Mansfield transformed in front of their eyes, contorting his body and his face into the violent and base Hyde. The rumor was even spread that he managed all of this without any help from makeup or prosthetics, although the lighting choices certainly helped his transformation. It turned out that Mansfield did have some assistance, but at least one theater-goer bought into the belief that he could, in fact, change his physical self at will.

The novella was published in 1886, two years before the Ripper murders, and explored the idea of the alter ego or the gothic double. It seems that the restraint of the Victorian era was too much for Dr. Jekyll, outwardly the perfect gentleman, and he only needs the slightest push to revert to his baser instincts. This “push” comes in the form of a serum Jekyll drinks, so at least it’s not going to spread like some sort of social disease, but it’s also incredibly addictive. Even though Jekyll promises he won’t drink anymore and won’t become Hyde again, he can’t help it. First he drinks out of compulsion, and then he transforms into Hyde without even needing the serum.

On the one hand, it might make sense to accuse an actor of being the Ripper, since he would apparently have had the skills needed to blend in with others in the East End at least long enough to commit the murder and make his escape. On the other, Mansfield was only accused because of this dual role and his apparently perfect inhabitation of both of the characters. It was a role that made Mansfield’s reputation as an actor, so he must have done well.

The accusation did have an impact on Mansfield’s career, so it wasn’t completely ignored. In response to the publicity surrounding the suspicion, he put on a performance of the comedy Prince Karl as a benefit for reformed sex workers. Whether or not the police took the letter seriously, he certainly convinced his audiences that there was something to it.

Mansfield continued acting, including taking many roles on Broadway, and also went on to have a successful career as a theatrical manager. After his death at age 50, the New York Times declared that “As an interpreter of Shakespeare, he had no living equal.” Despite being accused of being a serial killer in his own lifetime, at the time of the murders, Mansfield managed to shake off suspicion and prosper.

Ripper suspect: a Jewish slaughterman

One way of getting around naming an actual known person as having been the Ripper is to propose an occupation. In this case, I’m looking at the idea that the Ripper may have been a shochet, or a Jewish slaughterman. It’s a theory Robin Odell covers in the 1965 book Jack the Ripper in Fact and Fiction, but also one that appealed to newspaper readers in 1888.

Why pick “a Jewish slaughterman” as a Ripper suspect? Let us count the ways.

  1. Antisemitism was rife in London in the late 1800s. If you see a Ripper suspect described as a “foreigner,” chances are the person was using the then-common description for “Jew.” Not allowed to settle in other parts of London, Jewish immigrants gathered together to form their own communities and cared for each other with social programs not available to anyone else, because the government didn’t provide them. Rather than respond with frustration against the government, the people turned their anger against the Jews.

    It was also a major concern in the case on the night of the so-called Double Event because of graffiti chalked on a wall along the path the Ripper is thought to have fled after murdering Kate Eddowes. Called “the Goulston Street graffito,” the actual text was washed off before there was enough light for it to be photographed, and variations are all we have left. It said something along the lines of The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing and has been interpreted, variably, as either blaming the Jewish people for the Ripper murders, or having something to do with Freemason legends.

    At the time, Police Commissioner Charles Warren recommended that the message be erased before it could be seen by too many people because he suspected it would be interpreted the first way. The police were already struggling because they had arrested a Jewish man named John Pizer (nickname: Leather Apron) for the crimes but then had to let him go since he was in custody as they continued. This was also a time when mobs would descend on people, claiming they were the Ripper, causing these victims to turn to the police for protection. It was very easy, then, for East Enders to combine their fear of the Ripper with their antisemitism.
  2. It was already suspected that the Ripper had some knowledge of biology. The common image of the Ripper in a top hat and cape also has him carrying a doctor’s bag for this very reason. The killer was reported to have removed specific organs from his victims and worked very quickly in conditions of poor lighting, to the point where physicians commented that they could not have done the same thing in the given amount of time.

    Aside from causing actual physicians to frantically replace their usual bags with ones that didn’t carry the Ripper’s stigma, this also started a debate. Did the Ripper honestly have anatomical knowledge, or was he just lucky? Could he have gained such knowledge somewhere other than medical school?

    There were numerous slaughterhouses in the East End, so the Ripper could have come from any of them and gained whatever anatomical knowledge he might have had from his work there. As a bonus, it was a common sight to see men walking around covered in blood because of their work. A slaughterman could easily have escaped after the murders without necessarily having to clean himself thoroughly because he would have been expected to be in such a state, anyway.
  3. Unless someone was rather famous, it’s difficult to find records and therefore attach a name to a suspect. Rather than accusing someone famous, whose descendants might have something to say about that, it’s easier to look at a group of people who have the same presumed skill set and say “There were thousands of them. We’ll never know which one.”

… and that’s very likely true: we’ll never actually know who the Ripper was. We’ve narrowed it down to “someone who was alive in 1888 and at least near the East End,” but, other than that … we’re left grasping at straws. True, if we think that the Ripper did in fact exhibit some anatomical knowledge, a butcher seems to be a good candidate, but what about the men with proven medical training whose names have also been put forward?

What do you think? Does this theory belong on the books or in the bin?

Ripper suspect: George Chapman

George Chapman – no relation to Annie Chapman; birth name Seweryn KÅ‚osowski – is one of the oldest Ripper suspects. Although he was arrested, tried, and hanged for three poisonings, police at the time thought he may have been the Ripper. Let’s see if we agree.

Chapman was born in Poland in 1865. At age 14, he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and in October 1885 he enrolled in a brief course in practical surgery at the Warsaw Praga Hospital. It’s unclear exactly when he left Poland for England, but he was working as a doctor’s assistant in Warsaw until December 1886, and a receipt from February 1887 still places him in Poland. He settled in the East End as a hairdresser’s assistant in either late 1887 or early 1888.

So far Chapman seems to be a plausible Ripper suspect. The Ripper was thought to have anatomical knowledge that could be attributed to being a butcher or a doctor, and Chapman had medical training. He had also moved to the East End shortly before the murders began and records can prove he was there during the Autumn of Terror. On top of this, he was a known serial killer. So what’s the hesitation?

Jack the Ripper killed women on the street by cutting their throats and then mutilating their bodies with a knife or knives. There is no known connection between these women, although various people have done their best to hook them together in a conspiracy.

George Chapman murdered his mistresses by poisoning them with tartar-emetic. He had a string of relationships with women who presented themselves as his wife, and while some of them left Chapman because he was violent, three of them died because of him. Chapman’s first known murder was of Mary Isabella Spink in 1897; his second, Bessie Taylor in 1901; and his third, Maud Marsh in 1902. Reports at his trial indicate that he was physically abusive to all three, as well as the other women – some mothers of his children – who left him, perhaps before he could murder them, as well.

Suspicions were high enough after Marsh’s death for the bodies of Spink and Taylor to be exhumed, as well, in order to prove poisoning. Chapman was charged with Marsh’s murder, brought to trial, convicted on March 19, 1903, and hanged on April 7 with his motives still unproven. Although he inherited a legacy from Spink, there was no monetary reason for him to have murdered Taylor and March.

No less than Fredrick Abberline himself considered George Chapman to have been Jack the Ripper. When he spoke to the policeman who arrested Chapman, he’s reported to have said “You’ve got Jack the Ripper at last!” During the initial investigation Abberline had interviewed Chapman’s “wife” at the time, who apparently reported that he was out and about at all hours. However, Chapman – who was then still going by Seweryn KÅ‚osowski – was not named as a suspect in 1888. It was only his arrest for serial poisoning that put his name on the short list.

So: we know that Chapman in the East End at the proper time, and that he was violent toward the women in his life. He had medical training. And we also know he was a murderer, but the question remains: would the Ripper have switched from using a knife to using poison? From killing strangers who could not have been connected back to him to murdering his own “wives”?

What do you think? Did they really capture Jack the Ripper at last?

Ripper suspect: James Maybrick

Remember back when we were discussing Montague John Druitt and we learned it’s bad luck to have died shortly after the Ripper murders were “finished”? James Maybrick, a Liverpool cotton merchant, had some of that same luck, except “died” doesn’t quite fit here. His wife was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death.

Florence Chandler was 18 when she met 42-year-old Maybrick on a sea voyage to Liverpool. It lasted six days, which was long enough for the couple to go from strangers to being engaged. They married in 1881 and had two children by 1886. He had multiple mistresses; she had at least one affair. He sickened suddenly in late April 1889 and died 15 days later. The inquest declared it was arsenic poisoning. Florence became the key suspect.

The trial was sensational, especially since this was an American woman, and the judge’s conduct in particular likely led to her death sentence being commuted to life in prison. In 1904 the case was reexamined and Florence was released. She was the more interesting Maybrick until 1992, when “the Ripper diary” hit headlines.

The provenance of the book is confusing, especially since the story has changed a few times. The contents aren’t really any more enlightening, since the author of the diary never gives his own name. He claims responsibility for the murders of the Canonical Five, as well as two others. And apparently this anonymous author is supposed to be James Maybrick.

The “diary” surfaced in 1992 and has been subjected to multiple tests to determine whether the ink could have been used in 1888. The book itself is less controversial, since the binding and the pages are apparently of the correct vintage, but someone could have found the book and then written the story themselves much later. Some of the details “the Ripper” provides about the murders are inaccurate, but align with oft-repeated parts of the story that someone who was not the Ripper might have heard in the decades since. In fact, the owner of the diary made a statement in 1995 that his wife actually wrote the diary while he dictated. (His solicitor submitted a repudiation of this affidavit, and then he withdrew the repudiation. Just to make things even more confusing.)

The idea seems to be that James Maybrick embarked on the murders as a reaction to his wife’s infidelities, even though it seems that she only began her affair after he had continually cheated on her with multiple women. I suppose we can counter these double standards by arguing that she murdered him when she found out he was murdering other people, even though a twenty-first inquiry into the case revealed that Maybrick was taking multiple medications at the time of his death, most of which were poisonous. It’s highly unlikely Florence Maybrick killed her husband, and it’s also highly unlikely that James Maybrick was Jack the Ripper.

But the diary isn’t the only piece of evidence that surfaced naming the previously unsuspected Maybrick. In 1993, a year after the diary was presented to the world, a man named Albert Johnson bought an antique pocket watch with a strange etching inside. Someone had scratched in the initials of the Canonical Five women (not including the two unidentified women from the diary), James Maybrick’s signature, and the words “I am Jack.” Separate examinations determined that the scratches were not recent – say, if someone had come across the diary story in 1992 and decided to fake them on an true antique watch – but the timing is still puzzling. If Maybrick was a Ripper “nobody” until the diary surfaced in 1992 because it reached the hands of a new owner, how coincidental is it that the pocket watch also changed hands and came to light a year later?

The diary made a splash in the 1990s with books arguing both for and against its authenticity, but it – and James Maybrick – has been largely dismissed by those studying the case. If the Ripper had left a diary for us to find, that would have been big news indeed – even bigger if he’d gotten all the details right and actually signed his name. But the diary goes the way of the shawl and the letters: an interesting splash for experts to argue over, but ultimately not the key to unlock the mystery.

Have you heard about the Ripper diary and the pocket watch? What did you think when you first learned about them? (Does Jack the Ripper strike you as the type to keep a diary in the first place?)

Ripper suspects – Joseph Barnett or George Hutchinson

It’s been a while since I’ve shared some of my research instead of my writing musings, so let’s jump back in to Jack the Ripper and consider a pair of suspects: Joseph Barnett or George Hutchinson. These are an “or” pair instead of an “and” pair, because nobody’s (yet) suggested that they worked together, but the story behind them is very similar.

Both Barnett and Hutchinson are connected to Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the so-called Canonical Five victims of Jack the Ripper. Choosing either Barnett or Hutchinson as the Ripper clearly makes Mary Jane Kelly the last. It actually positions her at the center of all of the murders.

Joseph Barnett was Mary Jane Kelly’s boyfriend. The two of them met in April 1887 and decided to move in together on their second encounter. The vast majority of what we know – or think we know – about Mary Jane Kelly comes from Barnett’s testimony at the inquest after her murder. He lived with her until the end of October 1888, when they quarreled and separated.

Barnett had been living with Mary Jane Kelly at 13 Miller’s Court when they separated. It was a very small room, with only a single bed, and one of the reasons for the separation seems to be that Mary Jane was letting other women sleep there. Since this was the Autumn of Terror where women were being murdered in the streets, and since Mary Jane had a steady room that wasn’t in a lodging house, it seems like it was a kind thing for her to do.

Another instigating factor for their separation also seems to have been the fact that Barnett had lost his job as a fish porter, resulting in Mary Jane Kelly’s return to sex work. Barnett apparently disproved of this as much as he did of her offering their small, shared space to other women, and so he left her. Their separation was the reason why Barnett was not also sleeping at 13 Miller’s Court the night of November 8-9, and why Mary Jane Kelly was alone and murdered there.

Barnett was not a suspect at the time. In fact, Inspector Fredrick Abberline personally cleared him after a four-hour interrogation, which included an inspection of Barnett’s clothes. No blood was found, and Abberline, at least, was satisfied.

The same cannot be said for Bruce Paley who, in 1996, named Barnett as the Ripper. According to Paley, Barnett decided to become the Ripper in order to scare Mary Kelly off the streets and force her to stop making money through sex work out of fear of being murdered. On the one hand, Barnett’s plan seems to have worked if Mary Jane Kelly was worried enough to allow other women to sleep indoors with her. On the other, he apparently couldn’t scare her enough to stop. Thus, Paley argues, Barnett was driven to kill the woman he loved because he couldn’t save her otherwise.

George Hutchinson also became a Ripper suspect not in the 1880s but in the 1990s, this time in a 1998 book by Robert Hinton. Hutchinson was known to the police at the time because, after Mary Jane Kelly’s murder, he made a statement to the police about a man he had seen with Mary Jane Kelly shortly before her murder. Hutchinson, unemployed, apparently had plenty of time that night to hang around Miller’s Court and get a good look at anyone who passed by.

Abberline also interviewed Hutchinson, although he was considered only as a witness and not a suspect. Hutchinson had known Mary Jane Kelly for three years and his incredibly detailed description of the man entering the room with her was explained because Hutchinson thought the man looked “foreign,” which piqued his interest and concern. After all, women were being murdered, so of course he would memorize every detail about any man who seemed to be going into his friend’s room as a client.

Although numerous skeptics have doubted Hutchinson’s description of the Ripper, he wasn’t accused of being the murderer himself until Hinton. And here the story sounds very similar: angry that Mary Jane Kelly was supporting herself through sex work – and not relying on him as her sole sexual partner and source of money – Hutchinson orchestrated the Ripper murders, hoping to scare Mary Jane Kelly into stopping.

Hinton suggests that Hutchinson, after seeing Mary Jane Kelly take that client into her room and that client later depart, snapped. Hutchinson therefore went into 13 Miller’s Court himself, shook Mary Jane Kelly awake – or tried to, considering the reports that she was very drunk that night – and was confronted with the reality of the woman she was instead of the apparent perfection he had preciously imagined. With this ideal shattered, Hutchinson lashed out and killed her.

So: two men who knew Mary Jane Kelly, and were known to have been close to her at the time of her death. One of them was cleared as a suspect by Fredrick Abberline, and the other never even considered to be one. More than a century after the Ripper murders, each in turn became accused of being the Ripper to turn Mary Jane Kelly away from sex work … and into his arms.

What do you think? Was there something in the air in the 1990s? Would a man ever actually turn to serial murder as a way of pursuing the “perfect” woman? Or should we let Barnett and Hutchinson rest in peace?

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?

Ripper suspect: Robert Mann

This is another suspect that makes most people ask “Who?” He’s not a famous author, painter, or prince, so if you know who Robert Mann is, you’ve either read M. J. Trow’s 2009 book or seen the Discovery Channel documentary. Robert Mann was basically a nobody, making him a prime candidate for being the killer who was never identified.

Mann was the mortuary attendant at the Whitechapel Workhouse, so we know for certain he was in the area at the right time. He even has a direct connection to the murders, since both Polly Nichols’ and Annie Chapman’s bodies were taken to that mortuary. There was even a bit of confusion during the inquest into Polly Nichols’ death so Mann’s name made it into the newspaper reports.

Mann was asked what, exactly, he had done with Polly Nichols’ body, and who was there while he did it. The wounds to her abdomen were not discovered at the scene but only after she had been undressed at the mortuary, and the coroner seems to have gotten very frustrated with Mann’s changing testimony about witnesses. One newspaper reported the coroner concluding his questions with the statement that “It appears the mortuary-keeper is subject to fits, and neither his memory nor statements are reliable.” It appears Mann changed his story too many times to suit the coroner.

At Annie Chapman’s inquest, Mann’s occupation gets specified as being a “watchman,” meaning he wasn’t ever supposed to have touched the bodies at all. Considering how the “mortuary” he was watching was really a shed and not a proper mortuary in the first place, it seems plausible that he could have been asked to help. Right?

M. J. Trow argues that Mann, who died in 1896, was actually the Ripper, so he did a lot more than that.

But … why Mann? Well …

In 1988, to mark the hundred-year anniversary of the murders, FBI agent John Douglass composed a psychological profile of Jack the Ripper. (If you’re a fan of Mindhunter, Douglas is the real-life Holden Ford.) You can read Douglas’ full profile here. A lot of it should be familiar: white male, low social standing, broken family life, socially inept … nothing surprising, and nothing to say it wasn’t Mann.

Trow follows Mann’s life as closely as possible, and there’s nothing in it to conclusively prove that he couldn’t have been the Ripper. He fits the profile, at least, and everyone knows he was around at the time of the murders because his name made the papers. According to Trow, everyone else just overlooked Mann before this, both during his life and after his death. And isn’t that the perfect marker of a serial killer who was never identified?

Mann is an interesting case because he can be shown to at least have been around bodies and death, even if we can’t say for sure that he was obsessed with either, or the creation thereof. He could have just been a resident of the workhouse, stuck with the job they gave him, and confused and overwhelmed by the coroner’s inquest.

Or he could have been a cunning murderer hiding behind the mask.

What do you think? Is Mann one of the top likely Rippers, or was Trow just grasping at straws?

Ripper suspect: Lewis Carroll

Remember how the you can basically accuse anyone who was alive in 1888 of having been Jack the Ripper? In 1996, author Richard Wallace decided to make the case for Charles Dodgson – pen name, Lewis Carroll. The man who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1856 was meant to have murdered multiple women in 1888 … and to have confessed to all of it, if anyone happens to be clever enough to see.

The main point (slash problem) is that these confessions and clues are all in anagram form. Even then, at times Wallace needs to misspell something or otherwise get creative with his interpretations.

Most of these messages, Wallace argues, are from two of Carroll’s books: The Nursery “Alice” and Sylvie and Bruno. Both were first published in 1889, which at least works from a timing standpoint. If Carroll had been Jack the Ripper, he would have had time to commit his murders and then confess to him by the time the books went to press. So, clearly, the various lines of verse can be reworked into confessions and descriptions of the murder scenes.

Well. “Clearly.”

The problem with anagrams is that texts can be reworked to say just about anything, given a “codebreaker” with enough determination. Yes, fine, Carroll’s verse can be translated into murder confessions, but that’s only one possible interpretation … and assumes that Carroll started with his confession and worked everything backward into children’s literature. This is a level of dedication and focus at times seen in fiction, but not exactly documented in real life.

If the anagrams convince you, though, you should probably know a few other details. For example, Carroll was vacationing in East Sussex from August 31 through the end of September 1888. That covers the dates of the murders of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, and Kate Eddowes. On November 9, when Mary Kelly was murdered, Carroll was in Oxford.

You might point out that Wallace claims Carroll didn’t work alone – apparently this Ripper was in fact a duo and included his friend Thomas Vere Bayne – but Bayne was in Oxford with Carroll in November. Perhaps Carroll might have made multiple trips into London in order to complete these murders (a similar argument is made for suspects such as Walter Sickert and Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, whose schedules likewise seem to leave little room for murder) but that would be an incredible stretch.

Wallace doesn’t rely solely on his anagrams. He also argues that Carroll’s life and childhood set him up as the sort of man who would indeed kill women for his own pleasure. He even argues, as many authors of the 1990s seem to, that Carroll was a victim before he ever made the murdered women his victims. In spite of these claims, though, there’s nothing in Carroll’s life that points to such acts of violence.

This theory argues that the Ripper was the sort of person who would publicize his crimes for all the world to read while laughing behind his hand because people didn’t realize the actual content of the text. True, there were all those Ripper letters that made it seem like the killer wanted to write about his crimes, and yes, Carroll was an author who wrote about many strange things, but … that seems to be the limit.

If you’re a fan of anagrams, you can turn any piece of writing into a confession of murder. Lewis Carroll is an interesting historical figure who has been examined for many reasons in both his public and personal life, but he wasn’t Jack the Ripper … even if he could be anagrammed into saying so.

Ripper Suspect: H. H. Holmes

There’s been this trend lately of explaining unsolved murders by blaming someone who was caught for a different series of murders. While on the one hand it makes sense – at least in these cases the chosen suspect has indeed proven to be a murderer – it can also feel like grasping at straws. In the case of Jack the Ripper, some have proposed that American killer H. H. Holmes was actually responsible for the deaths in Whitechapel in 1888.

If you need to review who Holmes was, here are Part I, Part II, and Part III of his rather lengthy, and often convoluted, story. So: what does Holmes have going for him?

He was alive at the time: check. He was a confessed murderer – at least sometimes: check. And, um … well …

The problem with Holmes is that all of his confirmed murders were very closely tied up in money or other personal gain. Holmes doesn’t seem to have murdered because murder was fun and all he needed to enjoy himself, the way many serial killers are depicted. Holmes was a con artist who talked his way out of situations if he could but killed people to clear the way if he had to. This M.O. does not describe what happened in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888.

Further, although Holmes was alive at the time, there are no records of his having traveled to England at all. (Adam Selzer looks at this in his book, H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, if you want to read about the reasoning behind dismissing this, and other, Holmes rumors.) True, Holmes liked using false names, but Selzer has also tracked down various stateside interactions during those specific months. In none of his various confession or life stories does Holmes mention traveling to England, although he does suggest that Minnie Williams took the Pitezel children there.

It would seem that, if Holmes concocted his 27 supposed victims for his newspaper confession in order to make money and help them sell more headlines, that he really should have mentioned the Ripper murders if he had been responsible. Instead, this confession outlines the murders of people who then turned up to announce they were still alive, and also created fictional people to add to his death toll. It is true that Holmes was accused of many crimes after his arrest, but the Ripper murders were not one of them.

Granted, as a confessed murderer whose confessions must be in doubt, Holmes makes a better Ripper suspect than many. But why accuse him in the first place?

Holmes is marketed as “America’s first serial killer,” while the Ripper often gets the byline of “world’s first.” Even the origin of the term “serial killer” is debated between an American and a Brit. If the Ripper turns out to be American, then Holmes becomes “world’s first” and America can claim the dubious honor and add more titles to the true crime bookshelf.

Was Holmes a murderer? Yes. How many people did he actually murder? That’s still a mystery, but the number is far below his top claim of 27. Did he murder Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly? No.

Who did? Good question.