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.
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.