ME: Who was Jack the Ripper? |

ME: Who was Jack the Ripper?

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Who was Jack the Ripper?

(This post originally appeared on Jenn Loring’s site on 4/24/13)

As someone whose known for, well, knowing all about Jack the Ripper, the question I’m asked most often is “Who do you think Jack the Ripper WAS?” It’s a fair question to which I ought to have a canned response, but the truth is I don’t, therefore I usually decline to answer the question.

See, thing is, I don’t “believe” in Jack the Ripper anymore than I believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. In my view, the concept that the mysterious figure we’ve nicknamed “Jack the Ripper” was one person is about as ridiculous as the notion that a fat bearded man wearing a red suit climbs down my chimney on Christmas Eve to deliver presents or that giant bunny bearing chocolate treats hops over to my house on Easter morning.

[Insert shocked silence here]

“But, Carla,” you might ask, “How can you claim to have devoted a large portion of your adult life to the study of Ripperology if you don’t ‘believe’ in Jack?”
Easy enough. It’s precisely because I have spent so much time studying Jack the Ripper that I have come to have grave doubts as to his existence. Due to the hours – nay, days! – I’ve spent poring over the case files, eagerly devouring every shred of available evidence, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the so-called “Ripper murders” may have all been related, they weren’t carried out by the same hand.

If we examine the five canonical victims, the five Unfortunates generally accepted by most Ripperologists as being Jack’s victims, we discover subtle and even vast differences in the way the individual murders were carried out, i.e. the manner in which each woman was killed. We notice dissimilarities between each respective victim’s appearance, health, family life and overall circumstances. Disparities between the crime scene locations further serve to muddy the waters of objective investigation.

And the “Jack the Ripper” murders deserve just that, objective investigation. We as students of the case owe the victims the respect and dignity they were denied in death, and even as writers like myself fetishize the Whitechapel slayings in fiction, any serious examination of the crimes must be based solidly in fact.

I first fell in love with the Ripper in my late teens, but it wasn’t until my mid twenties that I began to research the case indepth. I started my study with a so-called work of non-fiction, a book written by author whose crime fiction I found intriguing, Patricia Cornwell. Ms. Cornwell claimed in her now infamous tome “Case Closed” that Jack the Ripper was none other than the British artist Walter Sickert. I was a lot more gullible in my misspent youth, and I fell for her theory hook, line and sinker.

It was around this time that I first had the idea for the novel that would become “The Heart Absent” and gave birth to the character James Nemo, a tender lad with artistic leanings like Cornwell described the young Walter Sickert in “Case Closed.” That was where the resemblance ended, for even during my early research I was discovering gaping holes in Cornwell’s theory and my own image of “Jack” was rapidly evolving.

About a year into the game, I found myself spending less time writing and expending more energy digging for actual facts about the murders that could be corroborated by true experts. I learned a lot about the Ripper community, a community of which I’m now proud to be a member, and I just couldn’t dismiss the damning evidence many of them presented debunking the ridiculous notion the Ripper was motivated by a genital deformity when, in truth, the murders weren’t sexual in nature. Nor were they (likely) committed by a man who’d memorized “Grey’s Anatomy” or who had any anatomical knowledge whatsover.

Feeling a little like a man without a country, I confess I was ashamed that I’d so readily accepted Cornwell’s bogus theory, and my disappointment in myself derailed my efforts at researching the case. I shelved the whole idea of “Jack the Ripper in love” for a number of years, mostly because I couldn’t find any facts to support the idea.

When I dusted off the manuscript that would eventually become “The Heart Absent” I had plenty of misgivings, chief among them that I’d again be bogged down by the need for the book to be “real” and consistent with the known facts about the case. I soon overcame my initial reticence, however, and decided that – as a writer of fiction – I could, would and must allow myself to suspend my disbelief and finish my imagining of “Jack the Ripper” as painted by my own broadstrokes and no one else’s. I didn’t need Sickert to have been the Ripper to write a novel about a sociopathic artist living and “working” in 1888. It was enough, simply, for me to try to write a good story.

Did/does my willingness to bend the truth about the Whitechapel murders in service of my plot make me less of a serious Ripper scholar? Honestly, I don’t believe it does. I remain ever inquisitive as to the facts surrounding the elusive killer or killers, even as I don’t subscribe to the notion that all the murders were committed by the same hand.

So, the question of Jack the Ripper’s true identity is not one I can respond to, nor do I suspect we’ll ever have a satisfactory answer or an orderly conclusion to this century plus old mystery. In the meantime, scholars will study and writers will write, and the only thing of which we can be truly certain is that the spectre of Jack the Ripper will continue to fascinate the public for ages to come.

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