The Stalker in the Dark:
Jack the Ripper & Wold Newton
By Timothy J. Rutt
I come to you out of the night. The night that sent me down all the minutes of our lives to this instant. From this time forward, men will wonder what happened at this instant. They will silently hunger to go back, to come to my instant with you and see my face and know my name and perhaps not even try to stop me, for then I would not be who I am, but only someone who tried and failed. Ah. For you and me it becomes history that will lure men always; but they will never understand....
--Harlan Ellison, "Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World"
Even to those who don't know the details of his crimes, the name Jack the Ripper evokes an image of terror. He has taken hold of the collective unconscious and most people do not know why they fear him; only that the name conjures up an image of a prowler, knife in hand, waiting for an unknowing victim.
And why is this? As far as being a murderer goes, Jack was a piker. Only five prostitutes were confirmed to have been killed by his knife, with the possibility of perhaps two more. Compared to such fellows as Juan Corona (25) and Dean Coril (26), Jack doesn't even rank.
Perhaps his morbid hold over our unconscious imagination comes from his world, the London of 1888, a period of atmosphere and romance. Victoria was Queen, Dickens was writing, and Sherlock Holmes was likewise prowling the gaslit streets, although with more virtuous intent. Maybe it's the contrast between the inherent genteelness of our picture of Victorian London and this mad, darkling prowler, silently and murderously slicing his way into history.
London's West End was an open sewer in 1888, the favorite collecting place for the myriads of whores, urchins, petty thieves and murderers that made up the scum of London. True, people like the Rev. Samuel Barnett did their best to try and instill some civilizing influences, but they were foredoomed; only men like Professor Moriarty and the thousands of far pettier criminals could live here, leeching off the blood in this, the city's open wound.
Then Jack struck. According to Donald Rumbelow in The Complete Jack the Ripper (Signet), on August 31, 1888, Mary Ann Nichols, a prostitute, was found in the street, her body violated by the knife into something only slightly human. All London was shocked, and they would continue to be shocked through the murder of Annie Chapman nine days later, and the double murder of Liz Stride and Catherine Eddows on Sept. 30. Mary Ann Kelly, the last confirmable victim, was killed on November 9 of that year. Maybe he killed more; we don't know for sure.
All we know about him is that he apparently had great skill with his knife; no mere Ripper he, but a man who knew how to dissect a body, removing the organs with an almost surgical skill. Perhaps this, the fact that he was no mere brute murderer but a skilled madman, set the city on its edge.
Rumbelow's book goes into more detail, and it is the most complete book on Ripperology to date. I could go on for pages about the evidence and theories about this most famous and horrible of murderers, whose identity is still a mystery.
But as noted before, also prowling the streets of London at this time was the most famous detective of all, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes undoubtedly was called in on the case, but there exist no known accounts of his investigation by Watson and his editor, Sir Conan Doyle.
Still, there do exist stories of Holmes and the Ripper investigation. Rumbelow mentions one which we can look at and dismiss immediately, one of German-Spanish origin which is, to put it mildly, wretched. "Jack El Destripador" is the name of this turkey, and it is simply not worth describing.
A far better story comes to us from the novelist-detective Ellery Queen--A Study in Terror. Holmes is sent a medical bag (complete but for post-mortem knife) bearing the Osbourne family crest. He deduces that it belongs to Michael Osbourne, Duke of Shires. The bag was sent by Michael's wife Angela, a former prostitute. Michael and Angela are being blackmailed by one Max Klein, whom Angela suspects of being the Ripper. As it turns out, Klein is blackmailing the real Ripper.
Klein captures Holmes and Watson, proposing to kill them both as well as the Osbournes. Just when all looks lost, in comes Michael's older brother, Lord Carfax, knife in hand. Holmes and Watson manage to escape, but not before Carfax kills the others and falls upon his own knife, declaring that he is the Ripper.
Watson writes up the story, which goes into the Osbourne family papers. Many years later, Lord Carfax's daughter gives the story to Ellery Queen, with the hope of finding her father innocent. Queen finds out that Carfax is indeed innocent of the Ripper killings (though guilty of the ones described above), but claimed to be the Ripper to clear the name of the real ripper--his father, the Duke of Shires, who revealed his identity to Carfax and committed suicide. When A Study in Terror was made into a film, the Ellery Queen section was dropped entirely...probably a wise choice.
Sean Wright, in his 1977 Sherlock Holmes Calendar, agrees with Ellery Queen as to the Ripper's final fate. I myself incline to William S. Baring-Gould's theory that the Ripper is actually Holmes' friend, the young Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones. Jones does mysteriously disappear from the stories after 1888, but Baring-Gould gives no source for naming him as the Ripper. Nevertheless, I doubt that he would impugn a man's reputation (even though the man may be dead) without strong clues pointing towards the possibility. Since Baring-Gould himself is now dead, we may never know where he got his information; but still, his Ripper tale (in Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street) is novel and exciting, and, best of all, the real detective in the piece is long-suffering Dr. Watson, who rescues his old friend in the nick of time (or before the nick of the knife).
One side effect of the Ripper killings is that it kept people away from the West Side. This meant a slump in business for Holmes' foe Professor Moriarty. John Gardner's The Return of Moriarty has the Professor taking action against the Ripper himself, but Gardner blames Leather Apron, who was an early suspected Ripper. Unfortunately, Rumbelow's book blasts apart the Leather Apron theory very effectively. Nevertheless, it does not seem at all odd that the Napoleon of Crime would send his legions out to find the Harlot-Killer. Such notoriety kept people away, and Moriarty depended upon people to come into his web as victims of the major and petty crimes that kept him in bread and butter.
(I may point out that in PJF's book, A Feast Unknown, the Ripper is the father of Lord Grandrith, a Tarzan character, and Doc Caliban, a man of bronze. After checking out the Family Tree, it seems unlikely that the Ripper could be Clark Savage, Sr., because he didn't get his medical degree until many years after the Ripper killings. Unless Mr. Farmer is distorting the facts he presented to us in the Family Tree, one is lead to the conclusion that the Grandrith/Caliban stories, while rousing good adventures, are fictitious. Still, there is much we don't know...and a repentant Ripper would certainly have enough motivation to turn his son into a superman.)
But the Ripper's identity remains unconfirmable and elusive. Perhaps Rumbelow is right in saying that he was most likely a man about whom nothing is known; save for his one moment of madness, a faceless entity. Perhaps even the best efforts that the Wold Newton family members could put forth were inadequate; we'll never know. But since we do not know what became of him, there remains the ever-so-slight possibility that he is with us still. Or in us. Is that sound in the dark that we run from the Ripper we know, or the Ripper that exist in each one of us.
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All right reserved. The text of this article is copyright 2000 by the author, Timothy J. Rutt. No copying or reproduction of this article or any portions thereof in any form whatsoever is permitted without prior written permission and consent of the author.