Jack the Ripper and the Suspect-Vacuum

In the autumn of 1888 a serial killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed and mutilated at least four prostitutes around Whitechapel, East London. He was never brought to justice and his true identity, to this day, remains unknown. These are the very basic facts, and most with an interest in the infamous Victorian killer will agree upon them. But bring any suspect into the proceedings and opinions will quickly be divided.

Jack the RipperThere exists in the Ripper case an inversely proportional relationship between the facts and the suspects: there are, in reality, very few facts, and, yet, a myriad of suspects. Because the culprit’s identity has remained a mystery for over a century and a quarter now, the case has attracted all manner of theories and theorists unto itself. It sits like a massive black hole, sucking in the impossible, the very unlikely and, only very occasionally, the plausible. Many people who fall inside this vacuum sponsor their chosen suspect with something akin to religious zeal: Mr Smith is the one true Ripper and all facts and evidence to the contrary be damned!

The ‘suspect-vacuum’

If you are new to the Ripper case – stay away from the event horizon! If you have just read one book on any single suspect and your mind is already made up, then I’m afraid it may already be too late for you: you’ve crossed over the border and you’ll find it impossible to get back out without seeking a second opinion! In all likelihood, if you read a second book on another Ripper suspect, you will see that the ‘facts’ you were fed in the first do not correlate with the latter. Repeat this several times and you’ll get several different sets of ‘facts’. At that point, if not beforehand, you should realise that something’s up – and that something are the authors’ royalties!

And so can anyone ever hope to identify the real Jack the Ripper with all of these cons and contradictions swirling about them? I will not tell a lie – it will be difficult if not impossible. The Victorian police couldn’t manage it at the time and they had more resources and advantages than any ripperologist has nowadays! But if we are to stand any chance, we do have to move far away from the vacuous suspect-vacuum.

The best place to start looking for the Ripper isn’t at Jack directly. Instead, look at his modern-day counterparts. The one advantage that we do have over the Victorian police is our familiarity with serial killers – we now have infinitely more understanding about where they come from and what makes them tick. There are numerous documentaries about these killers dotted about the web. After watching just several you’ll see a pattern begin to emerge: most, if not all, will have similar, sorry childhood backgrounds.

Introverted and asocial

Jack the Ripper Wanted posterMale serial killers, on the whole, evolve from lower-middle or working class families; they have nearly always been exposed to sex and/or violence from family members in their early years; their fathers might well be weak men, or absent altogether during this time; their mothers are probably domineering and abusive towards them; and as a result of this combination of factors, the child in question will grow up introverted and asocial.

The above pointers are not set in stone; they will vary in each case. But almost always many of the boxes will become ticked when an apprehended serial killer’s background is examined. Jack the Ripper, being just another serial killer, will have a similar history too. With this in mind, we can instantly dispense with ninety percent of all the suspects associated with the Whitechapel Murders and weaken the suspect-vacuum’s pull: Jack will not be a prince or a royal doctor; he will not be an impressionist painter or a children’s novelist; he will not be anyone who had a decent upbringing; he will be an apparently ordinary man who does not stand out in the slightest!

This clears the way a little and concentrates the search for a realistic suspect. Supervisory Special Agent John Douglas’ FBI profile on Jack the Ripper, released in 1988, focusses in even closer. We should always employ that kind of insightfulness over imagination and fact over fantasy. We have to recognise what Jack the Ripper was before we can have any chance of recognising who Jack the Ripper was!

Paul Colwell

Paul runs the Ripper site, http://www.therealjacktheripper.com

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See also article on writing about Jack the Ripper by novelist, Melanie Clegg.