Ripping yarns (continued)

Who was Jack the Ripper? Rebecca Gowers puts the latest theory to the test. The Lodger: The Arrest and Escape of Jack the Ripper by Stewart Evans & Paul Gainey Century, pounds 16.99

An extraordinary number of people seem to be dedicated to identifying Jack the Ripper; between them, over the years, they have put together a great roll-call of Victorian nutters - black magicians, Russian kleptomaniacs, mad midwives and proven poisoners - all active in 1888 (when the Ripper murders occurred) and conveniently incarcerated or dead shortly afterwards.

To this list a new name must now be added: Dr Francis Tumblety, a flamboyant and litigious American quack, a "pimple-basher" and noisy woman-hater, probably homosexual, who mixed in high circles, made vast sums of money and a great many enemies besides.

Tumblety travelled more than once to England, and being, in addition to everything else, an Irish Nationalist sympathiser, he came to the attention of Scotland Yard's secret counter-terrorism unit. He was had up on a sex offence in London in November 1888, jumped bail and escaped back to the States. He was briefly pursued to New York by Yard men, but nothing is known of their inquiries.

Between 1883 and 1893, the Yard's secret unit was headed by John Littlechild, who then inexplicably resigned. A letter has now come to light written by Littlechild in 1913 stating that Tumblety was the Ripper. The authors of The Lodger, both employed by the Suffolk Police Force, have convinced themselves that Littlechild was right. However, their Tumblety theory should be viewed with suspicion.

For a start, they signally fail to address Littlechild's main argument. "Tumblety was arrested in connection with unnatural offences," he writes. "It is very strange how those given to `contrary sexual instinct' and degenerates are given to cruelty." As evidence, Littlechild describes Harry Thaw, who thrashed a boy prostitute and put him in a bath of salt water. He adds quaintly: "It seems incredible that such a thing could take place in any hotel, but it is a fact". He also notes that, "even Wilde used to like to be punched about".

Here Littlechild was speaking with the authority of one who had illegally secured the evidence used in court by the Marquess of Queensberry to justify calling Wilde a sodomite. The implication behind Littlechild's anecdotes is that Tumblety, as a homosexual, could be expected to enjoy butchering prostitutes.

One can understand the silence of The Lodger's authors on this central point, and there are several other awkwardnesses in their book. They are forced, for example, to argue that all other Ripper theories to be found in Victorian police memoirs form part of a general conspiracy of misinformation, inspired by shame at having let the Ripper escape.

Even if this were plausible, it doesn't explain why Tumblety was "mysteriously neglected by the English press". If he had been a known Ripper suspect, his story would have been exploited to the full. Newspapers at that time had the sort of liberty to print details of current police investigations, coupled with out and out lies, that would make a modern tabloid editor weep with envy.

It was only the American press which dished out the story that Tumblety had been had up on suspicion of being the Ripper, printing uncorroborated tales, from ex-friends, of his collections of anatomical samples. A sensible explanation for this brouhaha is that as Tumblety was already a target for American pressmen - whom he likened to "serpents and other similar crawling nuisances" - the timing of his arrest in London was simply too good for them to pass up. Indeed, Tumblety excited enough prejudice in his time to have been falsely arrested in connection with the murder of Abraham Lincoln!

In the end, it is hard to believe any of this really matters. The Ripper comes neither from the Old World, nor the New. He is a dark star of the Underworld, the Greta Garbo of serial killers. Should the victims ever be laid indisputably at the feet of Tumblety or anyone else, Jack himself - the bloody creature of our common imagination - will doubtless survive the insult.

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