At each others' throats over Jack the Ripper

His first victim was found on this day in 1888. But will we ever know who he was? For some people, finding out is a matter of life and death, says Rebecca Gowers
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The Independent Online
On 31 August 1888, Mary Ann Nichols was found dead in an East End back street, with her throat cut and severe gashes in her abdomen. At the time this was thought by the police and a nerve-racked public to be the third in a long series of killings. A hundred and seven years later, however, Nichols is regarded as being the first of only four or five murder victims generally attributed to Jack the Ripper.

After Nichols came "Dark Annie" Chapman on 8 September, the "double event" of Elizabeth "Long Liz" Stride and Catherine Eddowes on 30 September, and "Mary Jane" or "Marie Jeanette" Kelly on 9 November. Stride, however, was scarcely mutilated, either because the Ripper was interrupted, or because he wasn't her killer at all. Kelly, on the other hand, was mutilated with unparalleled ferocity, perhaps because she was the only victim killed indoors, or perhaps because she was murdered by someone else.

The details of these murders are treated with great detachment by the authors who write about them, and yet the precise number of Ripper victims causes passionate argument. These women, after all, provide the only common ground for understanding Jack the Ripper himself. He chose prostitutes who were extremely poor, and was capable of butchery at high speed. He strangled them, almost severed their heads, slit noses and eyelids, arranged their innards in piles, sliced off breasts, took legs down to the bone, removed wombs, a kidney and, in Kelly's case, her heart.

A whole industry now revolves around the attempt to discover more. There are around 30 "serious" books theorising about his identity, and an incalculable number of more inventive ones. Scores of films, from the US, Britain and Europe, have been devoted to the subject. A quarterly magazine, Ripperana, was launched in 1992 as an open forum for debate. The Cloak and Dagger Club meets in an East End pub once every three months for a lecture and discussions. There are guided tours of the East End murder sites.

The people involved in all this used to call themselves "historians" or "enthusiasts", but since the centenary of the killings they have been cursed with the moniker "Ripperologists". There is, everyone agrees, a weirdo element in the ranks, but there is also a strange and defensive inner sanctum whose members by no means defend one another. Each proponent of a particular candidate for the Ripper is forced venomously to refute all charges of innocence levelled against him, and the number of theories deemed viable depends entirely on to whom you talk. Off the record, almost everyone is savaged for their unreasonable beliefs and evidence-twisting. Ripperana, which has a circulation of 500 across 11 countries, is surreptitiously described by one Ripperologist as mere "bits and pieces not very professionally put together". Dark reference is made to a pending libel action.

The most violent disputes ever to hit Ripperology were caused by the Maybrick diary, supposedly written by James Maybrick, who died in 1889, apparently poisoned by his wife. This confessional journal was produced in 1993 by a Liverpool man, Mike Barrett, who suggested it had been discovered under some floorboards.

Colin Wilson, best known for his book The Outsider, but a longstanding true-crime writer as well, is convinced that the diary is genuine, and that Maybrick was the Ripper. Asked about the fact that Barrett signed a confession saying the diary was faked, Wilson simply says: "He retracted the next day." He explains that one expert analysis proves the diary ink is old, the other that it is modern: take your pick.

Paul Gainey, a press officer for the Suffolk police, recently co-authored The Lodger, a book that unveils the American quack Francis Tumblety as a long-neglected original Ripper suspect. "The diary has been horrendous," he says. "It was probably the most damaging thing that ever happened to Ripper research. There was modern preservative in the ink. Mike Barrett has made five confessions: one verbal and four written."

Paul Begg, who has written extensively on the murders, and is the founder- editor of the encyclopaedic Jack the Ripper A to Z, agrees that nothing has done more than the diary to divide Ripper writers. "The old writers have nothing to prove," he says, but since the diary "people are really going for the jugular". Added to which, there aren't merely two positions on the diary: there are three. Begg doesn't believe either that it is genuine, or that it's a contemporary fake, but that it is a non-contemporary fake, full of historical interest.

Where do these arcane obsessions spring from? There are four probable explanations: the originality of the Ripper's crimes, the tantalising thoroughness of his mystery, the vast extent of his fame, and a love of Victoriana itself. The Ripper murders, says Begg, "caught all that life like a fly in amber".

Wilson asserts that this fascination with the Ripper must derive partly from his being "the first serial sex killer". He means it, too, though he does concede that the first ever sex killing probably took place in 1876, when a little girl, Fanny Adams, was chopped into tiny pieces: hence "sweet Fanny Adams" meaning "nothing".

Wilson defines a sex killing as an act of murder that induces orgasm. Although there is in fact no evidence that the Ripper experienced any such thing, Wilson won't agree either that the murders might not have been sexual, or that if sex killings did occur at the end of the 19th century, they must also have occurred before then. It is, typically in Ripper debates, impossible to argue this further.

Nick Warren, a surgeon and the publisher and guiding eminence behind Ripperana, is relatively circumspect in calling the Ripper "the first urban sex serial murderer we know about". Nevertheless, he has written of the "romance" that drives Ripper research ever onwards. Why romance? "I call it a 'romance' because it's a mystery and the two words go together: - I don't think people worry about the background."

This vision of the blameless Ripperologist in pursuit of the truth is not universally accepted. The pseudonymous author AP Wolf has accused all Ripper historians of participating in a deadly trade. Ripper books have become increasingly explicit, with the publication of original post- mortem notes and revolting scene-of-crime photographs. Last year Wolf wrote about coming close to madness as a consequence of researching the case, and condemned all Ripper studies as pornographic.

If there is one subject on which the Ripperologists are united, however, it is the denial of prurience. Martin Fido, once a university lecturer in literature, took up the profession of true-crime specialist in 1983. He thinks Wolf's argument is in itself "madness". Nobody's interest, he says, is "morbid or gloating". For five years he conducted Ripper tours in the East End. Half his custom, he says, came from well-to-do women: "One owes it to the victims to describe calmly how they were injured," he insists. "Only three times did I see to my horror a man leering at the back saying 'go on, go on; tell me more'."

Gainey thinks AP Wolf is a woman. "She takes a definite feminine line. She's quite critical of people who study the case: I blanched a bit when I read that. [But] I don't write about it because it's about killing women. It's like a true-life crime story with the final page torn out."

If Wolf were a woman, and others strongly dispute it, this would be a rare thing. The Ripper case is conspicuous for its lack of appeal to female writers, perhaps because their concern for the victims obliterates their interest in the murderer; perhaps because the debates so rarely remain clinical. In talking about the lunatic fringe in Ripper studies, Warren lumps together National Front members trying to prove that the Ripper was Jewish, and "feminist" agitators who promote the Maybrick diary as proof that Florence Maybrick was terrorised into murdering her husband.

Ripperologists repeatedly draw distinctions between the "serious" and "non-serious", whether referring to suspects, victims or each other. The suspect suspects - minor royals, fish gutters and major theosophists - greatly irritate the "serious'" theorists, but above all they hate the top hat and black bag image of the Ripper. "Colin Wilson is not accepted by anyone who is serious," Warren contends. "All future serious research is going to be directed at Tumblety," says Gainey. Though the evidence against Tumblety is "overstated", "he is a serious addition to the history of the case," says Fido. Tumbelty, says Wilson, is "absolutely unlikely" as a candidate for the Ripper, because "no creative person has ever committed a premeditated murder. They have other ways of letting off steam".

Aside from the question of whether "letting off steam" quite covers the Ripper's crimes, it is inconceivable that consensus on his identity will ever be reached. Given the primitive nature of crime-solving in 1888, few accept that such a thing as indisputable proof could still exist, let alone that they could all be persuaded by a single theory. Which is perhaps the point. Once you join the club, you are a member for life.

How would they feel if the case were solved beyond dispute? This question goes down badly, at first.

"There wouldn't be any feeling," says Warren. "Those who really know the case think they will never know who the Ripper is."

"I'd be very happy - delighted," says Begg. "We'd all be able to get on with something more important. I would much rather have been an expert of a cure for cancer."

Gainey, of course, believes that he and Evans have solved the case. What did it feel like? Gainey was on "cloud nine". He found Tumblety's will in a probate office, asked to see it, received the dusty bundle, pulled the string: "I felt a jolt in my system. I was holding something he'd signed!"

Fido describes his fear that were the truth uncovered, Jack the Ripper would quickly be forgotten, but declares that he is "in this job for truth, not prestige". Not that he is indifferent to public opinion, though. "Public disbelief is a fear we have when a big piece of incredible stuff comes out," he says.

Surely Jack the Ripper, as both mythological figure and criminal, is an indivisible mixture of truth and "incredible stuff"? But the contempt of "serious" Ripperologists for what they call "fiction" is too strong. "No two people," says Fido, "apart, of course, from co-authors, agree on what the truth is." Then he concedes that perhaps there are three people who stand by the Maybrick diary. "Is Colin Wilson believing in it at the moment?" he asks. "He's been swinging like a pendulum."

Earlier this year, the specialist crime publishers Grey House Books brought out a slim volume containing the Ripper theories of 53 contributors. Each writer was allowed two pages. The first edition of Who Was Jack the Ripper? was limited to 100 copies. These were to be signed by as many contributors as possible, and distributed among them in lieu of payment. Grey House kept the balance of the books to sell at pounds 100 each.

The project was co-ordinated by Loretta Lay. "They are so jealous of each other's theories that it was almost impossible to get them together on the page even, let alone for a party," she says. So there had to be two signing sessions. When she announced this, she started receiving furtive phone calls from contributors wanting to avoid those with whom they fiercely disagreed. Begg enjoyed his evening anyway. "Apart from a pro- and anti- diary blow-up, Loretta's party was very nice," he says.

"They do this amazing research," says Lay ruminatively. "But I have sometimes wondered what they might not have achieved had they all dedicated themselves to something more worthwhile."

They could, after all, have dedicated themselves to something much worse ....

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