Engraving on watch may help to solve Jack the Ripper case

Scientific analysis of a scratched, 18ct gold pocket-watch was presented as evidence yesterday that one of the most controversial theories about the identity of Jack the Ripper might be true.

Scientific analysis of a scratched, 18ct gold pocket-watch was presented as evidence yesterday that one of the most controversial theories about the identity of Jack the Ripper might be true.

The notion that James Maybrick, an outwardly respectable Liverpool cotton merchant who frequented brothels and was addicted to arsenic and strychnine, may have been the man who murdered five women in Whitechapel, east London, in the 1880s is based on a 64-page diary confession, revealed in the mid-1990s by a former Liverpool scrap merchant.

With rather good timing, the watch was discovered in Liverpool soon after the diary. It bears the scratched initials of five Ripper victims as well as the words, "I am Jack" and "J Maybrick" across its centre.

Although sceptics have dismissed the lettering as a late 20th-century inscription, the watch's owner has had it analysed by the University of Manchester, whose results appear to offer some encouragement.

With the aid of electron microscopy, Dr Stephen Turgoose found minuscule brass particles embedded deep in the engraved initials. The brass would have been deposited by the tool used to engrave the words and the corrosion on the particles suggests the work was not done in modern times.

The watch was also sent to Bristol University's interface analysis centre. Dr Robert Wild concluded that the markings were "tens of years old". But the watch had been polished 10 years before his analysis and that made it difficult to date the scratches.

"[They] could have been very, very old and were certainly not new but it is difficult to be precise," Dr Wild said.

The Maybrick theory has not been short of supporters in the past 10 years, among them the writer and film-maker Paul Feldman and the TV presenter Jeremy Beadle, who said after the diary emerged: "Whether you like it or not, the mystery is solved."

But before the proposed 100,000 print run of the diary was off the presses, Scotland Yard was asked to investigate claims that the document "unearthed" by the scrap merchant, Mike Barrett, was a hoax which could net more than £4m in TV and newspaper rights.

The most fundamental criticism was that the handwriting did not match that on the marriage certificate and will signed by Maybrick, who died six months after the final Ripper victim, Mary Kelly. The use of 20th-century expressions such as "top myself" did not help.

The Manchester findings delighted the watch's owner, Albert Johnson, a college caretaker, who spotted the piece, dated 1846, in a Liverpool jeweller's window and paid £225 for it in 1992. He now considers the watch's importance to the case to be inconclusive.

"We could go on for for ever getting the watch tested but it wouldn't make any difference to some people," he said. "In my own mind, I have no doubt who the Ripper was."

In the Ripper chatroom casebook.org, views on the authenticity of the watch scratch theory remained mixed yesterday. A least one devotee insisted there are seven initials in the watch, not five, the number that tallies with the murders. "OK, I am prepared to suspend my disbelief," said another.

Trevor Marriott, a murder squad detective with Bedfordshire police for 28 years who has spent years combing Scotland Yard's files on Jack the Ripper, remains unconvinced.

The destruction of some Ripper files convinced him that the Yard has covered up the killer's identity.

"It is also suspicious that the police inquiry was closed shortly after the fifth murder," he says. "Was there a cover-up? Fiction abounds, but facts in this case are limited."

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