Pinning down the identity of Britain’s most notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper, has occupied the minds of historians and conspiracy theorists alike for decades. Over the years, enthusiasts have pored over the evidence to draw up a list of potential killers that range from the plausible to the preposterous.
A Russian con-artist, a Polish barber, an Irish-American quack and even the eldest son of Edward VII have all been accused of being the man who, for one summer in 1888, brought terror to the heart of London’s East End before disappearing without a trace.
Now, historian Mei Trow claims to have uncovered another potential suspect, one who fits a modern forensic profile of the killer but has, until now, been overlooked by his fellow “Ripperologists”.
Trow believes mortuary attendant Robert Mann, who lived in the area where the killings took place and had a good knowledge of anatomy, would have been regarded as a prime suspect had the modern profiling techniques of today been available to the Metropolitan Police’s baffled officers at the time.
Using a profile of the Ripper drawn up by the FBI in 1988 to mark the centenary of his killings, Trow began looking for a local suspect who hailed from Whitechapel’s lower social classes, was the victim of a broken home, and was someone who had worked as either a butcher, a mortuary worker or a medical examiner’s assistant. He also used modern geographical profiling techniques that can pinpoint where a suspect might live depending on the nature and location of their killings.
It was while trawling through newspaper cuttings of the inquests into the first two Ripper slayings that Trow stumbled across the testimony of Mann, a former workhouse child who by the time of the slayings was in his fifties and working in a mortuary.
When Polly Nichols, the Ripper’s first confirmed kill, was found dead, her body was taken to a nearby mortuary on what was then Eagle Place. Mann opened the mortuary up and, according to the inquest, undressed the body despite being under strict instructions not touch Nichols. The Ripper’s second victim, Annie Chapman, was also taken to Mann’s morgue, which lay within walking distance of all the murders and had taught him how to wield knives in a surgical manner.
Trow believes Mann was ignored by police because the inquest judge described him as an unreliable witness, stating: “It appears the mortuary-keeper is subject to fits, and neither his memory nor statements are reliable.”
But this seemingly inept man, Trow believes, may have in fact been deliberately seeking to murder people locally so that he could later admire his handiwork. “The most chilling prospect is that Robert Mann is selecting the people he does, in the places he does, because he knows that they will come back to his mortuary,” says Trow.
Although definitively pinning down the real Ripper is next to impossible, Trow’s methods of using modern techniques to highlight likely suspects has drawn some academic support. Professor Laurence Alison, a forensic psychologist at Liverpool University, believes a working class local suspect like Mann is the closest psychological fit, rather than the traditional image of an upper class killer stalking the streets of London in a cape and top hat.
“In terms of psychological profiling, Robert Mann is the one of the most credible suspects from recent years and the closest we may ever get to a plausible psychological explanation for these most infamous of Victorian murders,” he said.
* Jack the Ripper: Killer Revealed premieres on Discovery Channel, Sunday 11 October, 9.00pm