Leading Article: Mysterious killer who continues to fascinate

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The Independent Online
IN TERMS of numbers of victims, Jack the Ripper does not rank high in the serial killer league. Only five murders - all of prostitutes - have been confidently attributed to him. Yet in this country no other killer has achieved comparable notoriety. The publication of what is claimed to be a diary that finally solves the mystery of his identity is evidence of the public's continuing interest in this gory Victorian melodrama.

The jury is out, it seems, on the journal's authenticity. The publishers believe it to be the work not of one of the 72 potential suspects already named by amateur and professional detectives, but of a Liverpool cotton merchant called James Maybrick. It is perhaps as well that the evidence is far from conclusive.

What makes the Ripper case exceptional is not so much the violence inflicted on the victims' bodies, horrifying though it was, but the unsolved nature of the series of crimes. To have cleared up the mystery would have damaged a flourishing little industry that generates jobs and diverts ghoulish interest from more contemporary horrors.

Some feminists take a very different view. To them, all commercial exploitation of the Ripper involves not just the glamorisation of a serial killer, but of one who manifestly hated women: the appeal is to other men who share the Ripper's violent misogyny. That is surely too pessimistic and defensive a reaction. Interest in serial killers is not restricted to men. Their psychology and methodology is, for better or worse, a matter that arouses horrified fascination in people of all ages and both sexes. Nor is public interest confined to killers whose victims are mainly or exclusively female. The case of Dennis Nilsen, who killed 15 young male down-and-outs, has caused as much ink to flow as that of a later prostitute killer, Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper.

The original Ripper continues to fascinate because he has become a kind of Gothic myth, of much the same variety as his literary contemporaries, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The Whitechapel area in which the murders took place was of a poverty and seediness that beggars the imagination and provides a vibrant background.

As for the murderer, he was long suspected of being of superior social origins: perhaps even a member of the Royal Family, the Duke of Clarence, or the Queen's physician, Sir William Gull. More probably, he was the same sort of boring, miserable loner as most serial killers. Until the mystery of his identity is definitively solved, the Ripper industry will continue to flourish.