A Field Guide to Jack the Ripper

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Before Jigsaw. Before Pinhead. Before Leatherface. There was Jack.

Saucy Jack, Spring-heeled Jack, Leather Apron, whichever way you slice it, Jack the Ripper is one of the more enduring characters, not only in history but also in popular culture.

Let’s look at some of the facts behind Jack the Ripper.


Warning: Some of the photos that are coming up are actual crime scene and autopsy photos of two of the five canonical victims and are very graphic, especially those of Mary Kelly. Few horror movies are worse.


Between August 31, 1888 and November 9, 1888, five prostitutes were viciously and horrifically murdered by a maniac who would taunt the police and terrify the people of London. The self-described Jack the Ripper sent letters and internal organs to the police, mainly from within the city, except for the letter marked “From Hell.”


The names of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, “Dark” Annie Chapman, Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, Catherine Eddows and Mary Kelly, are scrawled in blood in Whitechapel. To this day, no one knows who Jack the Ripper was. Granted, there are more suspects than time allows, but no one has been proven to be the man. Heaven knows, we try.


Catherine Eddows


Mary Kelly


No one is quite sure what happened after Mary Kelly.

Some researchers believe that Jack was active through 1891. Some say he went to America, while others believe that he went to Australia. Still, others say that he was the unidentified man dragged from the Thames shortly after November 1888. The man was a suicide, jumping into the river with rocks in his pockets. We just don’t know.


Of course, the mystery of Jack the Ripper is perfect fodder for Literature and for Films.


A good starting point would be, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Most are unaware that Hitchcock began his career in the time of silent films. In 1927, he directed “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.” Women are being murdered in London. A landlord thinks that it may be the mysterious lodger, who goes out at night to walk the streets. Another version of this film would be made in 1944, starring George Sanders (“Village of the Damned”), using practically the same plot. And one more time, in 1953, called “Man in the Attic”, starring Jack Palance.

In 1971, Hammer would throw their hat in the ring with Jack the Ripper’s daughter picking up the family business in “Hands of the Ripper.”


Malcolm McDowell and David Warner


1979 saw one of the best renderings of Jack the Ripper by the great David Warner, who would play opposite Malcolm McDowell’s H. G. Wells, in “Time After Time.” Wells creates his own time machine that Jack uses to travel to present day San Francisco, where he continues his murderous ways. One of the great lines from the film is Jack’s observation of modern society.


“In London, I’m a freak. Here, I’m an amateur.”


Even Sherlock Holmes would try his hand at finding the Ripper. In 1965, John Neville as Holmes would try to track down Jack in the movie “A Study in Terror.” In 1979, Christopher Plummer would wear the deerstalker in “Murder by Decree,” which points the finger at the British Monarchy for the killings. As strange as this may sound, if one were to look at the suspect list, Edward, Duke of Clarence, is there, along with his personal physician, Sir William Gull. Edward was Queen Victoria’s grandson.

In 2001, the police would try to apprehend the Ripper again. Johnny Depp would portray, Inspector Frederick Abberline, in Tim Burton’s “From Hell.” Abberline, in truth, was an Inspector First Class at Scotland Yard and one the chief investigators in Whitechapel during the murders. He was one best investigators of his time, eventually working for the Pinkertons in the US. (Thanks Wikipedia!)

There are also a number of films simply titles “Jack the Ripper”, with lurid tales of the Ripper that bear no resemblance to the actual crimes.

And let’s not forget General Jack D. Ripper, played by Peter Sellers, in “Dr. Strangelove.”

There are numerous books and reports that believe that they have solutions to the Ripper murders. One of the more interesting claims occurred in 2014, when a scientist claimed to have DNA evidence of Jack’s identity. Sadly, 127-year-old DNA is really not a very reliable source of evidence. There is even a book that suggests that Jack the Ripper was actually Jacqueline the Ripper. Currently, The History Channel is running a series (“American Ripper”) trying to tie the Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes to Jack the Ripper. As intriguing a possibility as this is, the book “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson shows that the Whitechapel murders occurred while Holmes was building his “castle”, where many of his murders would be committed. Given his methods for overseeing its construction, it would seem unlikely that he would allow someone else to take over while he was in London.

Everyone feels more relieved if told that Jack the Ripper behaved as he did because someone said it was a good way for him to meet girls (Robert Bloch, from “The Age of the Sex Crime” by Jane Caputi).

Robert Bloch, the author of “Psycho” and friend of H.P. Lovecraft, wrote a lovely short story, “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper,” in which a police detective believes that Jack the Ripper is immortal. His killings form symbols that allow him to live on.

This was filmed for the Boris Karloff-narrated television show “Thriller.” It is possible that Bloch may have actually believed this, in some way. He wrote the teleplay, “Wolf in the Fold”, for “Star Trek”, in which a murderous spirit occupies the bodies of others, causing them to kill women in a Ripper style.


Robert Bloch


And, just maybe, Bloch was right. In many ways, Jack the Ripper is immortal. He turns up regularly in movies, in books, and on television. There are websites devoted to him. We even make references to him in our normal life.

Benny Hill even once joked that Jack the Ripper was still alive and was his tailor. He continues to tease us to this day, mocking our attempts to unmask him (or her), knowing that we will never figure it out. It would seem that the only possible way to find out who Jack the Ripper really was would involve time travel.

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About Ernie Fink

Ernie Fink has been a fan of film, mainly in the genres of horror and mystery, in equal parts, for over fifty years. His love of horror in the cinema begins with "King Kong" and in literature with Edgar Allan Poe and Bernhardt J. Hurwood.  With mysteries, he skipped from the Hardy Boys right to Hercules Poirot, only to find John Rebus and Harry Hole waiting in the wings. He has been known to read subtitles extensively, and rarely leaves a theater until the lights come up.
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