The search goes on for Jack the Ripper

January 07, 2001|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | By Elsbeth L. Bothe,Special to the Sun

"The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia," by Stewart P. Evans & Keith Skinner. Carroll & Graf. 692 pages. $35.

"Willful murder by a person or persons unknown," concluded inquest jurors looking literally at the hideous remains of women of "the unfortunate class," slashed, sliced and eviscerated in the sordid darkness of Victorian East London. The real Jack the Ripper has never been uncovered, but his legend unceasingly stalks into eternity. No murderer in history has drawn more scholarly, literary or dramatic attention.

An incomplete search for Ripper books turns up 81 titles, fanciful and factual, including this latest 692-page compendium of contemporary documents intended for the use of advanced researchers in Ripperology.

There are more than 30 movies, the first a 1926 silent directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the latest now in production.

The number of women savaged by the Ripper is as contentious as their killer. Ripper pedagogues narrow the undisputed field to five so-called "canonical victims," all prostitutes dispatched in 1888, during early morning hours, within a square mile in Whitechapel. Aug. 31: Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, throat slit, disemboweled; Sept. 8: Annie Chapman, throat cut, uterus removed; Sept. 30: Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, who lost her uterus and left kidney; Nov. 9: Mary Jane Kelly, found in her lodging house bed, unspeakably mutilated, her heart removed. At least 13 other victims have been considered Ripper prey.

Over a dozen credible witnesses are thought to have sighted the fiend at propitious moments, but their disparate descriptions only served to stir the imaginations of zealous cops, sensation-seeking journalists and anxious citizens. A paucity of reliable evidence left endless space for unfettered speculation. A physician or slaughterhouse worker skilled in dissection? A certified lunatic? A foreigner? A seaman in and out of port? A Jew?

"The Juwes are The Men That Will not be blamed for nothing." These words freshly chalk-written on a staircase above a piece of Eddowes' bloody apron are the only clues directly traceable to the murderer. But they were hastily erased on orders of the police commissioner, who feared anti-Semitic riots more than elusive killers. Nobody could say how the writing compared with letters, one packed with half a human kidney, purportedly sent by the Ripper.

The official books closed by the end of the 19th century, leaving a long list of candidates in the running. More have since been added, notably Queen Victoria's errant grandson, Prince Albert Victor, and the royal physician, Dr. Gull. The latest is the "recently discovered" (1993) diary of a philanderer, James Maybrick, identifying himself as the Ripper.

Serious writer-sleuths like Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner are the ones who maintain the intellectual and entertaining qualities of the real Ripper mystery. An invaluable resource for one who is already hooked, "The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion" is not the place to get started. A comprehensive overview is Philip Sugden's "The Complete History of Jack the Ripper," now in its third edition. "The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper," edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braud, contains delightfully contentious essays from leading theorists on the case. But first, get in the mood by reading a 1911 novel -- Marie Belloc Lowndes' "The Lodger" -- still in print.

Happily, no work on the mystery of Jack the Ripper is ever likely to end it all with a truly final solution.

Elsbeth L. Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying capital cases. She does occasionally still sit on the bench. An active member of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder for 40 years, Bothe has been collecting books on crime (mostly murder) since age 10.

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