Unusual Suspects

An assortment of characters is on the trail of Jack the Ripper. The chase has led them to Baltimore.

April 18, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

What kind of wacko comes to Baltimore to attend a conference on Jack the Ripper?

Well, there's the retired, skull-collecting local judge who became fascinated as a child with true crime stories, presided over more than 200 homicide cases - "but most of them were dull" - and still maintains a crime library in her home and membership in the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.

There's the Liverpool-born, Baltimore-based writer and historian who, in addition to his day job - as a medical editor for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists - co-wrote a fanciful musical based on Jack the Ripper's murder and mutilation of at least five prostitutes in Victorian England.

There's also an ex-BBC producer from England; a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian; a lawyer from Vermont; a security guard from California; a U.N. employee from Switzerland; several authors; two teachers; and a young computer programmer from Virginia who, as a college student five years ago, brought the previously unlinked Ripper buffs together.

More than 60 of them - as well as the books they have written, the plays and skits they perform, the memorabilia they collect, the souvenirs they sell and the theories they tout - will descend this weekend on Baltimore, chosen more for its central location and international airport than for once being home to Frances Tumblety.

And who might he be?

He might have been Jack the Ripper, according to a book published in 1995.

The theory put forth in that book was based on the discovery of a 1913 letter from a Scotland Yard inspector that called Tumblety a "very likely" suspect, and on some not inconsiderable circumstantial evidence: Tumblety's collection of female organs in jars, his well-known hatred of women and his presence in London, in the very neighborhood, at the time of the infamous Whitechapel murders.

Then again, as a suspect, Tumblety has plenty of company. Others fingered in books and articles and TV shows over the years - and there have been dozens - include Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland; the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria's grandson; and Victorian painter Walter Sickert, one of whose paintings was mutilated by mystery writer Patricia Cornwell last year in a test for traces of his DNA.

Those traces weren't found, but Cornwell - staking not just her reputation on it, but $4 million she spent investigating - said she was certain that Sickert was the Ripper.

"People get kind of zealous and overly enthusiastic about certain suspects," says Christopher George of Baltimore, coordinator of the conference, co-editor of Ripper Notes and co-author of the yet-to-be-produced Jack, the Musical, which makes no pretense of identifying the real killer.

"They start to twist the facts to fit their theory," he said. "Some Ripperologists are very closed-minded and very argumentative. Then there are people like myself who have no particular suspect and keep an open mind."

The study

Ripperology, or the study of the Ripper, is more intellectual pursuit than morbid curiosity, George insists. But the broad and continuing appeal of the case goes beyond that.

For one, it's a whodunit - and it endures for just that reason, the lack of a solution. For another, it has sex, violence and death. It was the first widely documented series of murders; the first to take place in a large city with a literate population and an active press. It has been mythologized, traversing the boundary between fact and fiction to the extent that the two are sometimes hard to separate. And then there's the historical setting, Victorian England, and the extremes of the repressive times and the Ripper's unspeakable acts. Not to mention all the fog and gas-lit alleyways.

Actually, says George, it wasn't all that foggy on the nights in question - and that's just one of the myths and stereotypes to be debated, discussed and set straight since the very old tale, and those engrossed by it, found a very new forum.

In 1996, Stephen Ryder, then a college student at the University of Delaware, took Jack the Ripper from the era of gaslights to the age of Web sites. It started as a discussion board for those interested in a newly released diary allegedly written by Jack the Ripper (later proved inauthentic), but it grew into a comprehensive Ripper Web site. Almost anything Ripper-related can be found there - from newspaper articles from 1888 to the latest Ripper book.

The "Casebook, Jack the Ripper" Web site served as a meeting ground for Ripper buffs, and that led to the formation of Casebook Productions, the U.S.-based group that is sponsoring this weekend's conference.

"People are just insane about this stuff," says Ryder, 24, now a Web site designer in Northern Virginia. "They will argue until the death that so and so was the Ripper. I guess it was just the perfect murder mystery at the perfect time."

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