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Did Jack the Ripper Really Exist?

May 08, 2009 06:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A new book argues that famed serial killer Jack the Ripper was invented by journalists to drive sales.

The Ripper: Fact or Fiction?

A new book by Dr. Andrew Cook suggests that journalists fabricated the story of Jack the Ripper—who is said to have murdered women in Victorian London—to help their sales, according to Editors Weblog.

Cook claims in “Jack the Ripper: Case Closed” that the killings were actually the work of several people, and were unrelated attacks. He notes that the killings were too different to be attributed to one person, and cited a statement from assistant police surgeon Percy Clark, who said in 1910, “I think perhaps one man was responsible for three of them. I would not like to say he did the others.”

Editors Weblog goes on to note that Cook believes news editors were not happy with statements like Clark's, and invented Jack the Ripper to get a better story. When the public caught on, the idea took off.

If Cook is correct, The Daily Mail reported, “the concept of a lone rogue killer on the loose in the East End backstreets may have helped the real culprits literally get away with murder.”

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Background: Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper was the first serial killer in a major metropolitan area. He emerged at a time when the press was growing in stature and the populace was growing in literacy. The Web site Casebook, which describes itself as “the world's largest public repository of Ripper-related information,” says the press played a tremendous role in conjuring the notoriety that still surrounds the Ripper’s crimes.

Jack the Ripper was most likely a single white male living in the same Whitechapel district of London as many of his victims. According to Crime Library, his familiarity with the neighborhood may have helped him evade capture. The five women he killed in Whitechapel were probably not his first victims. Because his victims were all prostitutes, his initial murders could have gone unreported or uninvestigated.

Opinion & Analysis: Other Jack the Ripper theories

In 2008, South African researcher Charles van Onselen argued in his book, “The Fox and the Flies,” that the true identity of late 19th century killer Jack the Ripper was Joseph Silver. Born Joseph Lis in Kielce, Poland, in 1868, Silver got his start in crime in London. The London Review of Books notes that he then committed a string of petty offenses in New York before heading to South Africa and South America.

William Grimes, book reviewer for The New York Times, contends that while van Onselen gives Joseph Lis “grotesque master criminal status,” he was “hardly a Napoleon of crime.” Grimes says that van Onselen’s hypothesis that Lis is Jack the Ripper “rests on a heap of circumstantial evidence” relying heavily on the idea that Lis drew inspiration from Chapter 23 of the Book of Ezekiel, which warns “the whores of Egypt that their noses and ears would be cut off.”

Murder mystery writer Patricia Cornwell argues in her book “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed” that Victorian painter Walter Sickert was the killer. According to Casebook, forensic scientists hired by Cornwell matched DNA found on letters apparently written by the Ripper to that found on a number of Sickert’s possessions. However, Casebook refutes Cornwell’s analysis, saying that the type of DNA analyzed is not unique and narrows the sample size to a percentage of the population rather than an individual.

Reference: Books on Jack the Ripper


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