125 years ago yesterday, the last known victim of an unknown serial killer was found stabbed and eviscerated in her dismal rented room in London’s East End Whitechapel district. Over the previous two months and ten days, this man had murdered at least four other area prostitutes, desperate and impoverished women in their forties. At 24 or 25, Mary Kelly was the youngest victim of the Whitechapel killer.
The killer had seemingly made a name for himself, quite literally, by writing letters to news agencies and professionals associated with the investigation. One of these missives was signed “Jack the Ripper”. It is now believed, by former FBI profiler John Douglas and others, that this particular letter was a hoax sent by someone other than the killer. (Douglas and Olshaker, 2000)
So it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what the killer really called himself, or what his name was. Nonetheless, theories about his identity continue to abound, even after countless other serial killers have come and gone. There’s something about the events of that dingy time and place that smear the public imagination like a mysterious, fascinating stain. At least once a year, some new theory about the killer finds its way into a mass market paperback or the pages of the Daily Mail. A few are worthy of consideration, but then there are the theories that are so tragicomically absurd you have to wonder if the writer is any saner than “Jack” was. Leaving out the obvious hoaxes (such as the James Maybrick and James Carnac “diaries”), here are my Top 10 Stupidest/Weirdest Jack the Ripper theories:
10. A “Satanist” named Robert Donston (or D’Onston) Stephenson
Donston entered the Whitechapel saga by way of Aleister Crowley. In an essay penned about half a century after the murders, Crowley relates the story of lovely authoress Mabel Collins, a devotee of Theosophy who became estranged from her male lover (Donston) by a treacherous female lover (Baroness Vittoria Cremers). The Whitechapel murders had already begun by the time this domestic drama was playing out.
Crowley believed that “Jack” was a cannibal, consuming parts of his victims’ bodies right at the scenes of his crimes. So did Miss Collins and the baroness. One day, as they were discussing how it could be possible for Jack to do such a thing without getting blood on his shirtfront, Captain Donston donned his opera cape for them and showed them how easy it would be for a man to protect his shirt with the dark, heavy fabric. Cremers thought little of this until she crept into Donston’s room, hoping to retrieve a packet of Mabel’s love letters to save the woman from any blackmail or embarrassment. In a trunk beneath his bed, she discovered five dress ties stained with blood.
On December 1, 1888, the Pall Mall Gazette published an article (here) in which the anonymous author postulated that the murders were black magic ceremonies designed to imbue the killer with power, in accordance with instructions in the writings of Eliphas Levi. The locations of the murders, Anonymous explained, would form a cross (Crowley changed this to a five-pointed star). Crowley dismissed this theory, believing (as many did) that there were seven “Ripper” murders in Whitechapel, but wondered if Donston had written the article, and if the killer had been following some astrological pattern in his selection of crime scenes (an idea brought to his attention by crime reporter Bernard O’Donnell). After conducting his own research, Crowley concluded that at the time of each murder, either Saturn of Mercury was precisely on the Eastern horizon.
The interesting story of Captain Donston is exactly that: An interesting story. Donston was known to Crowley only as “Captain Donston”, and it’s unlikely he ever met the man in person. It seems all his information about him came from old Vittoria Cremers, a member of his O.T.O. lodge. Later writers discovered that an alcoholic confabulist named Robert “Roslyn” D’Onston (or Donston) Stephenson had lived in London at the time of the murders, and he was deemed a prime suspect by some Ripperologists (notably, the late Melvin Harris).
In a 2003 book, Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals, career criminal Ivor Edwards resurrected the black magick/Donston theory, positing that the Whitechapel killer really did plot out the five murders to form a giant shape (a vesica piscis). The snag in this theory is that D’Onston Stephenson was a patient at London Hospital at the time, being treated for neurasthenia. He checked himself into the hospital in late July, one month before the first murder, and checked out on December 7, one month after the last murder. Edwards gets around this by pointing out that the hospital was in the Whitechapel area. Security was so lax, he maintains, that curiosity-seekers regularly snuck onto hospital grounds to catch glimpses of John Merrick, the Elephant Man….so isn’t it plausible that Stephenson could sneak out, slay prostitutes, then sneak back in without being observed? Four times?
The evidence here is ridiculously thin, and Edwards pushes the envelope even further by insisting that Stephenson murdered his wife, Anne Deary, in 1887 (it isn’t even known if she died at this time). The only real, discernible connection D’Onston Stephenson has to the Whitechapel killings is that he had his own suspect in mind; Dr. Morgan Davies, one of the physicians at London Hospital. He reported his suspicions to the police, and gave a statement to Inspector Thomas Roots of Scotland Yard after his release. Other than this, and the secondhand tales of an old girlfriend, there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of evidence against Mr. Stephenson. Note that among three people who championed the black magic theory of the crimes, there were three different designs attributed to the killer (a cross, a star, and a vesica piscis).
Aleister Crowley was not known to be a violent man, despite rumours that he sexually tortured at least one of his wives. Yet the notion persists in some quarters that if you’re an occultist, you probably kill people. Crowley was portrayed as a pedophile serial killer in the web series lonelygirl15, and more recently has been called out as a Jack the Ripper copycat by historian Mark Beynon and blamed for six of the deaths linked to the bogus Curse of King Tut.
And, since he lived in London during the 1880s, why not make him Jack the Ripper as well? After all, he expressed interest in the murders, and had a theory about the killer. Good enough.
Crowley has never become a mainstream suspect (that is, no Ripperologists have written books about him), but he has been mentioned by fringe conspiranoids who dabble in true crime.
8. Lewis Carroll
In 1996, an elusive character named Richard Wallace published Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend. It consisted almost entirely of anagrams formed from passages of a preschool version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Sylvie and Bruno. These scrambled, barely coherent verses were supposed to prove that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was one sick bastard, and probably slaughtered prostitutes alongside his friend Thomas Vere Bayne when he wasn’t doing math. This makes for some pretty hilarious reading, as this review shows. Of course, if you rearrange words in Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend, you can probably prove that Richard Wallace is actually Donald Trump.
Sadly, this hot mess was taken halfway-seriously at the time of publication. Harper’s excerpted it, Ripperologists and anagram enthusiasts went out of their way to refute it, and Lewis Carroll fans facepalmed themselves into concussions.
This was not Wallace’s first book about Carroll. In The Agony of Lewis Carroll (1990), he exposed “hidden smut” in Carroll’s books in an attempt to prove that Carroll was gay, which rather works against the idea that he murdered female prostitutes.
Another writer, Thomas Toughill, sussed out clues to the Ripper’s identity in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, concluding that portraitist Frank Miles was the killer. He published his findings as The Ripper Code in 2008 (remember, kids, adding the word “code” to your title adds credibility).
Even if the passages Toughill highlights pointed unambiguously to Miles, though, wouldn’t this merely show that Wilde thought Miles was a good suspect? He was a playwright, not freaking Inspector Maigret.
7. The Demon of the Belfry
In April 1895, nearly seven years after the Whitechapel murders ended, two young women in San Francisco were raped and strangled inside Emanuel Baptist Church. Blanche Lamont, 20, disappeared first. Nine days later, 21-year-old Minnie Williams vanished. On Easter Sunday, one of the church ladies opened a cabinet where teacups were usually stored and discovered Minnie’s body. Blanche’s body was soon found in the church belfry.
Because he was seen with both young women shortly before they went missing, a 23-year-old medical student named Theo Durrant was charged with the murders. He was the assistant superintendent of the church Sunday school.
At trial, Durrant’s defense attorney argued that the real killer could have been the church minister, John George Gibson. Gibson had been a pastor in Scotland until resigning from his post in 1887. Between that time and his arrival in the U.S. in December 1888, Gibson’s whereabouts are unknown.
Durrant went to the gallows in 1898, and few doubt that he was the “demon of the belfry”, as reporters dubbed him. But Robert Graysmith, author of Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, took note of that gap in John Gibson’s resumé. It matches up perfectly with the dates of the Whitechapel murders; Gibson left his post at least 8 months before they began, and arrived in America one month after they stopped. Coincidence?
Well, yeah, probably. First of all, the Emanuel Church murders – while certainly gruesome – were considerably less vicious than the Whitechapel murders. It would be essentially unheard-of for a serial killer to de-escalate in such dramatic fashion. Secondly, Durrant’s behaviour before and after the murders was peculiar. He offered outlandish theories about white slave trafficking to the aunt of Blanche Lamont, and was seen arguing with Minnie Williams the day she vanished. Gibson, on the other hand, isn’t known to have said or done anything unusual at the time of the murders. (McConnell, 2005)
An intriguing footnote to all this is the sensational Salome trial that occurred in London twenty years after Durrant’s execution. In the wake of the murders, Durrant’s sister, Maud, had turned to dance. Though she had no professional training, she was able to establish herself as a performer in England, specializing in “Salome dances”. In 1918, she staged Oscar Wilde’s Salome in London, and came under attack from a right-wing publication. The editor accused her of being a lesbian “honey trap” and a German spy, sent to undermine the morals of British patriots. Maud Allan sued for libel, but the unfortunate fact that her brother had raped and killed two women worked against her. She lost the suit.
6. A mad doctor
Doctors came under heavy suspicion in the Whitechapel case because it was assumed, at the time, that anyone who could mutilate a body and remove organs in a short amount of time must have some degree of surgical skill. This is not the case, but that hasn’t stopped Ripperologists from implicating physicians and surgeons by the dozen. A few of the most notable:
In the 1920s, Australian journalist and MP Leonard Matters introduced a bizarre theory: That a late physician he identified only as “Dr. Stanley” had gone on a prostitute-killing rampage because a prostitute had given his son an STD. He was searching for one prostitute (out of roughly 800 in the district), so he simply murdered each one he questioned until he found his real target – Mary Kelly. Supposedly, Matters had read the doctor’s deathbed confession in a South American newspaper, but he never produced the article.
Sadly, this lame theory was the subject of the first full-length treatment of the case, Matters’ The Mystery of Jack the Ripper (1929), and became the basis for the 1959 film Jack the Ripper.
Sir William Gull, Royal physician
Though he was elderly and partially disabled by a stroke at the time of the murders, Stephen Knight selected Dr. Gull as the central figure in his Freemason theory (see #3).
Sir John Williams, Royal gynecologist
In what has to be one of the weirdest Ripper theories of all time, Tony Williams implicated his own ancestor in his 2005 book Uncle Jack, proposing that the royal OB-GYN killed prostitutes and harvested their uteri as part of a research project aimed at curing his wife’s infertility. This had something to do with being a Freemason.
This September, an equally ridiculous book was put out by a woman who claims to be Mary Kelly’s great-great-granddaughter. Antonia Alexander claims Mary Kelly had an affair with Williams. He then killed her for some reason or other. The proof? His blurry photo is in a locket that supposedly belonged to Kelly.
You can find details of the Williams allegations in this Daily Mail article.
Dr. Thomas Barnardo
Dr. Barnardo was not actually a doctor, but he identified himself as one throughout his life. He established a string of children’s charity homes between 1870 and his death in 1905.
Aside from pretending to be a doctor, Barnardo had a more-or-less unblemished reputation as a philanthropist right into the 1970s, when the late historian Donald McCormick suddenly decided he would make a decent Ripper suspect for his book The Identity of Jack the Ripper (though his suspect of choice remained the cross-dressing Russian assassin Pedachenko - one of the silliest Ripper hoaxes ever). Gary Rowlands, in his chapter of The Mammoth Book Of Jack The Ripper, expands on McCormick’s theory; Barnardo’s lonely childhood in Ireland, combined with religious zealotry, caused him to go on an anti-prostitute murder crusade. He only stopped killing because a swimming accident deafened him.
I don’t know about Rowlands, but McCormick was a notoriously shoddy historian; one of my favourite bloggers, Dr. Beachcombing, calls him Baron Munchausen, and accuses him of fabricating a creepy poem that “Jack” supposedly wrote.
It’s true that Barnardo worked in the slums, and claimed to have met victim Elizabeth Stride shortly before her murder. Other than this, how much evidence links Barnardo to the Whitechapel murders? None. Seriously. None.
Dr. Morgan Davies
Robert D’Onston Stephenson suspected Dr. Davies merely because Davies routinely discussed the murders with another patient at London Hospital, acting them out in some detail and opining that the killer was a sexual sadist. As a man familiar with mental illness, it wouldn’t surprise me if Davies had a better grasp of criminal behaviour than the people around him.
Tumblety was not a real medical doctor, and in my opinion could still be a viable suspect. He also had an odd connection to the assassination of Lincoln.
5. Famous painters.
Sickert, like Crowley, is another person who apparently came under suspicion because of his interest in the case. Most people know of this from Patricia Cornwell’s 2002 book Portrait of a Killer, but Cornwell was not actually the first to suggest Sickert’s involvement. That dubious honour would go to Donald McCormick, who mentioned Sickert in his 1970 book The Identity of Jack the Ripper. Also in the 1970s, a man claiming to be Sickert’s son (Sickert had no known children) declared his dad had been chummy with the heir to the throne, Prince Alfred Victor (the Duke of Clarence, himself a Ripper suspect). According to Joseph Gorman, AKA “Hobo” Sickert, the duke knocked up a poor Catholic girl named Annie Crook around 1885. When the Queen and the Prime Minister discovered this, they were horrified, and arranged for Miss Crook to be abducted and “lobotomized” by the royal physician, Sir William Gull. Someone connected to the royal family then murdered the illegitimate child’s nanny, Mary Kelly. The illegitimate daughter of Annie and the duke, Alice, later became one of Sickert’s mistresses….and Hobo Sickert’s mother. Therefore, he could be considered an heir to the throne. All of these details proved to be false, and Joseph Gorman/Hobo Sickert admitted as such to the Sunday Times (June 18, 1978), though he continued to insist he was Sickert’s son.
The late Stephen Knight, whom we’ll meet shortly, incorporated the Annie Crooks story into his conspiracy theory about Freemasons and royals, asserting that Sickert had been part of a plot to murder prostitutes on behalf of the royal family.
In 1990, Jean Overton Fuller published Sickert and the Ripper Crimes, in which she laid out a theory that Sickert was the one and only Jack (incidentally, she was friends with Crowley associate Victor Neuberg, and was quite familiar with the D’Onston Stephenson story).
Then Patricia Cornwell took on the case. Thanks to her popularity as a crime novelist, Portrait of a Killer became a bestseller and unleashed a fresh flood of interest in Sickert-as-Ripper. In 2012, the Royal Opera House even parlayed Sickert’s fascination with Jack into a moody ballet, Sweet Violets.
Cornwell’s theory rests heavily on Sickert’s supposedly deformed genitalia, alleged DNA matches between genetic material found on “Ripper” envelopes and on envelopes mailed by Sickert, and what she considers telling imagery in some of Sickert’s portraits. She points to the blurred or distorted faces of women, arguing that they represent the mutilation of the Ripper’s victims. Sickert was, unquestionably, inspired or intrigued by infamous London crimes involving prostitutes, though he didn’t begin to express this until nearly 30 years after the Whitechapel murders. In 1907 he painted Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom (below), and the following year he did a series on the Camden Town murder.
While it’s true that some of Sickert’s paintings are murky and vaguely disturbing, he also painted delightful street scenes and whimsical caricatures of ballet-goers. Furthermore, his Camden Town series was meant to be enigmatic, even baffling, in the style of Victorian problem pictures. And while the DNA evidence seems compelling, it should be noted that the envelopes and stamps from which DNA was extracted belonged to letters widely believed to be hoaxes (e.g., the “Openshaw letter“). There’s a good discussion of this evidence at the Casebook: Jack the Ripper site.
There is nothing in Sickert’s background to suggest that he was prone to violence. At the time of the murders, he may have been living and painting in France.
And speaking of painting in France…
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh is a recent addition to the suspect pool. Painter and writer David Larner spent five years (2006 – 2011) compiling research for his unpublished manuscript, Vincent Alias Jack.
Larner first suspected Van Gogh while trying to recreate Irises; the face of Mary Kelly simply jumped out at him from within the folds of a flower. You can see Larner’s side-by-side comparison of the Kelly crime scene photo and the painting here (WARNING: graphic imagery). Hello, pareidolia.
But the painting isn’t the only “proof”. Apparently, Van Gogh is a good Ripper candidate because he consorted with prostitutes, hacked off part of his own ear (Catherine Eddowes’ ear was hacked off), and might have been in London at the right time. Larner also believes – with no solid evidence to back him up – that Van Gogh was responsible for the 1887-’88 Thames torso murders, which are only seldom linked to the Ripper. That’s about it.
A surprisingly popular theory at the time of the murders was that “Jack” was actually a woman, possibly a midwife who worked in the area, or a wife so enraged by her husband’s fondness for prostitutes that she decided to slaughter as many of them as she could. Possible “Jills” include murderess Mary Pearcy, who killed her lover’s wife and child in 1890 (the only female Ripper suspect to be named close to the time of the murders), and Lizzie Williams, wife of suspect Sir John Williams (according to this theory, she was driven insane by her infertility and began ripping the uteri out of prostitutes). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle favoured the theory that “Jack” was a lady, and his fans continue to put forward female suspects. For example, Constance Kent, who admitted (perhaps falsely) to killing her 4-year-old half-brother in 1865, has been named by E.J. Wagner in The Science of Sherlock Holmes.
This theory was the brainchild of a young British writer named Stephen Knight, published in 1976 as Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, but the elements of it were culled from a variety of sources:
- Retired doctor Thomas E.A. Stowell‘s article “Jack the Ripper – A Solution?”. This piece, published in the November 1970 issue of The Criminologist, proposed that the Ripper was an aristocrat who stalked, killed and eviscerated Whitechapel prostitutes in much the same way the aristocracy stalked, killed, and gutted deer. This young man was suffering insanity from the latter stages of syphilis, so he might have harboured great resentment against prostitutes for giving him the disease, which ultimately killed him. Stowell hinted that this aristocrat was none other than an heir to the throne, Prince Albert Victor (the Duke of Clarence). Stowell claimed this information came from personal notes of Dr. Gull (Stowell knew Gull’s daughter) – but Gull died two years before the duke.
- The tales of Joseph Gorman Sickert
- Conspiracy theories about English Freemasons
Knight somewhat elegantly stitched together these loose threads to create the mother of all weird Jack the Ripper narratives: The Duke of Clarence impregnated a poor Catholic girl, Annie Crooks, and entrusted the care of his illegitimate child to Mary Kelly. Kelly and four of her friends unwisely decided to blackmail the royal family, and in retaliation Queen Victoria dispatched Dr. Gull and a gang of other prominent Freemasons to silence the women. One by one, they were lured to their deaths. The men kept their pact of silence for the rest of their lives because…well, because they were Freemasons. Bros before hos, yo.
As it turned out, this was all a complete waste of everyone’s time. The duke died of influenza just four years later.
The idea that a stroke-paralyzed physician would drag himself around the East End just to shut up a handful of prostitutes who wouldn’t be believed, anyway, makes for a good comic book and very little else. Over the years, however, people have grafted more Freemasonic suspects onto the theory, including Churchill’s dad.
Walter Sickert, incidentally, gave painting lessons to Winston Churchill.
2. The author of My Secret Life
This theory is weak for several reasons, but the first and foremost one is that we don’t know who wrote the book. My Secret Life was an erotic novel released in serialized form, beginning around the same time as the Whitechapel murders (the exact date of publication isn’t known). The author was listed simply as “Walter”. Hey, maybe it was Walter Sickert!
In their 2010 book Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession, David Monaghan and Nigel Cawthorne propose that “Walter” left clues about his identity as the Whitechapel killer throughout his book. Monaghan came up with this theory after noting the resemblance between passages of My Secret Life and the 1894 confession of Chicago serial killer Herman Mudgett (“H. H. Holmes”), particularly Walter’s description of a corpse floating in the Thames. Never mind that all of the Whitechapel victims were found on dry land.
Even if “Walter” truly had violent tendencies, there just isn’t enough here to draw a link between him and the murders. Weirdly enough, though, Holmes himself was named as a suspect by one of his descendants.
I used to think this was a theory of my own invention, but it turns out some other lunatic already put the pieces together.
Bear with me, here. This is bulletproof. All you have to do is take the Stowell/Sickert/Knight theory that the Duke of Clarence had a role in the Whitechapel murders, and combine it with a fringe theory that the duke faked his death to begin a new life in Germany as one Adolph Hitler. Sure, the duke would have been considerably older than the man we know as Hitler, but didn’t Eva Braun describe Adolph as an “elderly gentleman” when she first met him?
But seriously, folks, any theory of the Whitechapel killings should take into account John Douglas’s profile of the killer. Based on victimology, the locations of the crime scenes, and especially the manner of the murders and mutilations, Douglas concludes the sole perpetrator was an asocial malcontent who might have worked for a butcher or a mortician, if he was able to hold a job at all. He lived or worked in the area. (Douglas and Olshaker, 2000, pp. 67-70)
In 2006, police affirmed that if they were looking for the suspect today, they would be knocking on doors in and around Whitechapel, rather than searching far afield for artists, dilettantes and Freemasons. They even issued a composite sketch of the Whitechapel killer.
Douglas, J. and Olshaker, M. The cases that haunt us. (2000). New York, NY: Scribner.
McConnell, V.A. (2005). Sympathy for the devil: The emmanuel baptist murders of old san francisco. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books.