Top 10 Stupidest/Weirdest Jack the Ripper theories

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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)

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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

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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).

9. Crowley

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before his Telly Savalis phase

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

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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

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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

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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:

Dr. Stanley
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 theoryBarnardo’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.

Francis Tumblety
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.

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Walter Sickert.

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.

Walter Sickert Jack the Ripper's Bedroom

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

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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.

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“When you see it, you’ll shit bricks,”

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.

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Besides, serial killers can’t paint.

4. Jill

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.

3. Freemasons

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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
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The Duke of Clarence

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!

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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.

1. Hitler

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.

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It was Freddy Mercury all along.

Sources:

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.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

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  • Leah Haley was by far one of the most interesting alien abductees on the scene today. She has a couple of firsts to her credit: She was the first to write a children’s book designed to help kids view their alien abductions as positive, edifying experiences, and she was the first to claim she was inside an alien spacecraft when it was shot down by the U.S. military. Now, however, Haley believes that every last one of her “alien” encounters was actually a military abduction, or MILAB. In March, she told UFO blogger Jack Brewer that none of it was real; it was all a cover for government mind control experimentation. Farewell, Ceto.
  • In related news, Charles Hickson passed away on September 9. Hickson was involved in one of the strangest UFO encounters ever reported, the Pascagoula incident of 1973. He and his 19-year-old fishing buddy, Calvin Parker, were supposedly levitated into a spaceship and examined by eyeless, carrot-nosed aliens.
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government leaders are proof positive that once you deny the Holocaust (or any major, well-documented historical event, for that matter), you no longer have to live in reality. In June, he declared that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to stoning for adultery in 2006, wasn’t really given a death sentence – that was all a media hoax. An Iranian official had already tried to stifle the worldwide outcry against Ashtiani’s sentence by stating, in contradiction to all previous statements, that Ashtiani was also convicted of murdering her husband (she was actually acquitted). And Youcef Nedarkhani, the Christian minister sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam? He’s really on trial for rape and extortion, even though the court documents only mention blasphemy.
  • Face discovered in testicular tumour“. Stay classy, Telegraph.
  • Who is the artist known as the Philadelphia Wireman? His or her enigmatic metal sculptures were salvaged from the trash in the early ’80s, and since that time there have been murmurs that they’re a hoax perpetrated by John Ollman of the Fleischer/Ollman Gallery. The Wireman’s pieces are currently on display there.

This (Charming?) Man

A peculiar website, thisman.org, is asking everyone if they have ever dreamed of a certain unknown man (pictured below in an artistic rendering). The story goes that in 2006 a psychiatrist’s patient – name and location not given – dreamed of this man several times and created a picture of him for some reason and gave the drawing to her psychiatrist. For some reason. This man had given her helpful advice in her dreams, so I guess she figured this had therapeutic implications. For some reason.
When another patient spotted the picture, he recognized the guy as someone who had appeared in his dreams, too. This doesn’t seem like a very compelling coincidence to me (“I see balding unibrows in my sleep!”), but the psychiatrist decided to distribute the picture to colleagues to find out if their patients were seeing the same man in their dreams. Supposedly, over an unspecified period of time, 2000 people reported recognizing “This Man” from their dreams. Hence the website.

I’m guessing this is viral marketing for an upcoming indie movie involving dreams, capitalizing on the mysterious success of Inception. Tip-offs:

  • There would be no reason for the patient to remain anonymous, but even if she simply wanted to avoid the embarrassment of asking a stupid question, she could have come up with a pseudonym to make the story seem less generic and questionable. It has a definite urban myth flavour to it.
  • We don’t know who these 2000 people are or how their recognition of This Man entered the data stream. Are they all psychiatric patients? Did they come forward on their own, or were they specifically asked if they recognized the guy? Who’s collating the dream sightings?
  • This man looks like a lot of other men. In fact just this week alone I think I’ve seen this guy driving a cab, eating a churro, and arguing with his wife over whether to see Black Swan or The Green Hornet. She won.
  • This man looks somewhat like a celebrity stalker. If he gave me advice in my dreams, I would probably ignore it.
  • The website makes this “enigma” seem far more intriguing and mysterious than it really is. This man doesn’t have any stand-out features like wings or glowing eyes. He just, um, shows up in your dreams and maybe says some stuff that you can’t fully remember in the morning. Barely worth the trouble of creating a website. Even as a viral gimmick, it kind of sucks. Now if Stephen King was chasing you on a tricycle until you turned into a pile of Wheaties, that would maybe be worth the effort.

Update: I was close, but not quite there. This Man is actually a hoax concocted by Italian marketer Andrea Natella of Guerilla Marketing. It doesn’t seem to be connected to any specific project; Natella sometimes just creates viral content for the hell of it, and was a part of the Luther Blissett Project.

Fake Teens VI: Online Teens

Spoiler warning: This post contains complete spoilers for the film Catfish.

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The Truth 2.0

In 2007, 22-year-old New York photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schulman received an adorable Myspace message from a young girl in Michigan. Abby Wesselman, 12 years old, wanted to show him some of her paintings, including one based on one of his recent photos, a striking image of a ballet dancer holding a ballerina aloft in a field.
Then Nev received a message from Abby’s mom, Angela, informing him that Abby was really 8 years old and wasn’t supposed to be online by herself. Now Nev was even more impressed by Abby’s art. This kid had talent! Real talent, not Marla Olmstead talent! Soon, he was taking ballet photos specifically for Abby’s paintbrush, and getting acquainted with Angela’s fascinating family via Facebook and phone calls.
The Wesselmans lived in the microdot community of Ishpeming, Michigan, and were a lot like the family in You Can’t Take It With You. Angela, a beautiful sloe-eyed brunette, painted and rode horses. Her son Alex was a rock musician. Daughter Megan was a veterinarian who danced, wrote songs, painted, played multiple instruments, kept horses, and did some modeling in her spare time. Abby, of course, was an art prodigy whose paintings sold for up to $7000 apiece. The family had recently purchased an old warehouse on Ishpeming’s main street, and were turning it into a gallery to showcase Abby’s work.

Nev’s brother Ariel (“Rel”), a filmmaker, was intrigued by Abby’s artwork and her talent-laden family. He decided to document the creative process going on between Nev and Abby, though Nev wasn’t enthused about the idea. He went along with it, he later said, because he felt aimless and bored. He had recently dropped out of college to pursue a full-time career in photography, and had to film bar mitzvahs on weekends to make ends meet.
They didn’t have the funds to actually travel to Michigan, so for the next several months, Rel and his creative partner Henry Joost basically just filmed Nev’s phone conversations with the Wesselman family and recorded Nev’s thoughts on Abby’s art.
Angela considered Nev an artistic mentor for her daughter. She even offered to pay him for his advice. When he declined, Abby sent several of her paintings to Nev as gifts, along with half of a $1000 prize she won in an art competition.

Rel and Henry also began to document the burgeoning romance between Nev and Angela’s 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Megan Faccio. Megan, the vet, lived on a small farm not far from her parents’ house. The photos she posted on Facebook and sent to Nev showed a lovely girl with luxuriantly long, honey-gold hair. She had the lithe body of a dancer and the soulful eyes of an artist. Intriguingly for Nev, she hadn’t dated much and remained a virgin.
Chatting online soon led to flirting, exchanging photos, and a little sexting. They talked longingly of Meeting in Real Life someday.

There were warning signs along the way, of course. Curiously, though Angela had posted a video of Abby painting wild horses, the family never webcammed. Angela’s husband, Vince Pierce, looked young enough to be Megan’s brother. There were lots of photos of Megan on her Facebook profile, but no family photos – and few photos of Angela. The only clear image of Angela the New Yorkers had ever seen was a painting done by Megan.
Nev’s mother was skeptical. She pointed out that Megan seemed too young to be a veterinarian with her own home. Nev waved away her concerns.

That summer, about eight months after the first message from Abby, a MIRL started to look possible. The Schulmans and Joost were traveling to Colorado to film dancers at the Vail International Dance Festival, and if they drove they would be able to swing through Ishpeming on their way home. Rel and Henry packed up their film gear and mounted a point-and-shoot cam on the dashboard of the car to capture the road trip.

Spoilers below

In their Colorado lodgings, Nev chatted with Megan on his laptop. She had been posting MP3s of herself and Angela singing some favourite songs and playing various instruments, so one evening the three guys listened to them. One song sung by Angela, “Downhill”, was fantastic. Megan accompanied her mom on guitar.
When Megan offered to take requests, Ariel and Henry asked her to record and post “Tennessee Stud”. She was a horsewoman, after all.
Within thirty minutes, Megan’s rendition of the song appeared on Facebook. It also sounded good, but the guys were still crazy about the song “Downhill” and wanted to know more about it. Nev googled some of the lyrics and found Amy Kuney’s original recording of “It’s All Downhill from Here” on iTunes. The song had been featured on the soundtrack of the teen soap opera One Tree Hill.
To their astonishment, the guys gradually realized that Kuney’s version sounded identical to Megan and Angela’s.
Rel began searching for covers of “Tennessee Stud”, and on YouTube he found one by Suzanna Choffel that perfectly matched Megan’s. Clearly, she and/or Angela had been snagging songs from the ‘Net and posting them as their own.
It would be all downhill from there.

The three men agreed not to confront Megan or Angela right away. They would continue to play along, and do some investigating.
On camera, Nev accepted the situation with good humour. He laughed in embarrassment over the sexting, and joked that he was probably having an online relationship with another guy. But discovering Megan’s deception had been traumatic for him.
Phone calls from Megan were now decidedly awkward and strained, with Nev keeping his end of the conversations as brief as possible.

Nev and Ariel investigated the warehouse gallery at 100 North Main Street in Ishpeming. It was a former department store that had been vacant for four years, and according to the real estate agent, it was still on the market.

The group traveled fom Vail to Ishpeming with a lot of questions on their minds. When Nev told Megan he might be in her area very soon, she said one of her horses was giving birth. She would have to be in the stables all night.

Upon reaching the outskirts of Ishpeming after dark, the trio’s first stop was the rural mailbox used by Megan. This was supposedly her home address, but the box stood in front of a lot occupied only by a barn, which was completely empty.
The rest of the family lived in a comfortable, farm-style house in town, with bay windows and a cheery red door. Angela responded to Nev’s knock the next morning, hesitantly. She was a rather plump woman with waist-length auburn hair; pleasant-looking, but hardly the elegant beauty of Megan’s painting.
Angela nervously explained that Megan was many miles away, at her farm. Moments later, Vince showed up on the porch and introduced himself. He was an average middle-aged man, not the young guy in Megan’s photo. He seemed to know nothing about his wife’s online deceptions; he was under the impression that Nev was his wife’s “primary customer”, having purchased a number of her paintings (which were actually sent to him as gifts).
Inside the house, Angela gestured to a partially-completed painting of a woman in a dress and said it was Abby’s latest work.

As it turned out, Abby was not a miniature Degas. The paintings were Angela’s. This became evident when Abby told Nev she didn’t paint very often, and identified “her” wild horse painting as her mother’s work.
There was no sign of Angela’s son, but it turned out she and Vince were the sole caregivers for Vince’s profoundly disabled twin sons. Angela had never mentioned them.

At one point during the visit, when Angela was out of sight, Megan texted Nev to explain that the horses were keeping her very busy, but she would try to see him as soon as possible. “Don’t leave!” she pleaded. Nev wondered why she wouldn’t phone him.
That night, while the guys rested at a local hotel, Megan sent another message revealing that she was an alcoholic. She wouldn’t be able to see Nev because she had just checked into a rehab clinic.

With Angela’s “perfect” life lying unraveled at their feet, the guys decided it was time to put an end to the game.
On the second day of their visit Angela, still seeming quite shy and reticent, took her guests to a horse farm to watch Abby ride. Nev gently asked her why she had created so many stories about her life.
She let go of the deception with surprising ease…almost. She still insisted that Megan was real, though her photos were those of a “family friend”, and that she really was in rehab. This turned out to be false. The lovely girl in the photos was a professional model/photographer from the Northwest, Aimee Gonzalez. She had no knowledge of the Wesselman family and was completely unaware that Angela had been using her Facebook and modeling photos to flesh out “Megan Faccio”.
The previous day, Angela said she was undergoing chemo for uterine cancer. Also false.

Nev was forgiving, and it’s easy to understand why. It would be nearly impossible not to sympathize, to some degree, with this woman. She was living a demanding, isolated life full of imperfection and frustrated dreams.
Angela was embarrassed and seemingly contrite about her behaviour. With admirable candour, she explained how she created at least a dozen Facebook profiles to give the appearance of a small network of family and friends, used a second cell phone for “Megan’s” calls, and adopted a high breathy voice for Megan. Like Mary Shieler, she cited boredom as her primary motivation. “I didn’t have anything else in my life… I didn’t have anything else to do,” she told 20/20.

But unlike Mary Shieler, Angela Wesselman-Pierce didn’t leave a trail of death and devastation in her wake. In fact, just as Vince conveys in the anecdote that gives the film Catfish its title, her deception and its unmasking made everyone involved a little better and stronger. Angela began to sell her paintings online. Schulman and Joost created an acclaimed documentary that premiered at Sundance.

Nev didn’t fare so well, at first. Even though the physical distance between himself and Megan would have made a long-term relationship almost impossible, he had strong feelings for her. The realization that this girl was a figment of someone’s imagination hit him hard.
Upon returning to New York, Nev got back together with an on-and-off girlfriend, Katie, and told his brother he needed some time to recover.

Catfish chronicles Nev’s artistic collaboration with Abby, his romance with Megan, and the fateful trip to Michigan. Much like TalHotBlond, it was marketed as a suspense thriller documentary full of shocking twists. The filmmakers and their subject, however, view it as a story of love, loneliness, and the complexities of online relationships. They clearly made an effort to portray Angela Wesselman-Pierce as a woman worthy of sympathy and understanding. The film even ends with a coda that despite Angela’s false claims of having cancer and having a daughter in rehab, she and Nev remain friends on Facebook.

It’s difficult not to have mixed feelings about Catfish. On one hand, it’s possible that being caught has provided the impetus for Angela Wesselman-Pierce to re-evaluate her life and make changes to it that would not otherwise have occurred to her. Reaching out to a photographer indicates that she wanted to forge some connection to other artistic people, and she now has the opportunity to do that.
On the other hand, one has to examine the ethical dimensions of filming a woman who may have mental issues that prevent her from making sound decisions, a woman who (as Nev realized) was probably infatuated with a much younger man she had never met. This is underlined by the fact that the deception didn’t end when Nev left Michigan. Angela was still insisting she had a daughter named Megan in rehab, and back in New York Nev received an email from the real Megan. He asked her to call him at the office of his brother’s production company. He never received a call. The email account, he learned, was another of Angela’s fronts. Confronted, she confessed that she didn’t want the relationship with Nev to end.
Will Angela Wesselman-Pierce someday regret her participation in the film? One wonders, too, how little Abby will fare when she’s older. Will having her mother outed as an online master of deception become embarrassing and burdensome to her, if it hasn’t already? Where, exactly, should we draw the line between private drama and public accountability?

These certainly weren’t the only questions raised by reviewers of Catfish.

The Truth 2.1

Catfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. From its very first screenings, viewers expressed skepticism about the entire film. How could it be, they asked, that three New Yorkers were genuinely duped by a Michigan housewife for almost a year? How could anyone believe “Vince” was old enough to be Megan’s stepdad? Why would a director want to film his brother’s daily life in the first place? And isn’t it convenient that some of the film’s most startling revelations, like Megan’s bogus song covers, just happened to take place when the camera was rolling?

Morgan Spurlock called it “the best fake documentary I’ve seen”. The New York Times review described it as “coy about its motives” and full of “faux-naïf manipulations”. Movieline.com’s Kyle Bucchanan bluntly accused the filmmakers of knowing Angela was lying all along. A reviewer at the blog Very Aware pointed out that the photo of Vince and Megan was posted to Facebook in March 2008, months after the events of Catfish took place. In comments attached to these reviews, people have speculated that Angela, Aimee Gonzalez, and the Schulmans/Joost are fame-hungry artists who collaborated on a hoax. One Movieline commenter claims Angela Pierce is not only a professional artist, but a filmmaker whose work has appeared at small festivals. She even has a production company: Panorama Management Group, LLC in Ipsheming, Michigan. While it’s true that Panorama “respresents” Angela, the operation appears to be a one-woman show. And though Angela listed herself as a filmmaker as late as October of this year, I have found no films to her credit.
On the other hand, Dana Stevens of Slate expressed the view that the events in the film were probably real, though possibly re-created or compressed to some extent.
Other reviewers, like New York magazine’s David Edelstein, freely admitted they didn’t know whether or not there was hoaxery in the film.

The Schulmans and Joost have emphatically denied any fakery. In fact, they insist, they weren’t even planning to make a feature documentary until they discovered Megan’s songs weren’t her own. They just wanted to film interesting events in Nev’s life. Once they decided to make the movie, they re-created only the computer screenshots.
Nev’s mom vouched for him. But then, so did James Frey’s mom.

If the filmmakers did any hoaxing in the production of Catfish, their film’s pivotal scene may prove its undoing. This month, Threshold Media filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers, their producers, and their distributors, maintaining that they should pay licensing fees for Amy Kuney’s “All Downhill From Here”. Schulman and Joost justified their inclusion of the song as fair use, since Catfish is a documentary. With the lawsuit, Threshold is basically challenging the film’s “documentary” status.

These days, who wouldn’t be jaded? We’ve been inundated by mockumentaries like Fubar and Incident at Loch Ness, recreated “reality” shows like Operation Repo (which airs, ironically, on TruTV), Hollywood thrillers “based on true stories” that never happened (The Fourth Kind), movies that convincingly blend truth with fantasy (The Social Network), and PR stunts cleverly disguised as home movies or nervous breakdowns (Lonelygirl15, the tantrum-throwing bride who hacked off her hair, Joaquin Pheonix). Not to mention the rash of “autobiographical” novels and phoney memoirs: Love and Consequences, Sarah, A Million Little Pieces/My Friend Leonard, An Angel at the Fence, Surviving with Wolves.
Then there are credible allegations that Michael Moore staged and fabricated incidents in his award-winning documentaries Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. And a revealing statement by Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of The Social Network: “My fidelity is to the story I’m telling, and not to the who, what, where, why of the story.”

So skepticism is definitely warranted. After reviewing the allegations against Catfish, however, I don’t think the Schulmans and Henry Joost perpetrated a full-on hoax. The deception at the core of the movie is real, in my opinion. The youthful inexperience of the filmmakers can account for many of the “red flags” noted by reviewers. It seems quite likely that in their determination to make a gripping first film, they left too much of their own skepticism and doubt on the cutting room floor, leaving audiences to believe they were either gullible buffoons or cruel hoaxers.

The most problematic issue surrounding Catfish remains its ethical dimensions. Thrusting an unbalanced, small-town housewife onto the international film scene is not without its risks, and Angela Wesselman-Pierce’s response to her celebrity has been mixed. She did not attend the film’s premiere at Sundance, and for several months declined to be interviewed. Her only media appearance was on 20/20 in October.

Other Online Teens
Two other fake teens bear mentioning here: Anthony Godby Johnson and Kaycee Nicole Swenson. Both were desperately ill teens created by middle-aged women.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

  • On this very day, according to former NORAD officer Stanley A. Fullham’s book and website Challenges of Change, there was to be “a massive UFO display over the world’s principal cities.” Sorry if you missed that. Pay attention next time. One commenter at Above Top Secret notes something fishy about all the media coverage of the Chilean miners’ rescue: “This event is more like a severe dramatisation, almost like it was staged to occur on this day. At the rate they are rescuing people, they will be done by tomorrow morning. Now i dont [sic] want to say it, but wasnt [sic] their [sic] a prediction of a mass alien display today? 13th October?”
  • On another conspiranoid forum (Godlikeproductions), one user asks exactly the sort of evolved and compassionate questions that one would expect from someone with the username “AscendedMaster824”: “HONESTLY! How many of you care whether or not the chilean [sic] miners are rescued? Don’t get me wrong its [sic] a beautiful thing once reunited their families, but with all the other shit going on in the world why are we hearing about some trapped miners?”
  • On September 26, Henry Makow posted a photo of a statue and labeled it “Example of New World Order Satanic Art in Copenhagen”. It’s a very simple rendering of a male figure who has beheaded himself. In one hand he holds a knife, in the other his own featureless head. It’s a little creepy, sure, but what does it have to do with the “NWO” or Satanism? Mr. Makow would truly freak if he saw the work of Magdalena Abakanowicz
  • This is easily the weirdest forum comment I’ve seen all week: “Police Telephone”, on the Rigorous Intuition discussion board, tries to explain the intricate connections among Drew Barrymore, female tattoos, giant rabbits, and mind control. And kinda fails.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

  • One of the biggest, spookiest boogeymen in the H1N1 vaccine hysteria is the use of squalene in oil-based vaccine adjuvants. What the paranoia-peddlers fail to mention is that oil-based adjuvants aren’t used in human vaccines, as I explain in “Much Ado About Squalene” at Leaving Alex Jonestown. You might as well be worrying that your ground beef is being replaced with unicorn meat.
  • An illustrated biography of alien abductee/artist David Huggins has been released. Huggins believes he has sired at least 60 human-alien children, and has painted hundreds of eerily fascinating pictures of his experiences. You can see a few of them at this page devoted to Huggins and the biography’s author, Farah Yurdözü.
  • As if the hoax wasn’t annoying enough, Balloon Boy Halloween costumes are now on sale.

H Is for Hoax

In preparation for my viewing of Hoax this evening, I’m re-watching Orson Welles’s fantastic half documentary/half mockumentary F is for Fake. Welles was, as ever, ridiculously ahead of his time when he made this film about infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory. Clifford Irving, who wrote the official biography of de Hory before embarking on his Howard Hughes hoax, appears in several scenes.