Was Jack the Ripper a Woman?

Several of you sent me links to a 2012 article featured in the UK version of The Huffington Post announcing a new addition to the Ripper canon, another “non-fiction” tome purporting to reveal the identity of Jack the Ripper. This particular book – Jack the Ripper: The Hand of a Woman – alleges the infamous and elusive killer may have been a woman. It isn’t a new idea, it’s certainly been floated before, but as an amateur Ripperologist, I felt compelled to address the specific claims made by both the book’s author – one John Morris – and the blog post’s author, Sara C. Nelson. Ms. Nelson’s words/text are in bold, my responses are not. You can find her original post here.

“They’re among the most famous unsolved murders in history, and the mystery continues to deepen.”

No, it does not. The mystery is no more or less mysterious than it was in 1888. The mystery, which in the case of Jack the Ripper is “whodunit” to at least five prostitutes from the East End of London, remains the same: Who killed these women and why?

“Suspects for the shadowy figure who came to be known as Jack The Ripper have ranged from an itinerant Polish labourer to the eminent Victorian doctor Sir William Gull, and even the painter Walter Sickert.”

Allow me to weigh in on two of these. Sir Gull, a Victorian-era physician, was SEVENTY-TWO YEARS OLD when these violent crimes were committed. I’m not saying 72-year-olds can’t be evil. I am saying a 72-year-old man, particularly one living in the late 1800s, wouldn’t have been physically capable of carrying out these murders. As for Walter Sickert, famously fingered by the writer Patricia Cornwell, there is no evidence of any kind to support her claims. Still, it makes for a nice story and there may be a small nugget of truth to the idea that Walter Sickert might have known one of the victims. Serious Ripperologists Andy and Sue Parlour put forth the notion in The Jack the Ripper Whitechapel Murders that Mary Kelly may have accompanied Walter Sickert on a trip to Paris before she met her untimely demise. Hmmm… he was an artist, she was a prostitute, perhaps she WAS an artist’s model. Let’s take it a step further and imagine he fell for her like Professor Henry Higgins fell for Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Now THAT is a good story. I can’t believe no one’s written it down. Wait… I did. But, back to Jack and the fact that there is no concrete proof of the allegation that the Ripper murders were carried out by either Sir Gull or Walter Sickert.

“But another theory has emerged – that is the chilling suspicion the person who carried out the 1888 murders was actually a woman. Author John Morris puts forward his suspicions in the book Jack The Ripper: The Hand Of A Woman. ”

One wonders how the murderer’s sex influences whether or not the suspicion is “chilling” but that’s merely a quibble. So, let’s keep an open mind and see what evidence author John Morris found to support his now “chilling suspicion.”

“As a result of extensive research by Morris (and his late father, who was equally fascinated by the riddle) he believes the only satisfactory conclusion is that Jack was, in reality, a woman.”

So far, all we’ve established is Morris isn’t the only fruitcake in his genetic larder. But I’m still listening.

In a well-argued case, Morris names the key suspect as Lizzie Williams, wife of Royal gynecologist Sir John Williams – later considered a suspect himself. Trapped in an unhappy and childless marriage, Lizzie’s only route of escape was cut off when her family fortune was lost.Dependent on her husband for wealth, reputation and security, Morris argues that Lizzie would have done anything to defend her marriage.”

Wow, the leap from defending your marriage to viciously dissecting prostitutes who may have posed some general, unspecified threat to it is practically boundless. And the tale of hapless females forced into marriage after losing their family fortunes is one I’ve certainly seen before. Victoria Holt built a career on this theme.

“The story of Morris’s research includes many twists and turns as he examines the principle players, the killer’s motivation, and modern day cases that bear some similarity to the Ripper murders.”

I’m really unclear how examining modern day cases for similarities to the Ripper murders is remotely productive. A modern day killer did not commit the Ripper murders, and whoever he/she/it was, wouldn’t be alive to commit modern day crimes. Seems like spinning your wheels, no?

“The Ripper victims were all prostitutes, murdered and mutilated in the foggy alleyways of Whitechapel. By the surgical nature of the wounds, the killer was assumed to have some surgical knowledge.”

Here we have one of the great fallacies of Ripperology, that the killer possessed anatomical knowledge. Again, there is no proof of this and all claims to the contrary are pure speculation. When you have a sharp blade and the intent to kill someone, you don’t need a medical degree. You just need either the element of surprise or good aim.

“Morris’s theory is supported by the findings of an Austrian scientist who in 2006 used swabs from letters supposedly sent to police by the Ripper to build a partial DNA profile of the killer.”

Fantastic. Another crackpot theory based on “findings” from letters which – and here’s where the author of this post gets it right – were “supposedly sent to the police by the Ripper.” It has a good beat and you might even be inclined to dance to it, but again we must return to our own now familiar tune: there is no concrete evidence of any kind that proves these letters were penned by “Jack the Ripper” or any other of his infamous monikers. In fact, there’s no real basis for the very existence of Jack the Ripper, but that’s a different song I’ll save for another set.

“The results suggested that the person who murdered and mutilated at least five women from 1888 onwards may have been a woman.Ian Findlay, a professor of molecular and forensic diagnostics, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he had developed a profiling technique that could extract DNA from a single cell or strand of hair up to 160 years old. Conventional DNA sampling methods require at least 200 cells.Dr Findlay, who is based in Brisbane, travelled to London, where the evidence from the still-unsolved murders is stored at the National Archive.The material, which was kept by Scotland Yard until 1961, includes letters sent to police at the time, some of them signed “Jack the Ripper”. Most are believed to be fakes, but a handful are thought to have been written by the killer.Dr Findlay took swabs from the back of stamps and from the gum used to seal envelopes, and possible bloodstains. He took his haul back to Brisbane, where – concentrating on swabs from the so-called “Openshaw letter”, the one believed most likely to be genuine – he extracted the DNA and then amplified the information to create a profile.”

I don’t even know where to start with deconstructing this. Wasn’t this more or less the plot of Jurassic Park?

“The results were “inconclusive” and not forensically reliable, but he did construct a partial profile and based on this analysis, he said, “it’s possible the Ripper could be female”.”

Yes, Mr. Morris, it is “possible” but – wait for it – is there any evidence to support this? No? Well, there it is.

“Last year a retired British murder squad detective put together what he claims is an image of Jack The Ripper.”

Last week I saw the face of Mary Magdalene on a slice of tomato, but you won’t catch me writing a book about it.

“Trevor Marriott created an e-fit of the man he believes was responsible for the Ripper murders, a German merchant named Carl Feigenbaum, for a BBC television program. Feigenbaum was a suspect at the time of the murders, and reportedly told his lawyer that he had a desire to kill and mutilate every woman who falls in my way.” He was later convicted of killing his landlady in Manhattan, and died in the electric chair in New York’s Sing Sing prison.No photographs of Feigenbaum exist, so the e-fit (an electronic artist’s impression) was based on eyewitness descriptions.”

Right, because eyewitness descriptions from the late 19th century were notoriously accurate, especially when you added alcohol to the mix.

“There are hundreds of suspects who have been investigated by sleuths through the years, but no-one has ever been able to conclusively prove the killer’s identity.”

In my opinion, the Ripper crimes will never be solved. However, the legend of Jack will endure and, as I opined earlier, it’s a good story with no end of potential twists. Mr. Morris has and will continue to sell books, shoddy premise aside. As a fellow author, my hat is off to him. As a Ripperologist, my concern is not whether he can spin a fine tale, it’s that he’s calling a work of fiction factual which muddies the already murky waters of investigating these crimes.

Just my two cents.