Glenn Garvin TV Reviews

A Century Later, People Still Want to Unmask Jack the Ripper

Pair of documentaries give their best efforts


Robert Bloch once wrote a short story called Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper that raised the possibility that Saucy Jacky, as he sometimes signed his sanguinary epistles to cops and reporters, was still alive, his murders a sacrifice to some dark god of immortality that had to be regularly renewed.

That seems as good an explanation as any for the fact that, nearly 120 years after he stalked the streets of London's seamy Whitechapel district, Jack is hotter than ever. He's the protagonist of two new novels (Stephen Hunter's I, Ripper and Alex Grecian's The Harvest Man) and a BBC America television series (Ripper Street, which just finished its third season). And now two TV documentaries claim to have unmasked the Ripper. Neither is likely to convince anybody, but they have some Grand Guignol good times trying.

For the non-Ripper-philes among us, if there are any left, Destination America's two-hour Jack The Ripper: The Definitive Story is a good starting point. Using re-enacted witness testimony of the day and nifty three-dimensional maps that recreate the shambling London slums of the 19th century, it briskly sets the broad outlines of the story before zeroing in on suspects.

One interesting thing that quickly becomes apparent is how little we know about the Ripper despite more than a century of study by police, prosecutors, historians and Ripperologists, the army of dedicated—and in some cases slightly unbalanced—students of the case. (To hear one of them refer to the murder of Mary Jane Kelly as "Jack's masterpiece"—her nose, cheecks, eyebrows, ears and breasts were all hacked off in a surgical excavation so deep that it left carving scars on her vertebrae—is, umm, different.)

Though the Ripper is usually described as having killed five and perhaps six women, there were actually 14 unsolved murders of London women—nearly all of them with a history of both prostitution and alcoholism—in 1888 and 1889 that police thought might possibly have been his work. Those infamous letters to cops and journalists might not even have been authentic; many investigators suspect they were written by reporters trying to hype the story. (The grisliest one of the bunch, bearing a return address of "From Hell" and containing a chunk of human liver—the author apologetically explained he had fried and eaten the rest—wasn't even signed in the name of Jack.)

Little forensic evidence was collected, partly because the Ripper didn't leave much, and partly because the London cops were the Barney Fifes of their time. Though the police had already begun photographing crime scenes, they didn't get a shot of the single most important bit of evidence indisputably left by the Ripper: a note chalked on a wall a few blocks from one of the murders, right beside a scrap of bloody apron cut from one of the victims, was washed away by the cops before it could be captured on film. Not only was a genuine sample of the Ripper's handwriting lost forever, but later the police couldn't even agree on what it said: Maybe "The Juwes are not The men That Will be Blamed for nothing" (seemingly an anti-Semitic taunt) or maybe "The Juwes are men who take the blame for anything" (seemingly a jibe at police anti-Semitism).

Then there's the police surgeon who tried his hand at profiling the Ripper, apparently one of the first attempts at doping out the psychology of an unknown killer. His conclusions: Jack must have been strong. (Duh.) He probably didn't look weird or the women would have shied from him, particularly as the murders became the city's obsession. (Double duh.) He was "eccentric in his habits" (the mother of all duhs) and "not quite right in his mind at times" (duh to the hell-yeah). It's easy to laugh at this stuff, but keep in mind the army of profilers who just a few years ago assured us that the Beltway Sniper, who killed 17 people across the United States, was an angry white guy. He turned out to be a black Muslim, but who's counting?

For all that, the London police thought they had some solid suspects, and Definitive Story riffles through them, from a fired schoolteacher to a gay patent-medicine salesman, before settling, mostly, on a Polish tailor named Aaron Kosminksi, who, the cops noted, "became insane owing to many years' indulgence in solitary vice." (So it seems that when your mom warned you you'd grow hair in your palms, she was definitely low-balling it.) The main evidence against him is that a witness who saw a man squabbling with a woman in an alley where, soon after, a Ripper victim was found, later identified him as Kosminksi—but then refused to testify in court. Kosminski later died in a mental hospital.

The Smithsonian Channel's The Missing Evidence: Jack The Ripper pins the murder on a different suspect, a delivery man named Charles Allen Lechmere. Lechmere was one of two men who discovered the body of Ripper victim Polly Nichols while separately walking to work in the early morning.

Though The Missing Evidence tries to portray its identification of Lechmere as a startling new development, his name has been kicked around on Ripperologist web sites for years as a potential suspect. That doesn't mean a whole lot, since Ripperologists have considered nearly every sentient being who drew a breath in the Western Hemisphere during the past 126 years a suspect at one time or another. (Except for Lee Harvey Oswald, who, as everyone knows, was just a patsy.)

And, indeed, the case against Lechmere is rather flimsy, which is actually dignifying it a bit. He gave police a wrong name. (But the right address.) There might be a nine-minute gap between his discovery of Nichols' body and his report to police. (Or there might not.) And all of the Ripper's victims were murdered on the route from his home to work. (Except for the ones who weren't.) Weighing against that theory is the—let's call it imaginative —scenario of a guy pausing each morning on the way to work to eviscerate a hooker and toss her organs around like confetti, then combing his hair and heading to the office.

My own favorite Ripper suspect is that patent-medicine salesman, an eccentric herbalist named Francis Tumblety. Some senior police officers definitely thought Tumblety was their man—among other things, he kept a collection of preserved human uteruses, and his landlady discovered a discarded bloody shirt in his room. The cops badgered him so relentlessly that he eventually set sail for New York—and when the police there kept the heat on, he fled to Nicaragua for a few years, which promptly erupted in a series of Ripper-like murders, or so the Ripperologists say.

Tumblety's name first came to the fore in the mid-1990s, when I was a foreign correspondent based in Nicaragua. I spent a week searching old Managua newspapers for stories about slasher murders of hookers. But Nicaragua has never put its newspapers on microfilm, much less digitized them, and it took me about 20 minutes just to turn a page without crumbling it into dust. I gave up before finding anything.

Missing Evidence and The Definitive Story, both imports from British TV, identify Tumblety as an American in their discussion of suspects. But he was actually born in Canada. And what else do those baby-seal-clubbing, cheese-curd-eating, eh?-grunting vagrants have to do during their long nights on the tundra besides plot mass murder? It's more likely to drive you insane even than many years' indulgence in solitary vice.

Jack The Ripper: The Definitive Story. Destination America. Saturday, August 29, 9 p.m. EDT.

The Missing Evidence: Jack The Ripper. Smithsonian Channel. Sunday, August 30, 9 p.m. EDT.