The list of people advanced as candidates for the Ripper's identity seems to get longer and more fanciful each year. Despite - or perhaps because of - the loss of the bulk of the original case files over the last 120 years, people are still enthralled by the mystery of the Ripper's identity and periodically think they discern new 'clues' in forgotten documents or new interpretations of old words.
In truth, the identity of the killer is probably lost to us forever. Thousands of people lived in the teeming slums in which he carried out his grisly crimes, and millions more in the city as a whole. The vast majority of these people left little trace in the official records beyond census information and the chance survival of personal documents.
Even today, serial killers operate unmolested for years at a time. Witness Harold Shipman, who was the doctor present at hundreds of deaths that he had caused - all dutifully recorded - without a suspicion being raised against him.
Somewhere in the dry, clue-free documents of the time the name of the Ripper is written down at a humble address, probably fulfilling an equally humble profession.
Contemporary Police Suspects
The suspects we do know about also tell us more about police notions of the time than they do about the Ripper himself. The killer must, according to ideas of the time, have been a 'madman'. So it was that some senior policemen convinced themselves that they'd identified the killer as a rambling, shambling wreck who ate his food from the gutter and heard voices in his head. Modern experience tells us that he was equally - if not more - likely to have held down a respectable job and quite possibly have been married.
Other forces were at play too. Early in the case, the notion took hold that the killer couldn't have been an Englishman and so suspicion fell on the Jewish population. Traces of this unfounded and subtle form of racism still remain in the writings of some investigating officers - although honourable mention must be made of those who dismissed this line of reasoning both in public and private.
Still, even today the suspect list contains Jewish "madmen" whose lives have been documented to the nth degree without the slightest shred of actual evidence that they were involved in the crimes.
Shorn of a 'profile' against which to work, the police also investigated characters such as Francis Tumblety - a notorious quack physician who was arrested for 'unnatural offences' (i.e. engaging in homosexuality) at the height of the Ripper scare.
Today, the Metropolitan Police still list a mere four "genuine suspects" based on the surviving records of the opinions of those who investigated the crimes on the ground in that long-ago autumn. They wisely note:
"For a list of viable suspects they have not inspired any uniform confidence in the minds of those well-versed in the case.
Indeed, arguments can be made against all of them being the culprit, and no hard evidence exists against any of them."
Latterly, as the Jewish Madman theory fell out of favour, conspiracy theorists and celebrity-fascinated researchers took up with the idea that the killer actually hailed from a more rarefied strata - perhaps even royalty. While there are many skeletons in the Royal cupboard, it is stretching credulity to suppose that the slaughter of prostitutes in the East End is among them. Nonetheless a cottage industry of conspiracy theory has arisen dragging in royal physicians and even an heir to the throne.
Not all modern research is so tainted by sensation. Recent diligent work has unearthed genuine suspects from the time who had been forgotten or overlooked and new light has been cast on old suspects.
Some Mooted Suspects
- Montague Druitt
- Aaron Kosminski
- Francis Tumblety
- John Pizer - "Leather Apron"
- Walter Sickert
- Severin Klosowski (a.k.a. George Chapman)
- Dr. Neill Cream
- Michael Ostrog
- William Gull
- The Duke of Clarence
- Nathan Kaminsky
- Thomas Cutbush
- William H. Bury
- James Maybrick
See also: conspiracy theories