Image of Jack the Ripper taken from American Ripper in London
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Was HH Holmes Really Jack the Ripper?

Was HH Holmes Jack the Ripper?
A mock-up of Jack the Ripper alongside the a HH Holmes mugshot, but were they the same person?

Could the Whitechapel fiend really have been the alter-ego of notorious American serial killer HH Holmes? Over several weeks we’ve watched Jeff Mudgett try to uncover the truth with the help of ex-CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox. Here are the cases for and against.

The Case For

At first glance, Holmes and the Ripper were very different kinds of killers. Jack stalked his prey in the filthy streets of Victorian London, hacking and slashing right under the noses of patrolling police officers. Holmes operated in more secure surroundings, even creating a house of horrors – the so-called “Murder Castle” – in which to trap, kill and dispose of his victims. He was a methodical, calculating criminal – not the kind of person you’d imagine skulking in the shadows, knife in hand.

And yet, contrary to popular belief, Jack the Ripper was indeed methodical in his approach. He didn’t launch wildly into his victims with his blade, as many might imagine. He would throttle the women silently, carefully lay their bodies down on the ground and then proceed with the mutilation. Holmes took a similarly logical approach to his known victims. Let’s also remember he was a qualified doctor, adept at dissection and organ removal – just as many experts believe the Ripper to have been.

The final canonical Ripper victim – Mary Kelly – was eviscerated not on a street, but in her own home. This shows a clear evolution in the Ripper’s MO, from street slasher to a man taking his time behind closed doors. As investigator Amaryllis Fox puts it, the initial Ripper murders may represent Holmes’ “adolescence as a killer”, when he was still honing his style, inspiring him to take the next logical step and create his own killing environment: the Chicago Murder Castle.

But what about the fact that Holmes lived, worked and killed in the United States? Well, Holmes was an enterprising businessman who left a major paper trail wherever he went, making it remarkably easy to track his movements. As Mudgett and Fox discovered, there’s a bizarre gap in documentation from mid-1888 to early 1889. In other words, during the exact period of the Ripper murders, Holmes seemed to have vanished from the United States. Ship records dug up by Mudgett and Fox also show that someone called “H Holmes” was a passenger on a ship travelling from Britain to the US after the final Ripper murder. Holmes himself would later say, “I roamed about the world seeking whom I can destroy.”

The infamous “Dear Boss” letter, apparently sent by the Ripper to the media, should also be considered. Mudgett and Fox met with John Harris, a professor of linguistics, who analysed the letter and confirmed “the language doesn’t identify as a British writer”, pointing to conspicuous American-isms dotted throughout the message.

Then there’s the particularly damning image of Jack the Ripper created by a forensic sketch artist, based on more than 13 different witness testimonies from 1888. This sketch bears such a striking resemblance to HH Holmes that Mudgett believes it would be grounds for a warrant if the suspect was still alive today. As a practicing attorney, he knows what he’s talking about.

The Case Against

There’s one word that sums up everything you’ve just read: “circumstantial”. The Ripper sketch may have been good enough to snag a warrant, but none of the other evidence would have been enough to keep Holmes in police custody for longer than a few minutes. There is no smoking gun, no hard proof to tie him with any of the Ripper murders.

Even this circumstantial evidence is open to debate. Take the “Dear Boss” letter. It may well have been written by an American, but many Ripperologists believe it to be a hoax anyway – scribbled by some cunning journalist to drum up interest in the case. And as for the idea that Holmes voyaged to England to carve a bloody swathe through the streets of London – we can’t possibly deduce this from some passenger logs alone. “H Holmes” would hardly have been an unusual name, and Holmes’ own claim that he “roamed about the world” for victims should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt. A flamboyant egotist, he was prone to wild exaggerations, even confessing to killing people who were later found to be still alive.

But the most important argument against the theory is this. HH Holmes was a warped con artist and greedy businessman, first and foremost. When you look at the crimes he was definitely connected with (as opposed to the “hundreds of victims” based on hearsay and sensationalist hype at the time of his arrest), it seems Holmes killed people to collect on life insurance, and to cover his tracks. Jack the Ripper, by contrast, was seemingly motivated by nothing other than pathological blood lust. He gained nothing from slaughtering those women except some twisted emotional satisfaction. It’s very hard to believe that someone as coldly rational and committed as HH Holmes would take time out from his burgeoning career as a con artist to sail halfway across the world and commit a string of messy murders in a city he didn’t even know.

All that being said… Jeff Mudgett is committed to finding the elusive physical evidence that will tie his man to Whitechapel. Until that happens, the debates will continue.