Jack the Ripper: The Most Bizarre Theories
Ever since he vanished into the Victorian night, the identity of Jack the Ripper has kept historians guessing and arguing. Some theories make sense. Others… not so much.
The Royal Ripper
Could the Whitechapel Murderer have been a member of the Royal Family? It’s a radical idea that was first seriously proposed in the latter half of the 20th Century, when fingers began to be pointed at Prince Albert Victor, son of Edward VII and grandson of Queen Victoria, who died of pneumonia at 28.
Several decades into the 20th Century, a certain Dr Thomas Stowell wrote an article which heavily implied Prince Albert Victor had committed the Ripper murders after being driven insane by syphilis. Grasping for any circumstantial evidence he could, Stowell compared Ripper victim mutilations to the evisceration of deer shot by royals on their country estates. Another writer called Frank Spiering expanded on this far-fetched concept with his book Prince Jack, but when British officials shruggingly allowed access to the royal archives to test his theory of a cover-up, Spiering mysteriously didn’t take them up on the offer.
The Royal Conspiracy
Prince Albert Victor also turns up in the most notorious theory of all, but as a hapless supporting player rather than the killer himself. The so-called “Royal Conspiracy” was popularised in Stephen Knight’s 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, and begins with Prince Albert Victor secretly falling in love with a common shopgirl called Annie Crook. Utterly outraged, the Royal Family put a stop to the relationship, with royal physician Dr William Gull having Annie Crook certified insane and committed to an asylum.
Then, according to the theory, a group of Annie’s friends (Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly) decided to blackmail the Royal Family, threatening to go public with the story. Thus, William Gull – a man by now in his 70s and poor health – was dispatched by royal decree to slaughter them all, in a bizarrely ritualistic fashion. But what about Catherine Eddowes, the fifth canonical victim? According to this theory, she wasn’t one of the blackmailers, but was apparently killed due to mistaken identity.
Walter the Ripper
Could Walter Sickert, one of the most eminent British artists of his day, really have had a sideline as the Whitechapel fiend? The theory was first made famous by crime author Patricia Cornwell with her book Portrait of a Killer. She presents Sickert, a painter ranked almost as highly as Turner and Degas, as having the pathological, woman-hating psychology of a serial killer.
As well as spotting “clues” in his paintings, Cornwell suggested his sexual fury stemmed in part from having a disfigured penis, and even got a team of forensic experts analysing the Ripper letters for traces of DNA that she could match with Sickert. Despite her efforts, the “Walter the Ripper” theory is widely condemned by serious Ripperologists.
Jill the Ripper
The strange idea that Jack the Ripper may have been a woman goes right back to the early days of the case, with Inspector Abberline himself pondering the possibility after Mary Kelly’s murder. A witness claimed to have spotted a woman wearing Mary’s shawl out and about hours after her apparent time of death, so could this in fact have been the murderer – Jill the Ripper?
The idea was eventually popularised in a 1939 book called Jack the Ripper: A New Theory. It argued that a woman – perhaps a “mad midwife” – would be able to wander about in the small hours without arousing too much suspicion, even if she was splattered with blood. This midwife would also have had the anatomical knowledge to carry out the mutilations. A potential “Jill” was even named: Mary Pearcey, who was convicted and executed for savagely murdering a woman and her child in 1890.
Lewis Carroll: Murderer
Perhaps the most unlikely suspect to be seriously proposed is Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Rumours have always swirled around his friendship with the real-life Alice, and his possibly paedophilic tendencies. But in the 1990s a man called Richard Wallace took things further with a book, Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend, which fingered Carroll as the Ripper.
The evidence? Apparently, Carroll confessed everything through hidden anagrams in his writings. Wallace took passages by Carroll and re-jigged the letters to spell out phrases like “I got a tight hold of her and slit her throat”. The trouble is, you could do the same thing with any piece of writing, as one withering reviewer of Wallace’s book showed by re-jigging Winnie-the-Pooh to prove AA Milne was the REAL killer.
Watch American Ripper In London Tuesdays at 9pm on History.