"Instead of running away from my ancestry it’s my obligation in life to identify the innocent"
The 19th-century American serial killer H. H. Holmes, subject of the new HISTORY series American Ripper in London, was described by The New York Times as 'the devil.' So what's it like to be related to him? To find out, HISTORY spoke to Jeff Mudgett his great-great-grandson and head investigator and theorist for the series. We discussed how Jeff found out he was related to Holmes, what to expect from the series and he spoke on the upcoming Holmes film set to star Leonardo Dicaprio.
Hi Jeff, great to speak to you! Can you tell us about the new HISTORY series American Ripper in London?
The programme is an investigation to determine whether my theory that H. H. Holmes was Jack the Ripper is true. In the investigation, I enlist the help of ex CIA operative Amaryllis Fox who is scientifically trained in the latest forensic techniques. Together we go around the US and England to test each piece of evidence we have. Each piece is put up against modern forensic techniques that authorities in London didn't have in 1888. We hope that through this testing of evidence we will be able to come to a conclusion that the world will accept, one that is in agreement with my original theory that H. H. Holmes was Jack the Ripper.
How long have you been working on the project?
I've been working on it for over 10 years.
Safe to say you're the expert then! How has the story progressed over this time?
I gave a Ted Talk in Vancouver and the subject that day was, ‘our preconceived notions and biases and how they prevent us as human beings from considering the evidence with an open mind.’ The managers of the show asked me to swear in their audience as my grand jury, raise the evidence as I would as a prosecutor and ask them if there were probable cause enough to arrest Holmes if he were alive so that we could make him stand trial for the Whitechapel murders. The results of the voting we had that day was an overwhelming yes.
Was it the Ted Talk that brought your theory into the mainstream?
Yes, but I have also written a book on my personal journey considering the evil man that I'm a part of. The reason I'm talking to you today is the conscience decisions of this monster, but the TV series is about investigative techniques to find out whether there is a link between Holmes and the Ripper.
What are the difficulties of investigating evidence from the 19th century?
It's very difficult to locate any direct evidence. We're dealing mostly with circumstantial evidence...That's why we exhumed Homes' alleged grave in Pennsylvania hoping to find direct evidence between him and the Ripper.
How did you find out you are related to H. H. Holmes?
I found out that I was related to this horrible man, the man that the New York Times coined the devil, when I was 40 years old at a dinner party at my grandparent’s house. At that point, my grandfather’s horrible secret came to light. It was a secret that he had kept from the entire family even my grandmother who wouldn't have married the man had he told her the truth.
You can't pick your family, can you...
No, but the reason I'm here talking to you is because of the conscious decision of this horrible man. While I didn’t choose to be who I am there is no way to get around it. I've decided instead of running away from that ancestry that it’s my obligation in life to identify the innocent that he murdered who remain anonymous. I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing that.
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So, you're rewriting the wrongs of your ancestor?
Exactly. It's a quest for me. I tell you when I'm out signing books numerous times I've had people come up to me and thank me for what I'm doing. They tell me that their family believes one of their lines was a victim of Holmes and that they appreciate what I'm doing in trying to identify the legend as fact so that they can properly memorialise their ancestors.
Why do you think Jack the Ripper has such a hold on popular culture today?
That's a tough question and I don't know if that has ever been answered properly by anyone. I have a theory though. I think that the very phrase Jack the Ripper is perhaps the greatest marketing tool ever coined. It was coined by a brilliant man who knew it would roll off the tongue. He knew people would personalise the word. When the Ripper was known as the previous names, before Dear Boss was written, there was very little sensationalism in the London media. But when that phrase came out, "yours truly Jack the Ripper," I think everyone in London identified with the horror that was there present in their lives.
One of the greatest things we do in the series is… conclusively establish that the Dear Boss letter was not a hoax, or written by a journalist, it was written by the killer and the same man who wrote Dear Boss wrote the Saucy Jack Postcard. I think history has been wrong about this for over 100 years. American Ripper in London will be able to show the world and the UK that we need to look at those two letters with a different eye.
What’s next in the story?
For two or three years, I've been requesting the federal government allow for a scientific excavation of the grounds were H. H. Holmes' murder castle once stood. They've refused me for reasons I’m not quite sure… I think that when they see the proper methods we used on Holmes' grave how we scientifically conducted the process, how we treated the remains and the ones around the grave with total respect, we are going to go back to them request permission to excavate the ground of the murder castle. I think they are going to permit us the rights to do so and I hope HISTORY will be with me to record the event.
Why do you think the federal government are hesitant to let you access the murder castle in Chicago?
That's something I have theorised and argued with myself about for years. I think it has to do with this: when the federal government bought that land to build a post office on top of the murder castle I think they knew what they had, I think they knew it was illegal for them to do so with murders having been conducted there that were never investigated. Looking back they have done the wrong thing. Instead of standing up to the plate, as we say in American and doing the right thing, they decided to hopefully set it aside. I think American Ripper in London is not going to give them that choice anymore.
What do you think was the driving force behind H. H. Holmes' murders?
One of the first things we did in the series was to look for something that had happened in his childhood that might have caused him to turn and become this monster. But quite frankly we didn't find anything. We checked with everything involving his childhood, hoping to find something, not to justify but maybe to give what he did a reason. Instead what we found was this incredibly intelligent man, who graduated from medical school, was a wonderful writer, who could con and fraud anyone he dealt with. The Chicago Times called him the greatest con that ever-struck Chicago. When you start realising the talents, horrible talents, he had, I concluded that we needed to do this so that mankind and medicine could determine what made a human being do this when he had the intelligence to be a Louis Pasteur. Instead, he chose evil… He had two things he loved, money and women. But it was mostly money. He was also a pathological liar... The man enjoyed manipulating and sensationalising every aspect of his life, which as you can tell, makes our investigation extremely difficult.
Lastly, are you aware of the Martin Scorsese H. H. Holmes film in development and what impact could it have on his legacy?
It's going to be perhaps the greatest epic ever made in Hollywood, you've got Leonardo Di Caprio may be our best actor in America, you've got Martin Scorsese the greatest director in America without a doubt and they're pouring lots of money into it. I think Holmes is going to take the Ripper's place as the criminal in modern mankind's memory banks and it's going to be a tidal wave that is coming. We know about Holmes here in America mostly because of the great book by Erik Larson The Devil in the White City now the world’s going to be introduced to H. H. Holmes.
You can catch Jeff in American Ripper in London on HISTORY Tuesdays at 9pm.