Experts gather in York to ask: who was Jack The Ripper?

26 Sep 2012 @ 7.02 am
| News
The ghost of Jack The Ripper will be stalking York this weekend…

They go by the alarming name ripperologists – people who have made a life’s work of the study of Jack The Ripper.

And this weekend their attention turns away from the murderous slums of Victorian East End London to the attractions of York, as the Jack The Ripper Conference 2012 is hosted by the Best Western Monkbar Hotel.

But who was Jack? Before the event we assembled three ripperologists to give their view on the man, the murders and the myth. Our panel:

Sussex-based writer Shirley Harrison wrote The Diary Of Jack The Ripper, an investigation into a journal supposedly kept by cotton merchant James Maybrick and signed “yours truly Jack The Ripper”. When her account of investigations into the diary appeared in 1993 the whole world seemed to be on the case.

Robert Anderson, as well as sharing the name of one of the most senior policemen who investigated the Ripper murders, is managing editor of online resource the Casebook Ripper Wiki. He will talk to the York conference about the Maybrick diary. In his day job, Robert is a director of BioChemics, Inc in Danvers, Massachusetts, USA.

Ricky Cobb became hooked on the Jack The Ripper story after reading a book about it at school in Northern Ireland. With his brother he started a tour showing people round the murder sites. An historian based in London, he is one of the organisers of the York conference.

Why are we still fascinated by Jack The Ripper?

Shirley: It is the mystery, the dark alleys and courtyards of Whitechapel which are much the same today after dark as they were in 1888. And the horror of the killings themselves which became a challenge to amateur detectives worldwide.

Ricky: We’ve had 125 years of movies, books, plays where the image of the ripper changes from what would have been a normal dressed east-ender to the more elaborate gentleman with top hat and cloak. The feeling that he could have been a doctor, or even a member of the royal family glamorises the killings.

Jack the Ripper remains the only serial killer in history that represents an entire era. If you mention his name to anyone they will instantly think of Victorian London, foggy nights, Gaslamps and prostitutes. Quite simply the greatest whodunnit in the history of crime.

Robert: Good question, as others have killed more. Why is he the bogeyman and not, say, Bundy? I think if you have ever seen the victim photographs of Mary Kelly, you can’t ever wash that devil dust off your boots.

Another grisly crime discovered
What was the reaction to The Diary Of Jack The Ripper?

Shirley: Dramatic. The appearance of the diary was the catalyst for all those armchair sleuths, some of whom had already written books about their own suspect, to band together and a formal organisation was established. They became “Ripperologists” with a website – Casebook Jack the Ripper. Twenty years on this remains a very lively and often well-informed forum for heated argument and debate, not only about the Ripper but also about crime in general. There is a bi-annual 2 day gathering of these Ripperologists with a number of well known and respected speakers.

Our diary has its own place on the casebook site and is, on the whole, dismissed by most people (on no real evidence) as a forgery. After all, if I am right, and it is genuinely the Diary of Jack the Ripper, there will be no further need for the casebook!


How much closer to the truth does the diary take us?

Shirley: A difficult one to answer. We have conducted innumerable tests on the ink and the paper and the handwriting. We have consulted criminal psychologists, historians, graphologists and the results have been conflicting and inconclusive. These results are all in my book for everyone to see.


Who do you think was Jack the Ripper – and why?

Robert: I don’t know. The more serious you get about the case, the further away the identity of the real Jack fades into the horizon.

Ricky: There are so many theories. I would have to go with a local man living right in the heart of the area, amongst his victims. He would probably appear quite normal, maybe verging on shy. He’d keep himself to himself but would hide a deep anger and rage that would raise its head every so often. We’ve seen this with serial killers like Ted Bundy and Peter Sutcliffe who in appearance wouldn’t raise any suspicion and are often over looked by the police.


Do you think we will ever, definitively, unmask the Ripper?

Shirley: I believe that we have. But “belief” is an act of faith. I am convinced that the diary is at the very least a Victorian document but I cannot possibly say that I know Maybrick was the Ripper.

Robert: Someone somewhere might have something in their attic that cracks the case. But with the existing evidence, no.

Will Jack The Ripper's identity ever be known?
Why did the killer stop?

Ricky: Serial killers don’t just stop killing, but he did. So you have to say one of three things occurred. The killer died, he was imprisoned for an unrelated crime or he moved from the area. Interestingly enough the police files do contain the names of several suspects, one of whom was locked in a lunatic asylum, the othercommitted suicide, but you’ll have to attend the conference to find out more…


Are you looking forward to your York visit?

Ricky: I can safely say the York idea has been welcomed greatly by the delegates and organisers, we can’t wait. Anyone visiting York cannot fail to be impressed by its wonderful atmosphere and sense of history. The buildings and architecture tell a tale that spans hundreds of years, from the Romans to the Vikings, from the medieval walls to the beautiful York Minster (whose bell incidentally was made in the Whitechapel Bell foundry in the heart of the Ripper’s hunting ground). The history simply oozes out of every brick. Its a must for any history lovers.


What have you lined up for the weekend?

Ricky: The conference falls on the 29th and 30th September, the same dates as the “Double Event” – which in the Ripper world marks the night when the killer murdered not one but two women 45 minutes apart.

We have nine expert speakers including, probably the world’s foremost authority on the Ripper, Martin Fido, and a criminal profiler from Scotland Yard, Laura Richards, who will use 21st century techniques to try and understand a 19th century killer. This will show us the type of individual the police should have been looking for throughout the autumn of terror.

We will be enjoying a fabulous banquet at St William’s College next to York Minster on the Saturday night and we will be engaging in one of York’s famous ghost walks Sunday night as well.


Are Ripperologists on the morbid side – or do you let your hair down at these conferences?

Robert: To paraphrase the Las Vegas slogan, what happens at Ripper conferences stays at Ripper conferences. There are all kinds of critters at these get togethers, from serious academic types to necromancers, from industrial strength goths to Miss Marple types.

It’s a rich and heady brew, and it’s a blast. And you can’t help but come away with a deeper appreciation of what we call The Great Victorian Mystery.