It happened today - August 31, 2015
On this day back in 1888 Jack the Ripper killed the first victim definitely linked to his series of murders. And if his goal was to become famous, he certainly succeeded. He continues to fascinate us. But why?
Certainly the 20th century has seen far worse horrors, including serial killers with far higher body counts. And Jack the Ripper is far from the worst among uncaught, unidentified serial killers. And yet the interest persists.
When I was hired at the Ottawa Citizen back in 1997, one of the earliest Essay pieces we published purported finally to identify the Ripper. And yet another book has now made this claim about a different man, fairly plausibly as far as I can see (it says the killer was hiding a leaf in a forest, murdering a series of prostitutes to conceal his motive in killing his own wife for taking to prostitution). But so what?
I’m not indifferent to the victims. Every human life matters and the fact that someone had a sordid and unhappy life is no reason to be any less concerned to protect them if possible and avenge them if necessary. But it won’t help them, or anyone else, very much to find the perpetrator now. And if it is important, well, there are countless unsolved cold case murders we could be equally worried about.
Of course the Ripper’s crimes were especially gruesome, earning him his nickname. And while death is rarely an entirely pleasant affair, there are better and worse ways to go. But again, and regrettably, he’s far from alone in inflicting agonizing humiliating deaths on his victims. Indeed, the Ripper did not abduct and torture as too many serial killers do. Much of his mutilation followed the fairly quick deaths he inflicted.
Perhaps the fascination lingers because he operated in Victorian London, inflicting sudden grotesque death in a setting as generally placid and civilized as mankind has ever seen. It’s not entirely a complacent or reactionary stereotype; the murder rate in late 19th century England was low, though not as far as we can tell significantly lower than it is today. But this sort of grotesquely random violence might fascinate us, and horrify us, not only because of a generic human dread of being suddenly yanked out of our mundane activities into a hideous death but because it suggests that there is nowhere we can hide. Even if we managed to recreate a society as formally devoted to the stiff upper lip, high standards of conduct, and restrained manners, evil would still stalk us.
I suppose it’s possible that if we could identify him, even so many years later, it might help to reduce that feeling, to give us some sense that ultimately evil will be found out. It would not give the victims back the life and dignity he stole, of course, but it would let us know what happened and maybe even explain it to some degree, the how, the who and some of the why, depriving evil of some of the power it derives from its vastness and unknowability.
Indeed, speaking of evil and explanation, it’s also possible that the Ripper fascinates us because the singularly dreadful and dehumanizingly weird mutilations he inflicted suggest that if we could just look on his face we would at least be able to inspect pure evil, interrogate it, and understand it.
I doubt it. My guess is that as with modern serial killers, including those involved in state mass slaughter like Adolf Eichmann, if you actually saw the Ripper close up, in a photo or illustration, and knew it was him you’d see banality, mediocrity, a surrender to evil by a weak personality not a dazzling exhibition of it by its bold and original fount. The manifestations of evil are generally squalid not grandiose, and he’s unlikely to be an exception.
So yes, it would be nice to identify him, to close the book on the case and say over the victims’ graves that we do know why you died or, failing that, we at least know who killed you. It would also put a stop to books and articles finally unmasking him again. But in the end, the Ripper does not matter that much. He does not matter as much as his victims.
He is more famous than he deserves to be.