The Godfather: Peter Corris on Jack the Ripper
My interest in Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders was awakened when I saw Man in the Attic (1953), a film about the Ripper which starred Jack Palance. That was perfect casting in black and white – that craggy face, those staring eyes, that mirthless smile. Hotly pursued by the police, something that never happened, the Ripper drowned himself in the Thames … perhaps.
Atmosphere is everything in a Ripper film and Man in the Attic had it in spades – tiny, shadowy courtyards, swirling mists, pea-soup fog, louche pubs and desperate streetwalkers. Over the years I read newspaper rehashes of the killings and magazine articles proposing various culprits, including a man who went by the evocative nickname of ‘Leather Apron’ (the Ripper was thought to have, if not surgical training, at least butchering skills from the way he mutilated and took organs from his victims), a notable cricketer, and a member of the royal family.
The five victims were prostitutes, all impoverished.
In 1970 I was in London and signed on for the Ripper walking tour. A dozen or so of us gathered at an East End pub and a Ripper expert conducted us on a tour of the area; many of the sites where bodies and clues had been found were still observable. The tour ended as it had begun, in a pub. The tour was well managed and brought the matter to life … or rather, death.
In 1976 English journalist Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The final solution, was published. Drawing on information from someone claiming to be an illegitimate son of the Victorian artist Walter Sickert, who had produced a series of paintings depicting sanguinary killings, Knight put together an elaborate conspiracy theory involving the secret marriage of a royal heir that had to be concealed, the Freemasons and Sir William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria. I was intrigued and half convinced before it was revealed that Knight’s informant had been lying.
Among a long list of suspects was Frederick Deeming, an Englishman who committed several murders in Melbourne in the 1890s and was hanged. Some years ago I was approached by someone who, partly because Deeming was experienced in the use of gas lanterns and had been in London at the time of the Ripper murders, put together a case for Deeming as the perp and needed help to write the book. We met and corresponded before I learned from my agent that another writer had been enlisted. As far as I know the book has never appeared.
Bestselling crime writer Patricia Cornwell spent time and money on the project and concluded in Jack the Ripper: Portrait of a killer – Case closed (2002) that Walter Sickert had been the killer. Few were convinced.
The hold the Ripper story has on the imagination is displayed by the many television and film treatments of it over the years. The most recent I’m aware of, From Hell (2001), starring Johnny Depp, raises again the royal connection. In 1974, Murder by Decree brought Christopher Plummer into the case in the role of Sherlock Holmes. The later TV series Jack the Ripper (1988), with Michael Caine, was based on the movie but left Holmes out of the picture.
Given the continual popularity of vampire and zombie horror films, graphic novels and video games, if the Ripper were to be brought face to face with Dracula and the living dead I would not be a bit surprised.