My life in crime (detection)

Can you keep a secret—because apparently Jack the Ripper can … (this article contains material sensitive to some)

It began in the early 1950’s—with a love for fairy tales read aloud, the gorier–the better, and tales told by grandparents about spooky Irish and Welsh ancestors. There was a brief interlude, between ages 7-10, when I devoured sensational Hollywood tabloids, the juicier—the better. But it was while babysitting I discovered an abiding obsession, via yellowed caches of true crime magazines. While the tiny tykes in my charge slumbered soundly, and Bela Lugosi morphed on the TV screen from man to bat, I poured over murder scenes and lurid tales of lust, greed, and revenge, the tawdrier–the better. An enduring fascination and impulse to solve just one of those crimes was born.

I recall reading an excerpt from Meyer Levin’s Compulsion in a true crime magazine. Originally published in 1956, the book was based on the senseless 1924 murder of a 14 year old lad, killed for ‘the thrill of it’ by Leopold and Loeb, teens from well to do families. The murderers composed a simple ransom note (typed on Leopold’s portable); details of the crime had been plotted months in advance. And yet, execution of the crime was sloppy. They left blood smears in their returned rental car, and Leopold lost his glasses near where they stashed the lad’s body. In fact, they left many other clues. They weren’t serial killers, they were amateurs and didn’t need the ransom money. They killed to prove they could. When caught, they confessed and pleaded guilty. Several investigators suspected Loeb had killed before.

1924 was the same year True Detective was founded by health nut and eccentric Bernarr MacFadden. It featured semi-glossies of criminals, damsels in distress, and bold avengers in mock comic book form. It ripped tabloid headlines from newspapers and spun sensational crimes of passion and intrigue. Rape and sexuality were taboo—murder and detection of the crime ‘led & bled’ on the pages. That changed in the 60s when a new sensationalist—anything goes attitude emerged (and peaked in the 70’s). The 80’s and 90’s saw the rise of tabloid TV crime shows and movies, and crime paperbacks had a ‘hey day.’  Through the 60’s and 70’s, I read 100s of fiction murder classics, everything from Poe’s Murders in Rue Morgue and Haycroft’s 1940 original edition of Murder for Pleasure to early crime fiction by Wilkie Collins, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and Ellery Queen.

I entered the world of Jack the Ripper after reading a 1960 fiction by Colin Wilson, Ritual in the Dark, discovered in a damp, disorderly used book shop in Washington D.C. one muggy summer day. In quick succession, I found and read Wilson’s The Outsider and a reprint of his 1960 Evening Standard article My Search for Jack the Ripper. His 1971 book The Occult made two brief references to Jack the Ripper. I was hooked. There were 1,000 questions to answer. Had Jack been a ‘nobody or a somebody,’ male or female, a wolf in sheep’s clothing or misogynistic madman? I made my first ‘pilgrimage to London’s East End in the early 80’s. An air of dereliction mixed with East End quaintness and impending redevelopment. The area was awash in cultural and political graffiti, flaking posters, and a few spectacular murals—but not a single sign indicated where a Ripper murder occurred.

As the Ripper murder’s centennial anniversary approached, I found a few books by noted Ripper sleuths and posers. I found Stephen Knight’s The Final Solution (1976); Daniel Farson’s Jack the Ripper (1973); Jones and Elwyn’s Ripper File; some True Detective reprints by Leonard Gribble; Brewer’s 1888 docudrama novel The Curse of Mitre Square; and Tom Cullen’s Autumn of Terror. I got distracted by marriages, divorces, moves, college, and other famous murders and unsolved crimes. The Lindbergh kidnapping reminded me of the clumsy mistakes made by Leopold and Loeb. The Son of Sam and Manson spree killings seemed contrived, for lack of a better word, as if there was another villain behind the villain. The gruesome Black Dahlia murder and resulting research into earlier torso killings and the illogicalness behind this butchery made my head and heart hurt.

In the 90’s, with my own minor crimes of passion, omission, and commission mostly behind me, and an abiding, insatiable curiosity about all things macabre, esoteric, symbolic, and unsolved intact, I attended a local Fortfest Conference. Colin Wilson was the keynote speaker. I had nearly 50 of his books, and hauled the entire lot to the conference. Graciously, he signed every book while hosting a lively gathering in the hotel bar. I paid the bar tab, ouch! I went down the Ripper rabbit hole that night, and haven’t emerged since! Many questions have been answered regarding this first ‘mass-media’ murder spree—via reading and rereading, debating with fellow Ripper enthusiasts and sages, absorbing and examining evidence presented at the dozen Ripper Conferences I’ve attended, and via many long days journeys into the darkness. Despite conclusions reached in many Ripper books, unanswered questions remain beyond the obvious. For example, what men might Jack have killed? Are there any Ripper offspring living today? What other evidence are the police holding back? Why do the crimes of Jack the Ripper live on, given the relatively low body count and short ‘time-crime’ span of ten weeks? Is it because of the invention of the telegraph, which allowed newspapers to print graphic details of Ripper crimes within hours of occurrence? Perhaps there’s another reason—the media seemed to only have room for one sensational ‘celebrity’ murderer at a time—Jack has hogged the spotlight since 1888 and continues to hold our interest.

Before I moved to East Tennessee, I read that some attribute murders committed in 1790’s-1800 by Micajah and Wiley Harpe to be the first documented serial killer crimes. The Harpe brothers lived for a time in Knoxville, TN (where a 2008 Ripper Conference I attended was held).  

Unfortunately, the Ripper crimes have created ‘Spawn of Ripper’ waves of serial rapes, abductions, and murders, and press driven coverage ever since, which has given the Ripper a persona much larger than any other Jack; larger than Jack the Giant Killer, larger than a box of Cracker Jacks. His identity has turned him into a nimble ‘Jack of all Trades,’ a jack rabbit procreating cottage industries and attracting the attention of serious memorabilia collectors and scholars. Copycat Ripper killers, sadly, are alive and well in the 21st century. Do we give them power by studying them? What do I know? What do any of us really know about why someone would kill another human being just because he or she can?

Do we sleep better thinking ‘our Jack’ had a conscious, and his/her final Freudian act was the best decision of all—to commit suicide as several of the suspects did? Hundreds of years earlier, the East End was outside old Roman wall boundaries of London City proper. It contained small hamlets, open meadows, and royal hunting grounds that eventually gave way to artisan shops, and smelly trades (like tanning, rope/cable making, rendering, and gunpowder production). Historian John Strype (1720) called it, “that part beyond the tower.”

The Victorians were cover up specialists—men wore beards, women donned three layers of clothing; they created intricate ornamental woodwork and cast iron, and rigid codes and protocols. In Jack’s time, there was added stigma attached to being an East Ender. The half penny presses and music halls made fun of its denizens, the refugees; Russian, German, Irish, and Jewish radicals and immigrants; wharf rats and ladies of the alleyways. Jack’s murders put the East End on the map, and brought much needed attention to this neglected spot. Perhaps a lack of empathy caused the East End to degrade? Or was it due in part to the medieval system of copy hold—the leasing of land and the low pay earned by dock and piece workers; overcrowding and accompanying poverty and disease; and a cacophony of opposing cultures vying for space to eke out a living?

The Victorian period was the last one before advent of rapid technology. Can technology reach back and track Jack or other killers today? Regardless of approaching the Ripper mystery as occultist, amateur sleuth, or seasoned detective, the aim remains similar—to redress an old wrong, find the guilty, and bring solace to the family/friends of the victims. What impels some of us is the possibility the murderer might slink away in the fog of our collective memory. We continue our unrelenting pursuit. There’s actually little chance of forgetting Jack anytime soon. The History Channel runs fall seasonal specials on Jack and American Rippers (like H. H. Holmes & LA Ripper). US prime time TV introduced Time After Time (loosely based on Jack’s and H. G. Well’s time machine adventure, and almost weekly Jack gets a mention in sci fi and horror show reruns. There’s a cottage industry of Ripper memorabilia, 1000s of books—from poetic Bloody Versicles (…and in the end, when they were dead, he left London, never to return again) to Encyclopedias of Murder, Halloween costumes, and greeting cards, such as “They will never find your body…(wait for it) hotter than I do.”

Our technology replete 21st century has birthed new predators, armed with a multitude of shiny new weapons; it’s also given us programmed robots and Terminator-esque artificial people. We emulate serial killers by dressing our kids in Jason hockey masks and slasher costumes, arming them with rubber daggers and meat cleavers. We hold Murder Mystery parties and play armchair detective while watching crime reality shows, and OK, I admit it, I bought an official CSI lab and fingerprint kit. Scarier still is the field of microbiology, which has outkilled mass murderers, rampaging saber-tooth tigers, and the fury of volcanos. About 100 years ago, the influenza pandemic killed ~100 million of us. Earlier, the Black Death decimated Europe’s population by 1/3 to ½. Today we deal with Government altered viruses, killer flus, and the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. So far, we’ve adapted, a bit like germs.

A strong desire to uncover the dark underbellies of killers seems deeply strange to some. Perhaps we are crime empaths that ‘feel the pain of victims.’ If that sounds a bit paranoid, consider what Charles Manson once said “Total paranoia is total consciousness.” By studying the Ripper crimes in depth over several decades, I came to appreciate that perpetrating someone’s violent death requires a vastly different type of energy and preparation than what’s required by dying at the hands of said perpetrator. Of her suicide attempts, Sylvia Plath said, “you might say I have a calling…” Are serial killers born with a calling for killing? Are serial killers simply population control specialists?

I’ve wondered about our fixation with sanitized images of death—as depicted by the media, TV shows, movies, and murder/mystery/thriller books of the week. As time constrained beings with ticking heart clocks, are we trying to make death appear banal, less harmful? Our death and mourning vocabulary seems rather limited, as is the realization that every year we pass the date of our future death. Perhaps George Carlin and Benjamin Button (a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)  had the right idea about dying—in reverse—with the last memory being—an orgasm. Murder victims don’t get to choose how they die; they seldom get to say goodbye. Nor do we know what their last thought was. It might well be to demand justice or it might be as simple as a line from an Emily Dickenson poem, “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” If we’re lucky, murder victims do leave clues to be interpreted.

Writer/activist Susan Sontag, years before her death from cancer, wrote about it as “an obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing we can’t control.” A violent death should offend every one of us. One glance at a history book reveals humans are vengeful, determined, mercurial beings. We are composed of truth and sensation seekers that want to clear the wrongly accused or see our names in print; we are pattern detectors, rabbit hole jumpers, and clue junkies, both squeamish and immune to blood and gore; we are Ripperologists (a term coined by the late, great Colin Wilson) and serious and casual crime buffs. With groups and societies spread from the US and UK to China and Australia, I’d like to think Ripperologists never sleep. Someone is always on the job deciphering new evidence and trying to solve this dastardly crime or a related crime.  

In recent centuries, crime detection has reached new heights. We use fingerprints, DNA and trace particle testing, take copious photos of crime scenes, and scavenge for minute clues that are entered into relational databases worldwide.   We have also developed new methods of psychological profiling (beyond what, why, where, how, when, & who), as well as digital forensics, weapon detection, hidden surveillance, and facial reconstruction. There are agencies galore devoted to crime detection and solving: Department of Justice, New Scotland Yard and SOCA, CIA, NSA, SWAT, NCIS, FBI, CSI, MI6, and Interpol… and Government web sites dedicated to posting Most Wanted lists; statistics on serial killers, their victims, and methods; and citizen expose sites and advanced degrees in criminology/investigation.

I make no mistake nor do my colleagues regarding the seriousness of crime solving and the delicacy of telling the victims stories. This is not a game nor a hobby for the bored. In pursuit of Jack (or Jill) and 1000s of murderers that (so far) have ‘gotten away with it,’ we have done our diligence, scouring every part of London and other cities (on foot) where a suspect or person of interest has lived or visited. We have read countless newspapers, journals, and books, and amassed bookcase buckling libraries devoted to Jack and peripheral subjects like classes/occupations in Victorian England; changing faces of the East End; conditions of the poor; art, geography, and architecture; and on and on. We’ve attended week long conferences and seminars, wrote non-fictional books and imaginative stories, and put up dozens of excellent Ripper devoted web sites.

Jack’s canonical victims were all females, though there are theories Jack might have been a Jill—a backstreet abortionist or a jealous woman hating woman. A 2014 article in Psychology Today said “only 10% of murders in the US are committed by women.” Historically and worldwide, the number rises to 20%. Are these numbers accurate or are women simply better at not getting caught or kill without the gore and don’t get noticed by the media? There has been a drop in serial killings in the 21st century (highest in the 1980s), or has the word terrorism replaced the former word? A national news headline announced “smarter serial killers prefer bombs and poison to guns.” Is this so surprising in our changing world of fewer traditions, increased apathy, and massive misinformation and misdirection? The grimmest info revealed was that then—and now—serial killers do it because they can. You are also more likely to be a serial killer’s victim if you are between ages 15-31, white, and living in 1 of 5 US states (didn’t collect international victim stats). This info could be biased as less info was collected 1900-1960s.

What does this mean? Have agencies, forensic sciences, web sites, dog eared books, algorithms, and amateur sleuths done some good by better analyzing evidence and catching killers before they ‘serialize’ their kill skills? Are courts keeping killers in jail longer? Are we getting smarter about avoiding dark alleys, rides and hook ups with strangers, and are more guarded regarding giving out personal information? Are we getting better at snitching and profiling? For me, it means we must be ever vigilant, ever on guard, and never forget we are their advocates—there must be atonement—justice for victims.

How will you know if you encounter a potential or actual killer? It’s not always obvious, not all killers have god complexes, odd ticks and obsessions, or obvious flaws. Some just seem like average Jo’s, er Joes… Apologies, there is little levity in murder, though a few crime museums boast you’ll have ‘scary fun’ if you let them terrify you.  We giggle at the bumbling of an incompetent criminal or a cartoon about a body drawn in chalk making the victim look fat; it’s a way of coping with the ghastly. We even circulate Ripper jokes found in old newspapers, like “I am glad we have had no snow this winter. Why? It seems to have kept Jack the Ripper from going slaying.” Or, Winnie the Pooh and Jack the Ripper both share the same middle name—coincidence?

There are so many injustices to right for victims that have no voice. I urge you to take up the good fight and find a crime to solve. We have many communication outlets, resources, brains, and a brilliant array of tools to keep us safe (pepper spray, stun & air guns, loud voice, whistle, flashlight). Writing this article reminded me the books I’ve been reading since childhood contain a wealth of information about heroes, predators, and hapless victims. Please stay safe, pay attention to the smallest detail, and brush up on basic defense maneuvers (like SING-hit the stomach, instep, nose, or groin). I leave you with a quote from Ben Franklin, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected (by murder) are as outraged as those who are,” And one from W H Auden “society has to take the place of the victim and on his/her behalf demand atonement.”

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