Jack the Ripper – The Media Star

In the second part of his article, David Stuart Davies looks at the fictional re-tellings of Jack the Ripper’s grisly deeds.

The crimes of Jack the Ripper were so dramatic and mysterious that it was, perhaps, inevitable that the character should become the focus of various fictional re-tellings. The fact that his identity was never discovered also heightened the appeal of the character. The rich Victorian period, the mist-enshrouded environs of Whitechapel and the grotesque elements of the crimes are meat and drink to the creators of dark entertainment. There is room here to touch on a few of the most notable entries in this particular aspect of the Ripper phenomena.

Let’s start with Sherlock Holmes – after all, he was investigating horrible crimes around the same time as the Ripper was stalking the streets. There have been two movies which have pitched the famous detective against Jack. A Study in Terror (1964) starring John Neville as Holmes, who reveals that the disturbed son of the Duke of Shires is the crazed killer. In 1979 there was Murder by Decree in which Christopher Plummer as the Great Detective unmasks a plot by the government and the Freemasons to cover up the real identity of the murderer who has ‘royal connections’. The plot of this movie involves the notion that Edward, the Duke of Clarence, the queen’s grandson, had fathered a child with a prostitute and the authorities attempt to eliminate both the child and its mother in order to protect the monarchy. It was an idea that was taken up by other versions of the story. This theory was based on Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, a book written by Stephen Knight, first published in 1976. The royal connection was resurrected in the 1997 movie The Ripper.

Holmes is actually revealed as the Ripper in Michael Dibdin’s novel The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978). In this tale Holmes suspects the killer to be his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The surprise ending reveals that Holmes has invented the character of Moriarty due to insanity, and was himself committing the crimes.

Other novels such as The Whitechapel Horrors (1993) by Edward B. Hanna and Dust and Shadow (2009) by Lyndsay Faye take a more traditional route in having Holmes investigating the murders and catching the culprit.

Jack has also become a film star in his own right. Jack the Ripper was a 1959 feature produced and directed by Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, and was loosely based on the theory that the Ripper was an avenging doctor. In 2001 there came From Hell loosely based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. In this movie, Brad Pitt plays Inspector Abberline, a sympathetic police officer whose consumption of drugs causes him to dream scenes from the murders. The plot has elements from Murder by Decree including the Freemasons and the supposed royal connection with the crown.

One of the strangest movies to feature the notorious serial killer is Time After Time (1976) in which the author H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the 20th Century when the serial murderer uses the writer’s Time Machine to escape to the future.

Perhaps the most enjoyable and historically accurate version of the Ripper saga was Jack the Ripper, a TV movie starring Michael Caine. The film was produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Whitechapel murders, and was originally screened on British television in two 90-minute episodes, broadcast on consecutive evenings, in October 1988, to coincide with the dates of some of the original events, advertising itself in advance as providing a solution to the century-old mystery using newly discovered original evidence. The broadcasts were a cause célèbre in English television production in the late 1980s and gained high audience viewing figures with critical acclaim. Caine, who won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV, plays Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard who is assigned to investigate the murders. There is no shortage of suspects. These include the American actor Richard Mansfield (appearing in the play Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London); police surgeon Dr Henry Llewellyn; socialist agitator George Lusk; Queen Victoria’s clairvoyant Robert Lees; the Queen’s grandson Prince Albert Victor (again); and Dr Theodore Dyke Acland, the son-in-law of Sir William Gull, Royal Surgeon to Queen Victoria and expert on diseases of the brain. Abberline faces huge obstacles as he searches for the truth – and hindrance from his superiors. The killer is finally unmasked as Sir William Gull (Ray McNally). Jack the Ripper ends with the following disclaimer:

In the strange case of Jack the Ripper, there was no trial and no signed confession. In 1888, neither fingerprinting nor blood-typing was in use and no conclusive forensic, documentary or eye-witness testimony was available. Thus, positive proof of the Ripper’s identity is not available. We have come to our conclusions after careful study and painstaking deduction. Other researchers, criminologists and writers may take a different view. We believe our conclusions to be true.

New theories regarding the Ripper’s identity continue to surface all the time. Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell came up with Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed in 2002. This nonfiction book presents the theory that Walter Sickert, the British painter, was Jack.

Marie Belloc Lowndes‘ book The Lodger was published in 1914, only two decades after the Ripper murders on which it is based, and has been made into five films: Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Lodger (1932), The Lodger (1944), Man in the Attic (1953) and The Lodger (2009). Hammer Films made it a family affair in their movie Hands of the Ripper, (1971) in which the Ripper’s daughter played by Angharad Rees grows up to become a murderess after she sees her father kill her mother.

This piece has only touched the tip of the Ripper iceberg: there are many other books, plays, documentaries, TV and cinema films out there touching on this dark legend. Don’t worry if you missed any of them, there will be another along any moment now…