Book Review : Will the real Jack the Ripper stand up please?

Sarah Bax Horton has written the latest theory: “One Armed Jack, Uncovering the Real Jack the Ripper.”

The man who murdered several prostitutes or destitutes in London’s Whitechapel during a three month window of 1888 wasn’t the world’s first serial killer. But he (or she) was the first to create an ongoing fuss which has survived to the present day. Over one hundred suspects have been identified by authors, or by others seeking to cash in on the tragedies, and they are still appearing on today’s printing presses or whatever technology has replaced the machinery. Even Winnie the Pooh has been jokingly accused on the grounds that she and Jack the Ripper have the same middle name.

Now a new book claims to know the real answer. Sarah Bax Horton has authored her research into local suspect Hyam Hyams who, she claims, was an epileptic and an alcoholic – both key ingredients in most accounts trying to find Jack’s true identity – who was in and out of mental asylums for much of his life. Being mad is always useful in these sordid inquiries. The author, whose book “One Armed Jack: Uncovering the Real Jack the Ripper” comes out this summer, has unearthed medical records which show him to have bent knees and an inability to extend his left arm. Not actual proof, but physical disability sounds about right eh?

Ripper suspects always seem more convincing if they have sharp cutting skills in their occupations. Hyams, who apparently died in 1913, was a cigar manufacturer which involved some cutting one supposes. A number of butchers and slaughters, with a rather more convincing background, were interviewed by police in 1888, but all were released for lack of evidence. Hyams evidently once attacked his wife with a chopper, another useful useful tidbit if you are trying to prove the guy was a serial killer.

One popular suspect from the aristocracy, Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s doctor, was accused by several recent authors of mass murder on the slender grounds that he must have known all about ripping up bodies, removing organs and the like. But the fact that Dr Gull was over 70 years at the time of the murders and had recently suffered a stroke doesn’t help his accusers who are silent on limitations to their theme. Not to mention Dr Thomas Cream who was on the scaffold for unrelated crimes in 1892 when he shouted, “I am Jack the ……” just as the trapdoor opened and silenced him forever.

The physical appearance of Jack the Ripper can prove almost anyone could have been the guilty party. One contemporary witness said he wore a deerstalker hat, another that he was bareheaded. One witness to the Elizabeth Strode murder claimed Jack was well-dressed and with dark hair. But another witness said that the figure in the dark gloom was shabby as well as with fair complexion. Moreover, it always helps to have independent confirmation. Hyam Hams has his “useful” asylum reports, whereas Aaron Kosminki, a Russian immigrant, has been accused on speculative DNA evidence after a shawl belonging to Catherine Eddowes turned up and was subjected to “intense” scientific inquiry. Believe it if you want to. Then there’s the detailed diary of Liverpool merchant James Maybrick, another suspect, which is certainly a fake. Not to mention Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who became a mass murderer after being sexually assaulted as a boy. Or so you are asked to believe.

Hyam Hyams is not a new Ripper suspect, but this book is the first to be devoted to him in particular. But it’s just speculation, boosted by irrelevant information including the claim that the author is a great-granddaughter of a London policeman who was on duty in the Whitechapel district in 1888. The reality is that most of the nineteenth century police files about the Ripper were destroyed during the second world war Blitz. No author after nearly a century and a half can prove the identity of the Ripper. But there’s a certainly profit to be made in fanning the perpetual public interest in serial killers.