B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S03E05 Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper. *Deep sigh.* Okay, let’s do this.

Silhouette of a man on a brick wall. A woman a red dress that looks kind of Victoriany in the dark and from the back walks along. Still, the electronic music is suitably dramatic and Nimoy gives a lovely delivery to his cliché driven oration. “The files of Scotland Yard” indeed.

The woodcut killer strikes again

The woman tries to  hurry away from the approaching camera but then stops and turns. Oh great, we were doing first person from the murderer’s perspective. I was fine when the camera was playing first person with Bigfoot, but the Ripper? I’m not sure I want to see the world from his POV.

Anyway, we see a heavily disguised and shadowed man approach the woman, who screams. Cut to black. Pan across London at twilight. Now this is interesting. Nightime London isn’t as brightly lit as today. In the 1970s, if you filmed in low light what you’d see was not too obviously unlike 1880s London.

Nimoy waxes lyrical about the wealth and power of the British Empire, comparing that to the poverty and squalor of the East End. Trouble is, when they film some extras playing Victorian Eastenders, they and their surroundings are so clean. There’s some trash ostentatiously spread on the ground in one shot, but this only emphasises the lack of muddy rat-filled streets and sooty, poster-encrusted walls.

Nimoy is in a book lined office, wearing a suit. He assures us that even though Jack murdered the poor and destitute, his deeds affected ‘the most powerful in the land.’ Ugh. It’s like Shakespeare conspiracists, isn’t it? It always has to be someone posh.

We see the clean extras again. One is Mary Anne Nichols, begging for a free bed. Huh. This went out on free to air TV in the 1970s, so are we skipping the whole sex worker thing? A pair of leather shoes beneath a frock-coat, the universal symbol of Jack the Ripper. Mary goes off to sell her bonnet.

Now we’re talking to Wendy Sturgess, a woman who looks like a maths teacher but is a BBC reporter. She talks about overcrowding and poverty in the East End. Her speech on the squalor of the area contrasts horribly with the cleanliness of the actors. Man, those guys wash up good, I tell you.

Now we’re talking to Donald Rumbelow, a member of the Metropolitan Police. He talks about women walking the streets, and how little they charged for sex. Okay, I guess we’re not skipping that bit.

Looking at cool old engravings from 19th Century newspapers. This episode isn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. Rumbelow talks about how the Ripper would have strangled his victims into unconsciousness first before bringing out the knife. My usual structure requires me to put a joke here. Can’t really think of one, but.

Back to the woman in the red dress from before, who turns out to be Anne Chapman. And now someone writing a letter – the infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter, now widely believed to be a fraud. The letter is written in a sort of semi-literate way (or what a literate person imagined a semi-literate way) but the voiceover guy they have reading it is so posh it comes off silly. Nimoy claims that this letter contains ‘all too accurate predictions of his next plans’ but really no it doesn’t. Google it and see,

Now watching Catherine Eddows walking home alone through the tidy, tidy streets. The Ripper just jumps out at her. Elizabeth Stride had already been murdered that night. Se see a hand moving Catherine’s belongings around. Was he leaving clues to his identity?

Now a guy who looks like a science teacher, author Stephen Knight. He’s a true crime writer, so he knows what he’s doing… He talks about the chalk graffiti found near Eddows’ body, but we’re not shown exactly what it said. Nimoy claims it implicates the Freemasons. Okay, finally! Conspiracy time. Knight claims that the commissioner of police personally wiped off the graffiti.

What did the graffiti say? The episode doesn’t say, but it said ‘the Juwes are not the ones who will be blamed for nothing.’ There is not the slightest bit of evidence that this graffiti was left by the Ripper. Graffiti was common, as was anti-antisemitism, and that’s really all you need to explain that message. But to the conspiracy minded, the misspelling of ‘Jews’ is actually deeply significant because it is said to tangentially connect with a piece of Masonic lore.

Anyway, we’re assured that the commissioner destroyed the message because Masons.

Back with Wendy Sturgess, she talks about the Masons and how little is known about them unless you talk to an ex-Mason. Good point. Side note: ex-Masons have been spilling their guts on the public record since at least the 18th century. You could fill a small library with what they’ve gone on the record as saying about their ‘secret order’. Just sayin’. Anyway, Sturgess gradually gets around to making a link between Masonic secrecy and the Ripper murders.

Nimoy goes into a potted history on the Masons. Some famous Freemasons – Frederick the Great and George Washington. Masonic imagery on the US dollar bill. But the Earl of Caernarvon, head of the British Masons in the 1880s was the most powerful Mason of all! Mu hu ha ha ha! (Side note – Caernarvon is never mentioned again).

Knight talks about Masonic secrecy arguing first that it is ‘pantomime’. But then he claims that in the case of the Ripper, a Mason took the violent oaths of secrecy literally and slashed the throats of some women. Now we’re going into talking about British Royalty.

Sigh. Okay, this nonsense was fun when Alan Moore took it and gave it a polish. But wringing good stories out of dud source material is kind of Moore’s thing. I was going to save this rant for the end, but do you know the interesting thing about Jack the Ripper? He may not have existed. Yup, basically the East End was a violent place, and vicious creeps murder sex workers — partly because police aren’t keen on investigating and partly just because of straight-up misogyny. Brutal murders happened, and if by pure random chance you had several brutal murders taking place relatively close to one another in time and space it’s easy to assume the same culprit.

Exactly how many victims the Ripper had has been disputed because there are similar murders outside of ‘the canonical five’ — as I said, things like that happened. The ‘Dear Boss’ letter and others were mostly fakes written to drum up business for the newspapers or as a sick means of identifying with the killer. The logistics of how a killer murdered Eddows and Stride on the same night has been argued to death, but if no one had to move unseen between the murder sites the question vanishes.

So the question of ‘who is Jack the Ripper’ must surely come second to the bigger question: ‘was there a Jack the Ripper?’

Anyway, that’s my rant because now we’re going into the whole Royal connection on the Ripper, which is so damn stupid. The British monarchy was instrumental in the invasion of vast and ancient nations, and in the enslavement of millions. Aren’t those enough crimes to lay at their door? Do we really need for them to be responsible for a handful of squalid murders as well?

Okay, camera rolling through the East End. Pretty. And moving on to the Home Office and Dr J. M. Cameron  who will talk about sketchy record keeping on the Ripper case. He’s a beefy, balding man who looks like he makes it his business to exasperate Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, but actually he’s a soft spoken fellow who talks about how modern British coppers would be ashamed to have used such poor evidentiary practices as their Victorian counterparts.

The most interesting thing he has to say is that he rejects the idea that the Ripper was a medical man or a butcher or anyone with anatomical knowledge.

Now we’re moving on to Marie Kelley. This was the most brutal of the murders, and Nimoy plays that gruesome side up. Well you would, wouldn’t you? And we’re wondering how the Ripper made his escape. Sturgess suggests that a local would not have been able to get away with it because he would have been seen covered with blood. A middle class person? Would have needed a cab, so why didn’t the cabbie talk? Therefore: an aristocrat. The fact that an aristocrat with his own carriage would have attracted attention in Whitechapel just by being there is not mentioned.

Now looking at some suspects. John Pizer, Neal Cream, George Chapman, Montegue Druitt, the Duke of Clarence. This last one is the lead in to the Royal Conspiracy. Nimoy’s narration tries to place Queen Victoria in a weak position, with her power subject to disruption from scandal. Actually, by the 1880s her position was incredibly strong, and her personal popularity had never been higher.

The Prince of Wales’ private scandals are mentioned, as was the Duke of Clarence’s alleged syphilis. Nimoy claims that ‘some thought one more family scandal would be enough to bring down the entire empire.’ If some thought that, they were flat wrong.

Now an extra playing Sir William Gull, the queen’s physician, was seen in Whitechapel on nights that the murders occurred. Yeah, Gull’s been a popular suspect but I don’t recall any eyewitnesses, yet some bobbies tip their helmets to the reenactor playing him.

Next up, a vague description of a man the police were looking for, compared with a picture of the Duke. The description says ‘fair skinned’ and the Duke seems to have a dark complexion. Oh and now they’re just flat-out making up evidence. The Ripper wore a deerstalker hat and cape on the nights of the murders. Did he? And then we’re told this these are clothes that the Duke could easily obtain. Yes, sure. Same as anyone, I guess. You know, you take your money into a hat shop and say ‘deerstalker, please’. Usually does the trick.

Anyway, we’re claiming that the Duke was the only suspect who was a Mason, which differs from other conspiracy theories and also seems impossible to verify, if the Masons are as secretive as claimed.

But evidence against the Duke came to light in 1970, when Dr  Thomas Stole claimed that Dr Gull’s diaries proved that the Duke was the murderer. He later recanted, and died shortly after. Two days later, his son claimed to have burned his father’s evidence.

Why do conspirators murder investigators? It just proves that the investigators were right, apparently.

Nimoy sums up, pointing out that the Ripper was the first internationally famous murderer. Nimoy claims this is the most  important part of his legacy. You know what? It probably was.

So I argued with this episode more than I intended. Sorry about that. I’m not trying to defend anybody here, but seriously. Do you want to hate the British Monarchy? There are plenty of sound reasons to do that. Want to hate the Masons? Go ahead. Be my guest. But the whole Ripper conspiracy… It’s just silly. That’s what it is. It’s a way at avoiding the real issues of the Ripper murders.

Violence against women is endemic in our society. Sex workers in particular are murdered at a grossly disproportionate rate compared to the general population. That’s a fact that says some truly horrible things about our society and the people who live in it. And it’s not a problem that’s going to be solved by positing conspiracies. It’s just not.


“If he was [a doctor] or if he were then he should have been struck off the medical register because of his technique.” – Dr Cameron.

“Some theorise today that for the murderer to repeatedly escape there probably was a conspiracy involving Buckingham Palace.” – Nimoy. Some theorise, probably. That’s weasel-word bingo, I think.

Summing Up

Cleanest slums ever: 10/10, Plausible explanation: 3/10, Reenactments: 6/10, Nimoyness: 6/10, Music: 7/10. Overall: 32/50. Pass.

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B.G. Hilton - Author