18. Some claimed – falsely – to have been Jack the Ripper
Frederick Deeming ran away from a troubled home at the age of 16, going to sea before settling for a time in Sydney, Australia. There he developed the habit of stealing from his employers, for which he served six weeks in jail. In 1887 he was charged with fraud. Released on bail, he disappeared for a time. Subsequent investigations into his crimes revealed he had been active in various scams in South Africa before returning to Britain in 1889. While there he murdered his wife, along with their four children, burying them under the floors of their house in Rainhall, near Liverpool. Having only recently arrived, he told anyone questioning the whereabouts of the four victims they were his sister and her children, and had only been there to help him settle in to his new home. Shortly after, he remarried under an assumed name.
In 1891 Deeming and his new wife relocated to Melbourne, with Deeming still using an assumed name. On Christmas Eve, 1891, Deeming murdered his wife, burying her body under a hearth in their home. After he was caught by Australian authorities, police in Liverpool investigated the missing woman and four children there. Deeming was tried, convicted, and hanged in Melbourne. Before he died, he wrote an autobiography while in jail. In the autobiography, which authorities burned, he allegedly claimed he was Jack the Ripper. He repeated the claim to fellow inmates and guards. However, the extensive investigation by Australian authorities revealed he was not in London during the time of the Whitechapel Murders. Nonetheless, Ripperologists continue to present Deeming as Jack the Ripper today. Some contend the evidence supports no other suspect as well as the wife murderer and scam artist.
Over 132 years after the terrorizing of Whitechapel in 1888, the range of the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper remains in dispute. Did the Ripper murder just five, as Macnaghten postulated in 1894, or only three, as others contend? Were the murders preceding the canonical five, of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly also perpetrated by Jack the Ripper? How about the several murders which occurred in and around Whitechapel following those five? Did the killer flee to America, or Canada, or Australia, or to parts unknown to continue his gruesome spree? When did Jack the Ripper stop killing and why? For over a century these and other questions have continued to remain unanswered, though some claim to have definitively answered them, contrary to the known facts. Jack the Ripper not only can’t be caught, he also continues to defy definition.
The motives for the killings remain equally elusive. The original investigators dismissed the killings of being sexually motivated, though some later disputed them. Modern criminal profiling points to several of the contemporaneous suspects as likely the killer, indicating there was at least more than one Ripper. DNA evidence points “conclusively” to two suspects, leading to the same conclusion. They too, are disputed by DNA scientists and forensic experts. Disputes over the number of victims, locations of killings, police mishandling of evidence, missing evidence, and other discrepancies continue to feed speculation. It does not provide the knowledge of who Jack the Ripper really was. It’s unlikely it ever will.
Jack the Ripper as he is known today is the creation of a sensationalist press in London, and later around the world, in the late 19th century. Since the murders of 1888, the case has grown ever more sensationalized with each retelling. There is no doubt a serial killer, or killers prowled the dark streets of Whitechapel during those frightening weeks that fall. The police sought the killer to the best of their ability, asking the public for help. The press served the same public a steadily increasing diet of speculation, fear-mongering, and gruesome details. They spiced it with anti-Semitic innuendo and attacks on the immigrant population of Whitechapel and its environs. They did so to the extent the police were forced to keep much of what they knew at the time quiet, to avoid rioting in the streets and recriminations against some members of the community.
The failure to officially arrest and convict the killer known as Jack the Ripper created a cottage industry which has grown ever since, and continues to grow with each new revelation in the case. It was the press who gave him his name. Reporters and journalists wrote the majority of the letters attributed to him, hoaxers the rest. Yet the authenticity of nearly all the letters remains subject to challenges by those supporting or rejecting each new hypothesis. The truth is, some people don’t want Jack the Ripper to be conclusively identified; it’s simply too much fun looking for him. It’s profitable too, thousands of books have been published on the subject of the Ripper and the many suspects in his case. Some are based on factual scholarship, some are complete fiction, and some straddle the gap in between. But to date, none have proved beyond dispute the identity of Jack the Ripper.