Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories
Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Michelle Powell-Smith - October 25, 2016

The murders of Jack the Ripper are one of the most famous unsolved crimes. Remarkable for both their graphic brutality and the Ripper letters, discussion and theories about the identity of the Ripper continue today. More suspects than we can name have been suggested as possible candidates for the Ripper killings; however, we’ll just discuss a few. Let’s note, these were some of the most interesting suspect theories, not necessarily the most likely, the most famous or the only ones. They range from sailors executed for murder to the heir to the British throne.

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Walter Sickert

In 2002, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell published her own take on Jack the Ripper. In Portrait of a Killer—Jack the Ripper Case Closed, Cornwell argued that the serial killer called Jack the Ripper was painter Walter Sickert. Sickert had been connected to the case by two earlier authors in 1976 and 1990, either as the killer or an unwilling accomplice.

Cornwell relied heavily on Sickert’s art to support her argument, believing that his work is clearly misogynistic. She suggested that he was sexually impotent following surgery to correct a medical condition involving his penis. A falling out with artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler may have, according to Cornwell, triggered the killings. In addition, she believed that the Ripper letters were authentic, and sent by the Ripper and used these to provide evidence for Sickert’s guilt. She has since claimed to have linked paper used in the Ripper letters to paper purchased by Sickert’s mother and claims a mitochondrial DNA link to Sickert in the stamp from one of the letters.

There are many questions about Sickert’s potential role in the killings, but many historians of the Ripper murders disagree with Cornwell’s theory. It’s widely believed that the Ripper letters were hoaxes, and not sent by the killer. The evidence cited by Cornwell to support sexual impotence could refer to an anal fistula, leaving his penis intact. Sickert certainly had access to reports of the Ripper killings, which could have inspired his paintings. In addition, there is significant evidence to suggest that Sickert was not in England at the time of four of the five killings, but was abroad in France. Mitochondrial DNA provides a relatively minimal link; several million people in Britain at the time could have had the same mitochondrial DNA profile.

While Cornwell presents an interesting argument, if Sickert wasn’t in England, he couldn’t have been the Ripper. It is possible that the Ripper killings inspired his art, or even that he was, in some way, involved in the Ripper letters.

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Aaron Kosminski

Aaron Kosminski was a Jewish Polish immigrant working some of the time as a hairdresser or barber in the Whitechapel area at the time of the Ripper killings. Kosminski and his family moved to London around 1881. By 1890, Kosminski was admitted first to a London workhouse, and later to an insane asylum, apparently for threatening a woman with a knife.

Police officials considered a “Kosminski” among their suspects, but it is unknown whether or not this was the same individual. It certainly seems likely. Police records show that their suspect had both a hatred of women and homicidal tendencies. Kosminski suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, experiencing hallucinations and a variety of unusual behaviors.

While Kosminski was certainly mentally unwell, and was present in Whitechapel during the time of the Ripper killings, once institutionalized, he was described as peaceful. He chose to speak exclusively Yiddish in the asylum, suggesting poor English skills. In addition, the final canonical Ripper killing took place in 1888; Kosminski was free for three additional years. Finally, the police notes suggest that Kosminski died soon after being committed; however, Aaron Kosminski lived until 1919.

British author and Ripperologist Russell Edwards has purchased part of a shawl worn by Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. Edwards claims to have matched mitochondrial DNA on the shawl to descendants of Catherine Eddowes and Aaron Kosminski. Many experts have questioned this DNA match, both in terms of accuracy, and contamination. No shawl is listed among the possessions of Eddowes in police records, and the descendants were present with the shawl and could have caused modern contamination.

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Prince Albert Victor

Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, the grandson of Queen Victoria, was the most famous of all Ripper suspects. Called Eddy, the prince was reported to be rather dull and not overly bright. He would, had he outlived his father, have been heir to the British crown.

The Prince was not considered a suspect at the time of the killings, but began to appear in books on Jack the Ripper after 1962 and more extensively after the publication of Dr. Thomas Stowell’s article, “A Solution”. Stowell, claimed to rely upon papers from the royal physical, Sir Thomas Gull.

Stowell claimed that the Prince had contracted syphilis, and became insane as a result of brain lesions associated with the disease. Stowell also claimed the cause of the prince’s death was faked; however, Gull died prior to Prince Albert Victor. Royal records show that the Prince was not present in London on the dates of the various Ripper killings.

Other ripperologists have linked Prince Albert Victor to the Ripper killings in other ways. Some have suggested that James Stephens, the Prince’s tutor at Cambridge, was the Ripper. Stephens suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1887, leading to madness. While there are no known instances of violence, Stephens produced a number of poems that are quite violent toward women.

It has been suggested that James Stephens and Prince Albert Victor had a romantic and sexual relationship, and at least one theory suggests that Albert Victor was an accomplice to the crimes. More extensive theories claim a royal conspiracy in which the Ripper killings were actually part of a cover-up of a royal scandal.

Prince Albert Victor could not, simply by virtue of his location, be the Ripper. As to James Stephens, he had no connections with the Whitechapel area and was never known to be violent.

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Francis Spurzheim Craig

Francis Craig is a recent addition to the list of Ripper suspects. Craig, a reporter and journalist, was certainly present at the Ripper inquests, but a 2015 book suggests that he was, in fact, Jack the Ripper. In 1884, Craig married Elizabeth Weston Davies, but only months after their wedding it became clear that Weston Davies was a prostitute.

According to author Wynne Weston-Davies, in his 2015 book The Real Mary Kelly, Elizabeth Weston Davies left her husband and went into hiding in Whitechapel, under the name Mary Kelly. Craig followed her to Whitechapel, and took lodgings near where the murders took place. Weston-Davies suggests that Craig killed the other prostitutes to cover up his real plan and intent; to murder his wife.

Divorce papers certainly support the idea that Elizabeth Weston-Davies left her husband, and was a prostitute. Craig was a journalist, and could have written the well-known Ripper letters, and would likely have opted to send them out as the Ripper did; however, these letters are widely thought to be a hoax.

Several years after the Ripper killings, Craig committed suicide, leaving a note that stated that he had experienced great pain. He killed himself by slitting his own throat with a razor, although it took four days for him to die after being found by his landlady.

The British courts have granted the author and descendant of Elizabeth Weston Davies permission to exhume the body of Mary Jane Kelly for DNA testing. If Mary Jane Kelly was really Elizabeth Weston Davies, this would provide potential evidence for Craig’s motive. That said, the author, Wynne Weston-Davies, fails to successfully argue his case, providing no clear link between Elizabeth Weston Davies and Mary Jane Kelly.

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Carl Ferdinand Feigenbaum

In April 1896, Carl Ferdinand Feigenbaum was executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York. Upon leaving the execution, his attorney, William S. Lawton, stated that he believed Feigenbaum to have been Jack the Ripper.

Evidence about Feigenbaum’s life is quite minimal, and he often lied to police. He was German-born, and worked as a sailor for much of his life. He may or may not have been married and had children. He arrived in the United States in the early 1890s, and killed his landlady, Mrs. Julianna Hoffman, in 1894. He was put to death for Hoffman’s murder.

According to Lawton, Feigenbaum had confessed a desire to mutilate and kill every woman he saw. Lawton stated that Feigenbaum put on an act of insanity or mental weakness regularly, and had confirmed that he was in London on the dates of at least two of the Ripper killings. Lawton’s co-counsel disagreed with Lawton’s belief that Feigenbaum was the Ripper.

Author Trevor Marriott reinvestigated Carl Ferdinand Feigenbaum in his 2005 book, Jack the Ripper: the 21st Century Investigation. Marriott believed that the killer was a seaman, sailing into port, killing and leaving rapidly. He goes on to connect a number of other Ripper-like murders in Europe and the Americas, noting that the murders ceased after Feigenbaum’s execution.

While Feigenbaum was witnessed killing Hoffmann, the evidence that he was Jack the Ripper is quite scarce. It’s unclear if he even spoke English well, and there is no confirmation that he was present for the Ripper killings or any possibly linked killings. In addition, Marriott’s attempt to link together a range of murders produces several clear challenges, including logistics and evidence of other motives or actions. Some of the murders listed were not, in fact, murders, but accidental deaths, or clear crimes of passion.

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Francis Thompson

English poet Francis Thompson has also been considered as a possible suspect in the Ripper killings. Thompson was first identified as a suspect in 1986, in an article written by an American pathologist. More recently, author Richard Patterson has worked to elaborate on this theory.

At the time of the Ripper killings, Thompson was a failed medical student, having attended medical school for some six years. While he did poorly on exams, according to his family, he was enthusiastic about dissection and anatomy. He was addicted to opium and, by this time, largely living on the streets in Spitalfields, very near where Mary Kelly was found. He had had an unsuccessful relationship with an East End prostitute, and may have known Mary Kelly.

Thompson was a devout Catholic, having trained unsuccessfully to be a priest. All of the Ripper killings occurred on specific saints’ days in the Catholic calendar, and the police believed the killer was likely Catholic.

Not long after the final murder, Thompson’s editor removed him from Spitalfields. For the remainder of his life, his encounters, finances and other factors were tightly controlled. After Thompson’s death, his editor destroyed his personal papers. Thompson’s writing, both before and after the murders, showed a strong interest in the mutilation of women’s bodies with knives.

Thompson certainly did have an interest in killing and mutilating women, was in the area, and was controlled and his movements limited not long after the final murder. He had both the interest in Catholicism and medical training suspected of the Ripper. He was known to carry a knife in his coat. While there is no hard proof of Thompson’s guilt, he does meet the criteria for a viable suspect in the crime. There is no evidence that clearly eliminates Thompson from the possible suspect list.

Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

Lizzie Williams

Was Jack the Ripper really Jill the Ripper? While most Ripper theories point directly toward male suspects, John Morris’ Jack the Ripper: The Hand of a Woman suggests a very different suspect profile, and suspect. Lizzie Williams was the wife of an obstetrician and abortionist, Sir John Williams. Her husband has also been suggested as a possible Ripper suspect.

Morris’ evidence for a female Ripper is relatively scarce. He points out that none of the Ripper victims were raped, and suggests that the positioning of their possessions was feminine. Buttons from a woman’s boot were found near one of the victims, and burnt female clothing was found in the fire where Mary Kelly was found. These items have not been connected to any of the victims. Morris suggests a personal link, believing that Sir John Williams was having an affair with Mary Kelly. According to Morris, Lizzie had a nervous breakdown not long after the last murder.

Murder does not happen without motive. Lizzie’s only possible motive, suggested Morris, was her own infertility. He connects her infertility to the removal of the uterus in three of the Ripper victims.

Most Ripper scholars do not believe that the crimes were committed by a woman. In addition, modern profilers believe that the killer was male. Women who kill rarely do so with this degree of extreme violence; poisoning is far more common. While the victims were not raped, Jack the Ripper has been widely thought to have been a sexual sadist, taking pleasure in his acts, particularly mutilation.

There are a number of other issues with the Lizzie Williams theory. As a woman of the upper classes, Lizzie Williams had limited personal freedoms, and certainly lacked the freedom to wander around Whitechapel in the wee hours of the morning. She had no medical training. There is, in fact, no reason to suggest or believe that Lizzie Williams had the ability or access to be Jack the Ripper.