An Interview with Ripperologist Richard Jones
Jack the Ripper: What makes the case so fascinating? Some people say it’s the Sherlock Holmes aspect: a riddle and investigation methods everyone can follow. Other people say it offers a window into the history of everyday people like no other genre can. And others say it’s just good old Victorian fear.
How does a “Ripperologist” and Jack-the-Ripper tour guide in London view the case?
One of best-known “Ripperologists” (experts on Jack the Ripper), Richard Jones, joins us today for an interview. He’s been conducting tours of the darker side of London history since 1982, most notably with a nightly Jack the Ripper walk around the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Jones has written several books on the Whitechapel murders (Uncovering Jack the Ripper’s London and Casebook Jack The Ripper) as well as books on Charles Dickens (Walking Dickensian London) and on the myths legends and ghosts of the British Isles. He has also written and produced a documentary on the case “Unmasking Jack the Ripper) and have appeared on several History and Discovery Channel programmes discussing the Whitechapel murders and Victorian crime.
For other posts on Jack the Ripper suspects, see Francis Thompson as a Ripper Suspect: An Interview with Richard Patterson and By the Hand of Another: Jack the Ripper’s Victims.
You are an internationally acclaimed expert on Jack the Ripper. How did you get started?
My start in the field of Ripper studies came about quite by accident. In 1982, I started doing tours of London, mostly angled towards the history of the City. In the course of my research, I began exploring the streets of Whitechapel and, inevitably, the Jack the Ripper case kept cropping up.
To that point, I honestly knew very little about the case. But, on looking into it and visiting archives and libraries, I suddenly realised what a wealth of social history the case actually afforded. From that point on I was hooked.
What does historical true crime offer as a genre that you can’t get in modern true crime books?
It struck me at the time I started researching the tours, and it is something that still fascinates me today, that for a brief period in 1888 the attention of the World’s media was focused on a very small part of east London, and the newspaper reports of the people in that area – police, members of the public, and, of course, the victims – are there for us to look at and read, thus affording us an unrivalled opportunity to almost go back in time and live the terror of the crimes as that terror evolved.
So, in short, researching historical true crime and exploring original sources make us eyewitnesses of long ago events.
Tell me one thing about Jack the Ripper most people don’t know.
He never existed!
There was most certainly a serial killer – in fact, there were probably several serial killers – in London in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. But the name Jack the Ripper was actually unrelated to these, as it was, in fact, the signature on the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, which was sent to a London news agency in late September 1888.
The police made the mistake of releasing this letter to the public and the newspapers gave it wide circulation, to the extent that, by the end of October, 1888, and into the modern age, the man responsible for the crimes became known as the none existent killer “Jack the Ripper.”
Are there any common misconceptions about Jack the Ripper?
Sadly, there are many misconceptions about the Ripper. However, perhaps the most persistent one is the image that we have, thanks largely to film and television portrayals of him, as wearing a top hat and swirling cape and carrying a shiny black bag.
The real murderer, whoever he (or she) was, would have been someone who fitted into the district in which the murders were committed.
In your opinion, can the case ever be solved this late in the game?
Unless some long-lost documents or evidence turn up then I don’t think that the case can now be solved. Virtually all the police evidence has long since disappeared or been destroyed, So, from the perspective of suspects the police at the time might have had, we are dependent on the, often contradictory, recollections, musings and memoirs of police officers in their retirement.
Has any new evidence been discovered in the past 50 years?
“New” evidence is discovered on an almost yearly basis. Whether it is useful or accurate evidence is debatable. The most recent example of this is the excitement generated by the DNA on Catherine Eddowes supposed shawl. The newspapers had a field day with this, announcing that DNA had finally solved the mystery. But, unfortunately, it had done no such thing.
Firstly, the testing methods were questionable.
Secondly, it is doubtful that it was a shawl, and it is almost certain that Catherine Eddowes possessed no such garment, since the City of London Police, in whose jurisdiction her murder occurred, logged every item that was found in Mitre-square (the scene of her murder) and they make no mention of a shawl being present at the murder scene.
Finally, even if we do accept that the shawl was a shawl, that it did belong to Catherine Eddowes, and that the DNA of Aaron Kosminski was found on it, it wouldn’t prove that he was the murderer, simply that his he had had contact with her.
Do you have a favourite suspect? Who? Why?
My “favourite” suspect is Michael Ostrog. Not because I think that he was Jack the Ripper, but because he almost certainly wasn’t.
We have an almost complete record of his criminal career from the mid-1860’s right through to the late 1890’s and he was a lot of things – a conman, a cheat, a fraudster – but he was most certainly not homicidal.
He, therefore, demonstrates an important point about Ripperology – that it is possible to build a case against anybody and make it seem plausible.
As for a favoured suspect, I would have to go with Aaron Kosminski. not because of the DNA evidence, but simply because he was the favoured suspect of the two highest ranking officers on the case, Robert Anderson and Donald Swanson, and since they knew the evidence against all the suspects at the time, we have to take their opinion seriously.
Of course, we have the problem that we don’t still have any of the evidence that led them to their conclusions.
Just what is it about this case that makes it so intriguing?
I think that it remains unsolved is what makes the case so intriguing. Plus, it was long enough ago to make it “safe” .i.e, we are not directly threatened by it. Also, it gives us that window through which we can look back on an intriguing period in Victorian history and in police and criminal history.
What do you offer on your Jack the Ripper Tour?
Our Jack the Ripper tour is conducted almost along the lines of a Crime Scene Investigation. Participants are encouraged to question things, to discuss things and to form their own opinions about the case. It is, accordingly, done at a relaxed pace, with plenty of interaction between the walkers and the guide.
How can we book a tour with you?
It is best done through our website.
That sounds like fun! Thanks for joining us, Richard Jones.