Jack the Ripper: The Man, The Myth, And The Myriad Film Interpretations

A look at the Butcher of Whitechapel

Like a cold shadow cast upon a decrepit brick wall in 1800s London, Jack the Ripper stealthily stalked whoever dare stroll into town square. Racking up a body count of at least five confirmable victims, and arguably several more, the Butcher of Whitechapel made his presence known through his horribly vicious attacks on random women of the night, making headlines, and creating palpable fear amongst already struggling civilians in the streets. Infamous for his heinous acts, but his true identity never revealed to the world, one of the most intriguing aspects of the notorious serial killer is the air of mystery surrounding him. Who was Jack the Ripper, really? Was he a man of fortune, or a peasant with no discernable traits aside from his savage murder tactics? Perhaps most importantly, why did he kill all of those poor women? No one will ever be able to answer these questions, but one thing’s for sure: The Ripper’s secretive nature lends itself to several different types of adaptations of the ill-reputed narrative on film.

As the legend goes, it all started on Friday, August 31st, 1888 around 3:40 A.M. when the body of Mary Ann Nichols was discovered on Buck’s Row in East End with her throat slit and her abdomen slashed open. The horrific nature of Nichols’ murder terrified everyone in Whitechapel. Panic swept through the streets, as the case could not be cracked, and the killer roamed free. This moment in history not only rocked the poverty-stricken community, which was already infested with overpopulation, starvation, and crime, but also marked the beginning of modern day serial sex murderers. On September 8th, 1888, the killer struck again, as Annie Chapman’s gruesome remains were found in a backyard at 29 Hanbury Street, Spitafields just as the sun was coming up. Now people were really panicking. But it was about to get worse than they could have ever imagined.

Unlike today’s overstimulated society, which is used to being shocked and scared, the people of the 19th century weren’t accustomed to the presence of serial killers. Murders happened, of course, but it was usually a result of a robbery, or a cuckolded lover. That’s why when the double murder of Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish prostitute hanging around Berner Street, and Catherine Eddowes, a forty-three-year-old prostitute in a nearby area occurred in within the same evening that the police received a “Dear Boss” letter from a man claiming to be the killer, a sort of hysterical frenzy broke out in the stunned district. Was there nothing they could do to bring this man to justice? Apparently not, at least for the time being. In the letter, the man coined himself “Jack the Ripper”, promised to keep killing until he was caught, and vowed to mail the ears of his next victim to the officers of the honorable police force, proper.

The Ripper claimed his fifth and final victim Mary Jane Kelly early in the morning of November 9th, 1888. This was his worst offense yet. Kelly’s body was barely recognizable as even human. Most of her entrails were placed between her feet as she lay on the bed, and some on the table nearby, but the killer himself had carried off her heart. Though this was the last of his “Canonical Five”, a.k.a. his most agreed upon confirmed killings, several more followed, in the same style, along with thousands of letters from various fiends claiming to be the man who ended the lives of all of those women who lay dead in graves; their deaths unavenged.

Since then, there has been much speculation about the true identity of the Leather Apron. The theories come in all shapes and forms, ranging from a Jewish Slaughterman (probably a result of the combination of an anti-Semitic attitude in the area at the time and Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes’ bloodied apron being found near the “Goulston Street Graffito”, which seemed to implicate that the killer was Jewish), to an idea some referred to as “Jill the Ripper”, which said that the murderer was actually a woman, specifically, a London midwife. Some people believe that the Ripper was Queen Victoria’s grandson, who was heir to the throne, but went crazy and started murdering at large after he was diagnosed with syphilis. Others buy into the notion that Rasputin himself wrote a book titled ‘Great Russian Criminals’ wherein he identified Jack the Ripper as an insane Russian doctor named Pedachenko, who the tsarist police sent to London to embarrass British authorities. Some even think the Ripper and infamous American serial killer H. H. Holmes are the same person, given that their timelines slightly overlap.

So what’s the truth? Who was this man really? Well, plenty filmmakers have tried to take a whack at it. In 1928 G. W. Paabst released his classic silent film Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks as femme fatale lady in red Lulu, which told her story as a prostitute whose first and last customer was none other than Jack the Ripper. Hitchcock himself adapted Marie Belloc’s 1913 novel about the Bunting family who suspected the killer to be one of their new boarders at their inn, which director John Brahm went on to reimagine in 1944 under the title The Lodger. Sherlock Holmes battles the Ripper in the 1965 film A Study In Terror, a movie which was actually overseen by Adrian Conan Doyle, the son of Holmes’ creator, and the two characters quarrel again in 1979’s Murder By Decree. Hammer horror’s Hands of the Ripper (1971) played on the “Jill the Ripper” theory by suggesting that that Ripper’s traumatized daughter carried on her father’s murderous traits to the next generation, as she turned into a maniacal killer any time a boy showed her the slightest hint of romantic interest.

The most historically accurate depiction of the Ripper’s vicious killing spree is probably the 1988 TV movie Jack the Ripper starring Michael Caine as an inspector hunting the killer down, but the most recognizable film by today’s audiences is probably the 2001 From Hell starring Johnny Depp, which was adapted from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel of the same name. Although the film itself has little to do with the truth of what happened, aside from the names of the victims, and the “From Hell” letter after which the film was aptly named, it does play on the popular theory of the “Evil Aristocrat”, which claims that a man of nobility and sickness (specifically HRH Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence) is the cause for the crimes.

We may never confidently unmask Jack the Ripper and expose his true identity to the world, as frustrating as that reality is. Still, his sour presence will live on long beyond his time, cemented in wicked infamy for all time, through the never-ending scope of cinema. If nothing else, Jack the Ripper’s malicious existence contributed to the inspiration of artists’ work worldwide, his victims’ spirits somewhat avenged as their stories are told, over and over, forevermore, in film.