DaRK PaRTY: Jack the Ripper has become a cultural icon and his name is synonymous with serial murder. Why do you think this case has endured for so long?
Stephen: It’s not easy to explain why some cases become celebrated and others don't. In general, however, those cases that remain unsolved tend to last longer in the public's imagination. In this case it was probably a mixture of that as well as it simply being the right case at the right time, in the right place. There's this romantic view of late-Victorian London, popularized in Sherlock Holmes novels, of foggy cobblestone streets, bumbling police bobbies and the "ingenious" criminal who outwitted them all and taunted them mercilessly by writing letters and dropping clues. The reality was quite a bit different, but there's always been a wide gap between the "popular" view of Jack the Ripper and the actual hard facts of the Whitechapel murders.
DP: It is generally accepted that Jack the Ripper killed five women in 1888 -- but there are at least a dozen other women who may have been victims. In your opinion, how many victims did Jack the Ripper murder and who were they?
Stephen: The five generally accepted victims are Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly. Stride is sometimes considered not to be a Ripper victim by some researchers, while others tend to think Kelly was perhaps murdered by a copycat. Personally I tend to think that Nichols, Chapman, Eddowes and Kelly were more than likely murdered by the same man. I'm split 50/50 on Stride, and I'm also split about 50/50 with Tabram, who was killed three weeks before Nichols. So I'd have to say four murders definitely, and I leave open the possibility for as many as six.
DP: Let's talk about the letters. Three letters allegedly from Jack were sent to the
Stephen: I tend to think the Ripper didn't actually write any of the letters. There's strong evidence that the "Dear Boss" letter (from which the name "Jack the Ripper" arose) was actually penned by a journalist, and we have a half-dozen or more people who were actually prosecuted for hoaxing Ripper letters (interestingly enough, several of them were women). The phenomena of these "Ripper letters" seems to have been sparked initially by a press invention which then quickly snowballed into a sort of mass public hysteria, with something on the order of 600+ letters being sent to the press, police and even private citizens, purporting to be from the killer.
Some did it to be a nuisance, other's were likely quite deranged, but a surprisingly large percentage of people appear to have put pen to paper as a means of frightening or at least inconveniencing their enemies. One fourteen-year-old servant girl hoaxed several such letters and sent them to her master, threatening to murder him - apparently she wasn't too fond of her working conditions.
DP: There are many theories about who was really Jack the Ripper. Who do you think are the best suspects?
Stephen: Of the hundreds of suspects put forth, I don't believe the case against any of them to be particularly compelling. The problem is that the police at the time were looking for a lunatic - to them, literally someone foaming at the mouth.
DP: Do you think the mystery of Jack the Ripper will ever be solved? Why or why not?
Stephen: At the time there was very little understanding of the serial killer phenomenon. Today we know that many serial killers blend quite well into society - look at Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or even the BTK Killer, Denis Rader. Neighbors and coworkers interviewed after the fact are often dumbfounded - "I never would have suspected him" is a commonly-heard phrase. If we assume Jack the Ripper was cut from the same cloth, then he probably arouse very little - if any - suspicion back in 1888, and may not ever have been brought to the attention of the press or police. If that's the case, then in all likelihood the Ripper's real name is lost to history.
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