Who was Jack the Ripper?
That’s a question that people have been asking for 129 years. Arguably the world’s first famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper killed at least five prostitutes in the Whitechapel section of London. Some claim that he killed as many as twenty. He may have also written several taunting letters to the police. Again, some say that the letters are authentic and some say that they were hoaxes. Hell, there’s even some people who say that Jack the Ripper himself is a myth and the five murders attributed to him were actually five unconnected crimes. It was speculated that Jack the Ripper was a butcher, a surgeon, or maybe a midwife. Just as suddenly as the murders began, they ended. The London police claimed that he had committed suicide by jumping into the Thames. Few people believed them then and even less now.
The reason that there is so much uncertainty is because Jack the Ripper was never caught. He was never identified. There were stories of confessions, though many of them came from the mentally infirm or they were heard by someone who was a friend of someone who claimed to be the Butcher of Whitechapel. At one point, there was even a claim that Jack’s diary had been found.
As a horror fan, a true crime fanatic, and a lover of history, I’ve read quite a few theories about who Jack the Ripper was. Nearly every prominent (or, at the very least, remembered) Victorian has been accused of having been Jack the Ripper. Oscar Wilde has been accused of hiding a confession in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Various members of the Royal Family have been fingered as the culprit. Even Lewis Carroll could not escape accusation. The true crime author Patricia Cornwell wrote an entire book where she (wrongly) accused the painter Walter Sickert. Cornwell’s case could basically be summed up as follows: “Walter Sicket’s paintings were weird. Walter Sickert must be Jack the Ripper.” Apparently, she managed to destroy one of Sickert’s paintings while looking for clues.
The truth of the matter is that Jack the Ripper was probably some guy who no one has ever heard of, most probably one of the unknown men who lived and worked in the shadows of Whitechapel. For all the talk of Jack being a doctor, it can be argued that the surgical precision of his murders has been overstated. He didn’t get away with murder because he was particularly clever. Instead, he got away with it because, in 1888, even fingerprinting was considered to be a radical science.
But, honestly, that’s not very intriguing. For those of us who have researched the case, it’s far more interesting to speculate that Jack the Ripper was either a famous person or that the murders were all the result of a huge conspiracy.
That’s certainly the appeal of From Hell, the 2001 film from The Hughes Brothers. Making the same basic case as Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree, From Hell argues that the Jack the Ripper murders were the result of a royal conspiracy. In reality, that theory has been discredited but it certainly is the most cinematic of all the possibilities.
And, speaking of cinematic, it must be said that From Hell is very stylish movie. Though the title comes from one of Jack the Ripper’s letters, From Hell also could just as easily be used to describe the film’s vision of Whitechapel. Whitechapel is full of shadows and secrets and the blood flows freely. If Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) isn’t killed by Jack the Ripper, it’s just as likely she’ll be killed by one of her clients. Even as the murders are committed, life and business in Whitechapel goes on. What other choice is there? It’s either risk being killed or starve.
It falls to Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) to solve the murders. The real-life Abberline was an almost legendary detective who lived for decades after the final Jack the Ripper murder. The movie’s Abberline is an opium addict who always seems to be on the verge of a breakdown. When he and Mary Kelly fall in love, you’re not really sure if it’s something to be happy about. Abberline seems just as likely to go crazy as everyone else.
From Hell is an uneven and somewhat overlong movie but I like it. Heather Graham and Johnny Depp give somewhat odd performances but the oddness fits right in with the Hughes Brothers’s vision of a world that’s been turned permanently upside down. It’s a movie that’s full of atmosphere and the story is intriguing even if it’s never exactly convincing. For obvious reasons, I can’t reveal who plays Jack the Ripper but I will say that he gives a very good performance. When he says that, “One day, men will look back and say that I gave birth to the 20th century,” you believe him.