Jack the Ripper at 125

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 1, 2013

The autumn of 2013 will mark 125 years since London’s infamous Whitechapel murders, i.e. the crimes of Jack the Ripper. (Do I really need to provide a link to explain this?)

As the crimes were never officially solved, they have remained fertile soil for speculation ranging from serious to fanciful. One perennial favorite, nearer to the latter category, is the intersection of the Ripper’s debut with that of another product of late-1880s England, i.e. Sherlock Holmes. Based on my own observations of the Sherlockian world and its post-Doyle extensions to The Canon, there are three themes to which pseudo-Watsons are repeatedly drawn: 1) that Holmes had further involvement with The Woman, Irene Adler, after “A Scandal in Bohemia,” 2) that Holmes lived to great old age, surviving even into the 1940s, and 3) that Holmes investigated the Ripper crimes.

I’ve actually considered making a study of examples of this third theme; I don’t think I’m actually going to get around to it but I’ve counted at least a dozen formally-published Holmes-vs-Ripper stories, not counting works in other media. (There is apparently a video game based on the concept, now.) It isn’t particularly mysterious why this theme should intrigue writers, so many times over. The Whitechapel murders are one of the best-remembered crimes of relatively modern times, they were never officially solved in reality, but in fiction the greatest and (even in reality) best-remembered detective of all time was right there in London, practicing at the time. It was close; had Doyle waited a couple of more years the “what if” of Holmes and the Ripper might have required a double re-imagining. As it happened, though, the great detective was there, conceptually, even though he didn’t actually physically exist. It seems absolutely inescapable that Sherlock Holmes would thus have been drawn to investigate the most notorious mystery of his whole era.

The curious thing, though, is that this is much less a product of Holmes’ subsequent eclipse of his various real contemporaries in the realm of “great detective” as it might seem. Sherlock Holmes, though only introduced a couple of years before, was already notable enough by 1888 that Doyle was even asked at the time about how his character would solve the murders. Meanwhile, even though nearly half of the real investigators highlighted in Brilliant Deduction might be called “British detectives” in some sense or other—and even though the Whitechapel murders fell right in the middle of the real-life great detectives’ golden age—every one of them seems to have managed to miss the Autumn of Terror.

Scotland Yard’s own Jack, Jonathan Whicher, helped solve more than one unsettling Victorian murder mystery… but he passed away in 1881. Whicher’s contemporary in Victorian London, “Paddington” Pollaky, was 60 in 1888 but in apparently robust health, as he lived another 30 years… yet he had retired early, in 1882, to Brighton and remained firmly retired thereafter.

Meanwhile, Scottish-born Allan Pinkerton had died in 1884, and had of course departed Britain long before, anyway, to become America’s great detective entrepreneur rather than the old country’s. Under the direction of his sons William and Robert, Pinkerton’s had nonetheless begun extending its operations back across the Atlantic… but the focus of their for-profit agency was much more on foiling robberies and providing security services than on solving murders. Several years after the Whitechapel murders, Pinkerton detectives did play an important part in defeating their home city of Chicago’s own notorious serial murderer, H.H. Holmes, but their distance from the Ripper crimes in both space and specialization was simply too great for any involvement in 1888.

And then there was Isaiah Lees, the great Victorian English detective who did, by contrast, expend much of his energies in pursuing murderers, and with impressive success… but did so thousands of miles away in San Francisco, where he had been drawn nearly 40 years earlier with other gold-seeking Forty-niners. Despite which, a number of interesting if coincidental connections can be drawn between Lees and Jack the Ripper. Enough that I think we’ll explore them in a future post.

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