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.

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