#560: Jack the Ripper
135 years after England’s most famous serial murder case, the mystery goes unsolved… and not for lack of guesses
One hundred and thirty-five years ago, a monster stalked the streets of London. He preyed on the defenseless, desperate prostitutes of London’s East End, leaving behind no fewer than five victims with possibly several more both before and after his two-month-long rampage in the autumn of 1888. His identity was never discovered. The media frenzy surrounding his appalling crimes was unprecedented, stirring up panic in the streets and granting the killer the name Jack the Ripper. The police response was anemic and confused, Scotland Yard thoroughly unequipped to deal with this kind of criminal, resulting in resignations and sackings, leaving Jack to fade into the fog-choked night and become history’s most famous serial killer.
For a Victorian England that was inured to the spine-tingling terrors of popular gothic horror fiction, Jack the Ripper stood out as a real-life monster, a boogeyman to scare children by. In the years since his reign of terror, Jack — or a reasonable facsimile — has appeared as a figure in all sorts of media, from literature (John Francis Brewer’s The Curse Upon Mitre Square capitalized on the fourth slaying to tell a story of a curse on the murder site, going back to the 16th century) to film, to comic books, video games, rap battles, theater, almost any sort of creative expression — even ill-thought-out sports branding.
Being a fan of horror that I am, I realized that there were quite a few Jack the Ripper stories out there, and a few of the franchises I had been following, such as Assassin’s Creed, would touch on the murders. Several years back I reviewed Alan Moore’s From Hell; while I didn’t hate that comic as much as I did his later Providence, I still found it to be a self-indulgent display of Moore’s fascination with violence against women. When I decided to sort of reboot this project a few years ago, I knew at some point I would be swinging through that foggy autumn of 1888 once again and I didn’t want to leave my coverage of Jack the Ripper’s influence on media to just that comic.
So over the past two weeks, I’ve been neck-deep in Jack the Ripper shit, consuming a range of Jack the Ripper-themed media. The stories range from reasonably realistic, to crossovers with popular fiction of the era (Sherlock Holmes gets a lot of coverage) to the just downright silly. One common thread they all have, however, even the “realistic” ones, is that they all propose a solution. Jack is always identified, and in most cases, caught — but due to circumstances, his identity must be buried for the good of society. I don’t particularly like this trend, though I understand the impulse, trying to find an answer to the monstrous question Jack the Ripper poses. But it’s like Mr. Whitehead in Picnic at Hanging Rock succinctly put it, there’s some questions got answers and some haven’t. I think it’s more likely that Jack the Ripper was never caught, never found, never identified.
Nevertheless, here are ten stories about Jack the Ripper. Some are good, some are less good, but I feel like they all paint a pretty good picture of how Jack has been treated in media in the last century-plus. Warning: there will be spoilers, as I’ll be revealing who the chosen murderer is for all of these to illustrate my above point.
Jack the Ripper
Initial release: October 1988 (two episodes)
Director: David Wickes
Let’s start with the most realistic take of the collection. In 1988, CBS and Thames Television collaborated on a TV film, split in two parts, that purported to recount the events of a century prior using “new information” (read: lifting elements from the unfortunately-titled 1976 “Ripperologist” book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which proposed a Masonic and/or Royal Family conspiracy behind the murders.) While Jack the Ripper 1988 strips out the Masonic elements, it leaves in the core of the idea, that the Royal surgeon, a Sir William Gull, was the murderer. In this case, Gull, who had suffered a stroke a year earlier, had developed a split personality of sorts, and this sinister alternate persona was, in some confused way, attempting to perform experiments to better understand his own dementia. It’s probably the most interesting theory out of the whole bunch, if only because the film leans heavily on a Jekyll and Hyde theming, centering part of the plot on an American actor starring in a stage adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel.
The film is otherwise a pretty straightforward adaptation of the whole event, from the first “canonical” murder the morning of September 1st through the aftermath of the fifth and final murder. It plays up the political aspects of the case, as well as the media circus surrounding it; its portrayal of certain characters (like George Lusk and, to some extent, Inspector Abberline) arguably border on character assassination, but really, nobody comes out of this looking good, and perhaps that’s the point.
That it was made for television is obvious in how it’s cut and how it fades out for commercial breaks; nevertheless, it’s a decently shot and produced work that puts most of its focus on Michael Caine, who is unimpeachable in his role as the acerbic Inspector Abberline. Jack the Ripper 1988 isn’t a marvel of television, but there’s an intensity to it — especially in the film’s final scenes — that elevates it.
From Hell Master Edition (graphic novel)
Initial release: 1989–1998 (serialized); 1999 (trade paperback)
Color version 2018–2020 (serialized); 2020 (trade paperback)
Story: Alan Moore
Art: Eddie Campbell (with new colors by same)
My feelings about this comic have not changed much from my initial reading. As I stated above, I think it was mostly an excuse for Moore to indulge in his fetish for violence against women, but re-reading it I realized that over the last few decades Moore mostly uses comics as an outlet to write transgressive pornography. Dr. Gull is the center of the story, in his role as a Royal assassin under orders from the Queen to quash any knowledge of a Royal bastard, soon going off the rails as his maniacal devotion to Masonic principles reveals a deeply twisted mind who, in the act of the last murder, sees a vision of the future, and is horrified by women in pantsuits.
Artist Eddie Campbell’s colorization (which sticks to a subtle palette evocative of color prints of the era) makes the previously stark black and white artwork significantly easier to read. While sometimes it’s not always up to snuff — mostly in moments where black comes in two shades — it really helps bring the panels to life. Moore enthusiasts may balk at this seeming sullying of Moore’s work, but this isn’t a mere cash grab, it’s Eddie Campbell, who deserves as much credit for the book as Moore, revisiting his old work for a new era. I think it’s significantly more readable than the original, not that it makes it any more pleasant.
From Hell (movie)
Initial release: October 19, 2001
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Oh God. Adaptations of Moore comics have generally been hit-or-miss as a rule — I only really liked Watchmen, and even that had Zack Snyder’s edgelord touch over everything — but this one is… more of a miss. While production-wise it’s decent enough, with Johnny Depp doing a way better job of faking an English accent than Keanu Reeves ever did in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s still a right mess of a flick, driven by an incoherent plot that bears little resemblance to the graphic novel despite trying to blend disconnected elements of it into a more original plot that feels slanderous in a way that even the 1988 TV film didn’t.
A Study in Terror
Initial release: October 1965 (UK)
Director: James Hill
Sherlock Holmes, the iconic detective hero, never interacted with the Jack the Ripper case in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon. But at least as far back as 1965, there have been attempts to pit the world’s greatest detective against the world’s most infamous serial killer. A Study in Terror (the title an obvious reference to that famous first Sherlock story, A Study in Scarlet) does not treat the actual killings with much accuracy (in part to meet 1960s standards of acceptable film violence) but they’re just a backdrop to what eventually shakes out to be a story of a missing nobleman’s son.
John Neville is a decent Holmes, eventually working out that the missing son’s faithful brother was the actual killer, taking a shotgun approach to finding the specific prostitute that he felt ruined the family name. It fits in neatly with a trend, beginning in the iconoclastic 1960s, of depicting the Ripper as a symbol of an upper class that preys on the poor and desolate.
The two threads — the Ripper case and the missing son — don’t really intertwine cohesively, but it’s made up for by decent camera work and a fun script.
Murder by Decree
Initial release: February 1st, 1979
Director: Bob Clark
Compared to the 1965 film, Murder by Decree feels oddly old-school in some ways. Christopher Plummer is Sherlock, and he’s an awesome Sherlock, a somber, passionate take on the character, who seems to traverse the course of the film with a kind of quiet fury at the brutality and inhumanity of the Ripper killings.
Produced in the late 1970s as it was, it uses the Masonic/Dr. Gull theory (though for some reason changing the names of Gull and other historical figures) for a poorly-paced, incoherent plot. It does have its moments, chiefly Holmes’ speech to the Masonic lodge explaining all to them, but it’s otherwise something of a mixed bag.
Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper
Initial release: April 30, 2009 (France)
Platform: PC, XBox 360
Here’s a good example of what Frogwares was like before they started having bigger budgets. Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper is a straightforward old-school adventure title that feels five to ten years older than it actually is, with characterization thin on the ground and Sherlock’s raspy voice acting (performed by Rick Simmonds) kind of grating. It’s heavy on the puzzles, some of them quite obtuse, and the environments aren’t terribly interesting to look at.
All that being said, its solution utilizing a lesser-known suspect and focusing on the discrimination that the Jewish community faced is mildly interesting, despite an interminable detour tracking down a misogynist gay man with his collection of preserved uteri. Yeah. I do hope this game gets a remake like The Awakened did.
Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson
Initial release: April 28, 2009
Author: Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye is a New York-based author who seems to mostly work in the Sherlock Holmes arena; her first book, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, is a briskly-paced, well-researched story, with some interesting minor characters and a decent analysis of Sherlock’s character as he faces a seemingly intractable problem. As the fourth and last Sherlock vs. Ripper story in this collection, it’s undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Its solution of the killer being a twisted cop who worked the Whitechapel beat — fictional, but likely based on a real officer of the Metropolitan police, first brought up as a suspect as early as January 2000 — feels reasonable, considering what cops then and now are like. I’m no expert on Sherlockian fiction, but I like his portrayal in this.
Edge of Sanity
Initial release: April 14, 1989
Director: Gérard Kikoïne
Edge of Sanity, one of Psycho star Anthony Perkins’ last film roles ,isn’t the only Jack the Ripper story to cross over with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Indeed, as we saw with the Michael Caine film, the theme of a monstrous hidden personality lurking beneath a rational mind is an appealing one when trying to explain the Ripper. So we get stuff like Edge of Sanity, Big Fish Games’ hidden object puzzle game Mystery in London: On the Trail of Jack the Ripper, and the 1971 film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which hinges around a borderline transphobic (at least by today’s standards) plot device.
Edge of Sanity feels like a Ken Russell movie, with its transgressive sexuality, weirdly anachronistic feel, and a once-famous actor with bills to pay chewing on scenery like it’s chocolate. It bears very little resemblance to the Jack the Ripper murders, really; daytime scenes feel appropriately period, but at night as an insane Henry Jekyll stalks the streets, it feels as if we are transported not to 1888, but 1988. Even Jekyll’s lab, with its ubiquitous white tile and rows of indistinguishable marble busts, feels more like a scene from MTV than an actual Victorian-era laboratory. I don’t really know how I feel about this film, but it’s at least fun to watch Anthony Perkins.
Master of Darkness
Initial release: October 10, 1992 (Japan)
Platform: Sega Game Gear, Sega Master System
SIMS is a joint venture between Sega and the little-known Sanritsu Denki. While it’s still around, it’s not really known for its library nor have they had much output since the PlayStation Vita days. Nevertheless, their 1992 release of Master of Darkness, originally a Game Gear title with a subsequent Master System port, is fun little Castlevania clone. That’s no joke either, it plays almost exactly like Castlevania, complete with a final boss against a vampire who is explicitly not Dracula (though the plot revolves around his trying to resurrect the Big D, with one of his agents being Jack the Ripper) but certainly feels similar to fight.
It’s not going to illuminate anyone with brilliant, original gameplay, but as Castlevania clones go, it’s a decent couple hours’ entertainment. If you must pick a version, however, I would recommend the Master System release.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate — Jack The Ripper
Initial release: December 15, 2015
Platforms: PC, XBox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
A few months ago I played through Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and while I liked that game, I stand by my position that, as far as the series’ overall narrative is concerned, it’s filler. And that’s okay, actually. As far as the Jack the Ripper expansion goes, though… I dunno how I feel about it.
Set twenty years after the events of Syndicate, Jack the Ripper is, obviously, about the Ripper’s reign of terror across Whitechapel. Unlike DLC for previous and future games, this expansion is set within a portion of the pre-existing map, with three new locations for specific missions. With four murders already, Jacob Frye gets into an altercation with the Ripper and disappears; Evie, now in her early forties, returns from India to track them down. The DLC is basically Syndicate in miniature, with a collection of side quests to do amidst a new storyline of main quests. It does feature a new fear mechanic, in which you can use tools to scare the shit out of enemies. Fear bombs will send them running, spikes will pin them to the ground and leave them screaming in terror, attracting — and thus scaring — nearby enemies, and you can also terrify them with “brutal takedowns” — no-holds-barred beatdowns. It’s a great way to clear an area in a hurry, especially once you unlock the new skills that expand the usefulness of the system. A couple of times you’ll get to play as Jack himself, with objectives appearing as hastily-scrawled messages darting around an increasingly glitchy screen before it rights itself. Oddly enough, while you’re free to slaughter cops to your heart’s content, you’re still restricted from killing civilians with the message “Jack didn’t compromise his plans by killing innocent civilians.” That’s one of the more stunning examples of ludonarrative dissonance I’ve ever seen.
Jack the Ripper doesn’t really give much of a fig for historical accuracy, unusual for this series (yes, that’s even accounting for the Templar/Assassin/Precursor stuff) and I think it does the case a disservice. Jack himself is revealed to be a former protege of Jacob, with a twisted idea of order, and the five “canonical” victims are revealed to be initiates, murdered for the sole purpose of sticking it to Jacob personally. I… do not particularly like this concept. It feels disrespectful to the actual victims (though I’ve seen worse, like the Korean manhua Jack the Ripper: Hellblade depicts Jack as an antihero killing demons disguised as prostitutes, which is especially gross.)
While I get why they wanted to do a DLC around one of England’s most horrifying villains, it feels extraneous and oddly disrespectful. Kind of a sour note to end my time with the Assassin’s Creed series on, at least for a while.
Final thoughts: As you can see, it’s all been something of a mixed bag. I suppose it comes with the territory; we are talking about someone whose whole modus operandi revolved around murdering and mutilating women. Sometimes it feels like those poor women are treated as little more than props, something to spur on the (typically male) protagonists. The rise of a sort of fandom — though these so-called “Ripperologists” will tell you they’re just researchers — around these murders leaves me with a bit of an easy feeling, as many of these self-appointed experts capitalize on murdered women to sell books with their insane theories. But then again, that’s the true crime community in a nutshell: exploiting suffering and death to shock and titillate for financial gain. Even in stories that try to center the victims feel exploitative. It’s as if there’s a certain expected level of lewdness or other transgressive quality when writing Jack the Ripper-themed fiction. They use the fact that Jack’s victims were prostitutes as an excuse to titillate; horror fiction has always played up the link between sex and violence, and never is it more apparent than when Jack the Ripper is on the prowl.
Nevertheless, there are some good stories here, provided you can get away from the more outlandish theories. The Michael Caine film and Dust and Shadow are probably the best of the bunch, but I’m sure there’s a few gems out there I haven’t seen. But ultimately though, as much as they all try to propose an answer, to make sense of senseless cruelty, as much as we like to tell each other — or ourselves — that there’s an answer for everything, there are some things, no matter how appalling they are, that will forever remain a mystery.