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paranoid theory of the week :: was "jack the ripper" a myth to cover up a royal misadventure?

i've written a little before about my interest in the "jack the ripper" murders of 1888. it isn't merely a prurient fascination with a brutal serial killer who was never found [although it is partly that, of course], but also with the larger social aspects of the case: the murders helped expose the conditions in which london's poorest and most vulnerable lived and the dangers to which they were prey, especially the women who were forced into prostitution to help pay for their meagre existence. the failure of the police to find the killer was seen as evidence that the wealthy classes, parliament and the royal family were callously indifferent to the blighted lives of the poor.

the most famous thing about jack the ripper, of course, is that he was never caught. resources were [eventually] deployed on a scale never before seen in order to catch him, but he eluded the law, as far as we know, through cunning and an nearly unbelievable streak of blind luck. at three different crime scenes, the killer was within metres of being discovered either by passers by or the police, including once when he appears to have been temporarily trapped in a closed carriage yard, with a horse and driver blocking the only exit.

many students of the case [termed "ripperologists"] have become suspicious of this apparent good luck. how did one man, thought to be a denizen of whitechapel, probably very poor and ill-educated, manage to elude two police forces, hundreds of officers and hundreds more vigilantes? some people favour the idea that he didn't, and that the so-called luck came because the killer was actually well-protected. there have been various theories linking virtually every major personality of time to the killings [one researcher jokes that the only person of any celebrity not accused of being jack the ripper was florence nightingale], but one in particular seems to have had some sticking power.

the theory ::
the "jack the ripper" serial killings were actually conducted by agents within and close to the royal family in order to conceal a potential scandal involving prince albert victor, second in line to the british throne.

contemporary drawing of the discovery of a ripper victim
the origin ::
claims that the ripper was actually a member of london's high society circulated even as the case unfolded, fed in part by the radical left, who used the class conflict to encourage east-enders to vote in their interests in the upcoming london elections.

painter and supposed conspirator walter sickert was originally named as a ripper suspect in 1959. a few years later, author phillippe julien supposedly uncovered some rumours that prince albert victor, duke of clarence, was suspected of being the ripper while julien was writing a biography of albert's father, king edward vii. in 1970, criminologist dr. thomas stowell wrote an article called "a solution", that accused prince albert of being the murderer. stowell claimed to have put this together by reading the papers of queen victoria's personal doctor, sir william gull, who was also implicated. [side note :: the lure of stowell's conspiracy is heightened by the fact that he died within days of the article being published and because his family quickly burnt his personal papers, taking only a cursory glance at their contents.]

but the origin of the full-blown conspiracy theory is author stephen knight's infamous jack the ripper: the final solution.

the believers ::
rather a lot of ripperologists. if you look at the living poll [i.e., continuously active] of ripper suspects on casebook.org, "the royal conspiracy" ranks fourth. alleged conspirator walter sickert ranks third on his own. prince albert victor as a stand-alone suspect ranks much lower on the list.

the bad guys ::
sir william gull, walter sickert, coachman john netley, lord salisbury [prime minister in 1888] and queen victoria. indirectly, prince albert victor.

the evidence ::
the tenets of the royal conspiracy were given to stephen knight by joseph gorman sickert. joseph claimed to be the illegitimate son of walter sickert and spun a rather remarkable tale for knight regarding the "real" motive behind the apparently motiveless murders.

according to gorman, his supposed father, walter sickert, was introduced to prince albert victor, nicknamed "eddy" by the prince's mother, the princess alexandra. as the eldest son of the future king edward vii, eddy was in line to inherit the throne of england. unfortunately, he seems to have been somewhat of a disappointment. he was thought to be indolent and somewhat dull-witted and alexandra hoped that spending time with a painter would spur an interest in the arts, so that at least he wouldn't seem like quite such a royal turd. [side note :: his reputation for being slow may have come because he was partially deaf, a genetic defect he inherited from his mother, but which could have created the impression that, as a child, he had difficulty comprehending.]

the unusual suspects
sickert invited eddy to his studio, where the prince met a model by the name of annie elizabeth crook. annie and the prince had an affair, but not just a fling. the prince paid for annie to keep an apartment on cleveland street, near sickert's studio and eventually married her in a private ceremony, witnessed by walter sickert and annie's friend, coworker and fellow model for the artist, mary jane kelly. they had a daughter, alice margaret crook, born in 1885 and things between them seemed quite harmonious until 1888, when eddy's grandmother, queen victoria, got wind of what had happened.

if true, eddy's liaison was all sorts of wrong: annie was a commoner, but worse, she was a catholic and tensions between protestants and catholics remained high in england, even two centuries after the protestants had come to control the crown. even a rumour of an affair could be damaging, but the idea that idiot eddy had actually married his catholic strumpet was cause for major alarm. so victoria put lord salisbury up to raiding the apartment where eddy was shacked up. the prince was whisked away to where his family could contain him and poor annie was put in the care of sir william gull, who deemed her insane and locked her up in an asylum.

things wouldn't have looked optimistic for their daughter, little alice, but for the fact that she wasn't with her parents at the time of the raid, but was with mary kelly, who frequently took care of her when annie was at work, or doing the nasty with the prince on cleveland street. understandably freaked out that her friend was "disappeared" in the middle of the night, kelly left alice with the nuns, quit her job as a tobacconist's assistant and headed back to the east end where she became a hardcore alcoholic and turned to prostitution.

as alcoholics will, mary jane tended to go on a bit when she'd been hitting the sauce. and eventually she started telling some of the women that she knew her creepy story about the prince, her friend, the artist they used to model for, and a secret wedding that had born a child. clearly, that made her a thorn in the royal backside and so, gull, his coachman netley, walter sickert, assistant commissioner of scotland yard robert anderson and, after the fact, police commissioner charles warren [who destroyed evidence to cover up the role of his fellow freemasons, because everything always comes back to the masons], set about a murderous rampage.

crime scene drawing of catherine eddowes
while they succeeded in killing mary kelly and her friends, the conspirators never did find baby alice, who survived and, in fact, lived to a ripe old age. tortured by guilt, walter sickert found her and made her his mistress, with joseph gorman sickert being the product of that relationship.

knight says that he was skeptical when he first heard the story, but then uncovered some facts that changed his mind. walter sickert did have a preoccupation with jack the ripper and crimes of violence. joseph gorman and [according to him] his mother, alice, were partially deaf, just like prince eddy. the murders did mysteriously stop after the killing of mary jane kelly. there was a real woman named annie crook and, while she worked at a confectionary, not a tobacconist's, she did end up confined to a mental institution. she did have a daughter named alice, born april 18, 1885 and alice was joseph's mother. and at the time gorman said the royal affair was taking place, there was a woman named elizabeth [annie's middle name] cook living on cleveland street.

possibly the most damning piece of evidence, though, is that police commissioner warren did destroy evidence in the case and never pretended otherwise. after the murder of catherine eddowes, police found a strange message scribbled in chalk on a wall of a nearby street. lying near the wall was a strip of fabric, later confirmed as part of eddowes' apron. the message read "the juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing". at least, we think that's what it said. there are a few reports of what exactly it said. we can't ever confirm its actual contents, because sir charles warren ordered the graffito removed immediately, before it could even be photographed.

this is quite possibly the single stupidest action in the investigation of the whitechapel killings, all the more so because warren was extremely experienced and should have known the potential importance of the message, so close to a crime scene. his own reasoning was that there had already been racially charged tension against jews in whitechapel, because many [white] citizens suspected that the killer was jewish. he felt it was important to remove the message immediately to prevent any vigilantes from seeing it and taking it as a further sign that the murders were being perpetrated by a jew, probably a new immigrant. wanting to avoid riots and lynchings are noble, but his motivation doesn't change the fact that destroying a piece of evidence without even photographing it was dead stupid.

or sinister. knight's allegation is that the misspelling "juwes" is actually an allusion to three figures in masonic history and that warren recognised this, being a mason himself. so he removed the graffito not out of any fear of violence, but because he knew that the murderers were masons and were warning him not to interfere.

"jack the ripper's bedroom" by walter sickert
it's the sort of thing that sounds so crazy it just might be true, because how could all those coincidences be just... coincidences?

well, first off, there's the slight problem that, after knight published his book about the ripper, joseph gorman sickert recanted his story and said that he made the whole thing up. but even with his supporting story, the evidence for this conspiracy is tenuous.

for starters, while annie crook and her daughter alice may have been real, there's absolutely no evidence that they ever came anywhere near prince albert victor. nor is there any evidence that the historical annie crook ever knew ripper victim mary jane kelly. for that matter, there is no evidence that any of the ripper victims knew each other and there is an astonishing amount of detail available about their lives. having your friends grotesquely murdered seems like the kind of thing you would mention, especially if it came after you heard some crazy story about the king-to-be having secretly married a catholic.

then, there is the argument that the murders themselves were committed inside a carriage by sir william gull. gull had had a stroke not long before the murders, which had left him with partial paralysis. yes, he might have had two men to help him, but it does seem like a lot of strain for a man in his seventies with compromised musculature on the left side of his body.

nor is there any evidence of the term "juwes" being used to describe anything in freemasonry. nor is there any evidence that the murders were conducted in accordance with an ancient masonic ritual. there is nothing composed or methodical about the damage inflicted on the ripper's victims.

prince albert victor seems to have been abroad for several months around the time that annie crook's child would have been conceived, which would make royal paternity a problem.

walter sickert may have been fascinated with the crimes, but he seems to have been in france with his mistress and their son when the murders actually occurred, which eliminates him as a suspect.

crime scene photograph of mary jane kelly
a coach driver by the name of john netley did exist, but there's no evidence to connect him to any of his fellow suspects. joseph gorman sickert claimed netley had killed himself after failing to find the infant alice, but in fact he was killed when he was thrown out of and run over by his own carriage.

then, of course, there is the question of logic. the conspirators know who mary jane kelly is. they know that she has told friends about annie crook and the secret royal marriage. but rather than tracking and killing kelly in order to stop her from telling anyone else and to serve as a warning to those she might have told already, they murder her confidantes one by one over a month, while mary continues to wander around the streets of whitechapel, not telling anyone else of her secret, waiting for the conspirators to find and kill her.

likelihood :: 0/10
the only true bits of this theory as it relates to the ripper are that walter sickert was interested in him as a subject and sir charles warren ordered the destruction of an important piece of evidence. there is nothing else that holds this theory together and, likewise, any theory that seeks to build on knight's arguments is standing on a foundation of sand.

contemporary cartoon of the ripper as monster
the idea that the whitechapel murders were the result of an elaborate conspiracy, or that the murderer was really a well-known figure are really just ways of making us all feel better about the fact that we've never been able to identify him [and in all likelihood we never will]. we dislike thinking that an illiterate psychopath could commit horrific crimes and simply walk away from them in the midst of the world's pre-eminent metropolis. we want to believe that good people are smart enough and capable enough to find such villains. the idea that a nobody can outwit the combined forces of law and order means that we are all at risk.

but everything we know about such murderers tells us that that's exactly what happened. the fbi wrote up a profile of the ripper a century after the murders which today reads almost as cliché, but is most likely accurate. the killer was almost undoubtedly from whitechapel, or at least looked like he belonged there. his victims were low-hanging fruit: destitute, drunk, and willing to approach him, even in the midst of a panic over the killings. while it's impossible to verify that any of the letters purporting to be from the killer are real, the ones that seem the most likely indicate someone of little education, most likely of poor english or irish stock.

in fact, there are a number of viable suspects in the whitechapel murders, people who were interviewed by police at the time, but against whom no case could be built. it's possible that the ripper laid down his knife because he felt that the police had gotten too close. his name is, perhaps, already part of the official record, as a witness or a neighbour interviewed during the many searches conducted.

but as much as writers and movie-makers would love for it to be so, there is no royal conspiracy. jack the ripper was not a celebrity. he was a regular person, the kind we pass on the street every day. 

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