Monday, September 6, 2010

Pure Rubbish: Jack the Ripper Tabloid Killer

Chiller is a strange little cable channel, specializing in showing (mostly) rather lame straight-to-video horror movies and re-runs of horror and paranormal shows like “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files.” Oh, and "Fear Factor"! Occasionally, however, they run crummy documentaries about crime or horror related subjects. On Sunday September 5th they ran a British import called “Revealed Jack the Ripper Tabloid Killer.” The program promised to solve the mystery of who wrote the “Dear Boss” letter, that gave “Jack the Ripper” his name and contributed to his legendary status as one of the most famous serial killers of all time.

What it actually did was prove that they make bad tv in England, too.

The identity of the author of the “Dear Boss” letter is one of the least interesting aspects of the Jack the Ripper story. It’s widely believed that whomever it was who wrote that letter was not the murderer, but a reporter looking to help newspaper sales. And there were so many people doing that work, most of whose names are completely lost to the mists of time anyway (they didn’t generally use bylines back then), that, seriously, who cares?

 Who wrote this letter? Who cares?

The real question is, Who was Jack the Ripper? But that question will probably never be answered to everyone’s complete satisfaction, so we’re left to ask another question, even more important, which is, Why do crappy documentaries based on innuendo, hearsay, and shoddy research get made?

The answer to that question is because people like me will sit and watch them, and then compound their sin by writing a blog posting about them.

The program (or, programme, as they say in England) follows a hapless twat called Kelvin MacKenzie, who is described by the voice over woman as a “veteran editor,” as he attempts to find how “the murders of these anonymous women became one of the biggest stories in newspaper history.”

“My interest lies in separating the facts from the newspaper fiction,” he lies, with a straight face. And right to the camera, too. The rest of the documentary then shows that’s not his interest at all. In fact, just the opposite. His interest lies in spreading fiction for the sole purpose of seeing his doughy, cold gray face on “telly.”


Most of the first parts of the documentary contained a superficial rehash of the Ripper’s crimes, which were ghastly. They were sufficiently ghastly that, I contend, the murders would have maintained their interest to this day, whether the killer had been given such a colourful sobriquet or not.

What, “The Whitechapel Slayer” isn’t good enough?

All along the way, Mr. MacKenzie justifies his presence in the programme by engaging in such pointless exercises as creating his own front page of a period newspaper, and visiting with a pathologist who uses a marker to draw on a life model, to show the parts of poor Annie Chapman’s body that were sliced by the killer. Yes, this pathologist concludes, Annie Chapman and Polly Nicholls were murdered by the same sick person.

We already knew that!

MacKenzie also suggests that “an upstart newspaper” called The Star, edited by a famous Briton Thomas Powell O’Connor, whose statue can be seen on Fleet Street (I think it’s directly across from the Kerry Katona statue).

In order to appeal to “the newly literate lower classes,” T. P. O’Connor started publishing dross about the Ripper’s crimes, including, we’re told, descriptions of the Ripper’s physical features (no one knew who he was, so this was impossible to know), the suggestion that the Ripper had to be a doctor because of the supposed skill of the incisions made in the victims, speculation as fact that the killer must be Jewish or of Jewish parentage, and also the daft claim that he must be a foreigner because, well, no British-born person could have committed such atrocities. The paper even slandered a man with the rather disturbing nickname “Leather Apron,” suggesting that the man who owned that nickname, John Pizer, might have been the killer. Mr. Pizer apparently went to the Star’s offices and demanded 50 quid from the crime reporter, or he’d sue the paper.

The point the documentary makes is that the tabloids of the day, and the upstart Star especially, published a lot of falsehoods about the Ripper, in order to sell newspapers.

Then, the “Dear Boss” letter appears. Written as if by the killer himself, and signed “Jack the Ripper.” Given the fact that the Star has already slandered a man, riled the “newly literate lower classes” to suspect Jews, foreigners, and doctors on the basis of no real evidence whatsoever, one would think this was just one more newspaper-selling lie of many (at the time, police suspected it was someone from the “Central News Agency,” which was the news syndication organization to which the letter was addressed). But to Mr. MacKenzie, it is THE LIE, because, “the reality is, were it not for this amazing name ‘Jack the Ripper,’ these murders would have been lost in history.”

Do you see what he did there? He did what the Star used to do – he presented speculation as fact. Yes, the man is a hypocrite, but he’s about to get a whole lot worse about it.

Once the documentary has finished with its half-hearted recap of the Ripper’s murders, there’s a short, condescending segment in which are named some of the more popular Ripper suspects. There was Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew who might have been “off his head,” as one of the “historians” or “experts” says. “And as far as I know, that’s the only evidence they had against him.”

So why is the documentary mentioning this man now? Well, to show how innocents can still be victimized by rubbish telly programmes, I suppose.

Next is mentioned John Druitt, who committed suicide shortly after the (supposed*) last Ripper murder, that of Mary Kelly. And that is the primary evidence. Glad this show, that has made a point of calling out the tabloids for their “sensationalism,” is naming these names.

The next name is Francis Tumblety “an American quack with apparently a huge collection of pickled uteruses.” That according to one of the show’s other “experts.” You see what she’s just done. This American quack APPARENTLY (maybe not, but he might have) kept pickled uteruses. What a weird quack! Oh, and by the way, this Francis Tumblety was also homosexual. As yet another “expert” explains, “in those days, anyone who was responsible for homosexual practices was looked on as a pervert.”

Not like today. Today we’re enlightened. That’s why this documentary – about a “veteran editor’s” attempts to “separate fact from newspaper fiction” – is bringing this up at all. So that we can all congratulate ourselves about how far we’ve come since those dark days.

Walter Sickert is also named as a suspect. As one expert explains it, Mr. Sickert, a relatively well-known artist at the time, has lately fallen under suspicion because he “painted some murky images of what appeared to be dead women in rooms in London can only have painted those images if he’d actually carried out crimes.” But the enlightened people who made this documentary are beyond accusing someone of murder because of the way he handled a paintbrush, and what he chose as his subjects!

 Actually, to be honest, this is kind of a creepy painting.

Queen Victoria’s personal doctor, Sir William Gull, is another named suspect. He was old and suffered seizures, so he couldn’t have done it, unless he’d had an accomplice, one of the “experts” laughs.

The last name tossed about is that of Prince Albert Edward, the Duke of Clarence. As one “expert” declares, “Here was a member of the royal family who was unbalanced, and also, did have… interesting sexual proclivities… And it fitted this idea of the toff, the mad aristocrat…” (One of the other popular theories of the time was that Jack the Ripper was a crazed aristocrat killing poor women for sport.)

This segment’s tone is almost unbearably smug. (And incomplete! How could they forget to include Lewis Carroll?) We wouldn’t dream of slandering people based on flimsy evidence today. They were such silly twits back then, weren’t they, though?

Actually, we’ve still got some silly twits amongst us, as it turns out. Mr. MacKenzie being one of them.

First, he assumes that the author of the “Dear Boss” letter is in fact a journalist. This is a widely-accepted theory, but it is just that – a theory. Next, he assumes that this journalist worked for the Star newspaper.

From there, he takes a letter found by a researcher called Andrew Cook. This letter, which we aren’t shown in its entirety, is written by “the major shareholder of the Star newspaper to the new editor in 1890.” It contains what Mr. MacKenzie calls “a fantastic line” in reference to a Star journalist called Frederick Best: “Furthermore, Mr. Best’s attempt to mislead Central News during the Whitechapel murders should have led to an earlier termination of his association with the newspaper.”

Damning stuff! Clearly, the (never-named) author of that letter must have been referring to – um, what, exactly?

The fact that the paper printed a description of the murderer without anyone knowing who he actually was? Maybe he meant the idea that the paper had suggested the killer must be a Jew? Or that the killer must be a foreigner? That he must be a doctor?

Remember, these papers printed all kinds of falsehoods about Jack the Ripper. That was the entire point of this documentary. To separate out the fact from the newspaper fiction.

And yet, Mr. MacKenzie makes a “fantastic” leap. Clearly, he says, the major shareholder must be referring to the “Dear Boss” letter. That’s the attempt to mislead. It must be. The “Dear Boss” letter is THE LIE.

It’s the letter that “names” Jack the Ripper. And without that name, well, these crimes would be lost to history. After all, if he were simply known as “The Whitechapel Killer,” or “Whitechapel Prostitute Killer,” or something like that, who would care, right?

“Bascially, this nails Best as the guy who signed himself ‘Jack the Ripper’,” MacKenzie says, like a ridiculous tosser.

Oh, and the researcher Mr. Cook suggests that Mr. Best had a rare insight into Whitechapel because his wife was born there. What? Why should he need the insights of a wife born in the area in which the killings occurred? All he did was write a letter about it. (By the way, Mr. Cook has a book suggesting that Jack the Ripper's crimes were all committed by different people and connected by journalists and editors as a way of selling newspapers. If his "Best's wife was born in Whitechapel" line is any indication, that book must be full of great facts!) Also, Mr. MacKenzie states that the line from the shareholder’s letter suggests that someone at the Star had to have known about the “Dear Boss” hoax letter, and was therefore protecting Mr. Best. Someone “quite a way up the ladder.” That someone being T. P. O’Connor, the man who has a statue on Fleet Street.

 Take down that statue, and put one of Kelvin MacKenzie in its place.

This is what you call real journalism. You have to make these leaps, you see, in order to get at the truth. That’s what real journalists do.

I know what you’re thinking. Case closed, right?

Not so fast! Mr. MacKenzie is a “veteran editor.” He needs more. So he goes to a handwriting analyst. This handwriting analyst (Elaine Quigley, former chairman of the British Institute of Graphologists and a “fantastic” organization that must be -- actually, check out Ms. Quigley's website for a good larf -- or cry, if you prefer) takes a sample of Frederick Best’s handwriting and on top of that she lays an acetate photocopy of the “Dear Boss” letter. The letters N and M look similar! The way the S’s have that, you know, that sort of curve shape to them – they look similar! And the T’s – they fit each other to a “t”!

I am not joking. That is literally what they do in this scene. They take handwriting samples and pick out a few individual letters, place one photocopy of one document on top of another photocopy of another document and viola. Mystery solved.

But there’s still more. Because, you see, the handwriting in the “Dear Boss” letter is too perfect. “It doesn’t have any signs of aggression,” Ms. Quigley says. She would expect if someone like “Jack the Ripper” had actually written it, it would have more, I don’t know, exciting lettering. It would be signed with big, bold, flourishing letters, as if the author were wielding a knife, not a pen (or a penknife?). And this letter looks like it was written by someone who was… transcribing something that had been written for him. “It’s all copybook,” Ms. Quigley goes on. “Like someone has written it down and copied it out…” Something someone else actually composed for him.

And who is that someone? Well, Mr. Mackenzie has a theory on that. T. P. O’Connor! The man “quite a way up the ladder”! This because, as the narrator misstates, “The shareholder’s letter has already indicated that the editor T. P. O’Connor was aware of his employee’s forgery.”

 Now, the "From Hell" letter is disturbing. Shouldn't we be trying to figure out who wrote that one? What's that? We should devote our energy to more important things, like ending modern knife crime and punishing women who throw cats in rubbish bins? Are you joking?

By now you’re probably ready to dig up Frederick Best’s and T. P. O’Connor’s corpses and demand they tell you why they committed such a dastardly betrayal of the “newly literate lower classes.” After all, Mr. MacKenzie has succeeded in his quest to separate the facts from newspaper fiction.

For crying out loud, if this Mr. MacKenzie is typical of England’s “veteran editors,” then not one gawdam thing has changed over there in over 100 years. Check out this:
He [Kelvin MacKenzie] pleads “not guilty” to allowing lies to be printed in The Sun while he was editor.

He says: “When I published those stories, they were not lies. But I don’t really think of it all in the way you suggest. They were great stories that later turned out to be untrue — and that is different.”

He adds: “What am I supposed to feel ashamed about?”
The man is shameless!

*warning: gruesome pictures at that link.

Dear Boss pic image source.
Kelvin MacKenzie pic source.
Walter Sickert painting source.
From Hell letter pic source.
T. P. O'Connor statue pic source.


shampoo said...

there is a book (that i've read) that makes a pretty good case for sickert being the ripper. i can't remember the name, but i remember the author actually went out with a "bull's eye lantern" to see wtf investigating officers would've been able to see with those. and the answer is, not much.

but, yeah, who cares who wrote the fake letters? i don't know if it's possible to prove who wrote the REAL letters (and did the murders) at this point, let alone who wrote the fake.

"jack the ripper" is a catchy name, but i think these murders were off the chain enough that he could have been called "man who killed some women in whitechapel" and these crimes would be remembered.

Ricky Sprague said...

That's something I've noticed about a lot of investigators of "mysterious mysteries" like this. It's really, really difficult to put yourself in the mindset of someone who actually lived, who grew up and worked and survived, in the world they're investigating.

"Why did they just ignore THIS?"

The answer is, they always ignored THIS, because they didn't think THIS was important. And, besides that, they couldn't see THIS, anyway, as you point out.