For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Victorian period.
When I was about eight years old, my first foray into the world of writing was in producing a small pamphlet on the most notorious crime of that period — the Jack the Ripper killings.
Although it was a fairly derivative piece; cobbled together, as it was, from two Encyclopaedia entries and then badly-typed up on my mother’s Olivetti (as you can see, my life hasn't really progressed much), it represented something an early obsession for me…
Two nights ago, I was pleased to be able to reacquaint myself with the facts of the Ripper case. Having gone to YouTube to see what joys were thrown up, I was not disappointed.
For it was there that I stumbled upon perhaps the finest analysis of the ‘autumn of terror’ ever made: The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper.
Introduced by a heavily-sweating Peter Ustinov, the show was recorded in 1988 — ‘one hundred years after those terrible events in Whitechapel’. Clearly in America. Clearly for an American audience.
Ustinov begins by glowering into the camera, warning the audience that this ‘investigation’ is not for thrill-seekers, but that it is, in fact, a scientific analysis of the murders – and the murderer. As he makes this point, the frame of the shot opens up to reveal that he is walking across a studio set clearly borrowed from the musical version of A Christmas Carol, but with the street-lamps dimmed and an overworked dry ice machine pumping the ‘London particular’ across the shiny studio floor.
Leaving the Victorian street-scene behind him, Ustinov mooches across to the other side of the studio, where a bunch of ‘crime professionals’ are seated around a wooden table, rustling papers and looking serious. They are the Curator of Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, a female Judge (Ustinov looks appalled) and two Special Agents with the FBI.
After a thumbnail sketch of the Ripper killings — made all the more terrifying by performances by some of Britain’s weakest character actors — and an ‘on location’ report about the serial-killer by serial-bride Jan Leeming (she’s knocked up a tally of five, as well), we are presented with our Ripper suspects:
Robert Donston Stephenson
A journalist and writer interested in the occult and black magic.
Stephenson authored a newspaper article, which claimed that black magic was the motive for the killings and alleged that the Ripper was a Frenchman.
According to the show, Stephenson’s landlady was so suspicious of him that she searched his room – only to find a cache of blood-stained cravats. This either proves he was definitely Jack the Ripper - or, at the very least, quite bad at shaving.
Montague John Druitt
Druitt was a failed barrister, forced to supplement his income by working as an assistant schoolmaster in Blackheath.
He committed suicide shortly after the last canonical Ripper murder.
It is hinted at during the show that he was also homosexual and suffering from depression, though why either of these traits would serve to stengthen his candidacy as a suspect, is perhaps less easy to explain.
Dr William Gull
Gull was the ‘physician-in-ordinary’ to Queen Victoria. It is unlikely, therefore, that he spent much time hanging around the squalid East End of London. He was also in his mid-fifties, looked nothing like the contemporary pictures of Jack the Ripper, was never suspected at the time of the murders, and was in failing health — having suffered a stroke two years previously. Let’s face it, it wasn’t him.
Gull only became a Ripper suspect when Stephen Knight published his spurious account of the murders, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, in the 1970s. The Masonic conspiracy, outlined in the book, has Prince Eddy (Queen Victoria’s grandson) being secretly married to the last Ripper victim, Mary Kelly, who was not only a prostitute but also a Catholic.
To the staunchly-Protestant Queen, Kelly’s Catholicism represented a constitutional emergency (being a prostitute was fine). Gull and his driver, John Netley, were dispatched to the East End to rectify the situation. Only to discover that Kelly had informed four of her friends of the marriage, who also have to be silenced. Gull, being a Mason, finished them off in the style of a Masonic ritual (which may or may not actually exist).
Though this theory is ridiculous, it did lead Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell to create the excellent graphic novel From Hell. So, for that at least, we can be thankful.
Prince “Eddy” Albert Victor
The Royal theories have been bandied around for years.
Although the contemporary eye-witness accounts painted Jack the Ripper as a foreign-looking man with a moustache and deerstalker-type hat, when those same witnesses were interviewed again years later, their accounts had radically changed – he had now become the Ripper that we all know and love, stalking the fog-covered cobbles, wearing a top hat and full evening dress. (Makes sense - if you’re going to cut a woman to pieces in a stinking alleyway in the East End, you may as well dress for it).
Prince Eddy is back again, this time he’s contracted syphilis and gone mad — killing the prostitutes on his own. Considering he was in Balmoral for one of the murders and Sandringham for two others, this is, again, unlikely to be our man…
Kozminski was a poor Polish Jew who was admitted to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in 1891. He was named as a chief suspect by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Melville Macnaghten in an 1894 memorandum.
Macnaghten’s claim is that Kozminski was identified as the Ripper but that no prosecution could be made against him because the witness refused to testify. It turns out as the programme goes along, that Macnaughten may have been somewhat confused, since he refers to the suspect “Kozminski” (first name and any other details omitted) as a violent woman-hating maniac, who was sent to the Asylum in late 1888 but killed himself shortly afterwards.
According to Colney Hatch records, Aaron Kozminski was admitted there, but was actually rather a gentle figure who was confined in the institution mainly for poor dietary habits and a refusal to wash (surely this wasn’t that uncommon in the East End in 1888?). Moreover, far from killing himself, Kozminski carried on living at the asylum for a further thirty years…
Back in the studio, we are once more addressed by Ustinov (his shirt is now absolutely sopping), and he's trying to make sense of the largely-contradictory evidence that has been provided.
In London, Jan Leeming is poring over old documents in an attempt to get to the bottom of it all. To little avail.
A pair of television-friendly ‘Ripperologists’ – in the shape of Martin Fido and Colin Wilson — are wheeled out to provide expert opinion and to lend their support to none of the above. (It makes you wonder how the less TV-friendly ones might look…)
Finally, the action moves back to the American studio, where Ustinov (now pacing around like Poirot working up to the denouement) addresses the criminologist panel again - demanding to know, once and for all, who the mysterious killer was.
The female Judge (referred to as ‘pretty’ by Ustinov in an aside that is both patronising and wildly inaccurate in one move) is first. She discounts Gull, Prince Eddy, Stephenson and pretty much everyone else. The Black Museum Curator concurs. This leaves the two FBI agents, who provide a very dry ‘psyche-profile’ of the murderer — which totally ignores and undermines everything that has been said over the course of the last two hours.
Finally, under clear duress, the panel are forced to make a choice between the five suspects — and all, fairly reluctantly, plump for Kozminski.
“It’s unanimous!” chirps Peter Ustinov, turning to the camera. “Good night ladies and gentleman”. Looking momentarily away, Ustinov suddenly swings his head back, adding mysteriously: “Oh. And sleep well…”
Grim-faced, Ustinov drifts forward, perhaps entertaining dark thoughts about any rogue thrill-seekers that might have viewed the ‘documentary’ without heeding his words of caution.
As the credits roll, he crosses back to the mists of the Victorian street-scene — with the unusually-strained gait of a man who has recently soiled his trousers. It is a fitting end to such a show. And it is probably for this, if for no other reason, that The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper is worth watching.
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