Gille de Rais was a French knight and companion of Joan of Arc who was accused of murdering children. Supposedly, he did this as part of a complex occult ritual, in which the sacrifice of innocents would lead to earthly power and riches. Admittedly, there is some dispute about the truth of that, but honestly, if you’re accused of murdering kids, plural, the likelihood of there being something to that accusation is quite high. In any case, this happened about six hundred years ago, so the case is rather cold. There were likely people who fit the modern definition of “serial killer” before de Rais, but he’s the first who is recorded in as much detail, so we’ll name him the original.
That said, Jack’s not the most prolific serial killer, either.
Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian countess who reportedly killed six hundred -- six hundred -- young women during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The actual number varies, and there’s, again, some question as to whether or not she was a murderer at all*, but the legend surrounding the trial says she did it in order to bathe in the blood of virgins, thereby restoring her youth and vitality. And even with that established, there is one person with a greater reported body count -- a member of the Thuggee cult in India named Behram, who supposedly ended 931 lives -- but his murders were done with the intent of robbery. Bathory’s were of a different shade, so we’ll name her the most prolific.
*It seems that slander was much more effective back in the day. Perhaps the best (and most catty) example comes from Dante’s Inferno: a lot of Dante’s political opponents just happened to end up in the part of Hell reserved for sodomites. Funny how that works...
Alright, so Jack the Ripper killed five prostitutes in an area of Whitechapel, London that didn’t measure more than a few square miles at the time. He may have killed more, but contemporary police opinion has those five (Polly Nichols, Anne Chapman, Liz Stride, Kate Eddows, and Mary Jane Kelly) as most likely the work of one man. He started by killing Nichols in August of 1888 and finished with Kelly in December of that same year. Not even six months, and then ... nothing.
Why, then, is the Ripper the alpha killer? He sticks in the imagination like a tack, a top-hatted and cloaked wraith who is forever the nebulous form of Murder, but we know almost nothing about him. He covered his tracks so well that a whole industry has sprung around his identity -- there are dozens of suspects, ranging up and down the economic scale and including a few women to boot.
Part of it may be that Jack’s case was one of the first to be truly seized upon and sensationalized by the press. The modern newspaper was just coming into its own in the later part of the 19th century, and the press played up the story to its full extent. Looking at the broadsheets of the time, with headlines screaming about LEATHER APRON or THE NEMESIS OF NEGLECT, one doesn’t have to squint very hard to see in them their modern equivalents -- the New York Post or the Daily Mail come to mind. The Ripper crime scenes were almost fairground attractions, with attention growing with each horrific discovery.
The various Ripper letters only added to the frenzy of interest in the case. Most were likely frauds, including the first one in which someone gave the killer his immortal nickname, but one in particular stands out as potentially from the Ripper himself. A human kidney was included with the letter, which is reproduced in its entirety below:
I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer
Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk
One strains to think of anything more lurid. It’s tempting to call the letter media-savvy, because it brings form to the monster. Before this, the only communication from the killer was in his bloody work, but after it, the diseased mind that carried out said murders was on full public display.
I’m reluctant to note this next reason, because it plays into the sensationalism of the case, reducing the lives of its five victims to little more than the details of their deaths. Still, it must be mentioned that part of the fascination with the Ripper is undoubtedly due to the fact that, as the murders occurred, the nascent art of photography was just advanced enough for the police to record the victims’ bodies. It’s one thing to hear of the details of what happened to Mary Jane Kelly, but it’s quite another to view the butchered ruin the Ripper made of her. Alan Moore, who treated Kelly’s murder with a combination of a clinical eye and a mystical framework in his seminal work From Hell, mentions in his extensive footnotes that he was loathe to dwell on the psychology of the person who could have done something like that to a fellow human being. That room, at that time, with those two people, must have been temporarily disconnected from anything resembling this world.
The abrupt halt to the murders -- and the subsequent failure to catch the Ripper -- are the real ensurers of the story’s influence. It’s unusual for a serial killer to simply stop. He’ll usually escalate his murders until he’s finally caught. Jack was different. He built on his brutality with every murder, but ceased his activity when his final murder seemingly stretched the limit of what could be done to another person. At that point, he vanished. The police tried in vain to catch him, but the Ripper’s active part in history ended when he exited Kelly’s dismal apartment.
Other mysteries of this nature were eventually solved -- de Railles and Bathory were caught, and so was the Son of Sam -- but the Ripper’s mystery is, in essence, eternal. No true justice can come of solving the murders now, but there will be no end to the trying. The man who murdered those five women is long dead, but Jack the Ripper lives even still.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.