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Last Updated: Friday, 26 November, 2004, 05:29 GMT
Why are we obsessed with Jack the Ripper?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

A shadowy figure clad in a top hat and cape, carrying a shiny leather bag through the London fog, the popular image of Jack the Ripper continues to be iconic 116 years after he terrorised the East End.

Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline in From Hell
The murders still inspire countless films and books
This week, press reports of tests on a watch led to the finger again being pointed at James Maybrick, a 19th Century Liverpool cotton merchant.

It is a criminal case where a year rarely goes by without a new development or conspiracy theory, but those investigating admit it will almost certainly never be solved.

So why do legions of Jack the Ripper enthusiasts, known as Ripperologists, remain obsessed by the identity of the killer who mutilated prostitutes in the area around Whitechapel?

There are an awful lot of people, particularly in the States, who don't believe Jack the Ripper actually existed
Paul Begg
For Paul Begg, author of upcoming book Jack the Ripper: The Facts, the killer has become more than a match for any fictional figure from the world of horror.

"There are an awful lot of people, particularly in the States, who don't believe Jack the Ripper actually existed. They think he is a fictional character along with Frankenstein and Dracula.

"For most people Jack the Ripper personifies the fear that we all have of the lurker in the shadows, that thing we can offer no defence against."

Sickert row

New books are released every year, many of them identifying a new wealthy Victorian candidate for the crimes and an elaborate conspiracy theory for the Ripperologists to gorge themselves on.

They populate the message boards of the comprehensive Casebook website and argue endlessly over the multitude of competing hypotheses.

But US detective novelist Patricia Cornwell has perhaps gone further than any other Ripperologist in her search for the truth.

Spending as much as $6m researching her book, she named celebrated British artist Walter Sickert as the murderer.

Prince Albert Victor - grandson of Queen Victoria
James Maybrick - Liverpool cotton merchant
Walter Sickert - Artist
Dr William Gull - Royal physician
Aaron Kosminski - Polish Jewish immigrant
Michael Ostrog - Thief
Montague John Druitt - Barrister and teacher
Francis Tumblety - US quack doctor
Joseph Barnett - Boyfriend of victim
Countless others
She generated outrage in the art world by having a Sickert painting cut up, and purchased 31 other works in her quest to prove the artist was the killer using a barrage of forensic tests.

But despite the definitive title Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed, she was unable to prove Sickert's guilt and her theory was widely dismissed by leading Ripperologists.

To Trevor Marriott, a retired murder squad detective from Bedfordshire, not only will the case never be solved, but all of the facts will remain disputed, even down to whether the Ripper killed more than the five women attributed to him.

"There are a hardcore of people throughout the world who will always be interested. There are people who live and die the Ripper.

"I sometimes wonder whether they want the crime to be solved. There are some people who won't accept any facts. Nothing's ever going to change them."

Mr Marriott, who has spent more than a decade researching the killings since his retirement in 1988, said he had sympathy for the officers who had failed to catch the killer.

"A lot of my police service was at a time when we didn't have modern forensic methods. These methods have come to the forefront in my time.

"It was good old fashioned police work, which was all they had at the time of the Ripper murders.

3 April 1888 - Emma Elizabeth Smith
7 August 1888 - Martha Tabram
31 August 1888 - Mary Ann Nichols*
8 September 1888 - Annie Chapman*
30 September 1888 - Elizabeth Stride*
30 September 1888 - Catherine Eddowes*
9 November 1888 - Mary Jane Kelly*
20 December 1888 - Rose Mylett
17 July 1889 - Alice McKenzie
10 September 1889 - Unknown woman
13 February 1891 - Frances Coles
* Usually identified as the Ripper murders
"As a detective something like this is always of interest. You try to apply modern day investigative techniques. If I had been around then, what would I have done differently. They seem to have missed a lot of avenues of inquiry that I would have pursued.

"I regret not having now the power of a police officer to go to places and demand things. It does prove difficult."

For Neil Storey, author of A Grim Almanac of Jack the Ripper's London, the rise of the iconic imagery of the killer is tied into the rise of the "gutter press".

"To writers at the turn of the century, the East End was a Third World in the most powerful empire in the world, with poverty akin to the poorest corners, it was a phenomenon.

"When this series of murders come along that are incredible, are unsolved, it ties in with this mysterious world of poverty, and it rings all the bells that that the various media had.

Trevor Marriott
Trevor Marriott, a retired murder detective, has spent a decade investigating
"Pure unadulterated crime and disaster [was the making] of the gutter press.

"He became a stalking bogeyman that children were threatened with, a folk devil. Kids had skipping rhymes and played catch games that mentioned him."

Along with Patricia Cornwell's controversial work, the most hotly disputed theory is that naming James Maybrick as the man responsible.

A diary, alleged to be that of Maybrick, and containing his confession to the gruesome killings, was made public in the early 1990s.

But it has failed to convince most of the leading Ripper authors, who accept that while it has not been proved to be a fake, it has also not been proved to be genuine.

And while Ripperologists continue their hunt, it is clear that Jack the Ripper will be imprinted on the consciousness of the English-speaking world for many years to come.

From Hell leaves you cold
08 Feb 02 |  Entertainment

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