I’m not a criminologist, but I’ve seen one played on tv…

November 16, 2009 at 6:06 pm (TV) (, , , , )

And heaven knows I’ve read enough books to make me wonder what exactly the Discovery Channel was playing at with “Jack the Ripper in America”. I was kind of looking forward to this “documentary” (what does one properly call the pseudo-scientific presentations on the Discovery and History Channels?), because I know a little about the Jack the Ripper murders. As they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but here we go anyhow. I know enough to be aware that there were five murders associated with the same person, and then – they stopped; and I know enough to know that it’s extremely odd for the killings to have simply stopped. There have been attempts to link the end of the London murders to similar killings elsewhere after that time period … well, actually, from what I’ve seen just about every stabbing/slashing death that occurred in any city in the world after 1888 seems to have caused a flurry of “OMG! The Ripper’s here!” headlines. Still, it’s a reasonable explanation for the cessation of killing: he moved on.

So, as I said, I was interested in the show when I saw the commercials. However. The only thing I can think having seen it is “hooey”. As in, what a load of. I’m sure that the cop they featured in this (whose name, I imagine he’d be glad to know, I didn’t note and now can’t track down) is perfectly brilliant in his own venue; they said he founded the NYC Cold Case division, and mentioned a ridiculous number of cold cases being solved in a ridiculously short period of time. And as he considers the solution of the Jack the Ripper murders to be “the Holy Grail” of cold cases he decided to look into it. And I don’t know, maybe every particle of evidence he turned up did support the suspect he “liked” so much and they simply didn’t have time to show enough in a 43-minute presentation to answer my questions. But they did a terrible job of showing what they did show. Again, I don’t know so very much, but I feel like I do know enough to cry foul.

OK, so the Ripper killings. Five murders are attributed to the same person, apparently (though there were about eleven in the relevant time period that could be counted, depending on who you ask), all prostitutes, all with throats cut, and with increasing levels of postmortem mutilation to the body, specifically to the abdomen and reproductive organs (which latter they never mentioned in this show – which, given that it was already rated for mature audiences, I thought peculiar), and then in the last victim the face. Most of what I know I learned from folks like Caleb Carr, but one thing that seems logical (insofar as sociopathic behavior can be logical) is that once a killer has progressed to increased levels of violence, they don’t go back: it only gets worse.

Which is rather counter to what this show posits: Jack the Ripper got scared and fled to NYC, where two and a half years later he kills and then mutilates the body of 56-year-old prostitute Carrie Brown. Okay, I see it: mutilation – except Carrie Brown was strangled. Now, the reason I find this so funny is that the cop who starred in this production stated that a serial killer’s MO is like his fingerprint: it identifies him. And then he goes on to take as a given that Carrie Brown was killed by Jack the Ripper. From what I’ve read, strangulation takes a completely different mindset from throat-cutting. And as to that mutilation… As I said, the postmortem violence in London was escalating: the last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was so horribly cut apart they couldn’t show the crime scene photo. The killer had plenty of private time to spend on her, and … did: her face, her breasts, her thighs – all attacked in addition to her abdomen and organs. There was mutilation of Carrie Brown’s body, but only to her viscera, iirc: from that crime scene picture her face was certainly untouched, as were her breasts and thighs. Why would the killer regress to a lesser degree of defacement?

I missed about a minute of the show, in which I believe the cop sweepingly dismissed a huge number of the suspects usually discussed. Celebrity-type suspects I’ve heard of were Oscar Wilde (oh please), Lewis Carroll (there was a little basis for this one, but it’s still an oh-please), a grandson (I think) of Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill’s father (suffering from the mental deterioration associated with syphilis); I don’t know if they touched on Patricia Cornwell’s pet suspect, the artist Walter Sickert … All of these, evidently, and a good many others he called “absurd”. (Pot, meet kettle.) In fact, he jettisoned all but three suspects, and those three he looked into because they were known to have come to America, and therefore could have killed Carrie Brown. The hooey is starting to pile up … So, based on what I see as a flawed hypothesis to start with, the cop compounds his error by focusing on James Kelly as his favorite suspect. Why? Because the other two didn’t fit the profile or the evidence, or both, whereas Kelly killed his new young bride in a fit of rage and jealousy by stabbing her in the neck (with a pocket knife, is what I find), was sent to Broadmoor prison/insane asylum, and escaped in time to be in London to commit the Ripper murders. Oh, and then 40 years later he shows up back at the gates of Broadmoor, and gives a lengthy confession in which he says he came to the United States and traveled hither and yon about the continent before going back.

‘Kay. So. The theory is that you have a man who killed his wife, was declared insane, escaped from Broadmoor, went to London, killed five (or so) prostitutes, then fled to New York and killed another (or two) – and then, based on his confession when he returned, traveled the country committing a murder here and a murder there: California, Texas, etc. The timing is quite nice; the cop determines that the ship Kelly claimed to leave Europe on would have gotten him to NYC in time to kill Carrie Brown, and then he located “OMG! JtR!” newspaper articles in all of the cities that Kelly said he visited. Right.

I don’t buy it. I think the timing’s about all he’s got.

Yes, Kelly killed his wife, and used a blade. Thing is, the cop makes a major point of the fact that the knife used by the Ripper was about six inches long with a pointed tip. A minute’s worth of research showed me that Kelly stabbed his wife with a pocket knife. Stabbed, not slashed. No mutilation. And the reason he ended up in Broadmoor rather than being hanged – as they quoted from testimony on the show last night – is that he went a bit catatonic … Probably belated disclaimer: psychological terms are used in the popular sense, not in any attempt at diagnosis. By “catatonic” I mean he went into what sounded like a deep depression, shutting down and refusing to respond to … much of anything. The tiny bit of information given made it sound like he was a jealous, miserable man who thought his wife was being unfaithful, killed her with something he happened to have in his pocket, and then felt remorse either at having done it or at having ruined his own life. How do they explain a man going from what seems to me to have been a domestic crime of passion (combined with opportunity: he had the pocketknife on him) to the stalking and butchery of several women he (probably) didn’t know? No matter which way you look at it there doesn’t seem to be anything to tie it together: Mrs. Kelly: stabbed, end of sentence; the prostitutes: throats cut and (most) bodies mutilated; Carrie Brown: strangled and body mutilated. The similarities are too few to make up for the huge differences in MO.

About that six-inch long knife… The cop goes into raptures because he discovers that Kelly was an upholsterer (though they originally referred to him as a carpenter), and goes off to talk to one who shows him – and lets him use – a knife used in that craft that did match the type of weapon that made the wounds in the Ripper’s victims. Check. But he didn’t use it on his wife. Immaterial? We’ll go with that, sure. Thing is, one reason Patricia Cornwell so strongly favored Sickert was because as an artist he had a solid grounding in anatomy. Some of the damages inflicted on the bodies – removal of the womb in one case, of the kidney in another – required someone to know the difference between, say, the kidney and the liver (since it was identified correctly in a letter to the papers). There was enough certainty in the butchery that from what I’ve read the killer needed some knowledge of anatomy; James Kelly, upholsterer, had the knife, but did he have that?

And as for all of the “OMG!!” headlines… Seriously? First of all, there seemed to be no proof that Kelly was in all those cities in that order and with that specific timing. Secondly … since the autumn of 1888 any report of the murder of any woman involving any kind of blade will probably have “Ripper” somewhere in the article. If there’s more than one killing, or if the woman killed was a prostitute, or it’s a slow news day, the headline will very likely scream “Ripper!” And that’s today. Look at the newspaper headlines for any city in the world at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th (and probably up to today), and it was probably a pandemic. People were terrified. They didn’t know that Mary Jane Kelly was the last victim; they didn’t know whether the killings would start up again, or where, and maybe he wouldn’t limit himself to prostitutes this time … Whether there were a great many copycats out there, or there were always that many murders of this style that simply didn’t get attention (one word: prostitute), or whether it really was one man scampering madly about the globe with a dripping knife – dunno. My guess would (kind of obviously) be a combination of 1 and 2. Some of the newspaper articles the cop was taking as evidence that James Kelly’s confessed travels in America matched a trail of blood each appeared on screen for a few seconds, and from what I was able to read while they were up there was a wide variety of victim and MO… The killings were in no way that I could see in those glimpses identical to – or even a whole lot like – the killings in London, 1888.

Oh – one more thing where they failed miserably in this program: At one point they specifically say that there were no eyewitnesses to the murders (and they marvel at it… The moment in which the cop demonstrates the wonders of The Shadow was quite humorous). Twenty-odd minutes later they produce a sketch based on eyewitness descriptions which they miraculously match to an age-regressed photo of James Kelly. Huh? (There was also the fact, never mentioned here, that the lack of blood at the sites where most of the “canon” Ripper victims were found indicated that the killings were done elsewhere. There was a lot that wasn’t mentioned here. Exhaustive it was not.)

I guess my main question goes back to the beginning of this post: what were they playing at? Who was this supposed to be aimed at? I would think most anyone who would tune into this would have a basic working knowledge of the case(s). But this was such a superficial attempt at exposition and (*snicker*) solution that, to be honest, it casts doubt on every other show I’ve ever seen on Discovery, even the ones that seemed legitimate. I knew already that much of what they air is fluff… I just didn’t think it was quite that fluffy.



  1. Jimmy K said,

    James Kelly has long been the prime Jack the Ripper suspect (see “The Real Jack the Ripper: The Secret of Prisoner 1167” by Jim Tully Robinson.) I agree that the show glossed over some facts and happily ignored others but I wouldnt dismiss him as Jack the Ripper so easily.

    He does fit the jigsaw very nicely; insane, good with a blade, in London & NY circa the murders of the prostitutes (although I was surprised that no ships logs where not tracked down [names on board] for the crossing he made just to put him in NY 100%)

    I would not let a badly put together Discovery docu. put you off.


    • stewartry said,

      Thanks for that! I definitely want to look into the book you mention. I still have questions about the change in MO, but my feeling is that my doubts come more from the poor quality of the presentation than the actual facts of the case.

      • stewartry said,

        Thank you – Very interesting to know a bit more about the detective … I hadn’t made note of his name during the show, and couldn’t remember after the fact. I guess he’s got a bit of time on his hands now…

        Speaking of time, you’re right – with only an hour they could only scratch the surface of any kind of research. One of my pet peeves about this kind of program, though, is that they waste a shocking amount of time recapping what they said before the commercials, as if they assume everyone’s attention span has been corroded down to nothing.

  2. kerry frost said,

    It has been interesting reading the above posts, I agree that the programme that you refer to did only seem to give information pointing to James Kelly, and it all looked too convenient, I have also read up on Walter Sickert, again very compelling evedence if you take the Camden murders into consideration.
    My mind is very open on the Ripper’s identity, but if you read up on James Kelly, you will see that he had contracted syphilis from his extensive use of prostitutes many of whom were in whitechapel before his marraige, his wife died two days after the attack with a pocket knife but his mother in law witnessed it, and he was digging with the knife in a frenzy of anger and jelousy.
    he blamed his wife for his condition and only realised that he had contracted it from prostitutes while in Broadmoor.
    Syphilis causes insanity, and he was widley reported to suffer bouts of unprevoked rage and severe mood swings.
    He had motive to attack prostitutes and there is evedence that he actually knew Mary Kelly, this could have been a reason for her murder being so brutal.
    He also tried three times to give himself up to the police twice going to British embassys in America and coming back to England, but the authorities didn’t follow up and he gave up and changed his mind.
    It is interesting that although the programme obtained his memoirs which they refered to as a confession from his last months in Broadmoor at the end of his life, they referred to his travels in America, and tied them to murders there, but as it has been pointed out there were no real details given.
    He at no time in that document admitted to being Jack the ripper, ???
    Why did they go to the trouble of having years taken off of a photo of him in old age when a two minute search on the internet will give you a genuine photo of him?
    and it was very conveniently matched to a drawing that looked very much like him, there were many such drawings floating around at the time, all different.
    The programme was biased, but he still fits the profile in my opinion and can not be discounted with out more research.

  3. Dust and Shadow – Lyndsay Faye, Simon Vance « Stewartry said,

    […] My blog post about a silly investigation […]

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