Tori Telfer | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,226 words)
Before the Zodiac Killer named himself, before someone strangled poor JonBenét, before the Black Dahlia was sliced open, and before Tupac and Biggie were shot six months apart under eerily similar circumstances, someone was slinking through the slums of London, killing women.
This someone — a shadowy aichmomaniac, possibly wearing a bloody apron — left the women of the Whitechapel district in shocking disarray. Their intestines were thrown over their shoulders; cultish markings were carved into their cheeks. One of them was found without her heart. To most people who saw the crime scenes or read the papers, everything about this appeared to be the work of a man — the brutality, the strength, the misogyny. And so in 1888, when people started looking for the Ripper, they were looking for…well, for a Jack. Was he a mad doctor? A butcher? Queen Victoria’s weak-minded son? Everyone in Whitechapel found themselves peering nervously into the fog, wondering which normal-looking male passerby was actually a maniac.
Everyone, that is, except for a few lone voices, suggesting something totally radical: what if they should actually be looking for a Jill?
The “Jill the Ripper” theory has a surprisingly legitimate origin story. Right after the murder of Mary Kelly — the victim with the missing heart — people started arguing about the time of her death. The police surgeon said that she died in the wee small hours of the morning, but a woman named Caroline Maxwell swore up and down that that was impossible, because she’d seen Mary Kelly a good five hours after she was supposed to have been chopped up into little pieces. Caroline had recognized Mary’s outfit, and even spoken to her. This weird little discrepancy caught the ear of Frederick George Abberline, a Chief Inspector for the London Metropolitan Police, who remembered seeing burnt women’s clothing in the fireplace of Mary Kelly’s room. What if the killer had burned their own blood-soaked clothes and changed into Mary’s clean clothes as a means of disguise? What if Caroline Maxwell had unwittingly talked to the actual murderer that morning, dressed up as the victim? And if so — if the clothes in the fireplace were women’s clothes, and Caroline Maxwell had spoken to someone with a women’s voice — well, Abberline suggested, perhaps they were dealing with a murderess.
After all, the Ripper was never caught.
Over the next hundred-plus years, a tiny handful of books expounded on Abberline’s theory, though few credited him. In the meantime, the legend of Jack the Ripper grew and grew, becoming a cornerstone of the true crime genre and a classic trope of horror (not to mention a costume that you can find at Party City for $49.99, though, at the moment, it is grievously out of stock.) To this day, passionate Ripperologists pore over the autopsies and debate the various suspects. Most don’t take the Jill the Ripper theory very seriously (“Jack the Ripper being a woman is one of the most crackpot theories if not the most crackpot theory about Jack the Ripper,” writes user John Wheat in a forum on the Ripper site Casebook.org). But sometimes a nagging doubt creeps in. After all, the Ripper was never caught. What if we were looking at the wrong sort of person all along?
Conspiracy theories are notoriously wacky, but true crime conspiracy theories really take the (moldering, arsenic-laced) cake. There’s something about the potent blend of serial murder and whodunnit-ness that makes these theories both vigorously insane and morbidly delightful, like the theory that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the JFK assassination, or that John Ramsey had ties to 9/11, or — my personal favorite — that George W. Bush and Ted Bundy swapped places when Bundy was on death row, meaning that Bush got the electric chair and Bundy ran the country for eight years. These theories may not be, ahem, accepted in polite society, but it can feel strangely liberating to turn them over in your mind. Isn’t some explanation, no matter how zany, better than nothing at all?
In the fog-filled world of the Ripper, you can’t throw a brick without clunking a conspiracy theorist on the head. (Note: every Jack the Ripper suspect is at this point a “theory,” but the ones I’m calling “conspiracy theories” are the ones that have been widely discredited and/or aren’t taken seriously by the Ripperology community in general.) One of the most deliciously mad theories about the Ripper is found in Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend, in which author Richard Wallace insists that the killer was none other than the beloved children’s author Lewis Carroll. How does Wallace prove this? Through the magic of anagrams! First, Carroll writes:
So we went to the cook, and we got her to make a saucerful of nice oatmeal porridge. And then we called Dash into the house, and we said, “Now, Dash, you’re going to have your birthday treat!” We expected Dash would jump for joy; but it didn’t, one bit!
Then, Wallace scrambles the words a bit and comes up with the following confession, featuring that most common of animals, the “goat hog”:
Oh, we, Thomas Bayne, Charles Dodgson, coited into the slain, nude body, expected to taste, devour, enjoy a nice meal of a dead whore’s uterus. We made do, found it awful — wan and tough like a worn, dirty, goat hog. We both threw it out. – Jack the Ripper
(After Light-Hearted Friend was published, two puzzle experts found that Richard Wallace himself was also hiding some terrible secrets. A passage from the intro to his own book can be anagrammed into a confession that he himself killed Nicole Brown, framed OJ Simpson, and wrote Shakespeare’s sonnets.)
Is the Jill theory a conspiracy? Kinda sorta. I would argue that the baseline idea — that the Ripper may have been a woman, which is why the killer was never caught — is worth considering. But the idea becomes a conspiracy theory when someone tries to pin it onto a specific woman, or to prove it by going on long, painful digressions about what women in general are “capable of.”
That most common of animals, the ‘goat hog.’
In 1939, a quirky, passionate designer of theater sets named William Stewart published a book called Jack the Ripper, in which he plays coy — referring to the Ripper as “he” and “him” — until the last chapter, titled “A Startling Theory.” Stewart was nothing if not dedicated to (his version of) the case; he would ask his daughter to lie down at the sites of the murders so that he could take a photo of the crime scene as it might have been, and once, while building a miniature model of a crime scene, he snuck into her boyfriend’s closet and snipped off the end of his favorite tie to create a miniature paisley shawl.
Stewart believed that four questions would lead us to the Ripper — or at least to the type of person who might be a Ripper:
1. What sort of person could be out at night without exciting the suspicion of the household or neighbors who were keyed up with suspicion on account of the mysterious crimes?
2. What sort of person, heavily blood-stained, could pass through the streets without exciting suspicion?
3. What sort of person could have the elementary anatomical knowledge which was evidenced by the mutilations, and the skill to perform them in such a way as to make some think a doctor was responsible?
4. What sort of murderer could have risked being found by the dead body and yet have a complete and perfect alibi?
“My answer to all these questions is,” he thunders, “a woman who was or had been a midwife.”
The midwife theory isn’t terrible. (Apparently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle subscribed to it, too. Then again, he also believed in fairies.) People have always been puzzled by the “surgery” that had been performed on the victims: it seemed too deranged to be the work of a highly-trained doctor, but too specific to be the work of just any old maniac. (As the police surgeon who examined the body of Catherine Eddowes wrote in his post-mortem report, “I believe the perpetrator of the act must have had considerable knowledge of the position of the organs in the abdominal cavity and the way of removing them.”) The midwife theory solves this problem nicely. As Stewart writes, “These mutilations could have been performed only by a hand unpracticed in surgery, but at the same time possessing a knowledgeable and manipulative dexterity which the calling of a midwife calls for.” Additionally, the Ripper’s seeming obsession with removing uteruses makes sense if her day job was spent dealing with the female reproductive system.
Midwifery would also be the perfect alibi for Jill, says Stewart. If anyone caught her with blood on her clothes, well, that was just part of her job! If anyone stumbled across her in the process of, say, kidney-removal, she could sweetly declare that she was just checking to see if the disemboweled corpse needed her help. Stewart also notes that the skirts and cloaks of the Victorian era could be turned inside-out, making it possible for Jill to murder someone, flip her clothes around, and disappear into the crowd looking as fresh as a homicidal daisy.
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But why is our crazed midwife removing kidneys and filching uteri in the first place? Stewart’s theory is that she went insane because of betrayal. Jill would have been accustomed to performing secret, illegal abortions, but perhaps one of her clients had ratted her out to police (according to Stewart, this sort of betrayal wasn’t uncommon in 1888, especially if a woman was trying to get out of trouble for having had an abortion in the first place). Tossed into prison, Jill would “consider herself a martyr…brooding over what she would consider to be an act of treachery, she would eventually convince herself that she had every justification for the murder of such women as those who had denounced her.” In other words, she would decide to kill not only the woman who betrayed her, but all the women like the one who had betrayed her.
This is a great premise for a horror movie, and someone should make it immediately. But given what we know about female serial killers today, Stewart’s idea fails to convince. There have been plenty of female serial killers throughout history, and plenty of women who killed for revenge, but the deranged serial killer who hunts down and mutilates a specific “type” of victim to avenge some personal grievance is almost always a man (think of Gary Ridgway, who explicitly targeted sex workers because he hated them), whereas female serial killers (especially the ones who work alone) tend to kill family members and others with whom they’ve had a previous relationship, and almost never mutilate their victims’ bodies.
Stewart knows that readers will be naturally skeptical, so he gives us several real-life examples of women gone bad. He mentions Mary Ann Cotton, a serial poisoner who killed her husbands, lovers, children, and stepchildren, as proof positive that women can be vicious. Of course women can be vicious (as anyone who’s survived sixth grade can attest to), but there are huge differences in technique and motivation and psychopathology between poisoning your own child at home and slashing up a stranger in the street. Stewart gets closer when he tells the tale of Mary Pearcey, a depressed alcoholic who slashed the throat of her lover’s wife and killed her baby — he even suggests that Pearcy could have been the Ripper — but again, killing a rival in a one-off act of ferocity is completely different than hunting down sex workers in the street.
Ah, yes, ripping out kidneys — that quintessentially ‘spiteful’ act!
His theorizing gets worse when he starts making sweeping statements about how women in general behave. He spends some time reflecting on how women enjoy mutilating bodies more than men do: “Criminal history proves that a man does not wantonly mutilate a person he has murdered, for, almost without exception, when a man does mutilate his victim it is for the sole object of making the disposal of the body an easier matter.” (Has a more pre-Jeffrey Dahmer sentence ever been written?) He continues: “Mutilation is the supreme expression of spitefulness and spitefulness is a vice to which female criminals are addicts.” Ah, yes, ripping out kidneys — that quintessentially “spiteful” act!
Stewart’s energetic reaching here raises an interesting question: is it sexist to imagine that Jack the Ripper was a spiteful, mutilation-happy woman, or sexist to imagine that Jack the Ripper could never be a spiteful, mutilation-happy woman? The world of “overkill” — the utilization of far more violence than is necessary to end a life — certainly has a glass ceiling that few female sadists have ever come close to shattering. But isn’t that a good thing? Do we need more female mutilators in the world? True crime is the upside-down world of feminism, a place where the massive gender gap (95% of murderers are male!) isn’t really one that needs fixing. At points, Jill the Ripper theories feel nuanced and progressive, especially when they mention how a female Ripper would have been practically invisible to the cops and the media of the day. But inevitably they veer into long digressions about what women “are like,” which end up making women in general sound ridiculous, and Jill the Ripper in particular sound strangely unformidable.
About seventy years after William Stewart asked his daughter to pose as a corpse, another impassioned guy came along to tackle the Jill theory. His name was John Morris, he was a legal consultant specializing in immigration, and in 2012, he and his father published a book called Jack the Ripper: The Hand of a Woman. Unlike Stewart, Morris gives away his big twist in the title, and insists early on that he and his father have solved the case and so “over 120 years of traditional thinking has to be set aside.”
While Stewart never claimed to know definitively who Jill was, Morris boldly goes where no Ripperologist has gone before, proclaiming that Jack the Ripper was none other than a wealthy doctor’s wife with a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and a serious problem with the green-eyed monster.
Let’s backtrack for a second: in 2005, a man named Tony Williams published a book called Uncle Jack, in which he claimed that his grandmother’s great-great-uncle, Doctor John Williams, was Jack the Ripper. Tony’s theory was that Dr. Williams’ wife, Lizzie, was infertile, and so the good doctor took to the streets of Whitechapel, ripping out uteri wherever he could find them in order to study them back at his laboratory and cure his wife’s sterility. Also, he was having an affair with Mary Kelly, the final Ripper victim (or so says Tony, the world’s most ungrateful nephew).
In The Hand of a Woman, Morris leaps off the Uncle Jack theory and begins wildly slaloming downhill. His pick for the Ripper? Not Doctor John Williams, but Lizzie, his infertile wife. Taking the (unproven) theory about Dr. Williams’ affair with Mary Kelly as one of his starting points, Morris paints a picture of a rich wife driven mad with insecurity about her own uterus and jealousy over her rival’s fertile womb. He muses that Lizzie may have learned surgery at her husband’s side. (“He might have shown her how to operate, isolate, and remove a diseased organ swiftly, though there is no actual evidence that he did.”) He rhapsodizes about her feelings of self-loathing that may have developed. (“She may have harboured emotions of hatred, or even disgust, toward her own body…Lizzie’s uterus, this most significant of all female organs, was useless to her.”) And he declares that Lizzie would have resented the women who may have come to her husband for abortions. (“She would have seen it as grossly unjust that the…gin-soaked alcoholics…were fertile and produced babies by the score.”)
Lizzie’s main goal was to kill Mary Kelly, but first she had to practice the art of murder. In the grand tradition of dedicated workaholics like Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan, she applied herself, learned from her mistakes, and perfected her craft. When killing Mary Ann Nichols: “She drew out the knife, pressed it against her victim’s neck…she cut her victim’s throat a second time, just to be sure that she could do it….” When following up on Annie Chapman: “This was to be her final rehearsal, and now she was determined to kill a woman, and tear her uterus from her dead body.” She then killed Elizabeth Stride after asking Stride where she could find Mary Kelly; she mistakenly killed Catherine Eddowes because Eddowes sometimes went by the name Mary Kelly (this is true); and finally, she found her husband’s succulent mistress, and wreaked havoc on her body: “We think that [Lizzie Williams] hacked off her victim’s breasts, not only because she believed her husband frequently reveled in fondling them, but because those breasts might one day have suckled his baby.”
No one would have seen her, because no one would have been looking for her.
Now, there’s nothing inherently moral about rich doctor’s wives. Wealth, status, and gender do not make one immune to violence, evil, or the desire to “hack off” a breast (sorry). The problem with the Lizzie theory isn’t that Jack couldn’t have been a jealous rich woman, it’s that every scrap of Ripper evidence has been forced into a gynocentric form here. Breasts cut off? Female jealousy! Uterus removed? Female self-loathing! By claiming that the Ripper was a woman bent on killing her rival (and who happened to kill four more women along the way), Morris makes the crimes far too orderly. From what we know about serial killers in a post-Mindhunter world, their crimes are rarely so easily explainable. Most of them, no matter their gender, kill because they’ve been bubbling in some horrible soup of nature and nurture for far too long: abuse, childhood head injuries, a pernicious sense of alienation from the world, hatred of the other, unbelievable narcissism, and so on. Lizzie Williams’ reasons for killing are too neat and too gendered. Woman marries husband. Husband has affair. Serial killing ensues.
Speaking of gendered explanations, both Stewart and Morris obsess over the fact that Annie Chapman was found with several personal items arranged at her feet. We now know that serial killers can be weirdly meticulous and are often obsessed with taking trophies from their victims, leaving some sort of signature, or otherwise behaving in an eerily fussy manner. And yet both authors describe the arrangement of Annie Chapman’s things as something only a woman would do. Stewart writes, “Such an impulsive action is typically feminine, so much so that there is cause for wonderment when one ponders over the reasons why a woman was never suspected.” Morris chalks it up to feminine neatness: “Was it rather more likely that the culprit might have been a woman acting out of habit: a careful, meticulous woman?”
If Jill existed, she would have been deranged and cruel. She would have arranged Annie’s pitiful possessions to taunt the cops, or to strike fear into people’s hearts, or to humiliate her victim, or to create some sort of strange altar. To imply that she fussed with Annie Chapman’s things because she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her murder scenes cluttered is to imply that even at the height of her murderous madness, Jill couldn’t help acting like a housewife. Not to become a Ripper apologist, but doesn’t that seem a bit…unfair?
My favorite Jill the Ripper argument is found in a terse 1889 monologue made by a grouchy male gynecologist. About a year after the murders, Dr. Lawson Tait spotted some mention of the Jill theory in an evening paper called the Pall Mall Gazette, and instantly contacted the paper to chime in with his own concurring opinion. It turned out that he’d been thinking Jack was actually Jill for quite some time. (This interview was re-published across the West; a Montana newspaper called The Anaconda Standard used the headline, “JACK (?) THE RIPPER.”)
Lawson’s argument was deliciously crisp, his opinions uncompromising. “The crimes are the work of a lunatic. The absolute motivelessness of the whole business shows this,” he said. “The operator must have been a person accustomed to use a sharp knife upon meat. The work was done by no surgeon. A surgeon cuts in a niggling kind of way. The murderer in these cases has worked in a free, slashing manner…the cuts are made in a fashion peculiar to the London butcher. They would have been made quite differently if the operator had hailed from Dublin or Edinburgh.”
The Ripper’s lunacy, said Lawson, came from epilepsy. (The idea that people with epilepsy could be prone to violent outbursts was quite popular for decades, though totally unsupported by science. Four years after the Ripper murders, when Andrew and Abby Borden were killed in Massachusetts, some people would wonder if Lizzie Borden had done it in two epileptic fits spaced ninety minutes apart.) Lawson continued: since female epileptics suffer from more regular fits than males do, the epileptic Ripper had to be a woman. “Nothing is more likely than that ‘Jack the Ripper’ is some big, strong woman engaged at a slaughter house in cleaning up, now and then actually cutting up meat,” he roared. A woman would have escaped the notice of police, a woman would have been able to roll up her bloody skirt and drape herself in her shawl to escape detection, and a woman would have known to wash out the bloody clothes in cold water, whereas a man would definitely wash them in hot water, accidentally setting the stains. “A woman is always at the washing tub!” Lawson thundered.
I find Lawson’s argument appealing, despite its flawed science and weird emphasis on laundry, because it lines up with one thing we do know about female serial killers: that there’s a practicality to their violence. They’re good at being serial killers. They know how to clean up after themselves. When the cops show up, they play dumb, make excuses. You’ll rarely find them standing in the street, ranting and raving and covered in blood. Where Stewart’s Jill is a deranged midwife, roaming around London on a revenge mission from God, and Morris’ Jill is a cantankerous housewife, consumed by jealousy and body image issues, Lawson’s Jill is strong and efficient, with a method to her madness. She slaughters cows, she slaughters women, she rolls up her bloody skirt, she heads straight for the washing tub. She knows the right sort of water to use during cleanup. She’s great at her job.
If it is someday proven that Jack the Ripper was a woman, it will be one of the biggest twists in history. Imagine the books, the movies, the bobblehead dolls, the sheer amount of rebranding that we’d all have to do. Jill the Ripper would become an instant celebrity: I see a tight corset, high-heeled boots with complicated laces, and perhaps a jaunty little Victorian-era hat on top of a luxurious pile of hair? Perhaps the hatpin was her weapon all along?! We’d have to reconsider everything we know about overkill. There would be so many think pieces to write (“Jill the Ripper: Anti-Misogynist Performance Art or Just as Bad as Bundy?”). So many Buzzfeed quizzes (“You Might Be a Deranged Midwife If…” ). It would be chaos.
To me, the most compelling argument for Jill is the idea that if she existed, no one would have seen her, because no one would have been looking for her. It’s also the most frustrating and insubstantial argument, and it’s awfully close to a logical fallacy — the “appeal to ignorance,” or the idea that your conclusion must be true, because there is no evidence that it’s false. (Jack the Ripper must be a woman because we can’t prove that she’s not a woman.) In The Hand of a Woman, Morris writes, “There is no police record of any person matching Lizzie Williams’s description being stopped or questioned by the many police patrols and detectives who searched the streets and alleyways of Whitechapel” — in other words, the very absence of Lizzie in the streets of Whitechapel means that she could have been there. That sort of argumentation holds no water. And yet.
We know, now, that serial killers like to return to the scene of the crime, and sometimes they even try to get involved with the investigation. It’s not so hard to imagine a woman with icy eyes and an inside-out apron standing among the bystanders, watching the police swarm around the bodies. Can’t you see her, standing there? A strong woman with an emotionless face? A woman who works in the slaughterhouse nearby and has been angry at the entire world for about forty-five years? And no one sees her, because no one’s looking for her? It’s a chilling picture, right? — but when you reach out for it, your hands close on nothing but the fog of Whitechapel. The Ripper has slipped away yet again.
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Tori Telfer is the author of Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History, and the host of the podcast Criminal Broads. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, Vulture, Smithsonian, The Awl, Vice, theatlantic.com, and rollingstone.com, She is currently working on her second book, which will cover the tricky antics of real-life con women.
Editor: Dana Snitzky
Factchecker: Ethan Chiel