Discovery Channel documentaries are a mixed bag. Their quality science programs, like the “Life” series currently running, are informative and entertaining, but Discovery also presents the supernatural, in shows like “Ghost Lab,” with no distinction between fact and fantasy. So it was with hope and trepidation that I sat down to watch “Jack the Ripper in America.” It was not their finest hour.
Amid the obligatory swirling fog and Victorian trappings, the show is hosted by Ed Norris, a former cold case detective (the truth, but not the whole truth.) He is here to bring modern forensic methods to investigate an 1891, New York murder that was rumored to be the work of London’s Jack the Ripper. Norris pulls the police file on the case of Carrie Brown, a 58 year old prostitute, nicknamed “Old Shakespeare,” who was murdered and mutilated on April 24, 1891. The murder bore at least a superficial resemblance to the London cases; all of the Ripper’s victims were prostitutes, and as in this case, the bodies were severely mutilated after death. The detective tells us that a serial killer’s modus operandi is as distinctive as a signature and goes to London to see if he can find the New York killer’s hand in the Ripper’s work.
“Jack the Ripper” was the name given to the unknown perpetrator of a series of heinous murders in the Whitechapel area of London’s East End in the period between August 31 and November 9 in 1888. The killer was never found and over the years more than a hundred suspects have emerged including such notables as Oscar Wilde, Louis Carol, and Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor. Several of the more likely suspects were known to have been to the United States. Norris considers three: George Chapman, aka Severin Antoniovich Klosowski — a prime suspect among Ripperoligists (yes, that’s what they call themselves)— moved to Jersey City, New Jersey in 1891; Francis Tumblety, arrested in 1888 on suspicion of the Whitechapel murders, took a steamer to New York City while out on bail; and James Kelly who escaped from Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum just before the murders and was known to be in America after them. (Also listed but not mentioned was Dr. Neil Cream, who poisoned a man in America and several women in England.)
Though James Kelly has never been considered a major suspect by most Ripperologists, Norris singles him out as the one who best fits the 1888 profile complied by police surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond. He is also impressed that Kelly worked as an upholsterer, giving him access to large sharp knives. And, most importantly, he reads a copy of Kelly’s 1927 confession letter in which Kelly describes his problems dealing with society, primarily due to “all kinds of skank.” Kelly says, “I have been on the warpath since I left Broadmoor” but does not confess to any specific crimes. The letter also lists the itinerary of American cities that Kelly visited.
The documentary claims that Norris is the first detective to read the confession letter, stored in the National Archives. This is highly unlikely, since there have always been detectives, both public and private, among the Ripperologists, and they are remarkably thorough. In fact, others have read the confession (presumably detectives among them) and given it little credence. Here is a link to a timeline of Kelly’s life, including information from the confession: James Kelly.
The confession says that Kelly took a steamer named the Zaandam from Rotterdam to New York. Norris is able to verify that the Zaandam arrived in New York on October 7, 1890, six months before the Carrie Brown killing. Unfortunately there is no passenger list. Norris then traces his path through the cities of America and searching newspaper files, finds a Ripper-like murder in each one. He finds twelve murders in five states. To Norris, Jack the Ripper is an American killer who got his early training in England.
Norris now attempts to analyze what he can of the 120 year old forensic evidence of the Whitechapel murders. He has graphologist Sheila Kurtz analyze the “From Hell” letter – a letter universally believed to have been written by Jack the Ripper. It was received by the president of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee on October 16, 1888, in a box that also contained half a human kidney. Kurtz examines the slant and shape of the letters and decides the writer is a disturbed individual. Not so dramatic a conclusion you read the sentence she analyzed,
“I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman and prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise.”
Forensic artist Steve Mancusi takes a 1927 photograph of James Kelly at age 67 and “de-ages” it on a computer to see how Kelly would have looked in 1888. They compare this image to a drawing made from 1888 witness descriptions of Jack the Ripper (presumably drawn by a different forensic artist). Since the descriptions include a big mustache and a floppy hat, Mancusi adds a big mustache and a floppy hat to his de-aged picture and proves that any two imaginary portraits will look similar if you add a big mustache and a floppy hat.
For his climax, Ed Norris looks again at the photographs of Carrie Brown’s corpse. He points out that two large slashes on the body form an “X” (or a cross or a “t” or two random slashes, depending on your perspective.) The “X” he says is the Roman numeral ten, because this is the Ripper’s tenth victim. Where does he get ten victims? They are the five accepted victims— known by Ripperologsts as the canonical victims; Kelly’s wife Sarah; three of the alleged, or non-canonical victims murdered before August 31, 1888; and “Old Shakespeare.”
There are a number of problems with this theory. First, there are actually twelve non-canonical victims besides Carrie Brown, four of which were killed before August 31. Why arbitrarily choose three? If even one of the remaining non-canonicals was killed by the Ripper, or if one of the chosen three were not, then the theory fails. Carrie Brown is the only victim marked by a number and, though Norris has has told us that a serial killer’s MO is like his signature, he concludes that this singularity proves, without a doubt that James Kelly was Jack the Ripper.
Murder by Gaslight’s Verdict
Ed Norris is ecstatic. He has not only solved world’s greatest cold case, but the murder of Carrie Brown, and a dozen more American murders. Murder by Gaslight is skeptical, though. There is a bit of the ugly American in Ed Norris and his cockiness is not justified by the quality of his work. The forensic evidence is laughable and can be completely dismissed. The circumstantial evidence is not much better. Norris latches on to facts and suppositions he likes while ignoring those that lead most Ripperologists to regard James Kelly as a dark horse. These logical lapses and leaps of faith may be recognizable as standard police procedure, but they are hardly good forensic science. For true crime on the Discovery Channel, stick to Aphrodite Jones.
So, was Jack the Ripper in America? Possibly. Did James Kelly murder nine women in London and thirteen more in the USA? Not bloody likely.
Greed, jealousy, revenge, obsession – the motives of America’s gas-lit murders are universal and timeless. Yet their stories are tightly bound to a particular place and time; uniquely American, uniquely 19th Century.