Saturday, April 3, 2010

Jack the Ripper in America?

Discovery Channel's
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.

Forensic Evidence

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.

For a more objective look at the murder of Carrie Brown click here: Carrie Brown: Jack the Ripper in America Part 2.

For a concise summary of the Whitechapel murders with a well-reasoned solution read the “Jack the Ripper” section of The Cases That Haunt Us by FBI profiler, John Douglas.

For detailed Ripperology on the internet go to Casebook: Jack the Ripper


Lavaughn Towell says:
April 3, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Nice work! I had a good time watching this show, as the detective's cockiness and melodramatic line reads made it seem like a Dragnet episode.

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 4, 2010 at 1:19 PM

I think you're right, Lavaughn, but he left out the most important Dragnet line: "Just the facts, ma'am."

Anonymous says:
April 4, 2010 at 5:36 PM

I have to confess I did enjoy it though! There was another programme last year with a woman forensics specialist from Scotland Yard, trying to find some dna on the shawl of one of the victims- I forget now which channel had that one. So what's your view on Sickert? Never an end to suspects.

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 5, 2010 at 12:36 PM

OK, it was fun to watch, but I didn’t like the attitude and I don’t think he proved his case. A comparison of the three or four suspects that were in America would have been better. They all had fascinating stories (but were probably not the Ripper.) There is also more the Carrie Brown murder than was presented; we will probably have to add it to our “Coming Soon” list.

As for Sickert, I don’t really follow Jack the Ripper that closely, but apparently that community is still coming to terms with Patricia Cornwell’s accusation of him in "Portrait of a Killer" (another “case closed” book.) He’s not considered a front runner but he is on the list of suspects, which, as you say is never ending.

Little Black Car says:
April 6, 2010 at 1:19 PM

As much fun as it is to speculate about Jack the Ripper, it's all a little tiring. I think the facts are that 1) it happened 120 years ago, 2) There was essentially no such thing as forensics at the time, and crime scene investigation was extremely primitive, and 3) There was almost no such thing as psychology, what psychology there was was biased and hampered by Victorian squeamishness, and there were no real points of reference for profiling a serial killer. Reverse-investigation, so long after the fact and with so many "facts" that can't really be verified any more, is iffy at best. Despite the abundance of candidates, I just don't think we'll ever know.

Unrelated: Those ghost investigation shows are so weird. They go looking for ghosts, and then freak out when they think they find them. Why go looking for them if you're so scared of them? I mean, OK--I'd be scared, too, but I'm not a paranormal investigator, and I'm not prowling around with cameras and a tape recording, asking the ghost to come out and talk.

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 6, 2010 at 11:17 PM

It is fun to speculate about Jack the Ripper, and Lizzie Borden and Mary Rogers and so many others because we can never know for sure. The facts we do have are contradictory and are never going to change. Each new theory is more about what facts to leave out than about new information and none of the theories would hold up in court, today or in the 19th Century. But no one ever sold a book subtitled “Another Half-Baked Theory.”

In the ghost shows, I think they have to freak out when they find something, otherwise how would we know? I didn’t even know that spirits responded to technology until I saw “Ghostbusters.”

Lidian says:
April 7, 2010 at 1:12 PM

I am so glad I found your blog through your kind visit to Virtual Dime Museum! I did not see the show but have been reading about the Carrie Brown murder quite a lot recently (mostly on the Ripperology site) as I am writing a mystery set in Brooklyn in the early 1890s. When am feeling very optimistic I see my detective doing other cases and thought wouldn't it be something if she could crack a fictionalized version of the Brown case...

Am looking forward to delving into your blog more. I am greatly interested in American 19th c. true crime (even have a personal connection - my ggg uncle by marriage was the - admittedly obscure! - Gold Street Murderer, in Brooklyn in 1866. He was thought by my gg grandparents to have possibly murdered his wife, too, who was my gg grandfather's sister).

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 8, 2010 at 12:07 AM

Thanks, Lidian, I've been enjoying the Dime Museum. Brooklyn in the 1890s was an exciting place and time. You should have a lot to work with and I'm looking forward to reading the book.

I'm working on a new site centered around New York's Tombs prison in the Gilded Age. The text will all be from Inspector Thomas Byrnes's "Professional Criminals in Ameriaca." Hotel sneaks, banco artists, green goods dealers, pickpockets - a change of pace from murder.

Anonymous says:
April 17, 2010 at 10:40 PM

why doesnt someone compare the handwriting

JLP says:
June 20, 2010 at 6:35 AM

In the show I saw with the detective there was the one note "from Hell,"why not compare it to James Kelly's writing when he returned to the asylum. He obviously journaled his life while he was gone, was there no notes left behind in his handwriting? Just seems like one more thing that could help...

Robert Wilhelm says:
June 20, 2010 at 10:25 AM

Yes, that seemed like the obvious course to me too. Maybe the origional of Kelly's journal is gone and they were working with a typed transcript. Or maybe they did compare the handwriting and did not get a match...

Anonymous says:
August 18, 2010 at 11:29 AM

American's just wish the greatest serial killer in history had roamed through New York. Sadly, he was in London, and possibly some other European countries.

Anonymous says:
November 10, 2010 at 8:42 AM

Wow, so much to consider. Some excellent points above. I too was waiting for a hand writing comparison which never eventuated. Also it was not explained to me that this person Kelly, had any medical knowledge whatsoever. Do not most Ripperologists consider this requisite? His noted profession as an uphosterer give him license to use a knife but not the ability to remove a vital organ, presumably in semi-darkness at least, in a back lane of Whitechapel, clinically and without damaging surrounding organs.

Anonymous says:
November 17, 2010 at 5:56 PM

I thought it to be the best and most plausible theory yet. Funny thing is, so many people are so stuck to their own theories that their responses usually mirror the opinion of this reviewer. It makes sense to me that he skipped town and had the inheritance to support a nomadic life of killing. The vd Kelly got from the prostitutes serves as a motive and his m.o. of killing consistant. Timeline falls in place.

Robert Wilhelm says:
November 18, 2010 at 1:56 PM

I'm not stuck on my own theory, I am skeptical of all theories. When someone claims they have solved Jack the Ripper, that just tells me they haven't done their homework. This theory full of holes and ignores quite a bit of evidence; it would not hold up in court then or now. If you want some more plausible theories spend a day or two at Casebook: Jack the Ripper -

Anonymous says:
November 20, 2010 at 2:05 PM

I thought it was a good show and the host, Ed Norris, did a fine job.

Robert Wilhelm says:
November 20, 2010 at 7:28 PM

Yes, it was a slick piece of video.

RetailSucks says:
December 30, 2010 at 4:55 AM

While this video does not tell everything that happened here in the states, there is much more evidence pointing toward the fact Jack the Ripper did indeed come to America. The way the killings happened, and of course the note to the head of NYPD.

Anonymous says:
January 6, 2011 at 8:56 PM

As opposed to most of the well intentioned opinions posted, I've been a detective half my life and actually worked over 300 serial sex cases in the cold case unit. I started to watch this show with skepticism.... "yeah right, JTR came here"... but once into it I recognized immediately how Kelly fit the offender typology. Norris was a bit sensational for TV, (I didn't like the composite recreation... they are notoriously inaccurate) and he left me with a few unanswered questions, but he was dead on with everything else. I was amazed that so many records still existed. Our department cant keep stuff in a box for ten years, much less 125!

I was so entranced, (Im late to the Ripper party) I went out and bought Tully's book. I've now looked at the other suspects, and they don't even come close to James Kelly as a viable suspect.

There is so much to the Ripper story that is facinating. Looking at the public reaction, the political forces that kicked into play, the police reaction both good and bad, the pitiful lives that the victim's had etc. Nothing has changed in human behavior.

Even if he were not the Ripper, the story of Kelly is gripping in itself.

I think Murder by Gaslamp was a bit harsh in their evaluation. As for Norris' "attitude"? He cracked me up... Puhlese, its TV!

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 8, 2011 at 11:34 AM

Thanks for the comment; it’s good to get an opinion from someone with real-world experience. The problem I have with the show is that Norris is not presenting an objective study of the Whitechapel murders or the Carrie Brown murder. He is presenting the prosecution’s case against James Kelly. If it was presented in court, a defense attorney could cross examine the witnesses and present evidence from both sides of the Atlantic that would easily raise reasonable doubt as to Kelly’s guilt. Of course the same could be said about the cases against the thirty or so other Jack the Ripper suspects. That’s what makes the case enduringly fascinating.
Yes, it’s just TV, but you would be surprised how many people watch one TV show and think the case has been solved.

Anonymous says:
January 20, 2011 at 6:22 AM

I agree with all of you in some way. Yes we all thought Norris was a bit to over the top, cocky, yada yada... I had never thought of Kelly as top suspect but after the show i had to reconsider. Why. Forget the USA connection, or the number of victims, and of course the stupid de-aging pic. Kelly fits in numerous ways.
-The expert use of a blade. (yes anyone can cut, but to have strength combined with the precision to cut fast and accurate.)
-A stesser. His disease combined with the marital problems. For someone with a known past of being "...obviously not right in the head." according to his boss, these stressers resulted in the used of a knife on his wife instead of a piece of furniture. Possibly feeling a sense of relief, his need to fulfill that feeling could consume his already warped brain.
-Mix of alcohol, his state-of-mind and need to lash out at those who "wronged him". Being called a schizophrenic in the late 1800's England doesn't mean he would fit that criteria now. What ever his mental state was, without any medication that we use today he was knowledgeable enough to make the key to escape and survive without being caught.
-The kidney - Anyone who enjoyed that for dinner would have spent time at a butchers watching them work. Without medical knowledge it wouldn't take much to know what the kidney looks like and where in the human body it is found.
-The fact that he left. Whether or not you believe the stories of his possible killings in the USA. He did leave England. What other reasons would there be for a raging lunatic who has killed at will, stop cold turkey? Death (maybe), Being caught (obviously not) or simply leaving town. Why leave, only he knows.
-His memoirs. Correct me if i'm wrong. Aren't many serial criminals wanting to be known for there work. They don't want to be caught necessarily but they crave having the acknowledgment of there work. He didn't come out and admit to it, but he definitely hints towards something evil. Even if he, or any other inmate did admit to it the "experts" would have problems believing someone who is insane, its just not hard evidence. So take his writings as you may.
I don't know much about some of the other suspects but it seems to me that many of them, whether criminals or not, don't have as many similar traits. Someone who strangles or beats a person to death will most likely not start cutting and disemboweling a human. As well, someone who does that with such ferocity is not going to stop on there own, and many of the suspects lived long lives, free of any other incident. It might not be Kelly, but I think he fits this serial killers profile much more than most of the others do.

Anonymous says:
January 22, 2011 at 6:20 PM

I recently saw the Norris piece and was very intrigued. It's difficult to argue that Kelly's timeline would mirror that of The Ripper, if his admissions once he turned himself in were true - a big if there. I do find the "X" theory to be reaching. The one thing I find most interesting is how nobody can seem to agree on which murders The Ripper was actually responsible for. It sure seems that many Ripper Rip-Offs popped up around the same time, thus muddling the situation for London authorities. I wouldn't be surprised if Kelly really was The Ripper and 4 or 5 of the "suspects" committed similar murders in an attempt to pin the blame on The Ripper.

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM

It is definitely important that no one can agree on the number of victims or which letters are real and which are hoaxes. It allows each investigator to work with his or her own set of “facts.” Over the past 10 years there have been at least 18 “case closed” or “revealed at last” books about Jack the Ripper with very little overlap in suspects (2 authors like Jams Maybrick, 2 like William Bury, 2 like Walter Sickert, the rest are all one-offs.) If you can cherry-pick your evidence you can prove anyone guilty.

James Kelly is certainly a suspect, but so are a number of other people. What make the case enduring is that more objectively you analyze the evidence, the further you get from certainty.

In any case, no one should make a judgment based on one televisions show.

Anonymous says:
April 26, 2011 at 1:58 PM

i really like the letters he is sending to people i would like to get one of these and i would eat whatever came in it and prepare it with vinegar and olives. :)

Anonymous says:
November 8, 2011 at 3:30 PM

Herman Webster Mudgett (H.H. Holmes). Read the book "Bloodstains" by Jeff Mudgett, his great great grandson and then see what you think...

Anonymous says:
March 3, 2012 at 11:54 AM

Its long been thought that the Ripper came to America...even the TV show Bonanza did a little nod to it....many legends have some basis in fact. The Ripper came to America idea has been around for a long time.
Sickert at the very least had an unhealthy interest in the ripper killings and inserted himself into the investigation...His painting Jack The Rippers Bedroom...Just a little thought provoking, dont ya think?
Robert Greysmiths novel about who he thinks the Ripper was is interesting too...set in San Francisco...and an innocent man was put to death for the killings....
there are just so many theorys and all of them seem good...I watched the TV show too and yes the detective was a little over the top but I thought the method was sound and I cant fault it...but until there is some sort of DNA match or we find some real proof every theory is just that...a theory

Anonymous says:
April 23, 2012 at 12:26 AM

I don't know if I buy the Ripper coming to America, but some of the murders of the period look really similar--Alice Walsh and Carrie Brown for instance were both prostitutes that were heavily mutilated in hotels in Manhattan. Maybe the same hand?

Anonymous says:
July 27, 2012 at 11:14 AM

Have they ever compared the handwritng from the confession of Kelly to that of the Ripper?

Anonymous says:
August 4, 2012 at 2:49 AM

James Kelly was indeed Jack The Ripper. No question about it... Case closed... Next?

Anonymous says:
August 4, 2012 at 1:42 PM

James Kelly may very well have been the Ripper -
Patricia Cornwell put out a fascinating case, and did prove that Walter Sickert apparently wrote one of the hundreds of letters received by the police at that time.
But that's a long way off from proving Sickert is actually the Ripper.
Kelly does seem a perfect fit in many ways - I do wonder why he would return to the asylum in England and turn himself in after 40 years, he must have been off his rocker, perhaps I missed the reason when I watched the show.
Whoever is was, they were definitely mentally unbalanced, a psychopath with violent tendencies, and it's always bothered me that the murders suddenly ceased.

Anonymous says:
August 4, 2012 at 1:51 PM

We shall all never know.....

Robert Wilhelm says:
August 4, 2012 at 4:48 PM

That is correct, we shall never know. A new "case closed" book comes out every year, each more far-fetched than the last. And the public swallows it all.

Julie says:
March 15, 2013 at 1:11 AM

I don't know why they did the "reverse aging" thing...there actually *is* a photograph of James Kelly as a young man. He's a good suspect, but nobody can prove anything at this point.

Anonymous says:
September 25, 2013 at 5:36 PM

A & E had a MUCH better documentary on Jack the Ripper. It's on YouTube. Check it out.

Siobhan Elizabeth says:
September 26, 2013 at 3:08 AM

To me, the most compelling case against Kelly, is that his wife's killing seems to be exactly what you'd expect of the first kill for JTR, very few shows I watched dealt with the fact that all serial killers start out with simpler kills, then "escalate." Norris (ignoring any drama he added for TV purposes) presents that idea well, first his wife, then some killing that have some hallmarks of JTR killings, but not all of them, then the canonical Ripper killings, and then...he stops, why? No serial killer just stops. Kelly's move to America explains that. As for the "X" being different from all the other killings, serial killers always evolve, and if he did reach ten victims, that might be his way of bragging, without do so in a way that would lead to his getting caught. The hat and mustache on the reversed-aged photo would make lots of people look like the RIpper sketch from 125 years ago, but other features are similar too....the eyes, the nose. I think it's as compelling a case as any, and better than some.

Robert Wilhelm says:
September 26, 2013 at 12:10 PM

The sketch was not from 125 years ago. It is a modern sketch based on a written description from 125 years ago. Trust it if you want - I don't.

There are dozens of books about JTR and each one presents compelling evidence. If there were a way to objectively compare them, the debate would have ended years ago. Since I am only concerned with American murders, I don't care who Jack the Ripper was, but I can say with significant certainty that neither Jack the Ripper nor Mr. Kelly killed Carrie Brown.

prague202020 says:
November 26, 2013 at 8:05 PM

HH Holmes was Jack the Ripper. In 20 years most Ripperologists will agree on this. He is the only suspect with any forensic evidence linking him to the crime and the study into his background and life are only just starting. Do some research on him and you'll understand why so many people are beginning to agree he was probably the Ripper. He was in London at the time of the Whitechappel murders and he is a convicted serial killer who routinely eviscerated his victims. He believed he had been born from hell and his handwritting is a match for the From Hell letters.

Robert Wilhelm says:
November 27, 2013 at 12:04 PM

I find this fraud particularly annoying. Beyond that it is not worth acknowledging.

John Davies says:
August 26, 2014 at 4:49 PM

My own personal bet is a gent named Kominsky, who died in Colney Hatch Asylum, based on reading English books in which Kelly and the US connection don't even get a mention. That, though, is as maybe. The one thing I feel is quite certain about Jolly Jack's identity though is that the higher up the social ladder new theoreticians place him, the more unlikely it is really going to be - pin the rap on royalty or someone who's still famous and you're more likely to sell books than if its a total nonentity. The truest comment I've seen was to the effect that when, on Judgement Day, someone finally owns up to being Jolly Jack, all the gathered experts will say "Who was he?"

How to Make Money says:
February 5, 2016 at 4:16 PM

On the site "," Robert Mann isn't even listed as a suspect. Seen on another television show about another possible suspect. James Kelly continues to fascinate me.

How to Make Money says:
February 22, 2016 at 3:56 PM

H.H Holmes is the most ridiculous suspect ever.

Unknown says:
May 16, 2016 at 4:19 PM

H H Holmes is the most ridiculous and James Kelly is not? That's a laugh.

Unknown says:
September 30, 2018 at 10:39 AM

We will never know. On that, I agree. However, my humble opinion is that Patricia Cornwell did a bang-up job making a case for Walter Sickert being JTR.

Jeffrey Riley says:
February 18, 2020 at 4:55 AM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard Brown says:
July 24, 2021 at 3:48 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard Brown says:
July 24, 2021 at 3:50 PM

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