Last night, in Barnes and Noble in Union Station, Washington, D.C., I
picked up Poetry magazine’s Centennial issue and a copy of The Civil
War Monitor, Winter 2011, Vol. 2, No. 1.
I confess, I’m not really “into” the American Civil War. As you might
be aware, when not fighting in the trenches of Whitechapel (ha ha), my
favored war is the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.
It happens of course to be the Bicentennial of that war when the celebrated
lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were written, but, ah, alas and alack
it’s also the Sesquicentennial (150th anniv.) of the Civil War, so that much
better-known conflict aka “War Between the States” so familiar (thank
you, Ken Burns!!!) is tragically stealing the thunder from “our war.” Ugh.
I picked up the issue of the Civil War mag because it had a picture or General
George Armstrong Custer on the front, him with the flowing locks and cavalier
swagger, the cover article being “Custer: The Rise and Fall of the Boy General”
by Glenn W. LaFantasie (great name!) but there was also a teaser at the top of
the cover for something on “The Devil and Robert E. Lee”, whatever that might
turn out to be. Of course, I was intrigued, not the least because I am due
to give a talk this spring in Manassas, Virginia, on Lee’s papa, General “Light
Horse Harry” Lee, a Federalist and opponent of the Madison administration’s
mad decision to go to war in 1812, and a man who was tortured by a pro-war
mob in Baltimore in the summer of 1812. Intrigued by the teaser for the Lee
article, I turned to page 18, and got a surprise. The 2-page photo spread was
about graffiti found in a Mathew Brady photograph of Robert E. Lee after his
April 1865 surrender at Appomattox. Lee stands outside his Richmond mansion.
On a brick by the door, someone has chalked the word “DEVIL.” Check it out
on line at http://issuu.com/civilwarmonitor/docs/cwm_win_2011_lowres_trimmed
The chalked word was probably scrawled by a Union soldier and stands as a
statement of hatred against the former Confederate commander. But of course
it also brings to mind the controversial graffito found in Goulston Street on
the night of the Double Event, 30 September 1888: “The Juwes are the men that
Will not be Blamed for nothing.” See below. Words some refuse to believe were
scrawled by the Whitechapel murderer but that coincidentally were found above
a bloody swathe of white apron cut from the corpse of fourth canonical victim
Catherine Eddowes, killed over an hour earlier in Mitre Square, Aldgate.
In any case, it is possible that whether written by the killer or not, the
words are a statement about the people who lived inside the tenement at that
location, Wentworth Model Dwellings, who were known to be immigrant Jews, just
as the word scrawled on Lee’s house was a statement about him by some foe. We
might also recall the words “Jack the Ripper” scrawled on murderer William
Bury’s Dundee house. In all three instances, they were words one must believe
written with bad intent, a statement of hatred against the person(s) inside.
The words famously washed from the brick wall of the tenement on the orders
of Sir Charles Warren but without being photographed (!) looked as follows:
Police transcription of the famous “Goulston Street graffito”
As with the graffito, we don’t know for sure if any of the “Jack the Ripper
letters” were written by the murderer. Various theorists have found some
similarities between their chosen suspect’s handwriting and the hand of the
writer of some of those letters. Most famously, perhaps, Patricia Cornwell
in her Jack the Ripper: Portrait of a Killer – Case Closed, in which she
found similarities between some “Ripper” letters and correspondence by the
expressionist artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942). Having been interested in
the topic of the Ripper letters since I became involved in researching the
Whitechapel murders in the early 1990’s, I already knew that there were
hundreds of Ripper letters, written in many different hands and on many types
of paper plus other medium. I thought her theory was a non-starter. Of
course, Ms. Cornwell’s theory is that Sickert was a play-actor who could
disguise his handwriting. When I spoke to her when she was in Washington
for an appearance at Lisner Auditorium, George Washington Univ., in 2001 and
I called in to the Diane Rehm radio show, she actually made the statement that
she believed that 90% of the Jack the Ripper letters were written by Sickert!
The redoubtable and highly recommended book Jack the Ripper: Letters from
Hell by Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner will give anyone new to the case
a full idea of the sheer range of letters received by the authorities. An eye opener.
So therefore whether the graffito or letters were written by the killer is highly prob-
lematical. I have often expressed the view that the only message the killer might
have left was in the murders themselves. At least we know he was responsible
for the crimes, even if he never wrote a letter or wrote that chalk graffiti.
What is true about the letters though is that they are a famous part of the
case. Just as integral to the public’s view of the case as that the crimes took
place in the notorious fog or the probably equally erroneous conception that
the killer wore a top hat and a cape. Blame Hollywood for all those ideas.
The letters create the idea that the killer was a clever trickster. Indeed, if
they were not from the killer, they warped the investigation into the case.
There is a good case to be made that the letters might have been written
by a journalist to keep interest in case going, and of course sell more news-
The problem is that the police made a basic mistake after the first Dear
Boss letter written 25 September 1888 was received, along with the “Saucy
Jacky” postcard that arrived hard on its heels, both around the time of
the Double Event. That is, they put the image of the two missives on a
broadside asking if anyone recognized the handwriting. This opened the
way for every Tom, Dick, and Harry, to jump on the bandwagon and claim
their little piece of fame by emulating the original Ripper letters that
bragged about the murders. Possibly Sickert was one of those who wrote
such letters to the authorities. It has long been thought he had a
certain fascination with the case. So he may have meddled in the case
just as others likely did. But that does not make him the killer, does it?
Despite the claims of former Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard Sir
Robert Anderson in his memoirs of 1910 and retired Chief Constable Sir
Melville Macnaghten in his of 1914 that it was known that the writer of the
letters was as one of them put it “an enterprising London journalist” the
police actions in 1888 give the lie to the claim that it was definitely
known that a journalist was responsible. In fact the “enterprising
journalist” explanation proved an easy answer for those retirees to
smugly claim, in retrospect, they were really in control of the situation,
and that they knew all along that the letters were hoaxes. Now, Dear Boss
might indeed have been a journalistic invention, just as “Leather Apron”
may have been, but whether it was the accused Thomas Bulling and Charles
Moore of the Central News Agency who did it, as former Chief Inspector
John George Littlechild claimed in a letter of 1913, the proof that they
did it is lacking. In fact, if Bulling and/or Moore provably authored
Dear Boss, isn’t it reasonable to suppose they would have been prosecuted
for interfering with the case?
A number of students of case continue to think that of any of the letters,
the “From Hell” (Lusk) letter, the one that came with the half a kidney
supposedly from fourth canonical victim Catherine Eddowes, is the one
most like to have been sent is most plausible as being the killer. Why is
that? Is it the scary way it is written? Or is it because it came with
the half a kidney? Analysis of the information we have about the kidney,
as Christopher-Michael DiGrazia wrote in “Another Look at the Lusk Kidney,”
his dissertation here on Casebook, shows that the original information on
the kidney published in the press was erroneous. It would appear to me
that the “From Hell” letter continues to receive some of its cachet of
plausibility because of the lingering idea, conceivably false, that the
piece of kidney could have been from Eddowes. The hoax letters continue
to befuddle and mislead the investigation even today.
Patricia Cornwell, Jack the Ripper: Portrait of a Killer – Case Closed.
New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002.
Christopher-Michael DiGrazia, “Another Look at the Lusk Kidney,” available
Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner, Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell.
Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2001.
“Points To Ponder - Opinion On Authenticity Of The Ripper As Author Of Dear
Boss” at JtR Forums at http://www.jtrforums.com/showthread.php?t=14151
“Ripper Letters” at http://www.casebook.org/ripper_letters/