It remains one of the most sordid and most notorious crime sprees in world history.
A series of women were killed violently and gruesomely throughout London’s Whitechapel district in the late 1800s. The murders were believed to be the work of the same man, dubbed “Jack the Ripper.” Historians of the case refer to the “canonical five,” five women who were killed in a 10-week span in 1888: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. But there are theories—of dubious veracity—that the Ripper was responsible for dozens of murders, and not just in London, either.
The killings remain unsolved to this day, and probably never will be conclusively solved, since much of the evidence and case files were destroyed in the German bombing of England during World War II. There is no shortage of theories on who the killer was. Here’s a list of just some of the people who have been suspected of the killings.
1. Lewis Carroll
In his 1996 book, Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend, author Richard Wallace alleged that Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles L. Dodgson), committed the murders. According to Wallace, Carroll had confessed in the form of anagrams within his correspondence and literary works, including The Nursery Alice, a young children’s version of his most notable work, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In theory, Carroll, who lived in Oxford, could have taken the train to London to commit the murders, but otherwise, there was never much evidence pointing to Carroll being the Ripper.
2. H.H. Holmes
The story of H.H. Holmes’s Chicago murder castle has fascinated true crime devotees in the U.S. for years, and in 2017, a television show premiered on the History Channel with Holmes’s great-great-grandson, Jeff Mudgett, investigating the theory that Holmes killed in Whitechapel before he came to the White City. According to Mudgett, Holmes’s handwriting matched letters supposedly sent by the Ripper to police, and his description was similar to a person eyewitnesses described near the scenes of the Whitechapel murders.
It all made for some interesting television, but that’s about it. "I could put together a better case that Holmes was innocent than that he was Jack the Ripper," Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, told the Chicago Tribune. "I don't think he was innocent." His evidence that Holmes wasn’t the Ripper? Documentation of things like Holmes’s voter registration, which place him in Chicago at the time the Ripper was killing across the pond.
3. Lord Randolph Churchill
His son Winston became one of the most important people of the 20th century, but was Lord Randolph Churchill one of the most infamous of the 19th? This theory has Churchill as the head of a group of Masons conspiring to kill sex workers that were blackmailing a member of the royal family. One supposed piece of evidence is an extraordinarily detailed description of a man seen with Mary Kelly, the last of the “canonical five,” shortly before her death. The suspect was described as well-dressed, with his attire accessorized by a gold watch chain. He was about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with dark hair and a mustache. Does that sound like Lord Churchill? You be the judge. (Though it should be noted that no one seems to take this particular theory very seriously.)
4. Dr. Thomas Cream
Known as “The Lambeth Poisoner,” Dr. Thomas Cream was estimated to have poisoned as many as 10 people in three countries and was executed for his murderous ways in London in 1892. His last words were reputed to have been “I am Jack …” just as the trap door opened on the gallows. While his handwriting looked similar to some of the letters the Ripper sent to police, Cream was in prison in Illinois when the Ripper murders took place—and as Dean Jobb notes in his book The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream, the report about Cream’s gallows confession didn’t appear until well after his death. One contemporary report notes that he "died without making any confession."
5. Prince Albert Victor
There are several theories that an heir to the British throne was responsible for the Ripper murders. One of them originates in a 1970 article published by an octogenarian doctor that detailed his friendship with the family of the royal physician. The author, Dr. Thomas Stowell, seemed to heavily imply—without naming names—that Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria's grandson, had contracted syphilis (his death at 28 in 1892 was attributed to influenza) and murdered several ladies of the evening in retribution. Another theory alleges that the prince married a Whitechapel woman and had a baby with her; witnesses were supposedly eliminated to keep the potential heir a secret. (Spoiler alert: This is the plot of the graphic novel and movie From Hell, its title taken from one of the Ripper letters.) At any rate, Prince Albert Victor was out of town when some of the murders occurred.
6. James Maybrick
In London in 1889, Florence Maybrick was convicted of poisoning her husband James and sentenced to death. (The sentence was later commuted to life, and she was released in 1904.) More than a century later, a remarkable diary came to light. The diarist, who didn’t give his own name but is presumed to be James Maybrick, detailed the five canonical murders. A man named Michael Barrett presented the diary publicly after he said it was given to him by a family friend. He later said it was a forgery—then recanted that statement. Its veracity is still up for debate.
7. Michael Maybrick
James’s brother Michael was one of the most famous singer/songwriters of his day, working under the name Stephen Adams. Writer/director Bruce Robinson alleges that Maybrick loathed his sister-in-law and committed the murders to frame his brother. Robinson further suggests that evidence linking Maybrick—a Freemason—to the crimes was destroyed by police, feeding into the numerous conspiracies that the Ripper killed his victims as part of Masonic ritual and was protected by the organization, which had friends in high places in Victorian England.
8. Walter Sickert
Victorian-era painter Walter Sickert was known for chronicling London’s seamy side. He claimed to have lived in the Ripper’s former home, and even titled one of his paintings Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell bought dozens of his paintings to try to prove that he was not only a contemporary of the Ripper, but the murderer himself, and said as much in her 2002 book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed. In the book, Cornwell says that Sickert’s paintings demonstrate violence and misogyny, and draws together circumstantial and forensic evidence to make a case that was not believed to be particularly compelling—especially because there’s evidence Sickert was in France for at least some of the murders.
9. A “Mad Midwife”
Almost since the killings happened, there has been a theory that the killer wasn’t Jack the Ripper, but Jill the Ripper. The killings demonstrated a knowledge of anatomy, the kind that a woman who delivered babies—and maybe performed the occasional abortion—would possess. (Also, a midwife wouldn’t be viewed with suspicion walking around London at night with bloodstained clothes.) The theory is not treated as particularly credible by Ripperologists.
10. Aaron Kosminski
One of the few remaining pieces of evidence from the Ripper case is a shawl said to belong to Catherine Eddowes, the fourth of the canonical five victims. Stains on the shawl, believed to be blood and semen, were DNA tested and found to match descendants of Kosminski, a Polish barber who immigrated to London and may have been a prime suspect at the time of the killings. He was said to have heard voices and hallucinated, and in 1891, was sent to an asylum after threats of violence with a knife. But the DNA testing is imprecise, and the shawl’s provenance is sketchy at best, so it’s unknown if it’s actually related to the crimes.