Conflict & Justice

The Mystery of Jack the Ripper

jack.jpg

One of a series of images from the Illustrated London News for October 13, 1888 carrying the overall caption, "With the Vigilance Committee in the East End". This specific image is entitled "A Suspicious Character."

By Marcus Wraight

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Newspapers in Victorian London portrayed Jack the Ripper as a caped villain carrying a leather bag. He embarked on his killing spree in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888.

"It is probably one of the great unsolved mysteries of British criminal history," said Trevor Marriott, a retired police detective who's spent years investigating this 123-year-old case.

His trawl for official records included those kept by a Scotland Yard department called Special Branch, which deals with national security.

Marriott filed several Freedom of Information requests. Then he waited.

"The lines of inquiry that I pursued as far as this is concerned are exactly the same lines of inquiry that I would've done as if I was still a police officer investigating a crime," Marriott said. "No matter how insignificant you think they are because somewhere along the line there may be that little piece of information or something new that's going to come out to turn everything on its side."

What Marriott wants is an index of files that were kept in the six years after the Ripper murders. Some entries apparently have the names of suspects. There's also a log of payments made to informants. Most of the files themselves are long gone, but a few have survived from the Ripper era.

It's not even clear that they are about the case, because they're still being kept secret.

Trevor Marriott just wanted to know one way or the other. But after each request, he was turned down.

"If there is something sensitive there that is connected to the Whitechapel murders, then obviously that's the reason why they don't want us to look at it, even in a limited way," Marriott said.

But what could still be so sensitive after 123 years?

Another mystery is why Special Branch was on the case. At one point, the man who led Special Branch during the Ripper era, mentioned a suspect's name in a letter to a journalist.

"The question we'd really like to ask is, how much was special branch involved in the case?" said Martin Fido, a respected Ripper researcher and author, and a senior lecturer at Boston University.

Still, Fido doesn't think there's a conspiracy behind all the continuing secrecy.

"One of the silliest ideas is that the police will in any way be protecting a genuine suspect whom they knew to be Jack the Ripper," said Fido. "At this point, this wouldn't be the case."

American journalist Heather Brooke thinks Britain's relatively new Freedom of Information law is why the records haven't been released. She said the law is just weak.

"I see no public interest reason why records that are over 100 years old should still be kept secret," said Brooke, who works in the UK.

Her reporting in London a few years back helped uncover an expenses scandal involving British members of parliament. She said British authorities take advantage of a culture of deference.

"Most of the officials I have encountered seem to have the idea that they own public information," Brooke said. "If it exists in their filing cabinets it's part of their bureaucratic fiefdom, and woe betide any member of the proletariat for daring to ask to see the fruits of what they paid for with their taxes."

Trevor Marriott is still hoping to see the remaining fruits of the Ripper case. The trouble is, some of his requests have reached the end of the road. Last month, a panel of judges ruled against him. London's Metropolitan Police argued that some of the information Marriott sought has the names of informants and should never be released.

Trevor Marriott now fears that as his options diminish, the police may eventually destroy some of the records.

"The longer that they are in existence, then the more problems they are going to be for them," Marriott said. "They have the right to destroy them."

Many Ripper experts don't think the case will ever be definitively solved. But they'd like to think they'll at least have all the official information that still survives.