In the years 2004 through to 2009, students I taught in Year 11 History at various schools did a unit on the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, as an entry point into other historical topics and to analyse primary and secondary sources.
Initially, they showed much greater interest and enthusiasm for this unit than I did, as I was just trying to exploit the success of TV’s CSI crime shows and a load of other programs and movies about solving homicides with deduction and clues.
I thought the quickest students would realise the case was unsolved then, and certainly unsolvable now.
Instead various students, in various classes, at various schools, began to notice discrepancies between the primary and secondary sources, or began proposing alternate explanations for why bits of the jigsaw did not fit together.
One student asked a question that went a long way to shattering my complacency that:
1) The Ripper case remained unsolved; and
2) That none of the top cops of the day had a clue as to the true identity of the perpetrator.
I introduced to the students various excerpts from fairly recent books on Jack the Ripper that, whilst they disagreed on many things, were united and adamant that the police chief Sir Melville Macnaghten did not know what he was talking about.
For example, he had written that his chief suspect, Montague John Druitt, was “said to be a doctor” when in fact he was a barrister.
All of the books agreed – and I agreed with them - that this was a sloppy, even incompetent bit of bureaucratic bungling.
Three years of having fun with ‘said to be a doctor’ came to a screeching halt when a thoughtful student put up her hand and asked something like: Could the line not be interpreted as the police chief saying Druitt might be a doctor, but then again might not be?
That the police chief knows the man was a barrister and does not want to be caught in committing deceit in an official file.
Therefore Macnaghten had created a handy exit for himself.
If it turned out Druitt was not a doctor, then he could claim he was misinformed.
After all, why bother if he was sure Druitt was a surgeon?
Another example takes us into the 1900’s, when a famous English writer named George R. Sims repeatedly informed his multitude of readers about Montague Druitt as Jack the Ripper—albeit without ever naming him.
Sims was a very close friend of Sir Melville Macnaghten who for ten years (1903-1913) was the Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D.) of Scotland Yard.
Sims had written, repeatedly, that the unnamed Druitt was not only a doctor, but he had also been a patient in an asylum and had thrown himself into the River Thames; a “shrieking, raving fiend”.
Both details were hopelessly wrong.
Once again, a thoughtful student put their hand up and asked whether members of the Druitt family could have read George Sims too?
Yes, possibly, even probably.
The student observed it was a good thing for the suspect’s family the writer had made so many errors, as it meant that the Druitt family were not embarrassed in front of their friends.
Again, I felt like I had plunged head-first through a plate-glass window!
This student’s lateral, connect-the-dots query had a profound impact on my understanding of the subject (or lack of) as I grasped that, of course, the data about Druitt had been altered so people who had once known him could not recognise the young barrister beneath the veil of a fictionalised, middle-aged medico.
He had been deliberately disguised by two upper class gents, to whom discretion was sacred.
Indeed, if Druitt had been a doctor they would have told the public he was something else.
For the first time it occurred to me how much Druitt’s tale had evolved, or been made to evolve, into something rather like Robert Louis Stevenson’s best-selling novella, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).
A respectable, English, middle-aged doctor with a secret identity as a mad, homicidal fiend.
The police are in hot pursuit but it is the doctor’s pals who tumble to his dual identity after Mr Hyde takes his own life.