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Could Jack the Ripper have been HH Holmes?

Was HH Holmes Jack the Ripper
H.H. Holmes mugshot next to an illustration of police discovering a Ripper victim

One left a string of victims in the murky streets of Victorian Whitechapel, the other operated a sadistic house of horrors thousands of miles away in the United States. But could Jack the Ripper and HH Holmes have actually been the same person? Jeff Mudgett, a direct descendant of Holmes, has teamed up with ex-CIA operative Amaryllis Fox to make the connection. Here’s the most compelling evidence on both sides of the debate.

Argument A: They were the same person

An initial overview of the facts would suggest we’re dealing with radically different individuals – and not just because of the vast geographical divide between their respective killing zones. There’s the basic MO to consider. Jack the Ripper claimed most of his victims out on the streets, audaciously attacking women where he could easily have been caught in the act. HH Holmes, by contrast, preferred to work in private, even going so far as to build a purpose-built “Murder Castle” where he rigged rooms to isolate and secure his victims. Creeping about in public with a knife in hand just wasn’t his style.

But if we scratch beneath the surface, the parallels become more apparent. The Ripper, far from being the savage, messy slasher of popular myth, was a calm and careful killer. Rather than simply lunging at victims with his knife, he would first choke them and lay them quietly down before commencing the evisceration. This is part of the reason he didn’t alert anyone within earshot to what was going on. Holmes, too, had a methodical killing style, and was also a trained medic – meaning he was adept at the removal of organs. Of course, one of the most widely held beliefs about Jack the Ripper is that he had some degree of medical training.

It’s also important to consider that the last of the official, canonical victims of Jack the Ripper was killed in her own bed rather than on the streets. And she wasn’t simply cut open. She was utterly obliterated by the Ripper’s blade, to the point of being almost unrecognizable. This was a huge escalation from the previous Ripper killings, both in terms of context and ferocity. In other words, Jack’s style had evolved. If Amaryllis Fox’s theory is right, this could have been Holmes trying out different methods, and moving towards the more grandiose style he displayed in the Chicago Murder Castle.

Speaking of the United States, Fox and Mudgett’s investigation has revealed that Holmes left a trail of business documents which allows us to chart his movements. Except, that is, between 1888 and 1889, when the paper trail goes mysteriously quiet. This coincides with the timeframe of the Ripper killings in London – so could this have been when Holmes was Jack? We do know from ship logs that an individual by the name of “H Holmes” was a passenger who sailed from the UK to the US shortly after the Ripper killings ended.

There’s more. Linguistics experts consulted by Mudgett and Fox carefully analysed the “Dear Boss” letter, widely regarded as having been sent by Jack to the London media of the time. The expert confirmed that various quirks of language suggest the writer of the letter was American. Mudgett and Fox also commissioned a forensic sketch artist to create a portrait of Jack based on witness testimonies of 13 people who’d seen the Ripper victims with men just before they died. The result? A portrait so similar to photos of HH Holmes that Mudgett – an attorney by trade – firmly believes it would merit an arrest warrant if the case was active today.

Argument B: They were different people

All of this certainly sounds exciting and even persuasive. But the fact is, there’s not a jot of solid evidence there at all. It’s all entirely circumstantial, based on coincidences, contradictory testimonies by long-dead Victorians and plain wishful thinking. So where to begin?

First, the “Dear Boss” letter. Perhaps it was indeed scribbled by someone from the States, as the experts suggest. But that hardly matters if the letter was a hoax, as most Ripper experts firmly believe. The general consensus among seasoned Ripperologists is that, as with all the other “Ripper” correspondence, the “Dear Boss” letter was the work of a hype-hungry journalist, or some local crackpot.

Then there’s the crucial question of geography, which really cannot be easily dismissed. Holmes and the Ripper lived in different continents, and there’s absolutely no evidence Holmes ever ventured onto British shores. Names in ship passenger logs don’t mean a thing – “Holmes” was hardly a rare name, after all. And, while Holmes later claimed to have “roamed” the planet for people to kill… well, this was very likely another example of his rampant narcissism, and desire to mythologise himself as an awesome monster.

We need to also consider motivation. Despite the grisly, horror movie-like details of his Murder Castle, HH Holmes was driven by nothing grander or more outlandish than a basic greed for money. He regarded himself as a cunning entrepreneur, and killed in order to collect on life insurance and further his material success.

There’s no evidence he was driven by a lust for murder for its own sake. Jack the Ripper was very different. He slaughtered the poor, helpless, penniless women of the East End. There was no greed there, except a greed for death. While we’ll never know what made the Ripper kill, it seems reasonable to assume it was a deep-seated, irrational, emotional craving that he needed to satisfy. HH Holmes was a con man who was willing to kill, but he was not irrational.

Jeff Mudgett is certainly convinced of his theory that Holmes was the Ripper, and perhaps the hard evidence is out there somewhere, waiting to be found. In the meantime, the controversy will carry on.