In all of the pastiches and films in which Sherlock Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper, Holmes always triumphs. But would he have? Instead of taking that as a foregone conclusion, today's guest blogger does what Holmes always did: She sets aside preconceived notions and approaches the question armed with facts and logic. Here's Janis Wilson, trial attorney and writer, on Holmes and the Ripper:
It has been 125 years since the Autumn of Terror, so named for the throat-slashing murders of several prostitutes in the Whitechapel section of London in 1888. Just a year before those killings, the world’s greatest detective emerged, fully formed, in the story entitled, A Study in Scarlet, which was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.
I have been asked, as a Ripperologist, to opine on whether Holmes could have solved the case. Let us begin by considering Holmes’s various talents.
Holmes was not the most brilliant man of his generation. That honor almost certainly belonged to his brother, Mycroft. Holmes was educated, but did not receive a degree. Dr. John H. Watson, Holmes’s biographer, never named the university he attended, but one readily jumps to the conclusion that it was either Oxford or Cambridge.
Holmes was interested in chemistry and performed many experiments in his rooms at 221B Baker Street. That address, fewer than five miles from where the women were killed, could not have been more different. The Whitechapel slums were filthy, impoverished and depressing. The prostitutes who were killed were not tarted up beauties but, in most cases, middle-aged women. Some were plump, some were missing teeth. They wore the only clothes they owned, naturally making them filthy and probably smelly. They charged four pence per assignation, the exact cost of a doss house bed that looked rather like a coffin – a narrow, wooden rectangle.
Holmes’ knowledge of chemistry, botany, geology and poisons would be unavailing. The deep, vicious slashes to the victims’ throats made clear what had happened. These women were killed where their bodies were found, so there was no need to determine whether the dirt beneath their bodies or on their boots was from a different part of the country. No plants or poisons were used.
Holmes is known to have had little regard for the skill of the Metropolitan Police, but the officers strove mightily to find the killer. According to Ripperologist Paul Begg, 473 constables were dispatched to Whitechapel, where they distributed 80,000 handbills, conducted house to house searches, questioned 2,000 lodgers, and made inquiries of sailors on the Thames, Asians in London's opium dens, Greek gypsies, and cowboys from the American Exhibition.
Furthermore, three hundred people were questioned as a result of tips from Whitechapel residents. They conducted line-ups, or identity parades as they are called in Britain.
A piece of one victim’s apron was found discarded on the street. Holmes would have found it to be of no value, as it was covered in blood. Above the scrap of material was a message, written in chalk. It said: “The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing.” The message, with its triple negative and misspelling, surely struck fear in the hearts of English teachers and may well have baffled the educated detective. It would not have been available for Holmes to peruse, however, because the highest ranking police official in England, fearful it would incite anti-Semitic rioting, ordered the evidence erased. Holmes would be right to criticize this decision.
Bottom line – I don’t think Holmes could have figured it out. He was simply too logical to bend his mind to the Ripper’s lunacy. Holmes was not crazy about women, but he was not the type of misogynist the Ripper was. JtR picked on the most pitiful, helpless members of society. Moriarty was a brilliant adversary, with greed as his comprehensible motive. The Ripper was just a thug.
Janis Wilson was one of 125 participants in a recent London conference on the 125th anniversary of Jack the Ripper. Learn more about her on her website: www.janiswilson.com.