If you believed that your ancestor was the most famous serial killer in history, would you keep it a secret? Tell someone? Publish a book?
Many of these family confessionals have been dismissed as attempts at “infamy by association.” Other writers seem to be trying to exorcise the demons from their bloodline. Whatever the motivation, more than one author has tried to convince readers that their forefather is none other than Jack the Ripper.
Jeff Mudgett published Bloodstains in 2011. In it, he laid out his arguments that his American great-great-grandfather, Herman Webster Mudgett, was the Whitechapel slayer. Not that the elder Mudgett needed any more bad publicity. Better known as H. H. Holmes, he is one of the most prolific killers in history and his countless murders in Chicago (particularly during the 1893 World’s Fair) are the subject of Erik Larson’s mega-best-seller The Devil in the White City. Jeff Mudgett, who admits his work is half true and half fiction, bases his conclusions on, among other disputed evidence, handwriting analysis and comparisons of eyewitness descriptions against a known photo of Holmes.
In 2005, Tony Williams threw his great-great-uncle, Dr. John Williams, under the Ripperologist bus. Tony’s work started innocuously enough: he was simply researching his family history. But the discovery of detailed diaries raised flags. In an 1885 entry, Dr. Williams noted that he performed an abortion on a woman named Mary Anne Nichols. Tony Williams wondered if this was actually Polly Nichols, the Ripper’s first recognized victim. Adding to this interesting morsel was family gossip that the doctor had a relationship with a Welsh girl named Mary. In Uncle Jack, the author ponders if this is the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, whom he says he found in the Welsh census married to a man named Davies. It is around her matrimonial status that the most recent Ripper theory is built.
Like Tony Williams, Wynne Weston-Davies set out to learn more about his family history, not to solve the greatest open murder case in history. In fact, even when he felt there may be a connection, he deliberately worked to disprove it. “Several years of my trying to do so and, more recently, concerted efforts by many Ripperologists, have been unsuccessful,” says Weston-Davies. “I absolutely did not set out to discover the identity of Jack the Ripper and only very reluctantly accepted the possibility.”
Briefly stated, Weston-Davies’ believes that Mary Kelly is actually Elizabeth Weston, his great aunt, whose first husband, Davies, reportedly died in a mine accident. Contrarians are adamant that there is no proof of such a union. Nonetheless, Weston-Davies postulates that Jack the Ripper is the widowed Elizabeth’s second husband, Francis Craig, whom she left and evaded by creating a new name and life. Jilted and obsessed, it is Craig, says Weston-Davies, who committed the four murders leading up to Mary Kelly’s savage killing as smokescreens to obscure his true target: his unfaithful, prostitute wife. In 2015, Weston-Davies presented his findings in The Real Mary Kelly, subtitled “Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim and the identity of the man that killed her.”
Prose ‘n Cons asked Weston-Davies what his family thought of his theory. “At first there was considerable reluctance by some family members to make such a theory public,” he admits. “Now that all family members have read the book and realized that it is written in a non-judgmental and sympathetic way, they have all accepted it and have enjoyed reading it.”
A surgeon and Demonstrator of Anatomy, Weston-Davies has a leg up on other theorists when it comes to understanding the wounds inflicted upon the Ripper’s victims. This knowledge leads him to believe that “...the Ripper - whoever he was - was deliberately trying to pass himself off as someone who was familiar with the dissecting room rather than the operating theater.” In fact, Weston-Davies is adamant that police surgeon George Bagster Phillips (who examined the bodies of Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Kelly) recognized the work of someone familiar with the dissecting room - even if he refused to publicly acknowledge it.
Considering the vast number of Ripper books already on the market, Weston-Davies knew that publication of his own work was a steep challenge. Smartly, he set about finding an agent. By sheer persistence he succeeded, and the agent’s first piece of advice was to trim the book by half. The suggestion proved fortuitous. Very shortly after completing the edit, the manuscript was purchased by Blink Publishing.
Prior to his discovery of his own presumed family connection to the case, Weston-Davies had no interest in Jack the Ripper and therefore no guesses about the killer’s identity. “Since doing all the research in the context of Elizabeth,” he says, “I have examined all the previous suspects in detail and do not think that any of them are at all convincing. This is mainly because none of them had the necessary anatomical and surgical skills. None of them had any motive beyond an assumed ‘hatred of women’ and few had any opportunity. For instance, Sickert was almost certainly in France at the time.” (Walter Sickert, for non-Ripper amateur investigators, is the man writer Patricia Cornwell named as Jack, going so far as to pronounce the case “closed.”)
Weston-Davies says that about half his research was conducted online using various genealogy databases, as well as web sites devoted to Jack the Ripper and related subjects. The balance was conducted in repositories including England’s National Archives, the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the London Metropolitan Archives, the National Newspaper Library and others. “In addition,” he says, “I visited all the murder sites and cemeteries many times.” Not surprisingly, over his six years of research, he created his own extensive Ripper library.
The Real Mary Kelly is not Weston-Davies’ first book. He wrote an as-yet unpublished novel and a stage play, and has several other fiction ideas in the works. He hopes to continue in the literary vein, but time is limited. At 72, he has three years remaining on his contract with Akari Therapeutics PLC where he serves as Medical Director. There is little doubt, however, that - at least for now - his Ripper book is his biggest claim to fame. It has, in fact, generated so much attention and speculation that the Ministry of Justice is considering granting permission for the exhumation of Mary Jane Kelly - the first Ripper victim to receive such treatment. It would be a costly process, and one that TV and film companies are already eager to absorb. “Seven companies or producers are already bidding for the rights to be involved in that,” Weston-Davies reports.
Weston-Davies admits that the responses to his theory have been mixed. “The more serious and respected [Ripperologists] have generally received the book very well and have been very kind, even if they don’t personally accept my thesis.” He says there seems to be general agreement on his theory that Mary and Elizabeth are one in the same, but there is less consensus on his proposition that Elizabeth’s husband was the murderer.
While exhumation may finally identify Jack’s fifth and final victim, the remaining truth is far less satisfying: simply knowing who Mary Jane Kelly is doesn’t prove who murdered her. The real identity of history’s most elusive serial killer will likely remain anyone’s guess. PnC
UPDATE - December 15, 2016:
Wynne Weston-Davies reports that the exhumation of the "real Mary Kelly" may occur in 2017. In an email exchange he told Prose 'n Cons™ the following:
The situation is that permission in principle to grant an exhumation licence has been granted by the UK Ministry of Justice and work and further research to confirm the exact location of the grave is in progress. It still requires the permission of the cemetery authorities and time to process possible objections from relatives of people interred in neighbouring graves. These will not be forthcoming until the team I am working with is absolutely certain that we have identified the correct grave site but I am hopeful that we will be able to proceed during 2017. However it is not an easy or a swift process.
We will keep readers updated.