For one thing, given that the police commissioner at the time of the murders was Charles Warren, who dug underneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and has been implicated in some Ark of the Covenant conspiracy theories, this episode’s completely neutered approach to Ripper conspiracies is symptomatic of this season’s decidedly less extreme—and therefore less interesting—approach to fringe history. Wolter is nothing without his extreme Templar/Bloodline conspiracies, and this episode served instead as an apology for Masonry, as though trying to disassociate “true” Freemasonry from the “rogue Mason” who might (if you believe the conspiracies) have been the Ripper.
This episode was also wildly off-brand. It did not involve American history, nor did it involve geology or archaeology, and it had precious little connection to any of Wolter’s major themes, except Freemasonry. This is the first episode of America Unearthed to carry a content warning because of its graphic violence. In the end, the violence is all it really had going for it, but just barely.
Since my only interest in Jack the Ripper is the influence he had on the reception and adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I don’t have a lot to say about this episode except to note that its main claim—that Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle was Jack the Ripper—is basically ludicrous, and taking it seriously is silly.
We open with a recreation of one of Jack the Ripper’s murders, in a lurid but not particularly interesting fashion. After the opening credits, Wolter claims to have been fascinated by the Ripper killings for many years. He asserts that the hypothesis that the Ripper was a Freemason has been “overlooked,” though it is, of course, a wildly popular hypothesis and utilized in Alan Moore’s From Hell. Wolter, now a Mason himself, claims to have special insight into the Masonic connection.
Wolter meets with Eugene and Daniel Friedmans, a Ripperologist team with a 2015 book to flog, The Strange Case of Dr. Doyle, and they claim that the true Ripper was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, arguing that Doyle harbored a hatred for prostitutes because his father had syphilis, which they believe he had contracted from a prostitute. Their theory is not original to them, nor was it particularly well received when the book was released. Wolter is intrigued because Doyle was a Freemason like himself, and we go to commercial with the Friedmans alleging that Doyle had the skills and the rage to murder effectively and killed in imitation of Masonic rituals. Neither the Friedmans nor Wolter bother to tell us what the documentary evidence said Doyle was really up to in 1888, a year when he was writing, traveling, and commenting about the murders in the newspapers.
The Friedmans tell Wolter that the Ripper victims’ wounds followed the ritual punishments of Masonry, though the parallels—V-shaped wounds, for example—are rather generic. Wolter reviews some other claims for various Freemasons as the Ripper, but he says that the Masonic connection “cannot be ignored.” Newspapers of the era claimed that the Ripper wore a “leather apron,” which the Friedmans and Wolter connect to Masonry’s apron, but the newspapers weren’t referring to Masonic aprons. Leather aprons were common back in the nineteenth century, and the papers were almost certainly referring to something like a butcher’s apron, in keeping with the theme of bloody murder. Most scholars believe the nickname “Leather Apron” to have been a journalistic invention.
Wolter and Dan Friedman travel to Chicago to visit Doyle’s Masonic apron, which is housed in that city, and along the way they debunk some other claims about alleged Ripper suspects. The men view some Doyle memorabilia including Doyle’s apron, and Wolter becomes excited by a stain he thinks could be blood from a Ripper victim. We went through this nonsense when he tried to investigate Merriweather Lewis’s death during the original run. There is no way to connect a stain on an apron back that far since the aprons were not stored in hermetic conditions.
In the third segment, Wolter has the stain noninvasively tested and—no surprise—it wasn’t blood. Wolter, however, doesn’t take this for an answer and he vows to return to London to find more evidence to prove the Friedmans right, all while quoting Sherlock Holmes as though anything Holmes sad justifies trying to match evidence to a predetermined conclusion. Wolter travels to London to visit Baker Street, the fictitious home of Sherlock Holmes, and there he sees crosses carved into the curbstones (or, if you are British, kerbstones) on the street, and he uses this to discuss the question of whether stone masons and Freemasons are the same. The symbols are generally held to be the initials and marks of the Victorian masons who laid the stones, but Wolter suggests that they are secret markings leading to Masonic lodges. This has nothing to do with the Ripper, but Wolter suggests that Doyle’s Masonic involvement was “suspicious” because he was active in Masonry only for the three years surrounding the Ripper killings.
This leads to a discussion of whether Conan Doyle resembled the description of the Ripper given at the time. The description is generic enough that almost any Victorian man of the right age would have fit, but Wolter and one of the Friedmans think that a composite image of the Ripper created in the 2000s from Victorian accounts resembles Doyle. It also looks like H. G. Wells, but he was a smidge young, and Ambrose Bierce, though he was a bit too old. The point, though, is that dour mustachioed Victorians tended look similar. And they were legion.
Wolter travels to the National Archives in London in an awkwardly staged “research” expedition, and there he views the letters attributed to Jack the Ripper, including the infamous “Dear Boss” letter signed by “Jack the Ripper.” Wolter compares the handwriting of the letter to Doyle’s handwriting, and he sees key differences. He rejects this as evidence, too, because Doyle could have disguised his writing, but the expert that Wolter consults, tour guide Lindsay Siviter, informs him that the “Dear Boss” letter is probably the invention of a journalist for publicity. He looks next at a subsequent letter, known as the “From Hell” letter, that came with part of a human kidney attached and is most often cited as a genuine letter from the Ripper.
After the commercial, Siviter tells Wolter about the mutilations in the Ripper killings, and Wolter declares them “brutal” and decides that he needs to “prove” that the Ripper was a physician. At an operating theater, Wolter attempts to mutilate a silicon cadaver used for training doctors in under nine minutes in order to try to replicate the fourth Ripper killing. “I’m a geologist, not a biologist, and certainly not a doctor,” he says before adding that he did well in biology class half a century ago. That’s more than a third of the time gap between the ripper killings and now! “It’s going to get quite messy!” the doctor supervising Wolter enthuses. Then we go to commercial.
As the show moves toward its end, we watch Wolter mutilate a fake corpse. “This might be the craziest thing that I’ve done in an investigation,” he says. If it’s all the same to you, I don’t really have much interest in watching a mutilation, and I don’t care to describe it. Wolter concludes that his inability to mutilate a corpse effectively proves that only someone with medical training could do so, though he neglected to test whether a butcher (another popular hypothesis) could have achieved the same results.
Then episode descends into utter reproach when Wolter meets with Heretic magazine publisher and all around fringe history gadfly Andrew Gough, whom regular readers will remember from Forbidden History, where he was a regular and particularly insipid talking head and the first season of Zachary Quinto’s In Search Of, where he offered pointless speculation. Gough is awful as a historical researcher and an overdramatic shill as a TV personality, and he does nothing to disprove my evaluation here, where he has promoted his job description to an expert on cryptic “symbolism” for this appearance.
The men visit Mitre Street, where the so-called “Goulston Street graffito” was found during the Ripper months claiming that the “Iuwes,” believed to be Jews, would not be blamed. Why they are on the street when the graffiti is more than a 130 years gone, I cannot say, but Wolter claims that the unusual spelling refers to the “three ruffians” who killed Hiram Abiff in Masonic ritual, named Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum, supposedly known collectively as “the Juwes,” though the names date back only to the late 1700s. While Wolter is very confident of this speculation, he neglects to note that there is no evidence for the use of the name “the Juwes” in the late 1800s, and the names Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum were of American derivation and not attested in any English Masonic texts of the time.
Even so, it is really of no particular surprise if Victorians would make reference to Masonry, which was much more prominent then than it is today. I don’t see it here, but whatever. Wolter’s concludes that medical knowledge and Masonic connections therefore prove that the Friedmans’ claim of Doyle’s murderous escapade is “not that far-fetched.” He says he reached this conclusion because, like Holmes, he eliminated possibilities that would have disproved. This is the kind of tortured reasoning used by kids who are struggling to make the word count on their book report. This entire episode is simply a summary of the Friedmans’ 2015 book and is therefore little more than a badly sketched book report by a notably dense student.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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