When Lewis Carroll Was Suspected of Being Jack the Ripper

Oscar Gustav Rejlander/Getty Images
Oscar Gustav Rejlander/Getty Images

Letting venerated children’s author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson rest in peace would appear to be a foregone conclusion. The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and several ancillary titles, Dodgson—who was better known for his work under the pen name Lewis Carroll—projected a quiet presence, toiling away as a lifelong bachelor and Oxford math teacher until his death in 1898.

Perhaps it was Carroll’s genteel persona that invited some scandalous theories about his life. Beginning in the 1930s, Carroll biographers wondered about the subversive pro-drug messages of Alice. In 1996, author Richard Wallace went a step further: The clinical social worker and part-time Carroll scholar wrote a book in which he offered the theory that something truly sinister lurked in Carroll’s mind, and that he had a second alter ego—that of Jack the Ripper.

An illustration from 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'
Rischgitz/Getty Images

The Ripper murders took place in 1888 in London’s Whitechapel district, although some believe the killer was active as late as 1891. The mystery assailant murdered and mutilated at least five women, pulling out intestines and generally behaving as a vivisectionist who was being timed. A sensational story of its era, the attacks have remained some of the most infamous crimes in history.

With relatively little evidence to pursue, the list of suspects was substantial. William Gull, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, had knowledge of human anatomy; a scrap metal merchant named James Maybrick allegedly left a diary confessing to the murders. Some connections were incredibly tenuous; a man named Charles Cross was suspected in part because the murders took place between his house and workplace. Some reasoned that a casual stroll home could have apparently been livened up with a brutal killing.

Of the names discussed, few would be more surprising than Carroll's. Born in 1832, he was sent to a boarding school at the age of 12 and sometimes wrote home expressing despondence over the nighttime racket. In Wallace’s book, Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend, he seizes this declaration to be a hint that Carroll was being physically abused by the older boys at the school, suffering a psychotic break that would plague him for the rest of his life.

Wallace’s theory requires a large and ambitious leap to a conclusion: that Carroll, famously fond of wordplay and anagrams, kept sneaking hidden messages into his correspondences and his published works that provided insight into his state of mind. Rearranging letters from a missive to his brother Skeffington, Wallace finds a plea for help:

“My Dear Skeff: Roar not lest thou be abolished.”

Becomes:

“Ask mother about the red lion: safer boys fled.”

The "red lion" was a game played at Carroll's boarding school, one that Wallace suspects was sexual in nature and left Carroll burning with fury toward his mother and father, who had sent him to the school, and toward society at large.

After publishing Alice in 1865, Carroll continued to teach at Oxford—simmering, Wallace believes, with violent intent, and possibly confiding his bloodthirst to his lifelong friend, Thomas Bayne.

At the time of the Ripper murders in 1888, Carroll published The Nursery Alice, a version of the Wonderland story meant for younger children. In it, Wallace says, Carroll confesses to the gruesome murders being perpetuated. Setting about deciphering a suspected anagram from one passage, Wallace pulled the following:

“If I find one street whore, you know what will happen! ‘Twill be off with her head!”

In the same book, Carroll offers what appears to be a throwaway passage about a dog declining a dinner:

So we went to the cook, and we got her to make a saucer-ful of nice oatmeal porridge. And then we called Dash into the house, and we said, “Now, Dash, you’re going to have your birthday treat!” We expected Dash would jump for joy; but it didn’t, one bit!

Blending the letters, Wallace retrieves the following:

Oh, we, Thomas Bayne, Charles Dodgson, coited into the slain, nude body, expected to taste, devour, enjoy a nice meal of a dead whore’s uterus. We made do, found it awful—wan and tough like a worn, dirty, goat hog. We both threw it out. – Jack the Ripper

Wallace, in his mind, had his signed confession—albeit one extracted from a pile of letters. But there was more: Carroll’s mother was said to have a large, protuberant nose, which Carroll must have envisioned when the Ripper mutilated the noses of two of his victims. His personal library contained more than 120 books on medicine, anatomy, and health, providing him with the education one would need to vivisect his victims.

Geographically, Carroll was within public transport’s distance from his home to the murder sites. The fact that the Ripper’s letters to newspapers didn’t appear to be a handwriting match when compared to Carroll’s diary entries didn’t dissuade Wallace—someone, perhaps his close friend Bayne, could have written them on his behalf.

An illustration from 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Perhaps 1996 wasn’t quite the year for far-reaching theories, as Wallace’s failed to gain much traction. When Carroll appears as one of a laundry list of Ripper suspects, authors wanly refer to him as “unlikely.”

There was one notable response. After a brief explanation of Wallace’s research in a 1996 issue of Harper’s magazine, two readers wrote in to respond with a compelling counter-argument. Wallace’s own words in the piece:

This is my story of Jack the Ripper, the man behind Britain’s worst unsolved murders. It is a story that points to the unlikeliest of suspects: a man who wrote children’s stories. That man is Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of such beloved books as Alice in Wonderland.

Could be rearranged to read:

The truth is this: I, Richard Wallace, stabbed and killed a muted Nicole Brown in cold blood, severing her throat with my trusty shiv’s strokes. I set up Orenthal James Simpson, who is utterly innocent of this murder. P.S. I also wrote Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a lot of Francis Bacon’s works too.

Wallace never commented on the matter.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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