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.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

What's the Difference Between a Killer's Signature and M.O.?

iStock/fergregory
iStock/fergregory

True crime shows, documentaries, and podcasts are everywhere these days, not to mention all the crime-focused movies and TV shows—like NBC's Law & Order: SVU, CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Netflix's Mindhunter. And you've probably heard terms like signature and M.O. being thrown around a lot without much explanation as to what they mean, or how they're different.

If you're confused about the difference between them, well, you’re not alone. As former FBI agent and behavioral analyst John Douglas notes in his book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (which the Netflix series is based on), "Both [signature and modus operandi] are extremely important concepts in criminal investigations analysis, and I have spent many hours on witness stands of courtrooms throughout the country trying to get judges and juries to understand the distinction between them."

Douglas, who was recently in New York to promote his new book, The Killer Across the Table: Unlocking the Secrets of Serial Killers and Predators with the FBI's Original Mindhunter, out now, helped break down the difference between signature and M.O. for us.

M.O. stands for Modus Operandi, and, according to Douglas, it's a learned, dynamic behavior. "When a criminal starts perpetrating crimes, if something doesn't go right, he's got to perfect the M.O.," he tells Mental Floss. "He's got to get it better and better." In other words, unless an offender executes the perfect crime his first time out, he'll continue to tweak his M.O. as he goes. The method of committing the crime is modified for success. That's why, Douglas says, "you shouldn't link cases together strictly by modus operandi. … You don't do that because those characteristics could fit people that have nothing to do with the case as well."

But what you can use to link crimes together is an offender's signature, a term that Douglas says he coined. "A signature is a ritual—something [that] is done that is not necessary to perpetrate that particular crime," he says. "The signature is the ritual that is unique to the offender, and that's what you're looking for."

To demonstrate what he means, Douglas uses sports as an example. "It's like a baseball batter [who], before a ball comes in, does rituals," like touching his hat or cleats. "Or shooting a basketball: bounce it three times, [do a certain move], take the shot. It's not necessary to get it in the hoop or hit the ball, but in his mind he's got to do it. He's got to do it this way."

In Mindhunter, Douglas acknowledges that "the differences between M.O. and signature can be subtle." To demonstrate just how subtle, he compares two robbery cases. Both robbers made their captive undress; one "posed them in sexual positions, and took photographs of them" while the other did not take photos.

The latter made his hostages undress "so the eyewitnesses would be so preoccupied and embarrassed that they wouldn't be looking at him and so couldn't make a positive ID later on," Douglas writes. That's an example of M.O. The former robber is an example of a signature, because it wasn't something the offender had to do to rob the bank—and actually put him at risk of being caught, because he was in the bank longer. "It was something he clearly felt a need to do," Douglas writes.

Because the signature is unique to the offender, Douglas says that you can use it in trials: "A case in Washington state, the subject was posing the victims after he killed [them]. And all that was allowed for me to testify to."

There's one challenge with signatures, though. "You can only see it when it starts showing up in repetitive crimes," Douglas says. "You can't look at a single case and say, 'Oh, this was the signature.' Say the victim is posed—that may end up being the signature, but you've got to compare it to something, later on."

As criminology professor Scott A. Bonn, Ph.D., points out in a post for Psychology Today, "While every crime has an M.O., not all crimes have a signature." Now, whether you're listening to a true crime podcast or watching an episode of Mindhunter, you'll know the difference.

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