A new TV documentary series aims to prove that Jack the Ripper, the still unknown serial killer who stalked the streets of London in the late 1800s, was the same man who is known for creating, during the same era, a “murder castle” in Chicago. That man is the infamous H. H. Holmes, known as America’s first serial killer, and the subject of the hugely popular 2003 book, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. A collaborative film between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio has also been rumored to be in preproduction.
H. H. Holmes’ murder castle included a drugstore on the first floor. A con man as well as a serial killer, he would first trick people out of money and property before taking their lives. Appearing as a normal building, the second floor was complete with a dozen soundproof rooms that were made by Holmes to confuse and disorient his victims. Some rooms were made into gas chambers. To dispose of the bodies, there were actual chutes that dropped into the basement which was filled with acid vats and a crematorium.
Interest in Holmes was recently revived through American Horror Story: Hotel, in which Evan Peters plays James March, a character heavily influenced by Holmes.
Jack the Ripper has long been the most infamous unidentified serial killer, a man who brutally slit the throats of and disemboweled at least five women in 1888, all sex workers, and may have gone on to kill more. Known for his sharp dress and medical precision (though these accounts are based strongly in folklore), there have been many ideas about who, exactly, this elusive criminal was. In fact, there are now over one hundred researched theories, and a relative of Holmes is ready to add another.
This new documentary series, American Ripper, is showing in eight parts on the History Channel, the first of which premiered last night, July 11th. The series takes a look at evidence uncovered by Holmes’ great great grandson, Jeff Mudgett, a retired lawyer. So far, the reviews are not great, pointing to the cliché, clunky feel of the show, as well as the conjecture that is presented as evidence. So far, it doesn’t seem like Mudgett should be as confident as he is with his hypothesis.
In a promo, Mudgett is seen saying, "I am a descendent of the devil. I have uncovered credible evidence which suggests that Holmes was Jack the Ripper." This tone is carried through the episode, Mudgett sounding very rehearsed in his dramatic speech.
The episode opens on a graveyard where Mudgett and his accomplice for the series, “former C.I.A. operative,” Amaryllis Fox, are attempting to exhume the corpse of H. H. Holmes, in its apparent resting place. There have long been rumors and questions surrounding whether or not Holmes was able to escape his own execution by bribes and a phony corpse.
In the series, Mudgett follows this line of thinking. He believes fervently that Holmes escaped his execution in Philadelphia and then fled to London where he continued to murder. According to Mudgett, Holmes traded places with another convict and was able to fool all those present for the highly documented public execution.
Chocked full of reenactments so cheesy, you will feel like you are living in 2001, American Ripper shows its hand early on, relying on typical foreboding music and painful clichés. A deep voice narrates throughout, a mustachioed actor playing Holmes smirks indefinitely.
We have yet to see any truly notable evidence that these two killers were the same man, but to be fair, only one of the eight segments has been shown.
Even Amaryllis Fox is skeptical of his claims: “H. H. Holmes is so premeditated that he’s built a hotel for the purpose of killing his victims and disposing of their bodies. Jack the Ripper was looking for targets of opportunity and leaving their bodies for anybody to find. So that’s one glaring difference between them.”
These are big claims—sure to grab headlines and attention. This as a problem within the genre, a tendency toward sensational conspiracy theories that end up hurting more than they help (i.e. Burke Ramsey). Luckily, the families of the victims of these killers are long deceased, but there are other examples of true crime media where that is unfortunately not the case.
The genre of true crime is growing more and more popular in this time when we are all craving answers, clear examples of right and wrong, in a world settling forever into the gray. I expect we will see more and more wild connections, more and more TV shows and documentaries and podcasts seeking the answers to old questions, like this one, that has been around for almost 150 years. For now, answers do not seem likely, but that won’t stop networks from finding ways to capitalize on the unknown.