Jack the Ripper's Secret Confession
by David Monaghan & Nigel Cawthorne


The pain a murderer inflicts can last a hundred years. It stabs through generations like a knife through flesh.

I saw such pain in a Philadelphia hotel room in 2005. I was there to make a film about two lovely sisters, Beth and Brenda Pietzel. Their great-great-grandfather, Ben, had been one of the 200 or so victims murdered by Herman Webster Mudgett, a Chicago insurance scamster and corpse seller who went by the name H.H. Holmes.

Mudgett was like Walter. His last two victims were girls, found naked. He had cashed in on his crimes with two book-length confessions before he was hanged in 1895. I did not know Beth and Brenda, had not read Mudgett’s more frank confession of how he had tied Ben to a chair and burned him alive.

I asked them to read aloud Mudgett’s 110-year-old words about their great-greatgrandfather. I watched horrified when the sisters flinched, then cried on camera over the suffering of a man they had loved, but who had been killed so long ago. I felt as if Mudgett had reached across a century and had me inflict wounds for his pleasure.

The tears of Brenda and Beth made me wary about writing a book about Jack the Ripper. His killings tore branches from many family trees. People alive today still suffer. Airing the words of a killer must be done with caution, for a murderer confesses for his own motives. And a sadist’s impulse is to inflict pain. I had no intention of being the tool for Walter’s sadism to inflict more pain on this generation. But now is the time to set the record straight.

A century of state bans and underground hype elevated Walter’s 1888 sex memoir to near-mythical status. Literary types praised him as an erotic genius, a tell-it-straight liberal out to pop the hypocrisy of the corseted moralists of his age. By 2009, my home city’s hippest magazine, Time Out, voted Walter London’s most erotic writer, ahead of Shakespeare. I felt sick.

I had fed this hype. I’d first read My Secret Life to make a documentary about Walter. The film saluted him as a racy pornographer and a saucy cad. But after seeing the tears of the Pietzel sisters in Philadelphia, I reread the book. For the first time, I was able to read the bits still banned in Britain at the time I made my film. This time, I wasn’t falling for Walter’s tales of pleasure. The uncensored memoirs reeked of his victims’ pain. My nerves jangled. The smug text chimed with what I knew about killers, particularly the jumbled chronology that marked Mudgett’s 1894 confessions.

I sat bolt upright when I got to the end of Volume 4, Chapter 1. At the heart of a memoir about lovemaking, the diarist dropped in the identity of a murdered corpse floating in the Thames. Why would a man want to boast of his connection to a corpse?

By then, I had been studying serial killers’ confessions for years. I’d travelled to Florida to see the so-called ‘Charm Killer’ Glen Edward Rogers convicted. He had confessed to some heavy metal kids that he had killed Nicole Simpson before going on a cross-country spree. I had gone to Cambodia to see Pol Pot’s torture chamber, Tuol Sleng, a factory for false confessions. I wanted to get to the bottom of the tale a tortured soldier told of shooting British academic Malcolm Caldwell in the last days of the Khmer Rouge.

Gloucester builder Fred West had killed thirteen women and girls with his prostitute wife, Rose, before confessing in 1994. I had combed every word of his mammoth admission to make a film series. The grubby handyman fancied himself a Lothario, was obsessed with sex and had a stab at a biography, too. And, like Walter, Fred West killed to cover up the fact that he had sex with children. West killed his teenage daughter Heather when she threatened to leave home and tell of his incest. West’s first wife and childminder had been killed and cut up before they had a chance to expose his paedophilia. Here was a powerful motive for multiple violent murder, with no need to reference Masonic rituals and royal affairs. Such distractions had given the unknown killer of Whitechapel in 1888 the alibi of sophistication. But the killer of prostitutes would be more likely to be found in a brothel than a palace.

By chance, my life in London has dogged the Whitechapel killer’s footsteps. I lived in the old Commercial Street police station building. It was where my investigations into Walter began and where many detectives on the trail of the Ripper were based in 1888. If those bobbies had got their hands on My Secret Life with its ramblings of blood, rape and virgin-buying in 1888, Walter would have been considered a very likely candidate for arrest indeed.

~ David Monaghan (2010)