Katherine Ramsland reviews MY SECRET LIFE by Jack the Ripper

22 Aug

In a Dublin bookstore a month ago, I spotted a book about Jack the Ripper that suggested yet another new suspect. I couldn’t resist. Every year, it seems, we get a chance to reconsider the case from a different angle. Yet despite the claims of certain authors (with the emphasis on certain), I doubt we’ll ever achieve a definitive resolution to this vexing mystery. At a 2008 conference for die-hard Ripperologists, eminent British historian Martin Fido summed it up: “When the Day of Judgment comes, and Jack the Ripper is asked to come forward and make an account, everyone else will be holding their breath, waiting, wondering, ‘Who is he?’”

I agree, but far be it from me to thwart others who think this long-standing case will one day be solved. With this in mind, I’ll examine this scintillating new theory (spoiler warning): that Red Jack was in fact a nineteenth-century pornographer who penned an immense amount of bawdy material under a pseudonym. Identify the author and you’ll know who the Ripper was.

Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession, by documentary director David Monaghan and author Nigel Cawthorne (Constable & Robinson, 2010), offers this premise: “Walter,” the author of My Secret Life: The Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman, dropped hints throughout about his criminal activities. While the publication date of this eleven-volume sexual memoir is uncertain, the authors claim it was 1888, the same year as the Ripper’s spree. Monaghan states that after he’d seen a victim’s pain while filming a documentary, he reread Walter’s writings from a more victim-centric perspective and noted its similar lack of empathy to the 1894 confession of H. H. Holmes. Then he spotted Walter’s description of a corpse in the Thames and sensed a veiled admission. He was certain that if Scotland Yard had read Walter’s suggestive ramblings they’d have considered him a good Ripper candidate.

Reading only the abridgement, which Grove Press published in two volumes in 1966, one might never see a connection with the Whitechapel murders, but allegedly within the unpublished material locked up in the British Library, the clues were there all along for the astute literary detective. My Secret Life is a sexual autobiography of extreme cruelty, criminality, and depravity. Now available on the Internet, it’s also a record of the shadows of Victorian Society and evidence of Walter’s acquaintance with the type of women who fatally crossed paths with the Ripper. The authors seem to think that Walter penned his confession in erotic code so he could brag about his bloody acts without being tossed in the slammer. That may be so, but it’s not easy to prove.

For the roguish Walter, it all began with a bit of clandestine peeping. Soon, he found cronies in corruption and his sexual addictions acquired sophistication. He became a stalker, debaucher, con artist, rapist, pedophile, predator, sadist, and, perhaps, a killer. For him, women were mere objects for his pleasure – a theme common to gynocidal serial killers. Supposedly, he had a powerful motive: in order to publish his racy memoir anonymously, he had to murder the witnesses (older whores) who’d procured children for his sexual appetites. Such women were plentiful in the streets, so he would view killing one as no real loss. (In this, he would have been like H. H. Holmes, who kept firing construction workers to avoid paying them and to prevent them from seeing how his hotel was actually a torture chamber.)

Monaghan and Cawthorne use a bit of psychology to reveal the suppressed anger in Walter’s descriptions. In fact, like Bundy and others who claimed that an “entity” compelled them, Walter did describe his inner imp. Even so, that’s hardly evidence of a killer instinct. But there’s more. The authors are also suspicious of the fact that Walter never mentions the Ripper, despite mingling with prostitutes during this period of terror – as if he doesn’t want to raise any suspicion about himself. In addition, for his voyeuristic activities he used a long, thin knife to bore holes into walls — the same type of instrument used on some of the Ripper’s victims.

Thus, by weaving together what detectives describe as a totality of circumstances, Monaghan and Cawthorne make their case. It’s not without holes, but for argument’s sake, if Walter is Jack, we need only unmask the anonymous pornographer. However, this task proves as daunting as linking any other suspect to Jack. The authors offer a list of possibilities, much like one would expect in a Ripperology text, but that’s not quite the same as revealing – at last!– the Ripper’s identity.  We don’t learn who Walter was (and it’s not Walter Sickert, for those of you who know the long-running debates), so in the end, the premise doesn’t produce on its promise. Despite specific suggestions, there remain numerous loose ends.

Many serious Ripperologists with their own favored candidates will dismiss this book and perhaps even trash it, but there’s no reason not to indulge the hypothesis. I’ve seen others with even less credibility gather adherents. So, let’s add Walter the pornographer to the list of Ripper candidates. There will probably be another one next year.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy. Currently, she chairs the Social Sciences Department and teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has published over 900 articles and thirty-seven books, including The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, True Stories of CSI, Beating the Devil’s Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, The CSI Effect, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, and Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. She has been published in ten languages. Her background in forensic studies positioned her to assist former FBI profiler John Douglas on his book, The Cases that Haunt Us, to co-write a book with former FBI profiler, Gregg McCrary, The Unknown Darkness, and to collaborate on A Voice for the Dead with attorney James E. Starrs on his exhumation projects and on a forensic textbook with renowned criminalist Henry C. Lee, The Real World of a Forensic Scientist. She also published The Forensic Science of CSI, The Criminal Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Forensic Psychology, and The Science of Cold Case Files, and has written numerous editorials on breaking forensic cases for The Philadelphia Inquirer. For seven years, she contributed regularly to Court TV’s Crime Library, and now writes a column on historic forensics for The Forensic Examiner, offers cases analysis for the media and speaks internationally about forensic psychology, forensic science, and serial murder. She has appeared on numerous cable network documentaries, as well as such programs as The Today Show, 20/20, Montel Williams, NPR, Larry King Live and E! True Hollywood.

Katherine’s Website


3 responses to “Katherine Ramsland reviews MY SECRET LIFE by Jack the Ripper


    August 22, 2010 at 11:23 am

    wow, that’s another interesting candidate.

    Clarissa Draper


  2. 47whitebuffalo

    August 22, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Interesting and frightening when you consider the ramifications of the context this man moved within. Between pornography and the sexual sadism-murder it’s impossible to not really wonder just what was going on in the culture. Or–is there always a percentage of such individuals in all time periods and cultures?
    Very interesting post. Thank you.


  3. kinneret

    April 6, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    I’ve read a good deal of My Secret Life but never had the impression the author was a murderer; rather he was a depraved product of class stratification since he often abused women of lower class (but he did take up with some wives of higher class men as well). But someone so obsessed with sex itself, who wrote that many tomes on it, would not (it seems to me) have been likely to have the energy or passion for killing. I’ve enjoyed watching your interviews.



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