Jack the Ripper






Walter White understood he had enemies.  He worried about them so much he may have even invented a few.  The same man, though, died without knowing about the enemies on the other side of the TV screen.   There were TV critics and viewers who thought that Walter was a real bad guy and that his enemies were smooth and cute.  Some of the hatred for Walt is about numbers.  More than a few of the enemies were happy to include a plane crash in order to attribute 199 deaths to the mild mannered schoolteacher.  The accident with the Boeing 737 required malevolent fate but the hatred of Walter extends beyond arithmetic.  Walter White is marked and branded by Breaking Bad.   He is a clumsy father and an uncool middle-aged male.

Of all the other men in the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad there are only two that function as fathers.  Donald Margolis is the father of Jane, the heroin addict who Walt lets choke on her own vomit.  The scene where Donald and Walt meet in a bar is contrived but memorable.  Two men seek a beer and short-lived solace.  Life will become worse for them.  Without knowing each other they will contrive to create the circumstances that will result in two planes crashing in mid-air.  Donald and Walt are confused fathers with what are in symbolic terms inadequate legacies.  The son of Walt suffers from cerebral palsy, and the daughter of Donald is a heroin addict.  If there is understanding of these two men, there is no sympathy.  Together both men are responsible for a terrible tragedy.  The father of Jesse makes a brief appearance.  Like the father in Rebel Without A Cause, he is overshadowed by the mother.  He overestimates one son and underestimates the other.  Now what does that remind us of?



Back in the criminal world there is Mike.  He works for a vicious mobster that is flooding the southwest of the USA with destructive crystal meth.  Mike kills people and has a grandchild.  He once was a father but now has another identity.  The failed policeman has become a criminal and grandfather.  Because he is gentle with his grandchild, Mike is regarded as a good guy.  The taciturn Mike carries a gun and resembles a Western hero.  Grandad is cool, and Walt and Donald are not.


The antagonism to fathers in American culture is well known.  Anyone who doubts this should watch Star Wars.  American cinema is riddled with self-sufficient and childless male heroes, especially in Westerns.   The fathers that procreate and enable real life to continue may have sexual supremacy but fail to compare.  This process of fathers being compared to fantasy figures and found wanting explains the presence of cool and tough Mike in Breaking Bad.  It is also fundamental to the relationship Walt Junior has to his own father and his Uncle Hank.  Walt Junior has no doubts about an Uncle who earns a living arresting villains but who enjoys pushing around the less fortunate.   Whatever Walt Junior is learning at his American high school it is not an ability to criticise authority.  The subsequent campaigns by American schoolchildren against USA gun laws are not anticipated by Walt Junior.  Most of us react to the behaviour of Walt at the swimming pool when he encourages his son to drink too much tequila.  The father behaves in a way that is unforgivable but that does not mean we are entitled to condemn.  Walt has had enough of pistol waving Hank, and who can blame him.


Walt has been described by some TV critics as an absent father.  There are 62 episodes in Breaking Bad, and in some of them he is remote from his family.   But before Walt had to fend off gangsters he was attentive to his son.  He had breakfast with Walt Junior, and they travelled to school together.   Big Walt was also there for shopping trips with his family.  The scene where Walt attacks the teenager who has been making fun of Walt Junior may be more about the ego of Walt rather than parental affection but Walt was in the shop while his son struggled to try on a pair of jeans.  Some fathers would have been at home watching football.  Whatever the writers or fans claim all we can conclude from Breaking Bad is that building a drug manufacturing business reduces quality time with the kids.


There are other consequences.  The criminal escapade takes Walt away from suburbia.  He buys a recreational vehicle, and Walt and Jesse make meth in the desert.  Walt leaves suburbia for distant vistas and Western adventure.  The schoolteacher reinvents himself as a tough guy, and, as his heart hardens, any feeling or sympathy Walt has for children dissipate.   Conscience free he decides to poison the child Brock.  Whether Walt intended to kill Brock is ambiguous but Walt was willing to risk the life of the child.  This extravagant idea occurs to Walt while he is sitting by his swimming pool and in a location where his primary role is that of parent.  By the time Breaking Bad reaches the end of season four the writers have decided against this harassed and uncool American father.  The previous self-sacrifice and willingness of an underpaid schoolteacher to endure are well forgotten.   The resentment of uncool American fathers by the writers has inspired not only a too complete transformation in Walt but also the serious creative errors that exist in the final season.

Breaking Bad is an unforgettable achievement from people with exceptional gifts.  Yet once Walt is defined as a monster and an undeserving and undesirable father the writers do peddle some nonsense.  Monster Walt is not only willing to recruit half-educated Neo-Nazis to organise a mass slaughter in a high security American prison but also believes that the same skinheads will stay in a room while a revolving machine gun fires bullets through all too yielding masonry and timber.  These lapses are more than dopey moments from writers having to meet deadlines.  This is contempt for another failed American father.


In the main critics have welcomed this revenge.  In their view Walt was a detestable man who engineered his own destruction, an egotist obsessed with status and power.   Yet the same chap was prepared to scrub wheels at the car wash in order to earn extra money to support his family.  Walt was complicated or at least he was before season five.  No doubt he had flaws.   He was short-tempered and tyrannical with Jesse.  But Walt was taking risks and working with an indolent and irresponsible young man.  With better natures and in other circumstances the two men could have been good for each other.  The circumstances, though, are crucial.  In the final episode Walt takes a bullet and saves the life of Jesse who drives off into the distance.  Walt lies down to die.  The moment of compassion from Walt and his final satisfied smile honour underdeveloped references to the poet Walt Whitman but they feel false.   The existential triumph of Walt feels like a sop from the writers, something that critical sons offer their fathers at funerals.


But there is still that ego and desire for power, insist the critics.  Walt has a grievance and in case we forget a double dose of cancer.  Apart from the terminal disease the grievance is significant.  When a young man he made a mistake that led him to losing not just fortune and fame but the opportunity to apply or express his exceptional talent.  The impact on the life of Walt has been disproportionate.  We are watching a once superior man stumble.  No one has the right to sneer.  If the professional failure of Walt is because of innate inadequacy rather than a single bad decision, that inadequacy is not explained.   The bad behaviour of Walt occurs when he is obliged to exist in the criminal world.   Before his life changes direction Walt is an admirable and self-effacing stoic.  He attends the birthday party of Elliot Schwarz and takes not just a present but good intentions.  Later, Walt feels patronised by what might be a well-meaning gesture.  Neither should Walt be criticised for not accepting the offer of Gretchen to pay his medical bills.  A desire for independence is not the same as destructive ego.

The transformation from schoolteacher to gangster requires the heavy hand of fate no matter what are the limitations of Walt.  What is revealed in season five of Breaking Bad is the supposed monster within.   When that happens Walt steps out of a mature and responsible drama and into accommodating soap opera.  The audience is fed the notion that fate is of less significance than character.  For that idea to apply there has to be a concept less extreme than a schoolteacher becoming Scarface.  Somewhere out there is an alternative universe where Walt either sidestepped cancer or lived in a civilised country where medical treatment was available for all.  Walt would have still had his flaws but there would have been moments when his son would have believed that he had the best dad in the world.

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.











There is a myth amongst some on Merseyside that Liverpool is unique in having two cathedrals. It is not. Manchester has three cathedrals, and Glasgow has four. Neither is Liverpool the only city in the UK that has supplied more than one Ripper suspect. It must be, though, the only place that has two Ripper suspects in the same family. When suspect James Maybrick died, his wife was convicted for causing his death through poisoning.   Today most people believe that the wife Florence Maybrick was innocent.   What happened between the members of the Maybrick family was complicated.

James Maybrick was born in 1838 and he died in 1889. He was a successful cotton merchant. Maybrick and Company was based in Liverpool but also had a branch office in Virginia. Florence was born in Mobile, Alabama. Florence and James met while travelling across the Atlantic.   At her trial Florence was convicted of adding arsenic to the diet of her husband James and sentenced to hang. There was widespread doubt about the conviction. James was addicted to arsenic and, after years of dependency, fast becoming a wreck before he died. It may have been the attempts of James to kick the arsenic habit that killed him.  Author Paul Begg suggests this in Jack the Ripper The Facts.   Only a small amount of arsenic was found in the corpse of James Maybrick but the judge had little interest in the anomaly.  Florence was sentenced to hang but, because of the doubts about the conviction and what happened in the trial, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.  She served fifteen years in an English prison before returning to south of the Mason Dixon line and home.


Almost akin to the six stages of separation, Liverpool scrap dealer Mike Barrett claimed in 1992 that he had a connection to the Maybrick family.  Barrett had in his possession an elegant black and gilt calf bound Victorian book designed to record notes and to hold postcards and photographs. At this point Mike Barrett felt the need of an alter ego. Using the name Michael Williams, he contacted Doreen Montgomery a literary agent and revealed that inside his Victorian book there was a confession of 63 pages written by James Maybrick. The confession concluded with an extended signature. ‘I give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentle man born. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper. Dated this third day of May 1889.’

The first 64 pages of the book had been removed, and the final seventeen pages were blank. Barrett explained to Doreen Montgomery that he used to visit his 67 years old friend Tony Devereux in hospital.  During one of these visits Devereux handed Barrett a parcel wrapped in brown paper. Something similar happened to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.  In 1991 Devereux died in Walton Hospital.  Down in London the confession, which was now being described as a diary, was referred for scientific tests by the people at the literary agency. The tests were inconclusive. The book itself was regarded as a genuine article. The concerns, though, were about the ink, the missing pages, some discrepancies in the account of the murders, and the handwriting of the author. Proving the age of ink is difficult. The difference in ink used by the Victorians and that used at the end of the last century is slight. It is also relatively simple to age ink prematurely.   Although probably sinister the missing pages may have been the result of nothing more than a change of ownership between members of the Maybrick family. The discrepancies that existed in the detail could be attributed to the normal limitations of human memory. The handwriting, though, was a poor match for what existed on the will and marriage certificate of James Maybrick.


Meanwhile both Mike Barrett and his alter ego Michael Williams were having problems.   His marriage collapsed, and his heavy drinking increased.  Assuming that the diary was perhaps responsible for the change in his fortune, or so Barrett said, he decided to abandon his interest in the diary.  In 1994 Barrett contacted Liverpool journalist, Harold Brough, and confessed that he had written the diary.  Brough was unconvinced because Barrett was unable to explain how he bought the book and ink. Later, Barrett contacted Brough again.   He now remembered that he had bought the book in an auction held by Outhwaite and Litherland and the ink from an art dealer in the Bluecoat Chambers. A director of Outhwaite and Litherland stated that there was no record of the sale and neither would they sell such an item in the way Barrett described. Believing that ducking and diving were key components in survival,  Barrett retracted his confession. This process of confession and subsequent retraction was repeated in the years that followed.  Alternative storylines appeared. The identity of the forger alternated between being Barrett, his wife Ann, Barrett and others, and his wife and others.

The estranged wife of Barrett reverted to what her name had been before marriage, Ann Graham.  Determined to create a plot almost as complicated as that in The Maltese Falcon, Graham claimed that the diary had been left to her father by her grandfather. Graham said she had given the diary to her husband because he aspired to be a writer. She hoped it would help him to write and find an alternative to heavy drinking.   If only someone had told this Liverpool woman about the alcohol problems of Faulkner, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. The father of Ann Graham insisted that she was telling the truth.  Not much, though, made sense. Interest in both the diary and Mike Barrett faded.


But, instead of a line being drawn under the affair, something odd happened on the other side of the River Mersey.  Albert Johnson lived in Birkenhead. He decided to buy a gold antique watch as an investment. In 1993 he reported that the watch had markings on the inside case. These markings consisted of the initials of the canonical five Ripper victims, the signature of James Maybrick and the words, ‘I am Jack’.   The watch was referred for expert analysis of the etchings on the inside case. The experts were not in agreement but at least two credible analysts thought that the markings could have been made around 1889. There is agreement, though, about the integrity of owner Albert Johnson.  He paid for the watch to be tested and never sought to use the watch to make money.  The existence of the watch and admittedly dubious diary constitute a mystery.


For most this would be mystery enough but in 1997 author Paul H Feldman in Jack The Ripper The Final Chapter affirmed the Ripper belonged to the Maybrick family but added that the assassin was not James but his brother Michael.  Since then Feldman has not been a lone voice. Two more books have identified Michael Maybrick as the Ripper.   These are The Diary Of Jack The Ripper Another Chapter by James Stettler and They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson.   All three assume that the diary of James Maybrick has Victorian authenticity but the three authors argue that it was drafted by brother Michael. Yet the diary did not appear until well after both brothers had died and it achieved little for brother Michael. It is possible that Michael found recalling his crimes in print cathartic but thought it prudent to sign a name other than his own.   Few, though, will be convinced by this assumption, especially as doubts already exist about whether the diary is genuine.


Like the plays of Shakespeare, letters are important to the Ripper plot described by Bruce Robinson in They All Love Jack.  Matthew Packer claimed that he sold grapes to a man and Liz Stride on the night that Stride was murdered by Jack the Ripper.   Robinson not only regards Packer as an honest witness he believes that Packer received a threatening letter from Jack the Ripper. Robinson notes the similarity of the handwriting in the letter sent to Packer to that in the ‘Dear Boss’ letter sent to the Central News Agency.  Once Robinson thinks he has a discernable letter writer he links some of the letters to the travels of Michael Maybrick, who was a popular singer and songwriter.   Two letters were sent from locations where Maybrick was appearing on the stage. These were Glasgow and Manchester. A small child in Bradford was murdered in a ritualistic fashion after Maybrick had arrived there to perform on stage.

210 letters were sent to the police and newspapers by people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. The theory of Robinson requires a belief in an ability to identify which of those letters were genuine and which shared the same hand.   Robinson also argues that the Ripper had the ability to disguise his handwriting. This means that the identification depends on recognising the disguises. A casual attitude to the possibility of coincidence in the timing of events is also beneficial.   They All Love Jack may be an entertaining and essential read but its achievement consists of an unforgiving exposure of Victorian hypocrisy and the ability of the author to raise doubts about what others regarded as fact. The identity of Jack the Ripper remains elusive, and needs something more than a scrapbook handed in by a Liverpool scrap dealer struggling with an alcohol problem.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.