Today we’re celebrating the 190th birthday of Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author, mathematician, and, as it turns out, posthumous suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders.
The unsolved murder and disembowelment of several sex workers in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888 has puzzled crime buffs for over a century. You may have heard of Carl Feigenbaum (German sailor eventually executed for the murder of an elderly widow), Frances Tumblety (delusional snake oil salesman), and Aaron Kominski (institutionalized for threatening his female family members with a knife); these are three of the most popular suspects Ripper-heads have come up with in the last century.
But in 1996, author Richard Wallace committed a very different theory to paper: that Lewis Carroll, so mild-mannered that he often wrote home from boarding school to say his classmates were being a bit too loud, was committing the Ripper murders with the help of his friend Thomas Vere Bayne. This was the premise of Wallace’s full-length book, Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend.
This theory didn’t make that much sense: Carroll lived near the murder sites, but during a period when four victims were killed, he was vacationing in East Sussex, and Bayne had back pain which left him unable to move. Carroll’s handwriting also didn’t match the Ripper’s letters to newspapers; Wallace reasoned Bayne could have written them.
But the main reason Wallace suspected Carroll is because of . . . anagrams. Carroll was a fan of wordplay and anagrams, so Wallace rearranged text from his letters and published works to find hidden Ripper-related messages. For instance, in Carroll’s book The Nursery Alice, he writes,
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!
This, in Wallace’s hands, becomes:
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 awfulwan and tough like a worn, dirty, goat hog. We both threw it out. –Jack the Ripper
Not great. Similarly, Wallace turned the opening of “Jabberwocky”—
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
—into this atrocity:
Bet I beat my glands til,
With hand-sword I slay the evil gender.
A slimey theme; borrow gloves,
And masturbate the hog more!
Again . . . tenuous. If Carroll were going to invent a bunch of words, you’d think he’d invent ones that allowed him to rearrange their letters into a verse that didn’t include the phrase “a slimey theme.” (And I hesitate to wonder what incriminating words could be formed out of the text of this very blog!)
When it comes to anagrams, Wallace could dish it out, but couldn’t take it. After Wallace published a brief explanation of his research in Harper’s magazine, two readers wrote in with a damning response: that Wallace’s own opening paragraph,
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 into a confession of him framing O.J:
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 responded—likely because he realized he was beat. Play anagram games, win anagram prizes. (Play Mr. Gaga Seaman, win margarine zaps.)