Jack the Ripper, the London slasher who murdered five women and then disappeared, remains as elusive in 1993 as he was in the autumn of 1888. Yesterday, Warner Books announced the cancellation of "The Diary of Jack the Ripper," one of its major fall books, because "an independent investigation . . . has concluded that the document is not authentic."
The book, prepared in England under a cloud of secrecy, was to have been published on both sides of the Atlantic Oct. 7. Warner had planned an initial printing of 200,000. It was unclear yesterday whether Smith-Gryphon, the British publisher, would go ahead.
"The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Discovery, the Investigation and the Authentication" was written by Shirley Harrison - except, allegedly, for the diary itself. That was written, the book claims, on the pages of a Victorian photo or postcard scrapbook missing its first 20 pages, by a man never before suspected of being the Ripper.
He is James Maybrick, a Liverpool cotton broker best known for his role in another celebrated murder case - as the victim. His American wife, Florence Maybrick, was convicted of poisoning him with arsenic in 1889.
Warner Books began its own investigation early in August after a highly skeptical article in The Washington Post.
The Warner investigation was headed by Kenneth Rendell, a New York-Beverly Hills-Boston dealer in historical manuscripts who also helped expose the Hitler diaries as a hoax in 1982.
Rendell first saw the scrapbook in a Chicago laboratory Aug. 20. "My immediate reaction," he wrote in his report to Warner Books, ". . . was that the diary was written much more recently than the late 1880s."
Why? "The handwriting is just not Victorian," he said in a telephone interview yesterday from his New York shop. "The Victorian style of handwriting is a much better style of handwriting. . . . The letters are more carefully formed."
He was surprised at the use of a scrapbook - why wouldn't Maybrick have bought an actual diary? - and suspicious about the missing 20 pages. He said it's no trick to find a real Victorian scrapbook on which to write.
An ion-migration analysis, which measures the movement of microscopic particles of the ink into the paper, "showed a median date of 1921, plus or minus 12 years," which indicates the diary is an old forgery, not a recent one. But before the ion-migration analysis was completed, Rendell and his team had already concluded that the diary was phony.
Crucial to "The Diary" and to Rendell's debunking of it is a letter sent to the "Central News Office" in 1888. It is addressed "Dear Boss" and signed "Yours truly, Jack the Ripper." Phrases in the letter - "down on whores," "the red stuff" - appear repeatedly in the diary.
The British publisher's documents expert, Sue Iremonger, found the diary and the letter to be in two different handwritings. Rendell and his team agreed.
Rendell noted in his report, "there can only be one conclusion: If the letter is written by Jack the Ripper, then the diary, which copies its language but does not match its handwriting, must be forged. If the 1888 letter is a hoax of its time, then the diary must still be a hoax since it copies its language but does not match its handwriting."
Whether Smith-Gryphon proceeds with plans to publish "The Diary of Jack the Ripper," the Warner investigation seems likely to relegate James Maybrick to the scrap heap of accused and cleared Rippers.
But there may be others.
When British expert Donald Rumbelow ("Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook," revised edition Berkeley Publishing Group, 1990) spoke last month at the University of California-Santa Cruz, he offered several reasons for the continuing fascination with the Ripper.
The most compelling aspect, he said, is this: With his penchant for killing strangers brutally, randomly and without apparent motive, the Ripper "was the first of the modernists."