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‘American Ripper’ review: Historical doc promises more than it delivers

The search is on for a serial killer

The search is on for a serial killer on "American Ripper." Credit: History / Eric Ogden

THE SERIES “American Ripper”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday night at 10 on History.


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Jeff Mudgett, a former lawyer and great-great-grandson of Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes, sets out with former CIA “operative” Amaryllis Fox to establish that his ancestor was Jack the Ripper. Their first stop is the Chicago location where Holmes once owned a multistory building where he had killed his victims, then on to Holmes’ childhood hometown, Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Of this eight-parter, History makes no promises, but instead says it’s about Mudgett’s determination “to prove an astonishing, controversial theory.”

MY SAY Between Aug. 31, 1888, and Nov. 9, 1888, “Jack the Ripper” killed five women in London — Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Between July 1888 and April 1889, the name of Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes did not appear in Chicago property records (he had been involved in a flurry of property transfers up until that point).

Ipso facto, he was in London at that time.

Upon this pretext — and a couple of others — hangs a series. Eric Larson, who wrote the 2003 best-seller “The Devil in the White City,” apparently discounted this idea, which has been kicking around for years, and otherwise gave Holmes-was-the-Ripper theory no credence in his book. There are also about a hundred other names considered as likely — or more likely — to have been “Jack the Ripper.” None is mentioned or even acknowledged in the opener.

So, is “American Ripper” just one man’s obsession as opposed to a carefully cataloged assortment of facts, both in favor or against? Based on Tuesday’s launch, the former looks about right. Mudgett himself acknowledges he’s got a long, hard paddle upstream: “I’ve been debating critics for the past two decades, [but] I know the evidence is out there to prove it.” Or disprove it.

Mudgett has been looking for that evidence for years. His 2011 memoir, “Bloodstains,” hung by yet another pretext — that Holmes’ writing samples matched with known samples of Jack the Ripper. But even the book’s news release at the time didn’t bother to sell that point: “While much of the known evidence might be considered circumstantial, it is compelling.”

Ipso facto, it’s also just speculation.

BOTTOM LINE Whether circumstantial and compelling (or more likely not), “American Ripper” sure looks like another one of those summer potboilers that promise the moon but deliver only a hunk of green cheese.

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