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H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper: Stranger than Fiction?

‘Time After Time,’ a new sci-fi TV show takes fans on a time-traveling adventure as H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper into modern-day New York City. Might the famous author have actually known the infamous serial killer?

If you’re a fan of science fiction, curious about new shows or simply into sexy British guys, then you may want to check out ABC’s new adventure drama, Time After Time. Adapted from a movie and novel that were both released in 1979, the series follows The Time Machine author H.G. Wells as he fires up his own time-traveling invention to pursue his friend Jack the Ripper into the unfamiliar terrain of 21st century Manhattan. What fun!

This obviously stretches the bounds of reality, but putting aside some of its more fantastical elements, is this premise in any way plausible? That is, could H.G. Wells actually have been friends with Jack the Ripper?

Let’s review the basics: From April 1888 to February 1891, Victorian England was riveted by a string of gruesome murders of prostitutes in London’s working-class Whitechapel District. Five of the murders, over the narrower period of August to November 1888, are believed to be from the hand of one person, a self-named “Jack the Ripper” who sent taunting letters to the police and never was caught.

Because the killer disemboweled his victims, one theory holds that he was a doctor with knowledge of anatomy (an idea co-opted by the show). It’s also been suggested that Jack was actually a woman, or even a historical figure like impressionist painter Walter Sickert, Winston Churchill‘s father or Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll. Whoever it was, the murderer’s tell-tale signs suddenly ceased, so nobody knows if it’s because he/she was institutionalized, moved on to other activities or, sure, zapped into the future.  

As for Wells, during this period he was still far from the famed writer he would become. He was tinkering with an early version of The Time Machine, but otherwise struggling to get a teaching career off the ground as he recuperated from a crushed kidney suffered in a rugby game.

He decided to move to London in July 1888, and here’s where it gets interesting: According to his autobiography, Wells found a room near the British Museum, located only about three miles from the center of the Whitechapel District. Penniless, he scrounged for jobs until finally landing a teaching position in January 1889. Considering that he spent a lot of time wandering around a seedy region and likely met some interesting characters, it’s certainly plausible that he encountered someone unhinged enough to go on a killing spree.

As for the idea that Jack was a doctor or someone else of reputable standing, it wouldn’t make it any more likely that the two were friends; Wells came from a poor background and wasn’t extensively schooled, so it’s not like he had a network of future captains of industry. Still, he did go to teacher’s college in London, and encountered up and coming literary and political figures like George Bernard Shaw at socialist meetings, so even as a relative unknown in 1888 he had a few connections to higher society.

Let’s push this one step further: If the Whitechapel Murders were indeed perpetrated by someone famous, then might that famous person have been H.G. Wells?

Let’s recap again: He appeared in the area at almost the exact time the “canonical five” murders attributed to Jack the Ripper began. He was largely unemployed during that period, so he had plenty of time on his hands and surely was frustrated about his position in life.

Also, one of his few jobs from this time was to recreate biological diagrams for an old teaching colleague. Perhaps he got a little too curious about the assignment and decided to examine anatomy a little more closely? And finally, Jack’s killing spree stopped toward the end of 1888, right around the time Wells finally landed his coveted teaching position.

Hmmmm . . .

Ok, let’s get back to reality and Wells’s true story. Left out here is the information that shortly after arriving in London, Wells moved in with an old flame (and soon to be first wife) in the more remote Primrose Hill neighborhood, which would have made it harder to sneak off Whitechapel for various nights. Furthermore, he was a man who liked to write and liked to hear himself talk, and along with his early works there exists a mountain of correspondence and other records of him musing on politics, society and religion, with zero sign of disturbing impulses that would suggest he was a serial killer.

So maybe Wells didn’t know the infamous murderer, but we’re willing to concede that maybe they unwittingly brushed by each other while wandering through town, or even shared a pint in a rundown pub before going their separate ways one night. Both the legend of Jack the Ripper and the visions of H.G. Wells loom larger than life, so we can let our imaginations connect the two and enjoy the fun as they chase each other through time.

‘Time After Time’ premieres on ABC on March 5 at 9/8c.