John Quincy Adams and Jack the Ripper

Unraveling A Giant Mystery

Long before I embarked on this presidential biography project, I was a big fan of horror. Just how big a fan became evident my first week of college.

I was moving into my freshman dorm when a guy from my high school stopped by with his buddy, looking for prospects to rush their fraternity. His friend took one look at my shelf and his eyes widened and he said, “This guy is cool!” Unaccustomed to such explicit validation from strangers, I looked at the shelf to see what made me so cool. Literally all that was on it so far were my DVD copies of The Silence of The Lambs, Se7en, and the book The Complete History of Jack the Ripper.

Obviously, I was a serial killer. And this guy thought that made me a perfect fit for his brotherhood. I never ended up joining any fraternities, and I can’t attest to whatever happened to that dude, or his poor victims. But I do know a little something about Jack the Ripper.

That’s why I was shocked and intrigued when I stumbled upon a post on Historum.com about John Quincy Adams referencing the infamous serial killer.

In Paul Nagel’s biography of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, he discusses a letter JQA wrote to his father, John Adams, about outgrowing certain volumes in their libraries:

JQA pointed out that once Tom Thumb, Jack the Ripper, and Goody Two-Shoes had been “the most delicious enjoyment of my life”; now he found himself too busy with science to read simply for pleasure.

Cartoon portraying Jack the Ripper as the embodiment of crime.

The story of Jack the Ripper would make an unusual “delicious” fairy tale: Once upon an autumn, the dingy London hamlet of Whitechapel was stalked by a serial killer who murdered at least five prostitutes by slitting their throats and removing their organs, sometimes arranging their entrails around their body. He was never caught and no one lived happily ever after. The End.

But the facts of the case weren’t what shocked me in John Quincy’s letter; it was the fact that the Jack the Ripper murders occurred in 1888 – forty years after John Quincy Adams died. So how could Jack the Ripper possibly be a fondly recalled part of John Quincy Adams’s childhood?

The way I see it, there are only three possibilities:

1. Time travel

Jack the Ripper is no stranger to time travel, ever since he fought H.G. Wells in the movie Time After Time.

Aside from the sheer scientific impossibility of this theory, it just doesn’t make sense for Jack the Ripper to go back in time just to hang out with the likes of Tom Thumb and Goody Two-Shoes.

2. There was another Jack the Ripper

If John Quincy Adams referred to “Jack the Ripper,” then clearly there must have been some other Jack the Ripper decades before the one we know and fear. This would be big news, since the idea of the killer taking his name from an earlier source would fly in the face of modern Ripperology (the study of Jack the Ripper.) The thing is — there are no earlier uses of the name Jack the Ripper in print, not that Google’s ngram viewer or any of the amateur historians on Historum could find.

If JQA mentioned Jack the Ripper, it must have been a very uncommon nickname for some other character, or a bizarre inside joke between a father and a son.

3. Best typo ever

Or maybe John Quincy Adams never wrote the words “Jack the Ripper.” Maybe Paul Nagel screwed up his transcription, and JQA actually wrote the name of a totally innocent storybook character who appeared alongside Tom Thumb and Goody Two-Shoes – not Jack the Ripper, but a Jack of a very different trade.

The last theory seemed most likely, but to find out what John Quincy Adams actually said I’d need to find his original letter. It wasn’t available online, so I would have to become a real researcher, plunging myself into the vast files of the Adams Papers – a microfiche collection of tens of thousands of manuscripts, letters, and diary entries.

I’d be like Robert Langdon or Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or everyone from Spotlight, chugging coffee with beautiful people who showed up to help me pull all-nighters, taking breaks only to compare notes and eat pizza. My wife and child would understand – this was research! And it would all be worth it when I came home with a stack of Pulitzers after the scope of my investigation led to no less than uncovering the true identity of Jack the Ripper.

Me and my Scooby gang determining that Jack the Ripper is, in fact, The Pope.

By the time I plodded through to John Quincy Adams, I decided to check the internet one more time before going full on history detective. I hit that jackpot. The letter from John Quincy Adams to his father had just been digitized! I could solve this mystery in my pajamas after all.

I opened up the early access copy of the letter on Founders Online and I found the actual words of John Quincy Adams, written from Europe on his way to negotiate peace with the British at the end of the War of 1812.

“I certainly do not for my own use, prize Jack the Giant–Killer, and Tom Thumb and Goody–Two Shoes, as I did when they constituted the most delicious enjoyment of my life; yet while I have children to whose innocent pleasure they may contribute, I cannot consider them as having lost all their value.”

John Quincy never wrote “Jack the Ripper.” Instead, he was referring to the Arthurian legend of Jack the Giant Killer. Nagel, or someone involved in the publishing process, had a brainfart amd bungled their Jacks, making a children’s fairy tale a lot more gruesome.

Well, not that much more gruesome. I tracked down the version of Jack the Giant Killer that John Quincy would have read as a young boy, and it was almost as enticingly disturbing as Jack the Ripper.

First off, I always thought Jack the Giant Killer was just a cooler title for Jack and the Beanstalk. I was wrong. So wrong. This Jack got his “Giant Killer” name after he lured a menacing giant into a pit trap, teased him for a while, and “killed him on the spot” with a pickaxe to the head.

No cow-selling. No magic beans. Just increasingly violent and creative giant slaying, and lots of it. Especially once Jack gets his hands on an invisibility cloak. Then it’s basically Harry Potter meets Saw.

Jack got so good at his job that he had a hired waggoner whose sole job seemed to be hauling the heads of giants that he decapitated to King Arthur.

One of Jack’s kills struck me as particularly Ripperesque. A Welsh giant, pretending to be friendly, brought Jack a massive four gallons of hasty pudding to eat. Jack pretended to eat every drop, but snuck the pudding into a bag under his coat. Then he basically said “check out this cool trick!” and he stabbed the bag, causing the hasty pudding to gush out. The giant, not to be outdone, grabbed the knife and tried the same thing, but he disemboweled himself and fell down dead.

I can see why young John Quincy ate this stuff up. By the time he was ten, his dad was pressuring him to read Greek war histories to prepare him for his part “on the stage of life.” That same year, the boy was also trying to read Milton’s Paradise Lost and crying because he couldn’t understand what his parents loved so much about it. So I imagine a nice simple boy-meets-giant, boy-slaughters-giant story was a welcome distraction.

I feel John Quincy when he says he doesn’t have much time to read for pleasure anymore. Sure, he was negotiating international peace treaties, but I’m the father of a two-year-old and that’s basically the same thing.

Just like he laments the days he could read about Jack the Giant-Killer, I find myself spending less time now with Jack the Ripper and Stephen King and other things that go bump in the night, with the exception of Halloween.

Me as Jack the Ripper and Jess as one of his victims, Halloween 2010.

Most of my reading now consists of biographies of the presidents. Lucky for me, politics can be just as horrifying.


John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel
The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sudgen
Jack the Giant-Killer
To John Adams from John Quincy Adams, 8 May 1814,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified October 5, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-2490


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