Between 1909 and 1915, a serial killer may have stalked the streets of Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, leaving as many as 20 bodies — mostly black women in their 20s — in his wake. Although many suspects were arrested, no one was ever identified as the Atlanta Ripper. A century later, authorities are still baffled as to the killer's true identity. With his new book, The Atlanta Ripper: The Unsolved Case of the Gate City's Most Infamous Murders, Georgia Military College professor and GeorgiaMysteries.blogspot.com author Jeffery Wells connects the dots between newspaper articles that chronicled the case, painting a picture of a growing Southern metropolis gripped by fear and racism, and setting the scene for one of Atlanta's grisliest unsolved mysteries.
You learned about the Atlanta Ripper from CL's October 2005 cover story, "Did a serial killer murder 20 women a century ago?"
Yes! Georgia history is my specialty, mainly political history, but when I started teaching at Georgia Military College I read a lot about how the progressive era and industrial movements at the turn of the century affected Southern African-Americans, specifically in Georgia.
I don't remember who it was, but someone put a copy of Steve Fennessy's article in my hand and I was fascinated. Then in '09 I published my first book about a train crash in McDonough — the train company was owned by JP Morgan who owned the Titanic, so they called it Georgia's Titanic. Later, I talked with Corinna Underwood, who was writing a book called Murder and Mystery in Atlanta, which had one short piece about the Atlanta Ripper. After that I started pulling everything I could find from the AJC's archive.
The Atlanta Ripper murders remain unsolved?
There were a few people brought in for specific murders. In a few specific cases before 1911, including one murder on Selman Street, men were tried and convicted of the crime. I emailed Fulton County, but had way more luck finding information about the cases through AJC's archive than I did with the investigation files. These murders are 100 years old, and some theories speculate that there was no Atlanta Ripper at all, maybe one killer early on, followed by a series of copycats.
But leading up to 1911 there does appear to be a pattern: slitting of throats, blunt force trauma and certainly the race and gender demographic. There could have been individuals out there with twisted, intelligent minds thinking, "Hmm ... I might could get away with something here," and kept the chain of events going. It's a plausible theory.
Who do you think did it?
I don't think one man did all of them. I think you had some angry husbands and some shafted boyfriends who did what they did to some of those women after 1911. But all of the murders were committed on Saturday nights, the age and racial demographic were mostly the same, and they all happened inside Atlanta, which seems to be the same M.O. The description of the killer was always the same, too, a tall, slender black man.
At the time there was also a theory that Jack the Ripper had hopped on a boat and arbitrarily picked Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward to continue his killing spree, but from his murders in 1888, and 1911 is more than 20 years. He would have been considerably older, and would have to change color. Also, there aren't many similarities between Atlanta and London of the era, other than language, and even that's a twinge different.
The Atlanta Ripper: The Unsolved Case of the Gate City's Most Infamous Murders The History Press. $19.99. 112 pp.
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