He was called “the most famous wigmaker ever known,” but theatrical costume designer Willy Clarkson’s greatest, and most scandalous, feat may have been disguising the man who is arguably the most famous serial killer of all time. Yes, I’m referring to the infamous Jack the Ripper – and it may be thanks to Clarkson that he was never caught. Authorities were never able to discover the phantom killer’s identity, and, though theories abound, it seems likely the mystery will never be solved.
Clarkson was a famous figure; he designed costumes for Queen Victoria and the Royal Family, as well as for famous actors. But while Clarkson rubbed elbows with royalty and members of high society, he also slummed it with criminals and blackmailers. It’s rumored that Clarkson was involved with what were known as blackmailing gangs in London.
Homosexuality was illegal in England, and gangs would prey on gay men in certain areas of London, extorting and blackmailing them for huge amounts of money. In fact, one area of London frequented by gay men became known as “Clarkson’s Cottage” because of his dealings with the shady gangs.
But Clarkson’s foray into assisting criminals was rumored to have taken on a much more sinister turn. Clarkson admitted that he supplied disguises not only to murderer Dr. Hawley Crippen, but also to none other than the Ripper himself, whose brutal killings terrorized London in the late 1880s.
As we all know, the Ripper was never identified or captured, so Clarkson’s claim is quite interesting. Authorities believed the Ripper prowled the streets of Whitechapel in disguise in order to evade detection, and Clarkson was the most recognizable costume maker in all of London for many years.
Clarkson may have been playing both sides, as he also made disguises for Scotland Yard detectives and medical students who hunted for Jack the Ripper. Detectives dressed as prostitutes and roamed London’s dark alleys and streets in an attempt to capture the elusive killer, who preyed on streetwalkers. Clarkson claimed until he died in 1934 that he had disguised the madman.
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