Every family loves a game. Puzzles are a great pastime, a necessary gift every December holiday to get you through the winter blahs of January. One Christmas, we gave my dad a puzzle of Tony Esposito, that great Chicago goalkeeper – I remember a white Blackhawks sweater with a lot of ice, too much ice for my liking. Another Christmas, my sister, Theresa gave him a print of M.C. Escher’s Belvedere, that impossible cube structure – in a way, a reference to Soma – and told him, “you’re an engineer; you figure it out.” Recently the 1000-piece jigsaw made a comeback under two years of lockdown.
Cribbage goes way back in my family. I remember marathon sessions over the holidays at my grandparents, with aunts and uncles, crouched around the dining room table, a grey oval of cigarette smoke looming overhead, intensely competitive affairs. We liked other card games, too, mostly Crazy Eights and Rummoli. I once had a girlfriend who would invite me over winters to her cottage near Creemore, Ontario. Her parents always seemed so excited to see me. It was only later that I realized I represented the fourth hand in a fine snowed-in afternoon bridge event. Another girlfriend’s parents were obsessed with the card game 500, a form of Euchre. We all became quite close; the only gift I ever recall giving them was a cheap automatic card shuffler – they were ecstatic.
Some family games are quite cruel. The HBO television series Succession has the Roy family often engaged in a number of competitive games. In episode one, there’s “The Game,” a winner-take-all grim baseball event. The memory game, I Went To Market, is featured in a Thanksgiving episode. Then, of course, there’s Boar on the Floor. I’ve witnessed families playing many of these psychological, social mind games during holiday gatherings – often the wealthy and privileged, who can afford to lose an emotional stripe.
I supposed unsolved murder has always been considered a kind of puzzle, but the comparison reached an apex in the late 1880s with the Whitechapel murders and Jack The Ripper. After the last murder in the canonical five, Mary Jane Kelly, went unsolved, the news began to report on an “Epidemic of murder,” a world-sweeping phenomenon extending to Europe and North America. As the London Ripper’s identity was “Still a Puzzle to the Police,” the New York Herald then made the illogical leap to suggest he could be anyone, anywhere. In 1889 the newspaper described a Paris “Jack-The-Ripper Sort Of Sensation,” then told of a 60-year-old concierge who had her throat slashed by three hooligans – not very Ripper-like. The Herald went on to report of a man arrested for “attempting to dissect” a woman on the banks of the Thames, then proclaimed, “Nobody thinks he is the “Ripper.””
“NINE BAD JACKS” shouted the 1892 headline in the St. Paul Globe, perhaps an allusion to a uniform hand of cards. The north-western paper told the tales of “Jack the Murderer” from Australia and the New York Ripper, all of them “puzzles to the police and public.” An elderly woman dubbed Shakespeare for her ability to recite long passages from the Bard was known to roam the streets of lower Manhattan. When Shakespeare was found murdered in a tenement house slashed about the lower abdomen, “police at once concluded New York had been paid a visit by the original “ripper.”” Any ruffian with even a shadow resemblance to the Whitechapel M.O. became suspect. According to the New York Recorder, the city also had a Jack The Slasher, Jack The Smiler, and Jack The Kisser. Jack The Ink Thrower wasn’t even a murderer, merely a public nuisance prone to splattering women’s skirts with… well, ink. This – and, of course, it only stands to reason – led to a copycat: Jack the Water-Thrower. You can guess what he did.
Jack The Peeper peeped. Jack The Hugger groped. Jack The Haircutter: The New York Recorder tells us, “This title explains itself,” but I don’t think it does. Do explain. For over three months, this gentleman “terrorized” the lower east side by snipping hair locks of women as they window-shopped along the streets of New York. Police searched for Jack The Haircutter for months without success, surmising he probably sold the hair to salon wig makers at a good price. It all starts innocent enough with a haircut, but then what?
“Puzzles The Police”
As reported in the New York Times, in 1915 five-year-old Lenora Cohn was found slashed in the tenement where she lived at Third Avenue and 25th Street. The assailant left a hand imprint on her throat; police said, “larger than average.” Clutched in her left hand were several strands of grey hair. So, two pieces of physical evidence. Lenora had been sent by her mother to fetch a pail of milk and was found in a stairwell only a few feet from her apartment door:
“The puzzle to the detectives is why the child should have descended this flight when she was already within a few feet of her own door. A second puzzle is the appearance on the eighth and ninth steps of the south staircase of drops of blood.”
The Times said Lenora was killed “by a Jack-The-Ripper.”
Six weeks later, when four-year-old Charley Murray was found slashed in the same manner in the same neighborhood and also in the hallway of his apartment building, the press heralded, “Second Ripper Murder Astounds New York Police.” The murders of Charley and Lenora were never solved. Ripper lore had made the jump into the 20th century.