Light can not truly exist without the darkness, and mankind’s fascination with that twisted duality often hits its peak during the very season that serves to celebrate it—Halloween.
And one of the most enduring symbols of evil and fear—one that has survived and thrived in the public consciousness for well over a century—is a name even today spoken in hushed tones. However, a Long Island scholar recently decided to pull back the veil of darkness enshrouding the infamous serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, shedding light on both his myth and his reality at the Jericho Public Library.
For a number of years, Dr. Bill Thierfelder has been holding regular, hugely attended lectures at local area libraries. His most well-known series is entitled Game Changers, which focuses on people or historical events that have greatly impacted the way we live today.
A Bayport resident, Thierfelder was a professor of liberal arts at Dowling College in Oakdale before retiring in 2010. He currently serves as a part-time docent tour guide at the Museum of Natural History, in addition to pursuing writing, photography and artwork in his spare time. He’s been doing speaking engagements at the Jericho library for 20 years, and 10 years ago he introduced an exciting new lecture series whose popularity has seen it continue on to the present day.
“What I’ve been doing is a series called Profiles, in which I profile a person, and I cover a wide range…artists, musicians, composers, writers, and so on,” he said. “This is different from my Game Changers series, as these people may not have been game changers, but they have certainly left their mark.”
Thierfelder noted that he usually tries to tailor each Profile lecture to tie in to the overall theme of the month in which he’s holding it; Women’s History Month, Black History Month, and so on. But in the case of October, obviously, he said that the focus is always on the creepy and the macabre, to go along with the spirit of Halloween. This year he chose Jack the Ripper, the horrifying serial killer who terrorized the streets of London in 1888, claiming numerous victims (by some figures at least five, although many historians insist there were far more) before eventually disappearing without a trace.
“It’s probably the most notorious cold case there ever was,” he said, referring to the police designation for an unsolved case that is no longer being actively investigated. “The perpetrator has never been caught…there are eight or nine names that have come up as suspects, and now, thanks to DNA analysis, there is still some DNA from 1888 that is still usable, such as saliva from an envelope. Some names have been removed from that list, but many questions still remain.”
Similar to his approach to Game Changers, Thierfelder screened a video for his audience—in this case, an episode of the History Channel’s Mystery Quest series centered on Jack the Ripper—and pausing the video at intervals in order to offer commentary and engage the audience in ghastly Q&A sessions about not only the Ripper himself, but serial killers in general, the use of police forensics in investigating their crimes, and why the public generally finds such devious fare so engaging to begin with.
“It’s the utter heinousness of his acts that helps the Ripper’s legacy to endure, but the other thing to keep in mind is the concept of media sensationalism. To this day, the media still keeps Jack the Ripper very much alive,” he said. “We have a fascination with the macabre…as stated in the 2,500 year-old play Oedipus Rex, ‘I do not want to watch; I can not stop from watching.’ And the Ripper case is very mysterious…we don’t know who did this, and that has been kept alive through literature, films—again, media sensationalism—and here we are in 2014, and people are still speculating. It’s a fascinating topic.”
Eleanor and Edward Rosenberg are long-time fans of Thierfelder’s speaking engagements; Eleanor said that they often go out of their way to attend them and she said that they always find them completely enthralling and entertaining.
“Through the years, we’ve attended many of his lectures…he always speaks on a variety of topics, and he always fills the room to overflowing,” she said. “We follow him as much as we can.”
“For Halloween he always has a spooky topic, which I enjoy,” Edward added. “He always introduces good clips from movies and documentaries…he’s very informative and he has a good sense of humor as well. My wife and I are big fans of his.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about Dr. Bill Thierfelder, visit his website at www.makingwings.net.