|Ripper Bridge (Photo credit: STINFLIN Pascal)|
1988 was a hell of a year for Jack the Ripper enthusiasts. Being the centenary of London’s “Autumn of Terror”, few producers, publishers, historians, writers and professional criminologists missed a trick. From movies about a copycat serial killer called “Jack’s Back” to a wide commissioning of any work that was tied into the Whitechapel Murders, the year was full of old and new theories on the identity of the killer and every self-respecting bookshop made sure their respective section was stocked up. I was only 12 at the time and fell in love with the shamelessly melodramatic and lavish ITV miniseries, “Jack the Ripper”, which for all its thrill and wonderful cast and production values did not yield a convincing theory on the case. In his amazingly explorative “From Hell”, comic-book writer, Alan Moore, touched on the whole the institution that now surrounds Jack the Ripper and pretty much nailed how it has become virtually impossible to unmask the fiend of Victorian London. He echoed in the century of the sadistic serial killer and, as sharp as the weapon he wielded, tore open the British Victorian veneer of pomp, prosperity and conservatism. In the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle – was consulted at the time of the murders – and the institution that Agatha Christie would start, the Ripper also provided us with a real-life whodunit. Amidst the flow of reprinted books on silly theories, I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of “Jack the Ripper: Summing up and Verdict”, which had been commissioned for release in 1988.
My copy is the 1990 one. A friend of mine had chanced upon a copy and I was fascinated by the way the book presented such a varied collection theories. I only barely started and leant it to my grandmother. She was a vociferous reader, who could plough through a book at far greater speed than I could ever hope – no matter what Tony Burzan will have you believe. Given the detailed accounts of the murders, you can imagine her horror at the thought of her 14 year old grandson reading the text. I forgot how long it was before I got the book back, after she had reported it to my mother, but I didn’t start reading it again until 2013.
Colin Wilson and Robin Odell are very old hands at criminal history. Like Martin Fido, Donald Rumbelow, Richard Whittington-Egan – who wrote this book’s foreword - and others, they are well known Ripperologists. It has become almost a given that any British crime historian must have a special interest in Jack the Ripper, and few can resist the challenge of investigating the case with gusto.
The book is a very thorough overview of the Whitechapel Murders. The authors’ preface provides us with details on where they have collaborated and which chapters were solely written by the individual authors. I am grateful for this type of organization and the authors explaining who did what in the preface is very helpful. Often non-fiction can appear clumsy when two people are actively involved throughout the work and in the case we spared by the unattractive speaking in the third person narrative.
Colin Wilson’s introductory chapter the “Psychological Portrait of Jack the Ripper” is something of a misnomer. It doesn’t so much as present to us a generic view of serial sex killers - the psychological mould of which many crime historians, criminal psychologists and criminologists would be cast by the “Vampire of Dusseldorf”, Peter Kürten, when he provided the world the first in depth interview from such a murderer – but rather explain why the nature of the Ripper’s crimes impacted so much on Victorian society. Wilson traces a peculiar theory on sexually motivated murders, often tying it up with the conservative belief it was somehow influenced by burgeoning pornography and tracing it back through the literature of Lewis and Richardson via the man who get the term sadist from in the first place: the Marquis de Sade. Falling in line with Eliot Leyton’s ideas – and ideas that were seemingly confirmed by the writings of the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady – Wilson sees sexual serial killing as a type protest against conventional society. The Victorian outrage – which had shown a lot of indifference to the huge sufferings of the underclasses – is presented as a reaction to the way the Ripper staged his killings. It is a curious and interesting chapter, but far from the last word on such psychological profiling and cultural observations. Wilson, an extremely prolific writer, is clearly the least detached and with the strongest personal opinions of the two authors.
This contrast can be seen by Robin Ordell’s more dispassionate first chapter, “The Ripper at Large”, which provides us with the basic outline of the case from the first to the last of the canonical victims, and the second chapter, “Interlude” provides us with the story of the Ripper’s first investigators. This second chapter is especially interesting and we can see where the roots for many theories taken up by the Ripperologists began.
The defining feature of book is the chapters that cast a spotlight on six very popular theories about the identity of Jack the Ripper. All but one (“Royal Jack”) of these particular chapters is described collaborative effort. However, “Doctor Ripper” echoes Wilson’s view on the Victorian unfamiliarity with sex murder, explaining that this was probably why the idea of a murdering doctor or surgeon was so plausible and popular. As the chapter explains, it’s an opinion that had contemporary support via three of the medical men who examined the bodies of the Ripper victims, who although didn’t actually suggest a surgeon and doctor said implied that the killer had a good deal of anatomical skill. It’s a view that has persisted and, along with a cloak and top hat, the black medical bag makes up the clichéd image of the Ripper in popular fiction. However, many criminal historians have concluded from an overall view that the skills and method of removing organs the Ripper used was probably far more in common with a butcher than a medical practitioner. Nevertheless, the very lengthy chapter is very thorough in its presentation and debunking of the various theories, including the story of vengeful doctor who was on a mission to track down and kill the prostitute who infected his son and the convicted serial poisoner Dr Thomas Neill Cream who allegedly said, “I am Jack the-“ just as he fell through the hangman’s trapdoor to his death.
“Jill the Ripper” is a much shorter chapter. The various theories put forward that the Ripper might have been female are pretty silly and the book convincingly dismisses them with speed, but I wonder whether we are being guilty of a type of well-meaning sexism. In its final line, the chapter summarizes its view that the Ripper couldn’t have been a woman with a quote from an 1891 edition of “The Spectator”, saying “no woman could deceive so many of her own sex”. It’s a patronizing tone worthy of Kipling. The clumsy or vengeful midwife theories deserve little respect, but I wonder whether the authors should be so cavalier in their complete dismissal of an entire sex. Although it is likely her crimes have been exaggerated, Countess Erzsebet Bathory still retains the Guinness World Record as history’s most prolific sadistic serial killer. Contemporary (and unlikely suspect) of Jack the Ripper, Amelia Dyer murdered numerous infants, possibly 400, at her infamous baby farm. Likewise, another contemporary, Belle Gunness mercilessly killed 25 to 40 victims, including her two daughters. This is before we discuss latter day killers like Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. Criminologists have rightly argued that there are scant cases of lone female serial killers tracking down other women to kill for perverse pleasure, but we are beginning to see more cases of women and child sexual predation, so it might be that we aren’t looking in the right way. Nevertheless, given the material at hand, serial recreational murderers in the style of the Ripper are overwhelmingly male.
Colin Wilson’s “Gentleman Jack” tackles perhaps the most convincing theories on offer. Of the suspects put forward, Montague John Druitt, seems very plausible. Certainly he was enough for eminent Ripperologist Keith Skinner to pin his reputation on. Druitt’s place as a suspect can be traced back to the memoirs of Sir Melville Macnaghten and a handwritten note he left to exonerate Thomas Cutbush. Macnaghten never investigated the Whitechapel Murders, only gaining his appointment as Assistant Chief Constable at Scotland Yard a year after they abruptly stopped. Druitt’s body, weighted down with stones, was found in the Thames not long after the murder of Mary Kelly. He had left a letter, fearing he was inheriting a congenital madness.
With little warning, Colin Wilson then goes into an in depth analysis of the theory that Sherlock Holmes might have been the murderer. This is off the back of the BBC’s “The Case of the Unmentioned Case”, where Holmes is put forward as the killer. I love faction. It is a wonderful artistic exercise and great entertainment for geeks like me. Nick Rennison’s “Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography” along with Tom Holland’s historical vampire novels are favourite examples for me. However, it really doesn’t have a place in a work like this one. Wilson, who has written a lot of fiction, is clearly having a lot of indulgent fun in his tangent, but it goes on for several pages, is at odds with the rest of the book and really serves no purpose in a sensible summing up of the case.
“Royal Jack” explores the most popular, extravagant, persistent and silliest of all Jack the Ripper theories. The whole royal conspiracy theory is not nearly as old as many believe. Despite what my old favourite “Jack the Ripper” miniseries would have you believe, Scotland Yard never worried about the Duke of Clarence being a suspect. The idea of connecting the royals has its origins in the 1960s and was first popularized by the hugely successful and rather ludicrous “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution” by Stephen Knight. Knight’s theory and its subsequent varied offspring have become the foundation for many Jack the Ripper films and TV programmes, including the aforementioned ITV production, the Sherlock Holmes thriller, “Murder by Decree”, a rather awful adaptation of Alan Moore’s “From Hell” and the very clumsily executed “Ripper”. A wide range of characters are brought together. These include a coachman called John Netley, Sir William Gull, who is often a suspect, the Duke of Clarence, who Knight has as the reason for the murders being committed and other have cast as the actual Ripper, J.K. Stephen, who’s roles vary, and the artist and prototypical Ripperologist, Walter Sickert. Sickert is sometimes part of the conspiracy and has been labelled as a suspect by the crime author, Patricia Cornwell, following her expensive investigation into the case. It’s an interesting chapter and is something of a sequel to Robin Odell’s “Interlude” chapter in its insight into Ripper investigative culture.
“Black Jack” may be down as collaborative effort, but it has Colin Wilson’s fingerprints all over it given the subject material. We are led in with the idea that Jack the Ripper might have been a black magician sounds on the surface to be “preposterous”, but are then assured that the evidence to support this claim is “more detailed and convincing than in most theories of the Ripper’s identity”. It’s a familiar trick, similar to when you hear a “converted” person tell you that they were “at first sceptical”. The great charlatan and thoroughly entertaining father of modern occultism, Aleister Crowley is at the root of this theory. Crowley, like many of his cultural descendants, Gerald Gardner, Anton LaVey and L. Ron Hubbard, enjoyed a lot of celebrity interest and cultivated quite the counterculture of his time. It is little surprising that he would have a theory nay a direct connection to Jack the Ripper and that connection, of course, would involve black magic. The murders were sacrifices and Crowley said he had been possession of a set of blood-stained ties worn by the Ripper when he undertook his grisly murders.
Humans are naturally pattern seeking animals and false patterns can easily be grasped and justified through our highly developed cognitive process. Just as “Royal Jack” provided us with the human belief in conspiracy theories, “Black Jack” provides us with how mystical patterns can found through geometry. It was yet another aspect of the Ripper mythology that Alan Moore, given his own tongue-in-cheek love of magic, could not resist inserting in “From Hell”. Colin Wilson is less tongue-in-cheek in his statement about his belief in the supernatural, but thankfully it does not tarnish the chapter’s very sober conclusion on the matter.
“Jack of all Trades” differs from the rest of these core chapters in that it deals with genuine contemporary police suspects as well as those nominated after the murders had ceased. This is Robin Odell’s territory in many ways, given his personal theory that the killer was probably a Jewish slaughter man or shochet – although, unlike other equally well-respected criminal historians, like Martin Fido, he doesn’t feel compelled to name his candidate. Going by criminal profiles of most serial killers, it is very rare to find the killer amongst the gentry, the doctors, royalty or even genuine occultists. Serial killers usually kill within a comfortable radius of their permanent base, so it was not unwise of Scotland Yard to look to the local tradesman who occupied the East End. We begin with “Leather Apron” the nickname given to an individual who “The Star” newspaper reported had been threatening up to a hundred prostitutes that he was going to “rip them” around the time of the Mary Ann Nichols murder. Wilson and Odell take us through arrested suspects Jack Pizer, the boot finisher, and Joseph Ishenschmid, a butcher who suffered from mental illness. Both suspects were exonerated at the time. We also get the case put forward for the common-law husband of the final canonical victim, Mary Kelly, and Frederick Bayley Deeming, a man convicted of murdering his wife and four of his children in Australia. The chapter finishes with another whimsical look into ideas put forward by a Victorian medium, but with tongue placed firmly in cheek.
This chapter provides an excellent review of likelihood versus hard facts and evidence. The following paragraph is a great example of the thorough objective of the two authors and a stern, humbling reminder to sometimes pompous rational sceptics like me about how Ockham’s Razor really cuts:
“It is tempting to seek to counterbalance the tendency to unfold Jack the Ripper in Masonic plots aimed at protecting royal honour with the simple explanation that he was, like Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, an ordinary man with the motive, means and opportunity to commit murder. Yet the simple explanation, while it may be instinctively believable still requires proof to raise it to the realms of credibility.”
The “Summing Up” chapter provides us with the setting of a court and all the named suspects in the book put forward. The authors discuss how many of them match up against what is known about the psychology of serial murderers. It’s a very entertaining and insightful chapter that presents a sensible overview of the murders, once again showing how confirmation bias influenced by prior ideas can easily lead Ripper investigators astray. However, the plausibility of certain candidates, such as Druitt, is not overlooked nor is the fact that Odell’s own theory rests on an unknown candidate who could have appeared in the “Jack of All Trades” chapter. The chapter finishes with author’s collective opinion delivered within the framework of a defence lawyer.
“Jack the Ripper: Summing up and Verdict” has two very interesting appendices and also an excellent third one that masquerades as a bibliography. “The Ripper’s Disciples” takes us through the emergence of the modern serial killer across the world following the Whitechapel Murders. The evidence does seem to show that this type of criminal is very much a product of industrialized society, but that is a subject for another article. The complete notes of Sir Melville Macnaghten are reprinted for the second appendix. The bibliography provides us with a detailed list of a century of Ripper literature as well as fiction and drama on television and in film. Again, the authors demonstrate a keen awareness of how the culture and institution of Ripperology has taken over the investigation into the case. The book was written before the so-called “Diary of Jack the Ripper” surfaced and the media storm that followed this work, which is most probably a fake; before Patricia Cornwell commanded a huge “investigation” largely based on the Jack the Ripper letters and before the Tony Williams laid claim that his ancestor was the killer in his book, “Uncle Jack”. As the authors predicted, the interest would not wane and the institution would just continue to flourish.
Perhaps the most pertinent line provided in this book was not written by either author, but by their editor who wrote the book’s preface and died before its publication. It is a line that Martin Fido quoted in his “To Kill and Kill Again”. J.H.H Gaute joined the Hutchinson publishing house 1928 and explains that one of the first books he worked on was Leonard Matters’ “The Mystery of Jack the Ripper”. Since then he wrote several books with Robin Odell. He was then involved in the editing and publication of several very influential Jack the Ripper titles. After several decades building a crime library that presents so many different angles on the case and yet more evidence, Gaute tells us:
“I have always had the feeling that on the Day of Judgement, when all things shall be known, when I and the other generations of ‘Ripperologists’ ask for Jack the Ripper to step forward and out his true name, then we will turn and look with blank astonishment at one another when he announces his name and say ‘Who?’”
“Jack the Ripper: Summing and Verdict” is a book that deserves a place on your bookshelf if you have a passing interest in the case. Some have argued that it is not for beginners, but I think it is comprehensive enough if said beginner is, at least, used to reading lengthy history books in general. It was written for the centenary and therefore a good deal of the information is outdated, but this isn’t to say we are any the wiser to the identity of the killer or that any of the various theories do not persist to this day. One has only to listen to some of the guests on episodes of the excellent true crime discussion podcast, “Rippercast”, to see that even intelligent crime historians can be seduced by rather daft ideas. The black and white photographs and reproductions of newspaper reports are in a designated section in the middle of the book with a few other illustrations sparsely scattered throughout the text to show a particular point. Despite some Wilson’s peculiar wonderings into his supernatural beliefs, the book stays true as an objective analysis of facts and likelihoods. At the very least it lays to rest a good number of fanciful ideas and red herrings that still persist to this day.
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