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the complete history of jack the ripper

10 august 2015

At one point I had read most of the reputable books (and a few of the dis-) about Jack the Ripper, but then I lost the thread for a while; I'm no Ripperologist. In recent years I was brought back to Whitechapel by the great graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and by Richard Warlow's energetic and inventive TV series Ripper Street. Both From Hell and Ripper Street are admittedly outlandish and impossible, and all the stronger for it. But it was time for me to make a reality check.

Philip Sugden's Complete History of Jack the Ripper is still, after 20 years, the most comprehensive book on the case. There is a point in the investigation of 19th-century enigmas when nothing new is likely to come to light. I know this first-hand from a professional interest in Emily Dickinson. (She cannot have been Jack the Ripper, by the way, because she died two years before he started ripping.) At a certain point, all that will be known, in the way of documents, is known, and interpretation can only extrapolate the facts so far.

Sugden's approach is similar to that of the late Vincent Bugliosi in his JFK-assassination study Reclaiming History. He lays out the documentary evidence dispassionately, in minute detail. He then spends a good deal of time debunking the hasty conclusions that theorists have drawn from that evidence. You should not come to Sugden's book thinking that the Ripper will be revealed. (And it's fair to offer that sort of anti-spoiler, because to suggest that the book could be spoiled would be to mislead the reader.) Sugden examines every possible suspect whose name has come down to us, and finds excellent reasons why none of them was actually Jack the Ripper.

Basically, Sugden trusts the contemporary police. Most writers who are sure they've uncovered the Ripper don't; they believe in coverups, conspiracies of silence, and vested interests that concealed the murderer for hideous reasons. Conspiracy theory always explains everything, but in the case of Jack the Ripper the diffuse direction of the leading detectives' suspicions, the plethora of equally ill-suited candidates, and the generally random nature of the crimes make any conspiracy net especially hard to weave.

It's not even definitely known how many women Jack the Ripper killed. "There is no simple answer," says Sugden. "In a sentence, at least four, probably six, just possibly eight" (359). Edmund Reid, a real-life Inspector of H Division long before Matthew MacFadyen played him on TV, thought that there were nine victims. The murdered women were connected by nothing more than locality and occupation: all were Whitechapel prostitutes. The notion that the same man killed them comes from the exceedingly grisly way they were killed. But even at that, no two murders were precisely alike, and there were other murders elsewhere in London, as well as rapes and unreported assaults, that might well be the Ripper's work but were never connected to him.

The persistently eerie thing about Jack the Ripper is how completely he could disappear from sight after killing. He was a sick, sadistic butcher, but both the reality and the entertainment of the past 125 years has somewhat inured us to butchery. What is scary about Jack is what's still scary about the (hopefully now equally dead) Zodiac killer: they could commit a series of extravagant killings, with a whole city on high alert, and escape into thin air.

In case after case, Sugden notes how narrow a window the Ripper had to do his killing. Witnesses, many of them policemen, would pass a murder scene minutes before a body was found and see neither victim nor killer. Bodies were found near inhabited houses, in frequented courtyards; invariably nobody had seen or heard anything. The few probable sightings of the killer were unremarkable; some report seeing him in apparent negotiations with a victim, which would have been one of the least noteworthy sights for the place and time.

Jack the Ripper vanished tactically after every killing, and then strategically after the most horrific (the murder of Mary Kelly) in November 1888. (At least Kelly was the last victim that all observers would agree on; two others, Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles would die later on in circumstances that recalled the Ripper killings, but may well have been copycat crimes.) Sugden is as baffled as any other reader by the disappearance of the criminal and his MO. His prosaic history proves, as always, that truth is more terrifying than thriller.

Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. London: Robinson, 2002. New Edition; first published 1994.