One of the greatest mysteries that still grips the public imagination are the serial murders that happened in the autumn of 1888 in London's Whitechapel district. While the true identity was never revealed, the murderer became quickly known as Jack the Ripper, and even today that name alone is enough to send shudders through most people.
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It has also fueled an impressive collection of books -- both nonfiction and fiction -- films, and all sorts of ephemera. Indeed, you can take a guided tour that will take you about to various Jack the Ripper sites in London.
Author Philip Sugden has created an exhaustive compilation of facts, rumours and myths about Jack the Ripper, and presents it all in a coherent whole. After a lengthy introduction, he begins by presenting a history of what is known as Ripperology, and presents some of the twentieth century’s various theories -- this includes the ideas that a grandson of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Clarence, or a Freemason conspiracy were behind the killings -- and tidily sweeps them away. Instead, he focuses on what is actually known, and then tries to figure out whom the killer might have been.
After this, he looks at each murder in turn, who the women were, the facts and evidence as they were known, and the various leads that were discarded. Five women were known Ripper victims, and what is interesting is that the author presents a possible three more -- Mary Tabram, Alice McKenzie, and Pauline Colles, all of whom were victims of vicious attacks just before and after the Ripper was active. What is interesting about this section, which is the main portion of the book, the author doesn't bother with just describing the women as prostitutes in the worst part of London, but instead does the research to find out who they were, and what their history had been. It's here that the story does get interesting, as each woman came from what we would call today good homes, and through misfortune, alcoholism and sheer bad luck, had to turn to prostitution to survive. It's a sobering example of just how bad life could get in the nineteenth century. Too, this allows each woman to become more than a victim and an actual person, someone who was cared about, who had family and sometimes children left behind, and whose life had been cut short in a particularly obscene fashion.
Interspersed with the stories of the women are those of the various policemen who handled the case, most notably Fred Abberline, who makes the most coherent of the various suspects and I think, very nearly caught the Ripper. Compared to today's modern forensics, the evidence that was collected -- and ignored -- at the various murder sites is downright painful to read about. Another aspect of the book is the press, which magnified and sometimes just made up stories to satisfy an ever eager public, and so, boost sales for themselves.
The final section of the book deals with various suspects of who might have been the Ripper. Several suspects are brought forward, most of whom were innocent men, and one was indeed hung for the murders on the lightest of evidence. Does Sugden provide a likely suspect who is 'proven' to be the Ripper? Well, no, there's just not enough evidence there to say with confidence, This is the Ripper.
In addition to the narrative, there is a map of the Whitechapel district, a collection of black and white photographs and etchings -- warning, these are rather disturbing to look at -- extensive notes and bibliography, as well as an index.
If you want a book that gives what facts are known, the lives of the people of London's Whitechapel, and the underworld of London's Victorian period, this is a very good place to go. The author doesn't slide into sensationalism, nor tries to create a suspect out of thin air, but instead gives what is a rather dry laying out of the evidence and the people involved.
This is one of the better books about Jack the Ripper out there, and one that should appeal to those who want the facts in the case, not just the macabre. Five stars overall.
Once again, many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for putting this title in the database for me!
This review is part of talyseon's It's Elementary My Dear Watson! Mystery Write-off.
The Complete History of Jack the Ripper
1994, 1995, 2002, 2006; Constable & Robinson Ltd.
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