Jack The Ripper, 9/10

By Mark Whitehead and Miriam Rivett. Published 2001, 160 pages.


A very good descriptive analysis of Jack The Ripper, his victims, his milieu, and speculation on his identity. A surprisingly short book, that nonetheless covers a lot of ground. The authors’ style is not only succinct and clear, it’s very witty as well. That is, in their extensive line-up of suspects, “fingered,” as they put it, by this or that author, criminologist, or witness, includes some choice individuals, dragging along the baggage of their bizarre back stories.

What’s clear is that (ok, this is only my second ‘Ripper’ book) the Ripper could’ve been any of the suspects, or just about anyone else in 1888 London. One thing that stands out, is the relatively short span of time–the Fall of 1888–in which the notorious murders were committed. I’m not informed enough to go on about exactly how many (5 certainly, maybe 7) victims there were; let’s just say enough. The other major parameter is the Whitechapel location for all of the crimes. As noted in other accounts, there were about 800,000 residents in the environs of the East End at the time. That makes for a lot of potential suspects.

I’m sure some ‘Ripperologist’ folks have pondered the identities of many people who died or disappeared from the area in late 1888 or early 1889. Not that there’s any way to know, as I doubt that serial killers gave notice to the police when they’re leaving town. Assuming Jack were an East End down-on-his-luck resident, records of his death or emigration would hardly be society-page news. As Rumbelow notes in his Complete Jack The Ripper, The murderer could’ve been a completely unremarkable, basically invisible person.

That makes a lot of sense, as anonymity could explain his ability to come and go, and ultimately disappear without notice. Rumbelow also speculates that Jack had time on his hands to ruminate and fantasize about his victims (ones he’d already attacked, or future victims). That adds up, assuming a sexual motive or thrill (particularly with the mutilation aspect) involved. So, maybe he’d been in prison, was unemployed but not homeless, or worked at a mindless, but not necessarily menial job, in which he had ample time to daydream.

Whitehead and Rivett seem eager to figure out who to ‘finger,’ but they’re not obsessed with a theory on one or the other suspect. That’s realistic. Some folks simply have to ‘know’ who Jack The Ripper was; as though the subject is somehow inauthentic otherwise. The Ripper story is all the more mysterious because we don’t know who he was. It’s led to a lot of fictional and tangential treatments; there’s a huge unknown at the heart of it, so it’s natural to want to fill-in-the-blanks.

If nothing else, what does come to light in any version of the Ripper’s crimes are the sordid conditions facing so many people in Victorian London’s slums.

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