* Prices may differ from that shown
In 1888 five prostitutes were brutally murdered in a small area of London's East End. The killings took place over an 11-week period and the culprit was never apprehended. For more than 100 years, the Whitechapel Murders have baffled and fascinated experts and non-experts alike and the identity of Jack the Ripper remains an intriguing but frustrating mystery. I have always had an interest in true crime, coupled with a love of Victorian history so recently I decided it was time to brush up my limited knowledge of the Jack the Ripper case. I was looking for a book that would provide me with a good grasp of the background information but would not limit itself to the discussion of one particular suspect, as so many books seem to do. When I spotted The Mammoth Book of Jack The Ripper on Amazon (priced from £2.50) it seemed to be just what I was looking for as it offered me a comprehensive account of the case and a compilation of the evidence for and against the different suspects all in one volume. The first part of the book provides the undisputed facts surrounding the Whitechapel murders. The next part of the book is made up of a series of essays by different 'ripperologists'.
In the first section of the book, Just the Facts, the editors, Jakubowski and Braund provide a lot of detailed factual information about the case. This provides an essential framework so that, when you come to read the essays and compare the theories put forward, you are in a better position to follow the debate and make your own judgments. I was impressed with the information that was provided about each of the murdered women. This was presented in such a way that we were reminded that they were real people, not just 'Jack the Ripper's victims.' For instance, we are told where they were born, who they married, how many children they had, a little about their early lives, who they associated with, what they looked like, etc. I felt that this part of the book also painted a clear, atmospheric picture of 19th century Whitechapel, which drew me in. I could picture the maze of narrow alleyways, the alehouses, yards and doss houses. I was able to imagine the abundance of prostitutes, thieves and immigrants, the gangs bullying the prostitutes for 'protection money', the horses and carts passing by and the gin-swilling culture of poverty that prevailed. At times the book descends into particularly unpleasant, graphic detail when discussing the post mortems and autopsy reports, but this is necessary in order to explain such things as the position the victim was in when the Ripper struck and the modus operandi of the killings and subsequent mutilations. The 'Dear Boss' and 'From Hell' letters received by the police, believed to be from the killer, are discussed and we are introduced to the principal police officers involved in the investigation, such as Inspector Frederick Abberline, Sir Robert Anderson and Sir Melville Macnaghten, contrasting their approaches to the investigation. After reading this section I certainly felt as if I had learned a lot about the case.
The next section of the book is a collection of essays by 17 different 'ripperologists.' The quality of these essays varies considerably and, whilst some put forward a fairly convincing case for their chosen suspect, others offer little more than speculation. As one contributor puts it, advancing a theory can sometimes be akin to "trying to fit the wrong piece into a slot in a jigsaw puzzle." My feeling about a lot of these essays was that the writer tried too hard to make the evidence fit the candidate of their choice, often making quite weak points and clutching at straws. Having said this, the essays introduced me to theories and suspects I had not come across before, as well as broadening my knowledge of those I was already vaguely aware of.
For instance, until I read Gary Rowland's essay, The Mad Doctor I had never heard any suggestion that Dr Thomas Barnardo was linked to the Whitechapel murders. The essay suggests that the philanthropist who devoted his life to working with the destitute, developed a pathological hatred towards the prostitutes he was supposed to be helping. This was certainly an entertaining piece of writing, although I remain far from convinced it is true. I was somewhat more persuaded by the essays by Euan Macpherson and William Beadle, claiming that Jack the Ripper was a man called William Bury. As a former butcher, Bury certainly had the basic anatomical knowledge many believed the Ripper possessed. His presence in the East End coincided with the five murders and the killings stopped after he left for Scotland, where he strangled his wife, Ellen, mutilated her body and was hanged for her murder. I was intrigued by Bruce Paley's contribution, in which he names Joseph Barnett, the boyfriend of the final victim, Mary Jane Kelly, as Jack the Ripper, painting a quite convincing picture of a man consumed by jealousy, who tries to frighten his partner away from prostitution by perpetrating a series of gruesome killings, then takes his brutal revenge on her when she tries to leave him. Paley shows how Joseph Barnett fitted the profile of a typical serial killer, as devised by top criminologists.
In addition, there are essays about Liverpool cotton merchant, James Maybrick and the so called 'Diary of Jack the Ripper', which I already knew a little about. The essays make a good case for the diaries being genuine. There does seem to be quite a lot about James Maybrick's involvement that can't easily be explained away, despite the best attempts of rival 'ripperologists' to prove it nonsense. Another writer, Nick Warren, examines some of the conspiracy theories that have been put forward, including the influence of the Freemasons and the suggestion that a member of the government and/or the Royal Family may have been involved in the killings. Peter Turnbull's essay suggests that the murders were copycat killings carried out by different men.
Would I recommend this book?
If you are interested in the Jack the Ripper case, this is a good starting point to find out the basic information. Considering this is a rather long book (472 pages excluding the bibliography) it is not written in a ponderous style. I found the content easy to follow, even the medical evidence. I don't think the absence of photographs makes it any less readable because the writing is sufficiently descriptive without the need for pictures of crime scenes, mortuary shots and the like. The book certainly provides a fascinating look at how cases were investigated in the days before forensic science and even finger printing and how the reliance on often contradictory eyewitness accounts made the police investigation a frustrating process from the start. Although the book presents many different viewpoints, you are left to decide for yourself. There are no definite answers. I note that on the back of the book is a quotation from Crime Time, which says, "Closes the book on Jack as comprehensively as possible." I have to disagree with that comment! Far from closing the book, it made me realise that there were even more potential suspects than I'd originally thought - and no doubt new ones will keep emerging and new books will keep appearing. If anything, this book left me even more clueless about who Jack the Ripper was than before I started reading. It remains an intriguing subject, however, and perhaps all the more so because it seems set to remain unsolved for ever.
I think this is an excellent reference book to have. It also includes an extensive bibliography for anyone who wants to go on and read further into the subject.