Tuesday, 23 August 2011

What other unsolved crime is gaining newly discovered suspects over 100 years AFTER it was committed? Look no further than Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper, aka the Whitechapel murderer, aka Leather Apron. These monikers still strike fear into the hearts of not only crime buffs but those of us with more than a passing interest in popular history. These particular crimes which occurred in the epoch known as Late Victorian England, are still regarded so vicious and brutal they could compare to anything that we find shocking today. Hannibal Lecter, Henry the Serial Killer, Ed Gein, (the guy who dressed up as a clown – what was his name again?), the list goes on and on. Our consciousness is nudged by media images of ‘The Elephant Man’ 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, ‘Mary Reilly’ and the novels of Charles Dickens as reminders of the poverty, degradation and misery of England in the throes of its Industrial Revolution. With our media savvy attitudes intact, we gratefully heave a sigh of relief that we were not around to relive the ghastliness of what we can only hope to imagine.

Ripperologists, as they are known today, are people who specialise in research concerning the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Ripperologists are thought to be a bit strange. With all that’s going on in the world, why are they obsessed by something that happened 100 years ago, something so heinous, it seems to fever our imaginations from one generation to the next? If you’d asked me only recently, if I’d be commenting online about the state of on-going Ripper studies, I would have either laughed at you, or taken an Alka-Seltzer for my upset stomach. But here I am, in my foolish efforts to prove myself, having read a book (tellingly looked down upon by most Ripperologists) called ‘The Fox and Flies: The Criminal Empire of the Whitechapel Murderer’. It makes a case for a suspect in the Jack the Ripper serial killings that no one has ever heard of outside the musty reference rooms of old universities and police files considered lost to posterity by pilferage or just plain disinterest. The suspect’s name is Joseph Silver, (pictured above) he was a Polish Jew, and probably something far more serious than a ‘petty ’criminal: he sounds in fact, like a criminal mastermind. The author of the book, South African historian Charles van Onselen specialises in criminal history, and for the first time dips his toe into the cold water of ‘Ripperology’. He makes a good fist of it, but unfortunately any substantial proof of Silver being in Whitechapel at the time of the murders is a tad on the flimsy side. He did father an illegitimate child to an unknown woman in April 1888, whilst living in London but as far as being Jack the Ripper is concerned, there just doesn’t seem to be the necessary evidence. Whilst erring on the side of social history and being self-effacing enough to admit that psychiatric observations are not up his alley, van Onselen’s style is an endearing mixture of erudition, solid research and a confidential just-you-me-and-the-gatepost-know-about-this familiarity with his readers. (And I would contend that his psychiatric observations are actually quite acute and very useful.)

As a beginner in Ripperology I have learned that there are what is known as a ‘canonical five’ victims of Jack the Ripper, that is five women who were most likely than not, murdered by the same man by the same method. The canonical women are in order of their demise: Mary Nicholls, Anna Chapman, Elizabeth Stride Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Where Onselen’s book is concerned, one of the most pertinent issues was for me, the case of the last victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Using information gleaned from secondary sources, van Oselen puts together a narrative which alerts the reader to the fact that Mary Jane Kelly may have been acquainted with her assailant. If this is so, this raises the question of the identity of a man who was believed to be Mary Jane’s secret lover whose name was Joe, as in Joseph Barnett, her live-in companion, and Joseph Flemming her ex-partner, both temporary suspects in the murder but eventually cleared by police investigation. If Mary Jane had known her attacker, she was in fact, following the story of the murders in the newspapers and penny dreadfuls and was fearful of her life for good reason.

As far as the suspects are concerned, there also appear to be a ‘canonical’ number as set down by the Macnaghten Memoranda of 1894 which has influenced research into the case for the past forty years. The canonical suspects are MJ Druitt, George Chapman, Aaron Kosminski, and Michael Ostrog. To be frank, they are not terribly impressive. Druitt committed suicide, Chapman was a wife poisoner, and Kosminski and Ostrog were institutionalised and do not appear to have the violent pathological backgrounds for someone as brutal as the Ripper. A book on the primacy of Kosminski as a suspect has recently been published, Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard's Prime Suspect by Robert House. It seems like an interesting contribution to the discussion as it increases the credibility of a suspect previously dismissed as having a profile incapable of committing the Ripper’s atrocities. As well there are a number of suspects who could rightfully be described as outlandish, including Lewis Carroll, the Duke of Clarence and William Gladstone a former Prime Minister of Britain who showed a concern for the plight of prostitutes to the extent that he was considered in a dubious light and perhaps was not to be trusted.

To give an example of what I have noticed is the peripatetic nature of Ripperology, I could make the assertion that the identity of Jack the Ripper may never be known. This would not be such an unsubstantiated claim, if it weren’t for a story posted on the web only a few months ago in May of this year. It tells of a so-called conspiracy by Scotland Yard to keep documents created contemporaneously, still the secret they have always been since the first police investigation into the incident in London in 1888; these documents may reveal that Scotland Yard always knew the identity of the perpetrator but never had enough evidence to prove it in court. Trevor Marriott, a Ripper investigator and former detective, has spent three years attempting to obtain uncensored versions of the documents which have been kept from the public and could reveal Jack the Ripper’s true identity. A separate discussion is also emerging into the case concerning the extent of anti-Semitism in the East End at the time that the murders were committed insofar as Scotland Yard was constrained in revealing the identity of the killer. They were afraid it would set off reprisals against the Jewish population who had settled in East London to escape from the pogroms of Russia and Poland but were completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Jack the Ripper it seems is alive and well in our imaginations, as we attempt to make sense of many strands of seemingly inconsequential information, weaving them into a whole as we blunder along assuming that we can solve a mystery that probably will never have a solution

Removed from the personalities of the piece, members of the constabulary who had their careers on the line, and celebrity suspects who could never possibly have done it, what we have left are the anonymous mass of people, in the words of Edmund Burke, the ‘swinish multitudes’. They were born in squalor, lived with poverty and disease and were left to die lonely deaths, their lives cut short by indifference and neglect. These are the people that for better or worse are preyed upon In this world, and the predators who prey upon them, will have to answer to their own God. As for the rest of us, we have our imagination, but it plays tricks on us. It makes us believe that we are somehow different, and protected from the predations of existence. But what is waiting for us around the corner is no different for us, than the people of the East end of London whose faces in old photographs look out at us and in doing so, remind us of ourselves.

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