A dark alleyway, a cloaked figure, a knife flashing through the fog - we are instantly in Jack the Ripper territory, recognising the familiar iconography of an obsessive conundrum.
Who wrote Shakespeare's plays? Why were the pyramids built? Like all great "mysteries", the question of "who was Jack the Ripper?" is a mirror which reflects ourselves. It's not a pleasant image, featuring grotesque interest in sexual brutality, and a search for murderous instincts in an array of characters from the Duke of Clarence to an American doctor.
Queen Victoria advanced a theory that the murderer worked on the boats that brought cattle for slaughter in London, thus neatly making him into a European import. The background of the Whitechapel murders in 1888 revealed to society at large such desperate poverty and degradation in the East End of London that they were a spur to housing reform and spiritual missions.
The whole subject has been the cause of so much prurience on the one hand, and so much moralising on the other, that one might think that there is little more to be said. But these two books are both valuable in a documentary sense, and responsible in a moral one.
The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Source Book presents all the basic facts, which have been overlaid with so much speculation that they tend to get lost. Scotland Yard documents, witness statements and medical reports are all meticulously reproduced. So is a sketch of Inspector Abberline, the character played by Johnny Depp in the latest film From Hell, here revealed in mundane actuality as a portly gent.
Jack the Ripper and the London Press, scrupulous and scholarly, examines contemporary reporting and the Ripper mythology created by the press. Perry Curtis's illuminating introduction describes the gap that has opened up in discussion of the Ripper murders, between mostly male, mostly British authors who focus on the actions and identity of the killer, and feminist writers, mostly American, who see the murders as symptoms of a woman-hating patriarchal society.
The mass newspaper coverage that sensationalised the murders was unable to report the actual sexual nature of the victims' injuries because of Victorian prudery. The crude hysterectomies and genital mutilations performed upon some of the victims could not be mentioned: terms such as "stomach" were substituted for the uterus. This book highlights the hypocrisy which added to the distortions of reporting.
But no amount of fact or balance seems to halt the tide of "Ripperature". Another theory has just hit the headlines: that the Ripper was the artist Walter Sickert, who once claimed to have been offered the Ripper's lodgings and was living in Camden Town in 1907 when a prostitute was found murdered nearby.
Sickert, who had mentioned the Ripper in conversation, entitled several of his paintings of a clothed man and a naked woman on a bed The Camden Town Murder, implying they depicted the murderer and his victim. He also gave them other titles, such as What Shall We Do for the Rent? and Summer Afternoon.
The Camden case had no conceivable connection with the Ripper murders, other than that the victim, like those in Whitechapel, was a prostitute. The murderer was almost certainly a young commercial artist who was wrongly exonerated by a sympathetic jury.
The Sickert-Ripper theory is not new. It was unconvincingly advanced by Jean Overton Fuller in Sickert and the Ripper Crimes more than a decade ago. …