What the Cats' Meat Woman Witnessed ; Rebecca Gowers on the Fine Art of Murder and the Rise of Ripperology

Article excerpt

In 1885, at the first International Congress of Criminal Anthropology, the "socialistic" M. Lacassagne stood up and said "every society has the criminals that it deserves". This possibility perturbed a number of commentators when three years later at least four women were killed in Whitechapel by someone who mutilated and disembowelled them, removed certain organs, and, with one exception, arranged their innards carefully around their corpses.

The "Thames Torso" murders were happening at the same time. The dismembered bodies of four women were recovered along the river - though not three of the heads - between 1887 and 1889. Nevertheless, it is the Whitechapel killings that became instantly, hugely famous, and remain so. In the absence of any information about the murderer outside his crimes, there was an outpouring of invention, which in contorted forms continues to this day.

Two books published this year exemplify modern Ripperology. In The Complete History of Jack The Ripper (Robinson, pounds 20), Philip Sugden proposes that the Ripper case is still interesting as a "classic whodunnit". He gives an impressive account of the factssurrounding known murders that might have been committed by the Ripper, but is unable to give the killer any other name: the "complete history" of the title is anything but.

What this book does succeed in demonstrating is that the Ripper's identity is possibly the least interesting thing about him. We notice increasingly that in his detective role Sugden is battling not simply with the Whitechapel murderer, but with all "idle and incompetent" Ripperologists past and present. He invites his "discerning reader" to scorn the bad Ripperologists, their "black magicians and imaginary Russian doctors, their mad freemasons and erring royals". He traces internecine feuds in the ranks, providing the reader with a glimpse of the bizarre alternative history of "dishonesty and fraud in Ripper research".

In The True Face of Jack The Ripper (Michael O'Mara Books, pounds 14.99), Melvin Harris also asks, rather unfortunately, what makes the murders "so special?" His basic conclusion is that they are famous for being famous. Like Sugden, he dedicates much of his book to abusing the "bogus claims and lamentable errors" of others, and writes plaintively, "Perhaps we can now have respite from this gothic Lewis Carroll world of pasteboard characters?"

Harris's candidate is Robert "Roslyn" D'Onston Stephenson, first inducted into black magic by the novelist Bulwer-Lytton, then caught up in a lurid love triangle with two Theosophists, Baroness Cremers and Mabel Collins, while helping them to run a cosmetics company. Harris borrows the first "Thames Torso" to account for the disappearance of D'Onston's wife. His theory hinges on Vittoria Cremers's suggestive memoir, although she wrote it 40 years later for a journalist after rehearsing her story with the "most evil man in the world", Aleister Crowley (she was his business manager).

The internal contradictions in Harris's work are glaring. All that can be confidently deduced from this book is that D'Onston was obsessed with the murders, and wished to thrill a few people with the possibility of his being the Ripper. Whether D'Onston believed it himself is unclear. Any of his actions tending to exonerate him are presented by Harris as devious smokescreens. His central argument is that D'Onston "was adamant that the killings were the sexually inspired deeds of a sophisticated man, never the work of a madman. Only the killer himself could speak with such authority." Not only is this thesis alarmingly circular, but one is left hankering keenly for a definition of "mad".

The picture Harris builds up of a fetid Victorian underworld is fascinating, if patchy. This is typical of Ripper books. The best moments in Sugden's tome are occasional background details. He notes at one point the 17 people living in a house overlooking one of the murder sites, including two girls employed in a cigar shop, two carmen, a little old lady maintained out of charity, a tennis boot maker, his mentally retarded son, and a woman running a "cats' meat shop". …