Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!
They All Love Jack
The first time I read a book about Jack the Ripper was forty years ago when I came across a slim white volume while drifting through the library stacks for fun. (Doesn’t everyone do that?) I have no idea which of the hundreds of Ripper books that was, but I was stunned by the cases and shocked at the photos. Since then I’ve read a few more books about Jack and have shared author Bruce Robinson’s irritation with the Ripperologists who often seem silly and illogical in their examination of the case. (Google that word, you will be amazed.)
The thing about studying the Ripper is that it’s about more than being squicked by dreadful autopsy or crime scene photos, or consuming thrilling Ripper-inspired gas lit fictions, or scoring conspiratorial points over whose candidate is stronger. It’s not a sports contest.
There were obviously much deeper issues at play in 1888 than the world’s first famous homicidal maniac terrorizing an already miserable poor end of the world’s largest city. The historiography of the case of a serial murderer who has come to be known as Jack the Ripper has not been fully realized and I don’t think it can be at this late date. When studying Jack a writer should also be paying attention to the history of forensics, police procedure, culture, criminal justice, and other aspects of that society in that time, not just whether Elizabeth Stride was or was not found with grapes in her hand. All those issues affect the murders, the original search for the killer, and subsequent analyses. A careful writer will try to impart his or her take on the subject to their readers with all these features in mind. It’s good history. When I don’t see it, I get suspicious.
Ripperologists come under repeated attack by author Bruce Robinson for coming at the murders and their guess at the murder’s identity through incomplete, cherry picked research that is sometimes improperly relayed (lies, in other words), and for considering the issue from an “angle”. In They All Love Jack Robinson begins with a rousing but lengthy rant about Victorian society, with jabs at the ripperologists. Robinson’s style is basically to go on and on about how people were lying or covering up or whatever for several pages and in dribbling bits also mention his evidence. It’s difficult to maintain interest when you’re supposed to just trust his judgement so much and it’s not always easy to ferret out the evidence for the very strong attitudes he portrays in his railing against “the system”.
The main gist of his book is that the murderer was a Freemason who was protected by the system in order to protect themselves, in doing so making themselves accomplices, and continuing the practice to this day. I feel that he makes a very strong case for this theory, despite his ranting and meandering. Robinson also names the man he believes was the culprit. Unfortunately, his case doesn’t stand up as well here. I believe he has a good candidate, but I don’t think his case is strong enough in this book. One thing that really bothered me, for instance, was I don’t remember reading about the mechanism by which Robinson decided on his suspect. Did he pick a name out of a bowler, or did he read about him in another Ripper book? What was his “Aha!” moment? And how about a comprehensive account of his evidence?
I do recommend reading this if you are interested in the “mystery” (as Robinson would write the word), with some heavy qualifications. Don’t read this book if you are a Freemason or a fan of Freemasonry, because you will be offended. (My grandfather was a Freemason, but I never noticed any homicidal tendencies in him and I’m not offended. YMMV.) As well, beware if you consider Victorian Era Englishmen to be sexually harmless gentlemen and upstanding citizens full of zeal in the hunt for justice.
There are both pros and cons concerning They All Love Jack. It’s a slog. The book is physically heavy and emotionally dense, but he covers a LOT of ground. A LOT. His research was obviously a massive undertaking and he quotes liberally. I found it somewhat hypocritical how often he slams the Ripperologists for asking readers to accept theories based on the evidence they present, without offering counter arguments or mentioning solid conflicting evidence when he tends to do the same. On the other hand, Robinson takes his readers much deeper down the rabbit hole than most other Ripper authors, linking the Ripper to other major, and illustrative, stories of the day like the Cleveland Street scandal, the Parnell frame-up, and the Florence Maybrick trial. This gives his text a more solid feel as a study of history. Except for his treatment of women (below), the sometimes almost slippery feel of his historical writing was the most difficult aspect of the book for me to overcome. (My B.A. is in History.) I just kept reminding myself that the author is a screenwriter.
He’s also a Brit, which is another way of saying, “he makes history fun to read,” which is almost universally untrue of American historians. Unfortunately, the history he’s writing of is a nightmare of grotesque murders, some of which you almost never read of in a Ripper book, so it’s not so much fun or entertaining but impassioned. Here he is in high dudgeon (and foul language):
It was this knowledge – the Freemasonic saturation, by way of example – that like Bro Bagster’s autopsy report, was ruthlessly suppressed, and remains unobtainable to this day. Fuck justice, fuck the law, fuck Johnnie Gill’s devastated family, fuck his mother who took flowers to her child’s grave every Sunday for the next thirty-seven years, and fuck the milkman, his wife and their baby; we’re talking about a threat to a system here, all the way up the Worshipful Grand Master and his Parisian fuck-chair.
He rarely goes so far when talking about the women Jack murdered, and that’s my biggest beef with the book. Robinson sometimes seems to be suffering a case of blame the victim even as he rails about how unfair it is. That’s really confusing and damned uncomfortable. Sometimes he uses the “c” word when talking about the “whores” Jack killed. Sometimes it’s obvious he’s using the words as a vicious slap in the face of the nineteenth century men “chasing” Jack, a sort of deeply black cynical humor. More often, that is not obvious and I had a really hard time dealing with it because I can only hope he’s being cynical throughout. He’s not unfeeling toward the women, as evidenced by this quote on the murder of Mary Kelly, the most horribly butchered of the lot:
We can look at the photograph overleaf as if it’s a monstrosity from some long-forgotten sideshow, a waxwork or a work of fantasy. But it isn’t, and it’s horrifying. This was a young woman, poor as dirt, but she had a life, it belonged to her, and the infinite sadism of this most horrendous of murderers has left her like this forever.
This paragraph completely sums up the horror I felt the first time I saw that photo, especially the part of it being how the poor woman will forever be remembered.
I suppose you could say I’m not sure from moment to moment how I feel about the book. There’s a lot of research behind his often engaging prose but from an historian’s viewpoint it’s not imparted efficiently to his readers. He’s passionate about the subject and his theory of who dunnit, but I feel his work might not completely stand the test of time.
And of course, no one will ever be able to say absolutely who it was because there’s been too much obfuscation, either willful or through poor historical work, and way too much time passed. Personally I’m not sure I would even want to know, especially if the murderer lived a full life after having wreaked such havoc. That would really tick me off.
Basically I feel as if Robinson is fully successful in outlining the cover up by the authorities, making them complicit in many horrible crimes. But I don’t feel he makes as strong a case in proving his Ripper. As I find the former just as interesting a subject as the latter, that’s works for me. Read this at your own risk, and give yourself plenty of time because it’s a large work.