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Unmasking Jack the Ripper
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 A Ripperologist Article 
This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 47, July 2003. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.
Summing Up and Verdict: Liverpool 2003
Editorial by Paul Begg

When Lytton Strachey described Florence Nightingale as "a living legend in her own lifetime", he gave to the world an annoying and today thoroughly overused cliché. A legend is an unauthentic story handed down by tradition and popularly regarded as historical. If you are real, substantial and well-documented, then you can"t be a legend. To say "the legendary Frank Sinatra" or "the legendary Greek dish moussaka" is a load of cobblers. What is meant is that the person or whatever it might be is or has done something so extraordinary or remarkable that it is the stuff of which legends are made. In the case of Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, that is probably true. In the case of Frank Sinatra, it isn't.

There is another misuse of a word that's gaining popularity. Looking at Discovery News on the Internet the other day I read a story about a retired junkyard dealer named Gerald McSorley who literally tripped over an algae-covered fossil "in shallow water near Loch Ness". He took it to the National Museum of Scotland where experts confirmed it to be that of a plesiosaur, a long-necked sea reptile that grew to about 35 feet and lived about 150 million years ago. The plesiosaur, of course, is what many people think descriptions of the Loch Ness Monster most closely resemble, so the fossil proves that pleisiosaurs were in the Loch Ness area. The question is, are they still there? But all that's by-the-by. What caught my eye was the article's headline: "A Scottish retiree has discovered a fossil of a 150-million-year-old reptile on the shores of Scotland"s mythical Loch Ness." Apart from "retiree" being clumsy and irrelevant, Loch Ness isn't mythical. You can see it, touch it, drink it, and if you"re not careful fall in it. It's real. It may be a place of which myths are made, but it isn't itself mythical.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if something can be both real and mythical or legendary. There was once a man whose name to the best of my knowledge has gone unrecorded who said his wife was a witch or the devil. For all I know she may have been, wives can sometimes seem like a witch or a devil so perhaps the prudent man should keep an open mind about such things, but in this case the belief was attributed to a peculiar religious mania that from time to time compelled this man to climb upon the roof of his house in his night attire and shout to the world the news about his wife. In due course the police would arrive, then a fire-engine with ladders to reach the roof and bring the man down, but more often than not he would escape by leaping from one roof to another. It was a very trying time for everyone, especially the wife and, indeed, her husband, who apart from being married to the devil, discovered that nobody would believe him.

This happened in 1904 in William Henry Street, Liverpool, and according to the Liverpool Echo, the story passed by word of mouth and was exaggerated beyond recognition. The man became a poltergeist, leading to reports of a haunted house, and eventually to claims that the man was a strange creature who, as the News of the World reported on 25 September 1904, was able to leap in excess of 25 feet (7.5 metres) and who eventually leapt over the houses and vanished. This, it was said, was the last appearance of a strange creature called Spring-heeled Jack. The News of the World's exciting and much repeated story was as substantial as a morning mist and on investigation vanished like a mist when the sunshine arrives. Spring-heeled Jack in Liverpool is a myth, it was really a demented man climbing on the roof of his house in his night-attire.

Spring-heeled Jack was real enough though, and reports of his activities, which involved attacking women and ripping their clothing with talon-like fingers, go back to the 1830s, and he may even be very tenuously linked to Jack the Ripper insofar as whomever coined the name "Jack the Ripper" may have had Spring-heeled Jack in mind.

Another parallel is that both Spring-heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper could have been subject to a cover-up. One theory about Spring-heeled Jack ­ and newspapers later in the 1800s appear to have treated it almost as established fact ­ is that the original "man monster" was a notorious nobleman named Henry de la Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811-59), a cruel rich kid with a sadistic turn of mind who loved practical jokes (actually, not so much practical jokes as just being a vandal, a nuisance and an utter pain in the posterior) who used his influence and social position to keep his identity and his activities a secret. On 9 January 1838, Alderman Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London, at a public session held in the Mansion House, read out a letter from a resident of Peckham who stated that as the result of a wager a person of the highest rank had adopted several frightening guises and set out to scare 30 people to death. He had "already succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses", two of whom "were not likely to recover, but likely to become burdens to their families." The writer went on to say that the activities of this individual had not been reported in the press, and hinted that they had been encouraged not to report it. So, it is likely that the horrible fire-spitting demon who leapt out on unsuspecting women and tore at their breasts with claw-like hands was an unpleasant nobleman with considerably more money than sense, and that the man-monster, demon or alien being, Spring-heeled Jack, was as insubstantial as that morning mist mentioned earlier.

But two questions occur to me ­ who was William Henry, after whom the street in Liverpool was presumably named, and did Alderman Sir John Cowan ever do anything else of note or distinction besides read out that letter? I can't profess to have done lots of research to answer these questions, but a quick search of the internet failed to produce any information about either, or the repellently interesting 3rd Marquis of Waterford for that matter, apart from their connection with the Spring-heeled Jack story.

The point, though, is that Spring-heeled Jack is both real and mythical and legendary. There was a real Jack and there was a factual foundation for the stories, but at some point the reality and the stories told about the reality parted company and Jack passed into myth and legend. The same has happened with Jack the Ripper, of course, and next month, August, there will be a conference in Liverpool ­ held at one of Liverpool's premier hotels, the Adelphi, which was originally completed for the launch of the Titanic ­ a vessel I"ve seen described as both mythical and legendary. The theme of the conference is the last fifteen years of Ripper studies, for you may not realise it but fifteen years have gone by since the centenary of the crimes in 1988, and the title is unashamedly pinched from that of a centenary review of the crimes Jack the Ripper: Summing Up and Verdict by Guests of Honour Colin Wilson and Robin Odell.

What I find really unnerving is that the much talked about centenary of the Ripper crimes was fifteen years ago. Fifteen years! There are many people interested in the Ripper who were just kids fifteen years ago. Some weren"t even born. Where did the time go? Where did the old East End go? In fact, I was discussing that very topic with the landlady of the Golden Heart on the corner of Hanbury Street a few weeks ago. She"s been there for nearly a quarter of a century and has seen a lot of changes, not all of them for the better ­ fifteen years ago you couldn't have got a latte in Spitalfields for love nor money. Now there's a Starbucks and a Costa Coffee. It was in the wine bar of the Golden Heart in November 1988, on the 100th anniversary of Mary Kelly's death, that a group of people met. There was Tom Cullen, Robin Odell, Donald Rumbelow, Martin Fido, Keith Skinner, myself, and several other people. And I think we all thought that with the centenary out of the way and no "secret files" being released by the authorities, interest in the Ripper would wane and quickly vanish altogether. That's what I thought. But then I didn't think the Beatles would go far either. My prophetic gifts are obviously deficient. What has happened, of course, is the reverse, and we've seen a greater growth of interest in the Ripper in the last fifteen years than existed in the century that preceded it. And a lot of things have happened in the last fifteen years, as our Guests of Honour, Colin Wilson and Robin Odell, will certainly tell us.

As far as I know ­ and it seems that itineraries are created just to be changed over and over again, so I'm reluctant to guarantee anything ­ after fun and frivolities on Friday night and a special entertainment provided by American guest Michael Huie, reprising his success at the Ripper Conference in the United States last year, the Conference will kick off proper on Saturday morning with a talk by Ripperologist's own North American editor Christopher T. George, who's a Scouser by birth and will be telling us all about the many links between Jack the Ripper and Liverpool, concentrating, I believe, on the City's links with the most important suspect to have emerged in the last fifteen years, Francis Tumblety.

Chris will be followed by Professor David Canter (BA(Liverpool), Phd(Liverpool) FAPA, FBPsS, C.Psychol) of the prestigious Department of Psychology at Liverpool University ­ which has at first glance an interesting email address, psycho@liverpool, but on closer inspection rather disappointingly proves to be psychol@liverpool. Professor Canter developed Environmental Psychology and founded the Journal of Environmental Psychology (which he still edits). In the 1970s he developed the "Theory of Place" which led to "all sorts of cool stuff" (a phrase employed by my daughter when she doesn't really understand something but knows it's important, which pretty much defines anything scientific or psychological as far as I am concerned) that among other things led to fruitful social psychological perspectives on reactions to emergencies and which led along the way to Professor Canter being the first person in the UK to provide "offender profiles" to the police. He has now been actively involved in well over 150 investigations. Because "profiling" lacked any clearly articulated or scientifically based set of procedures, findings or theories, and was, I suppose, fast becoming something legendary or mythical, Professor Canter created a new discipline, Investigative Psychology, and set up the distinguished Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool.

In Professor Canter"s forth-coming book, Mapping Murder, he will describe, among other things, Offender Location Choice, described as "the psychological processes and related mathematical models that explain and predict criminals' spatial activities." Pretty cool stuff which I hope to know inside out after the Conference, along with details of his "marauders and commuters" theory ­ all of which has a lot of interest for those seeking to understand the psychology of Jack the Ripper.

Saturday afternoon will kick off with the Guests of Honour, Colin Wilson and Robin Odell looking back over the past fifteen years of Ripper studies. Believe it or not, fifteen years ago there wasn't a Ripper magazine, obviously no Internet and the almost indispensable Casebook: Jack the Ripper wasn"t even imagined; the only controversy we had was the Royal Conspiracy Theory and Maybrick and Sickert were names for true crime aficionados and the art world. There was no Jack the Ripper A to Z and no Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, and we knew almost nothing at all about Kosminski and Ostrog. It all makes fifteen years ago sound like the Dark Ages before the flame of Christianity flickered into being. How on earth did we ever survive back then?

And talking about flames flickering into life, ten years ago controversy hit Ripperology when a document emerged in Liverpool that purported to have been written by cotton broker James Maybrick and that appeared to constitute an admission that the writer was Jack the Ripper. There can't be a reader of Ripperologist who doesn"t know about the Maybrick diary and hasn't formed an opinion about it, but for me the fascination of the diary rests not in whether or not it is authentic, but in how we go about conclusively (or as conclusively as possible) proving it. There is a similarity with the so-called "Black" diaries of Sir Roger Casement detailing his promiscuous homosexual activities in Brazil. These emerged at just the right time for the British to use them to discredit Casement and secure his execution, and argument has raged for nearly a century about whether they were genuine or the creation of the British intelligence services and Scotland Yard. They were finally released into the public domain in 1994 and in 2000 in Dublin a Symposium was held by the Royal Irish Academy to determine the answer once and for all.

The conclusion that the diaries were genuine was based mainly on the evidence of document examiner Dr Audrey Giles, whose experience includes over a decade with the Questioned Documents Section of Scotland Yard and who at one time examined the Maybrick diary. But Dr. Giles' analysis was very quickly questioned on many counts, and especially on the grounds that it had been confined mainly to the handwriting, no forensic examination having been made of Casement's writings overall, including analysis of paper, ink, writing instruments, pollen, word frequency, content and so on. Professor James J. Horan of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the United States, a leading expert on the forensic examination of questioned documents, demonstrated forensic flaws in the authentication process and said that Giles report would not be acceptable to the American courts. On the other hand, a Professor McCormack, who accepted Dr. Giles' report, while angrily and "somewhat contemptuously" dismissing proponents of the forgery theory, displayed the kind of heated rhetoric that's never been far from the Maybrick diary controversy. And on top of all that, hopes that complex and often untried scientific tests could provide proof of authenticity were regarded as naïve. If, given the wealth of material available for expert analysis in the case of Casement there is still heated debate about the authenticity of the "Black" diaries, is there any hope that the Maybrick diary, where there is a paucity of comparison data, can it ever be conclusively shown to be genuine or a forgery? Well, that's looking extremely doubtful, so we just have to accept whatever evidence we're happy with, but what bothers me are the ramifications of all this in the world of questioned document examination?

But authenticity issues aside, the convoluted story of the confounded diary is a fascinating one and Seth Linder, Caroline Morris and Keith Skinner joined forces to tell it in their new book Ripper Diary. We are extremely fortunate to have them at the Conference, especially as Sutton will be officially launching the book there, with a chance for delegates to buy a copy and get it signed by all three writers!

Sunday is a real feast of a day too. Two heavyweight talks, followed by an examination of another controversial Ripper theory to have emerged in the last fifteen years.

Sunday morning begins with a talk by Deborah McDonald, whose long-awaited book Clara Collet: An Educated Working Woman is due from Frank Cass Publishers later this year. You may not have heard of Clara Collet, but if you've read much about Jack the Ripper then you'll have come across Charles Booth who, in 1886, began a great statistical work to quantify the full extent of poverty in London. Among the researchers carefully chosen to assist him was Beatrice Potter (later Webb), but following a nervous collapse through overwork and the engagement of Joseph Chamberlain to someone else, she was replaced by ­ yes, you"ve guessed - Clara Collet. By the autumn of 1888 Clara Collet had embarked on four months of hard investigative work in the East End. Not only is Clara Collet a fascinating figure in her own right and deserving of the recognition Deborah McDonald's new biography will give her, her work in the East End with Booth has provided us with a better understanding of the area, as will be reflected in Deborah's talk, which is entitled "Jack's Spitalfields - Contemporary Accounts from Charles Booth, Clara Collet and others."

Deborah is followed by Professor William D Rubinstein. If anyone had told me a couple of years ago that I'd have sat down to a plate of bacon, eggs, sausages, white pudding, a latte and a political history of the 20th century, I'd have looked at them blankly and said, "I should cocoa." That wouldn"t have been because it isn't easy to get decent white pudding, because Tesco now do one that's not too bad ­ although not a patch on the ones you can get from this little butcher in Dun Laoghaire who does a fantast... sorry, I lost my train of thought there - but because I honestly couldn't see myself getting beyond the first line or two of a 20th century political history. Bill Rubinstein, however, has the enviable ability to take a seriously heavy topic and not only make it readable and understandable, but entertaining. It's a gift. An MA, PhD (Johns Hopkins), and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Professor Rubinstein is the world's leading expert on wealth-holding - he wrote Elites and the Wealthy in Modern British History: Essays in Social and Economic History (1987) ­ and has written a whole load of pretty cool stuff: Capitalism, Culture, and Decline in Britain, 1750-1990 (1994); A History of the Jews in the English-speaking World: Great Britain (1996); The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (1997); Britain's Century: A Social and Political History, 1815-1905 (1998); Philosemitism (1999), and the aforementioned Twentieth-Century Britain: A Political History, just out from Palgrave Macmillan, and as I write this, it was my breakfast reading.

Prof Rubinstein is clearly a historical heavyweight who walks the hallowed halls of academia and daily deals with the really serious stuff of history. You wouldn"t think he'd notice Ripperologists, yet he has noticed us, is in the process of writing a book about us, and has already experienced the bite of the rabid side of Ripperology following three articles in History Today. His examination of "amateur historians", for whom he entertains enormous respect ­ and quite right too! ­ will be published next year, is called Shadow Pasts and looks at those dedicated people who study and debate subjects ignored by academics, such as the assassination of President Kennedy, the Shakespeare authorship question, and the identity of "Jack the Ripper".

There is, I think, a nice symmetry in concluding the morning with a talk that has little immediately to do with the last fifteen years, but actually looks at us.

The afternoon rounds off the conference with a rare and excellent opportunity to meet Jean Overton Fuller who believes, on the authority of what she was told by her mother, who in turn received the information from Florence Pash, a pupil, friend and possible lover of artist Walter Sickert, that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Sickert, of course, is now probably the second most controversial Ripper suspect to emerge during the last fifteen years, primarily thanks to the best-selling Portrait of a Killer by Patricia Cornwell. Since Patricia Cornwell believes on the basis of DNA evidence that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper, it struck me as inexplicable that she did not even refer to or give any credit to Jean Overton Fuller, who prima facie gives contemporary support to Cornwell"s basic tenet. Jean's updated book, complete with her thoughts about Cornwell's theory, will make good and interesting reading. And, of course, you"ll have the chance you get a copy and have it signed.

Now, all that looks to me like it's going to be a truly legendary conference ­ in the sense of being something about which legends will grow. I bet you're glad your going, and if you're not going well, maybe there is still time...


Related pages:
  Liverpool Conference 2003
       Dissertations: Summing Up and Verdict: Liverpool 2003 
  Paul Begg
       Authors: A Talk With Paul Begg 
       Authors: An Interview with Paul Begg 
       Dissertations: A Final Response to Mr. Harris 
       Dissertations: Getting Better 
       Dissertations: Jack the Ripper on Old Time Radio 
       Dissertations: Jack the Ripper: What’s in a Name? 
       Dissertations: Reader Reactions 
       Dissertations: The Caution was Given 
       Dissertations: The Maybrick Hoax: Evasions are Valueless 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper: The Facts 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper: The Uncensored Facts 
       Ripper Media: Ripperology: The Best of Ripperologist Magazine 
       Ripper Media: The Jack the Ripper A to Z