|A Ripper Notes Article|
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PERHAPS NO-ONE has been as responsible for introducing the Great Victorian Mystery to a modern audience than ex-City policeman Donald Rumbelow. Since the publication of The Complete Jack the Ripper in 1975, he has been regarded as one of the greatest living authorities on the case; in the words of one writer, ‘Donald Rumbelow is the alpha and omega of Ripperology; no matter whom you read or how much you learn, you always come back to him.’ In addition to his seminal Ripper research, Rumbelow is also a noted police historian; his works include a history of the City force, I Spy Blue (1971), The Triple Tree: Newgate, Tyburn and Old Bailey (1982), The Knowhow Book of Detection (with Judy Hindley, 1997) and The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (1973). He is also legendary as one of the most popular tour guides for those seeking an ‘authentic’ Ripper experience. Casebook Productions is proud to have Mr Rumbelow as Guest of Honour for the 2002 US Ripper Conference, and we at RN thank him for graciously taking time to sit down with us for a chat. – Ed.
CMD: I suppose we’d better start with the one question I’ve been bombarded with since this interview was announced – will there ever be a new Complete Casebook?
DR: I would love to update the Casebook, but persuading the publishers to do one is another matter, although my agent keeps trying. The book has been continuously in print since 1975 – twenty-seven years – which makes it, I think, the longest-selling JTR book. The last update was in 1988, but so long as the book keeps selling, the publishers are unwilling to do a revision. My dream is to do one big update and then clear out all the material, or most of it, that has accumulated over the years.
CMD: Tell us a little bit about the "Siege of Sidney Street." What sparked your interest there, and why do you find it such a compelling subject?
DR: What made the Siege so fascinating was that it was in Whitechapel and the police investigators had been young beat policemen at the time of the Ripper murders, so their memoirs frequently refer to both. Bolshevik delegation headquarters in 1907 was less than five minutes from Buck’s Row. Present at this time were Lenin, Trotsky, Gorky and Joseph Stalin. The latter’s lodgings still stand, although now derelict. The case was a bungled prosecution, which enabled Jacob Peters to escape hanging in 1911 for the murder of three policemen; it was this killing which first led to the Siege. He later became a leading Chekist – a particularly sadistic one – under Lenin and Stalin. There is now a statue to him in Riga, and he is acclaimed in Russia as the model of an ideal revolutionary.
CMD: Has your research into the Siege and the East End radicals involved shed any further light on the type of men involved in the International Working Men’s Educational Club?
DR: The research enabled me to understand the background of these men a little better, but a good friend of mine, Bill Fishman, who also wrote East End 1888, has done a very fine book on these radicals, Jewish Radicals: From Czarist Stetl to London Ghetto. I highly recommend it.
CMD: In the Casebook, your roundup of the major suspects at the time took a fairly objective approach to them all. In the intervening years, have your suspicions hardened on anyone in particular?
DR: I still think we don’t know the name of Jack the Ripper. My suspicions are still in favour of some local unknown man.
CMD: Your Ripper tours are enormously popular, but also rather disliked by the locals. Is there anything that can be done in an official or unofficial way to soothe the feelings of residents and still attract tourism?
DR: My Ripper walks are not a problem. The problem is with the nonprofessional guides who go down streets such as Hanbury Street and stand under the residents’ windows bellowing out details of the mutilations and generally annoying them. None of this is necessary. I don’t go down these streets, show photographs or annoy people, but as the best known of the JTR guides, I frequently have to defend the walks although I am not causing the annoyances. As such guides cannot be regulated, these nuisances will continue.
CMD: Do you believe Mary Kelly was the Ripper’s final victim? Or that Polly Nichols was his first?
DR: I believe in the canonical five, Nichols the first and Kelly the last. Murder was uncommon in the East End as a whole, one a year in the years before and after 1888. This has to be considered, in particular when discussing the ‘double event.’ Either both were Ripper killings, or there was one very big coincidence!
CMD: RN readers feel they ‘know’ you, through your book, the walks and, of course, your frequent television appearances. Can you tell us a little bit about Don Rumbelow himself beyond the Ripper?
DR: My wife Molly is a professional guide, and when we met she was researching JTR! She is currently studying for an MA degree in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art. I have developed an interest in military history, with special emphasis on the 17th century English Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars, with emphasis on Wellington’s campaigns in the Spanish peninsula. This has led to several trips to Spain and Portugal and a walk across the Pyrenees through the passes of Roncesvalles, on the final campaign, when we were circled by twelve large eagles. I also collect 18th and 19th century political prints and 19th century Parian and Staffordshire figureware.
CMD: What stand out as your most vivid memories during your time on the City force?
DR: The two most memorable experiences as a City policeman were the Old Bailey bombing in 1973 and the Moorgate tube disaster – Britain’s worst Underground disaster – in 1975.
I was at the Bailey just after the explosions. There were over two hundred casualties. The police photographer, Dale Wilkinson, had just taken a photograph of the suspect car when it exploded, and he was about thirty feet from it when it disappeared. Parts of it ended up on the roof of the Bailey; the rest of it fitted into a tea chest, almost. Dale was still holding the camera and was fully conscious. He was laughing and joking while he waited to go into the operating theatre. He had three hundred pieces of metal in him, and his arm and legs looked as if a shark had bitten him. Today he is almost totally deaf, but he still has a lot of the metal inside him, which always sets off the security detectors when he goes abroad.
I was in the tunnel at Moorgate soon after the driver, his hand still holding open the throttle, had driven into the blind wall of the tunnel. Three coaches were piggy-backed one on top of the other inside the tunnel. A lot of dead. The last person to be brought out was a young City policewoman, Margaret Wiles, who was in her first week as a policewoman. She remained conscious throughout, although trapped by several bodies. They had to cut her foot off as the only way of freeing her. It was very emotional watching the medics fighting to save patients as they were brought out, faces blacked by dust and laid out on the platforms.
CMD: Martin Fido noted in an interview (RN, January 2001) that while he does occasionally weary of the topic, he is always ready to discuss the Ripper case with anyone who has a genuine interest. Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, ‘I never, never want to hear the name of Jack the Ripper again!’? How do you keep from ‘burning out’ on the subject?
DR: Unlike Martin, I don’t always want to discuss JTR. Like a few others, although I have an interest in the subject, I no longer have that initial burning flame of enthusiasm which is necessary to keep abreast of the latest developments. I candidly admit that I have forgotten a great deal, and can easily be outgunned by others with much more up-to-date information. The interest will always be there, but there are other things in my life, and the Ripper is not the dominant one, as many suppose.
CMD: What do you consider the more pleasant and unpleasant developments in Ripperology over the past twenty years?
DR: The most pleasant aspect has been the many friends I have made, such as Begg, Evans and Fido. The most unpleasant development in the last twenty years has been the amount of abuse and villification which has crept into the personal relationships and which was never there when I began meeting such people as Cullen, Farson and Knight. There was always a readiness to swap information and agreement to disagree, but none of this stopped the friendships and socialising. Look at the ridiculous amount of abuse – anonymous, of course, - when I deposited the Openshaw letter into the Public Records Office last year. This is one of the reasons why I refuse to get into e-mail correspondence on the subject of the Ripper. If I have anything to say, I will put it into print when I am ready.
CMD: What do you think was the greatest error – either of commission or omission – in the Ripper investigation, and how might it have been avoided or redressed?
DR: This is speculation on my part, but I feel the biggest sin of omission during the investigation was the failure to have case meetings where there could have been an exchange of information between the investigators at all levels. The culture of the time suggests that army rank and procedures would have been followed, and any exchanges of information would have been ‘off the record,’ or on a personal level. This failure to exchange information – with each of the investigators hugging to themselves their own nugget of information in the hope of gaining credit for the capture of JTR – is the reason why so many different names have been put forward and why there has been no common agreement as to a suspect.
CMD: Finally, other than the name of the man himself, is there any other mystery in the Ripper case you would like to see answered?
DR: One mystery I would like explained is Macnaghten’s comment that from ‘private information’ he knew the Druitt family suspected Montague was the Ripper. What was said to him? Who said it? If true, why was this information never shared with the other investigators – as apparently it was not, because nobody else makes reference to this? I think this confirms my suspicions that there was no pooling of information.
Many thanks to Judy Stock for arranging this interview and to Paul Begg and Molly Rumbelow for their assistance in transmitting it through the aether of the internet! Thanks also to Chris George, Viper, Tim Mosely, Michael Conlon and Tom Wescott for their assistance in preparing questions.
In regards to Macnaghten’s ‘private information’, see Ripperologist No. 37 (October 2001) for Stephen Ryder’s article ‘Emily and the Bibliophile,’ which suggests Emily Druitt and James Lindsay, Lord Crawford, as the conduits of the Druitt family suspicions. – Ed.
|Authors: A Talk with Donald Rumbelow|
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