|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 48, August 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.|
Editorial by Paul Begg
You probably haven't heard of a chap named Tim Berners-Lee, but he invented the World Wide Web and what's really unnerving is that he did this in 1991. And If you like being unnerved, it's rather scary to realise that MS-DOS was only released a decade earlier, in 1981 (DOS, in case you don't know, being the start of a little business called Microsoft and effectively the birth of personal computing). This is all unnerving because it illustrates how quickly something can revolutionise the world. Today the PC and the Web are as much a part of our lives as the flush toilet and the refrigerator, but fifteen years ago neither really existed.
I mention this because as I write these words my colleague, Martin Fido, on the other side of the Atlantic, has just nonchalantly used both (computers and the Web) to write, 'Amazing how much that we simply didn't know back in 1988 has now come to light.'
In sixteen words he's managed to sum up the content of this editorial, and, indeed, the theme of Conference 2003, which is where some of you will be reading these words right now.
Back in 1987/88 when I wrote Jack the Ripper: The Uncensored Facts on a typewriter we knew next to nothing about 'Kosminski', nothing at all about Michael Ostrog, and Francis Tumblety was a name I'd come across in the New York Times and noted down on the first page of my notebook, but otherwise given no attention.
If I came across Tumblety's name or someone else I'd never heard of before - in a newspaper today and was sufficiently intrigued, I could write to one of the magazines about it or pose a question on the internet site Casebook: Jack the Ripper Message Boards, and quite often I might see an answer come flashing back or someone with easier access to American newspapers might do a quick search and in a case such as Tumblety open up a new and exciting avenues of research.
But fifteen years ago the Casebook didn't exist, it wasn't even a twinkling in the eye because the World Wide Web didn't exist, and home computers were new and very expensive and difficult to use. Fifteen years ago researchers pretty much worked in isolation, only sharing thoughts, speculations and information with others in very occasional letters they were occasional because you didn't know anyone else interested in the Ripper and those who'd written books were unapproachable and perhaps just a little awe-inspiring. I mean, Colin Wilson had his own television series back then which used as a theme and introduced me to Eric Satie's Trois Gymopedies, which has sounded eerie to me ever since and you simply didn't go up to people with their own TV series and say, "'ere Col, what you make of this Gull theory then?"
I mention this to illustrate what I think has been the most significant change in the Ripper world in the past fifteen years the means to communicate.
Fifteen years ago there were no Ripper magazines. Nick Warren was a few years from trailblazing the way with Ripperana, which he launched in July 1992; there were no social events like meetings and conferences because it wasn't until the winter of 1994 that Mark Galloway and others held the first meeting of the Cloak and Dagger Club where people could socialise, discuss the Ripper and listen to a speaker (the inaugural speaker was author Paul Feldman). And it wasn't until 1995 that Stephen Ryder, fired by reading a book about the Maybrick diary, began making copious notes and in January 1996 'launched' what has since become the premier Ripper research resource, Casebook: Jack the Ripper.
The downside of people being able to exchange thoughts and express opinions is that some people express thoughts and opinions better left unexpressed or are unable to resist the temptation to correct the mistakes of others. Sometimes both are done very acerbically. And from time to time there can be explosions of ill-temper. None of this is unique to Ripperology. The most extraordinary and shocking spleen venting can go on in academic circles over the proper naming of a microbe or the interpretation of some phrase in a charter dating from the Ho Dynasty, and I suppose its arrival in Ripper studies must therefore be a sign of Ripperology's emerging maturity.
The other most significant change in the past fifteen years being Ripper-ology's development from a game in which folk tried to make the facts fit a theory Hunt the Ripper as crime writer Jonathan Goodman once called it into a reasonably respectable area for study where the demand is for fact, fact and more fact. Play Hunt the Ripper these days and you are likely to be torn apart, as Ms Cornwell rather painfully discovered last year.
I'm very dubious about this. I want facts, but equally I need people to find those facts and since fringe interests like Ripperology aren't funded by academic institutions, where professors are paid to teach and undertake research, the facts are usually uncovered by someone sufficiently fired by something such as a theory that they go out and do research to find evidence to support it. Whether or not we subsequently find the theory believable, the research usually produces a gem of information we didn't know before. We should therefore try to retain cheerful good humour when it comes to theorising and speculation.
Patricia Cornwell and her book Portrait of a Killer were viciously criticised by Ripperologists and Sickert supporters alike, perhaps more splenetically than was necessary because it was felt that such a poorly supported theory advanced by such a popular writer was an irresponsible abuse of influence. But it called to my mind a Scot named Robert Chambers who in 1844 published anonymously a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which advanced the thoroughly outrageous suggestion that people might have evolved from lesser primates. It was unmercifully attacked and one chap who entertained a similar idea to Chambers felt compelled to lock away his own manuscript on the subject, and keep it locked away for fifteen years. The chap, of course, was Charles Darwin, and we can only wonder what would have happened had Darwin's book been released in 1844 and been subjected to rational, intelligent discussion, rather than rabid outpourings. (Or, indeed, what would have happened if in 1831 another Scot, a gardener named Patrick Matthew, who had conceived the theory of natural selection, had published his ideas in something more noticeable than the appendix of a book with the snappy title Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Which, incidentally, is proof, I suppose, if anyone need it, that primacy is not so much about being the first to be published, but being the first to be read.)
But back to Patricia Cornwell's dip in the shark-infested waters of Ripperology, the bottom line is that she conceived a theory and to put that theory to the test she stumped up the cash and used her clout to put together a team of experts and obtain access to source materials that no one else could have done, but the experiment itself was brave and worthy and fail or succeed it could have produced a book of considerable value and merit. Okay, we don't share her conclusions, but what's worrying is that others, some Ripperological Charles Darwin, observing her scars, might be dissuaded from taking a dip, as, indeed, Tom Clancy may already have been. But Ripperology will probably mature even further and theories will provoke rational discussion. We can only look forward to the maturing of our subject as it has already made possible the publication of some worthy heavyweight tomes, among them The Jack the Ripper A to Z and The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, neither of which could have been published fifteen years ago, and both of which have Keith Skinner's name on the spine! We have also seen some academic titles, such as Prof. Curtis's examination of the approach of 1888's media to the Whitechapel murders, Jack the Ripper and the London Press. This was, I think, a milestone publication, not the least because it quietly legitimised Ripperology, but also because it has hopefully paved the way for further books looking at specific and sometimes very narrow aspects of the case.
Of course, these are the really big ways Ripperology has changed, and as Stephen Ryder has observed elsewhere in this issue, they've impacted on Ripperology in ways almost unimaginable back in 1988. With a few mouse clicks or a bit of muscle to heft a volume from the bookshelf, you can have access to material unavailable or prohibitively expensive only a few years ago, and in seconds you can check facts that would have taken earlier authors weeks or months to find, let alone verify.
It's quite an exciting time, really, as lots of new information is unearthed by people like Chris Scott who raids newspaper archives like the Vandals sacking Rome, Neal Shelden devotedly unearthing the lives of the victims, Bernie Brown burrowing into police records to produce information about the coppers who investigated the case, and loads of other people whose names will spring into my mind in a few hours time but at 4.30am are waiting in the wings of my brain and refusing to come on stage. We have the Casebook and magazines like this one, useful resources as well as places for people to air their theories and thoughts, publishers looking more favourably on serious books about the case rather than sensational new theories, and above all, lots of people willing to read those books and make the effort worthwhile.
Yes, it's getting better. Getting better all the time.