L. Perry Curtis
Yale University Press, 2001. 320pp., illus., bib., index.
Books with "Jack the Ripper" in the title usually don't include words such as shadenfreude, semiotic, trope or (my personal favorite) gynophagy. Perhaps that's a silly point to make at the opening of a review. But when the most I can usually hope for at the beginning of a new offering in this genre is correct spelling and punctuation, it is indeed startling to stumble across the cold, emotionless vocabulary of academia within the confines of a Ripper read. After skimming through just the first few paragraphs of Jack the Ripper and the London Press, I knew this was no run-of-the-mill "final solution." I couldn't wait to jump in.
The first several chapters start off with a bang, providing detailed and evocative depictions of East End social conditions, as well as informative case studies of "new journalism" and Fleet Street's coverage of other Victorian murder cases. Curtis ably demonstrates what was required to make a true-blue Victorian murder sensation - not just a gruesome death, but also the added elements of class struggle, political scandal and just the right amount of sexuality. He then draws a brilliant comparison between the reportage of the Ripper case in 1888 and that of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of 1998 - in both instances the press struggled to publish a monumental story without pushing the envelope of "tasteful reporting" too far. Whereas the Victorian press had to dream up sanitary euphemisms for "sexual intercourse", "groin" and "vagina" in describing the Ripper murders, CNN reporters in 1998 struggled to complete their broadcasts on the Starr Report without using the word "fellatio" or explaining just exactly what the President did with his favorite cigar.
Unfortunately, Curtis loses some of his earlier momentum when he begins to describe the actual reporting that took place in a dozen or so different London newspapers. While he painstakingly analyzes every major angle of the Ripper story and contrasts the coverage offered by the different presses, he never seems to draw any major conclusions from the study. Curtis succeeds in portraying the distinct methods and philosophies of a few newspapers and their editors, such as Lloyd's and, most notably, the Pall Mall Gazette. But the remaining ten or so papers in his study remain largely indistinct and undifferentiated, and as a result much of the discussion surrounding them, while interesting in itself, fails to impress any overall realizations upon the reader.
Nevertheless, what remains is a fascinating and little-known version of events as portrayed in the contemporary press. Curtis relates the story of the Ripper murders exactly as the Victorian public themselves heard it back in 1888. In doing so, he makes a number of important revelations - not about the Ripper or his victims, but rather about Victorian society as a whole, and how the case affected, and continues to affect, social reactions to the most unsocial of crimes. Strongly recommended.