Jack the Ripper: The Forgotten Victims

Jack the Ripper: The Forgotten Victims

Authors: Paul Begg and John Bennett
Publisher: New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. 312p.
Reviewer: Alexandra Warwick | March 2015

This is another volume on the apparently inexhaustible topic of the Whitechapel murders. The authors are rather well established in Ripperology, and this is not a book that departs in any measure from what are now recognisable as the conventions of the genre, at least in books that position themselves at the respectable end of the true crime shelf. Begg and Bennett firmly place themselves here, using words like ‘reputable’ and ‘responsible’ to distinguish their work from what they characterise as ‘the lowest common denominator – those who gawp at the Ripper-themed exhibits in the London Dungeon or the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds’ (259). A sober sepia cover sets the book apart from the garish red and black that are the usual colours of the genre, but it nevertheless features the gas-lamp-and-cobbled-street image, albeit here with a black-bonneted woman rather than a top-hatted gent merging into the shadows. Such are the subtle distinctions in the field of Ripperology, and they are as complex a set of signifiers as any class markers to be found in the late-Victorian East End. Other markers are the flat tone and the provision of many, many items of information that are offered instead of speculation. The extensive footnotes are a particular flourish, serving to guarantee that the writers are trustworthy, serious scholars and not ‘gawping’ sightseers come to satisfy a prurient interest in mutilated bodies.

Their premise — or rather not so much their premise as its alibi — is that victims deserve identification, but that we cannot be certain who may or may not have been killed by ‘Jack the Ripper,’ and that victims are included or excluded at the whim of the theorist. It is part of the awkward inconsistency of the book that this alibi appears in the conclusion rather than the introduction; it is not a thesis but a defence in which Begg and Bennett try to counter accusations of sensationalism or exploitation. The countering appears too late to be convincing in its sincerity. Their efforts to appear as neutral historians are undermined by their style of describing suppositions and then disavowing them in such a way as to still maintain their plausibility, and to rehearse again horrible events and then to criticise such rehearsal.

Some familiar cases appear –the well-worn ones of those peripheral to the ‘canon’ of five (or the ‘Macnaghten list’ as the authors call it, referring to the note made by the Assistant Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police CID in 1894) . The names Martha Tabram, Emma Smith and Alice McKenzie, many others have argued were victims of the Whitechapel murderer and add them in any permutation to the usual five. Begg and Bennett arrange them in a different list: ‘some are confidently counted among Jack the Ripper’s victims; others are not generally thought to have been killed by him (though they could have been) and a third group were assuredly not his victims at all, but their killers may have been inspired by him’(3). So this is not a proposal that the canon should be expanded, in the usual sense where the writer attempts to make the case for his (and it still usually is ‘his’) candidate(s), but a proposal that the category of victim be extended.

It is extended very widely indeed with some twenty-five women beyond the Macnaghten list, including Elizabeth Sodo who lived in Hanbury Street (where Annie Chapman was murdered on 8th September) and hanged herself on 11th October after two further killings had taken place. Elizabeth may have had reason to fear, living in the neighbourhood as she did, unlike Mary Burridge, who had a fit on the 8th September having, as the press reported, read a newspaper account of the murder of Annie Chapman. Mary died a couple of days later. She lived in Southwark, more than three miles from Whitechapel and on the other side of the river Thames. Even less likely was Fanny Hill, living in Brooklyn, New York, who nevertheless came to believe that the Whitechapel murder had crossed the Atlantic and was pursuing her. Equally unlikely were Caroline Brown in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Senior in New Jersey or Estina Crawford in Jamaica, all murdered between 1888 and 1892.

Begg and Bennett frequently point out that they are not suggesting that any of the more distantly located women have been killed by whoever murdered the five in Whitechapel and that this is not another book about the identity of Jack the Ripper. Indeed, the interest of this book lies elsewhere than the authors imagine. This is not in the brief account of the East End of London and the broad sweep of historical information in the opening chapters; I’d suggest that we are far from having an ‘image of late-Victorian society as ordered and secure, prim and proper, well-mannered and graceful’ (56) that needs over-turning. In fact, such has been the attention of historians in recent decades to the ‘other Victorians’, alongside an explosion of re-imaginings in film, fiction and popular culture of fin de siècle figures like Sherlock Holmes, that one might be more surprised by a claim that late-Victorian London was not in fact a steampunk Pandemonium inhabited entirely by low-lifes, morally-compromised slumming aristocrats, revolutionaries, brilliant detectives and courageous whores with hearts of gold.

There is increasingly little left to see of nineteenth-century Whitechapel, and there is only the most minute of possibilities that the identity of the murderer will ever be found; in fact it is hard to conceive of what might constitute proof at this distance from the crime –everything from paper analysis to diaries and DNA having been offered over the last fifty years. The book will solve nothing connected to the crimes, and contributes little to an understanding of any more general historical circumstances. It is principally interesting as an indicator of the present state of true crime writing and Ripperology in particular. In this respect it shows several things.

Firstly, and perhaps most interestingly, it reflects the rise of the status of the victim in legal discourse and practice over recent years. In England and Wales, for example, the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime was introduced in 2006, in which a ‘victim’ is defined as ‘a person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by criminal conduct,’ including close relatives of anyone deceased as a result of criminal conduct. Among the provisions of the Code was the right of victims to make a statement about how the crime had affected them, and this was extended in 2013 to allow the statement to be delivered in person in court. Long-running campaigns for justice conducted by relatives of victims have also become much more prominent in recent years, such as those connected to the Lockerbie crash in 1988 or the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989. In the UK, victims’ groups have challenged and forced the resignation or non-appointment of two chairs of an Independent Inquiry set up by the Home Secretary to investigate historical child abuse in England and Wales. The Forgotten Victims echoes the greater prominence and power now afforded to victims in criminal cases. However, the words ‘directly caused’ are highlighted in the Code and some of the cases detailed by Begg and Bennett, such as Mary Burridge or Fanny Hill, could hardly be said to be direct consequences. These resemble more closely another recent phenomenon, the expanded idea of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which has also come to play a significant part in the law, particularly in cases of compensation.

PTSD was first included in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a new illness in 1980, widening in definition in successive editions. Those who could now be regarded as victims of PTSD include witnesses, bystanders and professionals (such as police officers or rescue workers) as well as those receiving news of an event. The DSM defines a traumatic event as one in which:

(1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and (2) the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
This definition corresponds very closely to the principles on which Begg and Bennett have selected their cases. What it shows is that the prevalence of the idea of trauma and the scope of its effects in our own time are being projected back into the late nineteenth century. The claim that all the women named in the book are ‘victims’ is not one that could have been made with any credibility before about 1990.

A similar though perhaps more familiar backward projection is the image of the serial killer. This is not an idea that existed before the mid-twentieth century and is an extremely rare type of crime; indeed it has been argued that its basis lies in a category constructed by the FBI during the 1970s. The Forgotten Victims relies rather heavily on elements of the serial killer mythology, such as the idea of escalation in attacks and the development of a ‘signature’ method. In fact, such actions are the stuff of fiction rather than reality — and Begg and Bennett are complicit in perpetuating and elaborating the image.

The possible connections of the victims with Jack the Ripper are mostly tenuous or non-existent. However, there is another very clear and obvious connection among all the names on the list: they are all women, dead as a consequence of violence. Although some (and by no means all) Ripperologists have learned something from feminist commentaries on the murders, all that they have learned seems to be that they are obliged to gesture towards recognition of violence against women. Begg and Bennett make a gesture of this kind in their conclusion, mentioning the criticisms levelled by feminists at the celebration of the centenary and the marking of the 125th anniversary of the murders in 2013. They dismiss such criticism by quoting another Ripperologist: ‘Establishing who may have “dunit” is the best restitution for his victims’ (260). And so the justification for printing yet again the very detailed descriptions of the mutilations of the women’s bodies or the mortuary photograph of the face of Alice McKenzie is that this will in some way lead to justice for them.

While there was once a point in reminding readers that these were real women who died in pain and fear and lived in difficult and deprived circumstances, it has never been necessary to describe their injuries or to show the photographs of their bodies. As there is no chance that ‘whodunit’ will be discovered; this book, despite its pretensions to respectability, is just another opportunity for gawping at dead women and for indulgence of the fascination with the figure of Jack the Ripper. Such justice as might be derived would be to draw the conclusion that the authors avoid – that what they have written is yet another chapter of the long history of violence against women and that there is nothing mysterious or dramatic here — only a prosaic and appalling truth which is that women are, in disproportionate numbers, murdered by men and most often by men known to them. If readers are genuinely concerned with ‘forgotten victims’ they would do better to read the website Counting Dead Women which records every one of the 126 women murdered by men in 2012, the 143 in 2013 and 149 in 2014.

So, as ever on this topic, this is not so much a book about people and events in East End London in the late nineteenth century, but about us, here and now, what we value, what we want to remember and what we choose to ignore.

Professor Alexandra Warwick
Head of Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies
University of Westminster, London, UK

Start typing and press Enter to search