As an avid reader of true-crime literature, I often spend as much time reading comments on a book’s Amazon page—or on websites about the case—as reading the book itself. One learns so much about the workings of the human mind: How our perspective on a crime can reflect our own paranoias and pet obsessions; how people, even when trying to be “objective”, unwittingly let slip some bias that has coloured their view of a case.
The same holds when I visit the Ripper Casebook forum—a huge site dedicated to information and speculation about the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888—and read the theories, some measured and others outlandish, that followers of the case put forth to this day, often arguing bitterly with those who don’t see their point of view.
Watching the ‘Ripperologists’ pore over a 127-year-old case’s every detail (much of which is incomplete, unauthenticated, or subject to problems of interpretation) makes me think of one of the most brilliant comics I have read, Dance of the Gull-Catchers. This is the 24-page coda to the Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell graphic novel masterpiece From Hell, a fictionalised telling of the Ripper story. Having taken the reader through 500 pages where he worked out a premise based on a widely debunked theory, Moore turns hilariously, caustically meta and turns a lens on the convoluted history of the case and its would-be solvers. (‘Gull-catcher’ refers to someone who traps or tricks gullible people; but in characteristic Alan Moore style, there is a double-meaning. The protagonist of From Hell is the physician Sir William Gull, a real-life historical figure.) “The truth is this has never been about the killer or his victims,” he writes. “It’s about us, about our minds and how they dance. Jack mirrors our hysterias.”
That history has included the unearthing of a diary supposedly belonging to the killer, a royal conspiracy theory where Queen Victoria herself was involved, and random accusations directed at public figures of the time. And along the way, many well-known authors have been either gull-catchers or gullible. For instance, the novelist Patricia Cornwell went to Scotland Yard, took a look at a dark and disturbing painting by the artist Walter Sickert, and just knew, intuitively that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. She went on to write a book titled Portrait of a Killer, announcing that she had unmasked the murderer, and pompously titled it ‘Case Closed’, rightly becoming a laughing stock for anyone who was seriously acquainted with the facts of the Ripper case and could see just how dubious Cornwell’s research and hypotheses were.
For even a scrupulous, serious-intentioned writer attempting to chronicle a contentious crime, there are all sorts of potholes along the way. At the risk of getting very specific, here’s an example. Most serious students of the Ripper case agree that the best, most comprehensive single book about the case is Peter Sugden’s 1994 publication The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. Sugden, more a historian than a ‘Ripper buff’, was wary of the perils of depending on handed-down material; he threw out all the received wisdom about the case and began research afresh, and the results show in the high quality of the final work.
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(This story appears in the Sept-Oct 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)