What the cats' meat woman witnessed

Rebecca Gowers on the fine art of murder and the rise of Ripperology
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In 1885, at the first International Congress of Criminal Anthropology, the "socialistic" M. Lacassagne stood up and said "every society has the criminals that it deserves". This possibility perturbed a number of commentators when three years later at least four women were killed in Whitechapel by someone who mutilated and disembowelled them, removed certain organs, and, with one exception, arranged their innards carefully around their corpses.

The "Thames Torso" murders were happening at the same time. The dismembered bodies of four women were recovered along the river - though not three of the heads - between 1887 and 1889. Nevertheless, it is the Whitechapel killings that became instantly, hugely famous, and remain so. In the absence of any information about the murderer outside his crimes, there was an outpouring of invention, which in contorted forms continues to this day.

Two books published this year exemplify modern Ripperology. In The Complete History of Jack The Ripper (Robinson, £20), Philip Sugden proposes that the Ripper case is still interesting as a "classic whodunnit". He gives an impressive account of the factssurrounding known murders that might have been committed by the Ripper, but is unable to give the killer any other name: the "complete history" of the title is anything but.

What this book does succeed in demonstrating is that the Ripper's identity is possibly the least interesting thing about him. We notice increasingly that in his detective role Sugden is battling not simply with the Whitechapel murderer, but with all "idle and incompetent" Ripperologists past and present. He invites his "discerning reader" to scorn the bad Ripperologists, their "black magicians and imaginary Russian doctors, their mad freemasons and erring royals". He traces internecine feuds in the ranks, providing the reader with a glimpse of the bizarre alternative history of "dishonesty and fraud in Ripper research".

In The True Face of Jack The Ripper (Michael O'Mara Books, £14.99), Melvin Harris also asks, rather unfortunately, what makes the murders "so special?" His basic conclusion is that they are famous for being famous. Like Sugden, he dedicates much of his book to abusing the "bogus claims and lamentable errors" of others, and writes plaintively, "Perhaps we can now have respite from this gothic Lewis Carroll world of pasteboard characters?"

Harris's candidate is Robert "Roslyn" D'Onston Stephenson, first inducted into black magic by the novelist Bulwer-Lytton, then caught up in a lurid love triangle with two Theosophists, Baroness Cremers and Mabel Collins, while helping them to run a cosmetics company. Harris borrows the first "Thames Torso" to account for the disappearance of D'Onston's wife. His theory hinges on Vittoria Cremers's suggestive memoir, although she wrote it 40 years later for a journalist after rehearsing her story with the "most evil man in the world", Aleister Crowley (she was his business manager).

The internal contradictions in Harris's work are glaring. All that can be confidently deduced from this book is that D'Onston was obsessed with the murders, and wished to thrill a few people with the possibility of his being the Ripper. Whether D'Onston believed it himself is unclear. Any of his actions tending to exonerate him are presented by Harris as devious smokescreens. His central argument is that D'Onston "was adamant that the killings were the sexually inspired deeds of a sophisticated man, never the work of a madman. Only the killer himself could speak with such authority." Not only is this thesis alarmingly circular, but one is left hankering keenly for a definition of "mad".

The picture Harris builds up of a fetid Victorian underworld is fascinating, if patchy. This is typical of Ripper books. The best moments in Sugden's tome are occasional background details. He notes at one point the 17 people living in a house overlooking one of the murder sites, including two girls employed in a cigar shop, two carmen, a little old lady maintained out of charity, a tennis boot maker, his mentally retarded son, and a woman running a "cats' meat shop". He catalogues one victim's many pockets, her two clay pipes, little tin of sugar and metal teaspoon. He produces records of the sometimes indifferent reactions of those who discovered the corpses, and the angry response of a watchman who slept through one killing: "thirteen long hours for3 shillings and find your own coke". These pathetic particulars have an immediacy that nothing else in the book achieves. When Sugden tries to evoke "the old, half-fed, impoverished drabs [left] to crawl about from lamp to lamp until the first signs of dawn", he achieves none of the forlorn force of the "drab" allowed her own voice: "The people speak so kind and sympathisin' about the women he has killed and I'd not object to being ripped up by him to be talked about so nice after I'm dead."

It is brave in a book of this kind for the author to veer into fiction. Sugden is unselfconscious when he writes that "Jack the Ripper looks destined to remain whatever writers, songsters and film-makers wish him to be." This principle has been true fromthe start. Even the name "Jack the Ripper", was apparently first coined in the hoax "Dear Boss" letter published by the Daily Telegraph in September 1888, commonly thought now to be the work of a journalist: "I am down on whores and I shant quit rippingthem till I do get buckled." Policemen invented stories to get themselves in the newspapers. Witnesses invented evidence in the hope of being allowed to see the corpses. Newspapers invented stories in order to sell more copies.

In the face of the Ripper's "unique" crimes, people also turned to more illustrious fictions to provide a bench mark: "The unravelled mystery of the `Whitechapel Murders' would make a page of a detective romance as ghastly as `The Murders of the Rue Morgue'. . . The murderer must be a Man Monster," wrote one editor. Inevitable, too, is the wry comment from the head of the CID, invoking the most famous detective in the world: "One need not be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sexual maniac of a virulent type."

Conan Doyle himself is an iconic figure for this mix-up of fact and fiction. In 1921 he described how there was a "thrill of disappointment" as he entered a lecture hall in the States: "I learned afterwards that they all expected to see in me a cadaverous looking person with marks of cocaine injections all over him." Doyle did actually agitate successfully to get two innocent men out of prison, one charged with horse mutilations, and the other with murder; but he wasn't a detective, as man y insisted.

In an interview five years after the Ripper murders he talked about the "Dear Boss" letter: "It may have been a hoax, but there were reasons to think it genuine. . . Holmes' plan would have been to reproduce the letters in fac-simile, and on each plate indicate briefly the peculiarities of the handwriting. Then publish these fac-similes in the leading newspapers . . . and offer a reward to any one who could show a letter or any specimen of the same handwriting. Such a course would have enlisted millionsof people as detectives in the case." It is depressing to picture Sherlock Holmes attacking the problem in this way. The police had in fact published copies of the letter, but it merely inspired several hundred cranks to send them new disgusting variants. Nevertheless, as Sugden and Harris demonstrate, people are still enlisting to attempt to solve these murders.

In 1862, a Scots detective, McLevy, writing about the Devil and all his works, said, "Chance is one of his female angels, who, having been slighted by him, `peaches', and tells the likes of me his infirmity." Chance hasn't yet peached on Jack the Ripper.If she ever does, it will probably be cause for grotesque disappointment among the Ripperologists, who get as much joy from attacking one another's lunacies, as from any problems originally posed by the Whitechapel murderer. "The great defect in the detective of fiction," said Conan Doyle, "is that he obtains results without any obvious reason. That is not fair, it is not art." The unreasonable result is the great defect in most Ripperology too; but for this very reason, the cano n, "Ripperature," is very distinctly art: a perverse, fantastic art perhaps, but an art nevertheless.