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The Bell Tower: The Case of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved... in San FranciscoThe Bell Tower: The Case of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved... in San Francisco by Robert Graysmith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I bought The Bell Tower for $2 at my local Friends of the Library's book sale. It was a good read--better written than either Zodiac or Zodiac Unmasked--and Graysmith clearly knows and loves San Francisco very deeply. So on those counts, this was a pretty good book--although I deplore his decision to write from the PoVs of Durrant (suspect), Gibson (suspect), Lamont (victim), Williams (victim), a composite Chronicle journalist, William Randolph Hearst, M. H. de Young, etc. etc. (down to the nested matryoshka dolls of the chapters that are a fictional "journal" of Theo Durrant that Graysmith's fictional Chronicle reporter writes in order to solve--or "solve"--the murders), and all without citations so that it's impossible to tell how much he researched and how much is just shit he's making up. He says he didn't come to a realization of Jack Gibson's alter ego of Jack the Ripper until he was almost finished with the first draft of the book, and I--unworthily--wonder if his enlightenment wasn't more "this is a crazy stunt that will sell more copies," in much the vein of Hearst's approach to journalism, and less "I really believe this man was Jack the Ripper."

I know nothing about the murders of Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams, so I can't speak to the reliability of Graysmith's version (although his almost complete failure to cite his sources makes me dubious), but I have done a fair amount of reading about Jack the Ripper, and I can tell you that Graysmith's theory is based on a version of events that--since he lists Philip Sugden's The Complete History of Jack the Ripper in his bibliography--he must know is incorrect. He cherry-picks for the evidence he wants, ignores the evidence he doesn't want, and insists throughout, bizarrely, that the vague, frequently contradictory, eyewitness descriptions of a man who might or might not have been Jack the Ripper are uncannily similar to descriptions of his chosen villain, Pastor John George "Jack" Gibson, and--I can't even believe I'm typing this--that "as I compared newspaper drawings of Pastor Gibson I found in the old map drawer, I noted the similarity to an eyewitness sketch of a wanted man [i.e., Jack the Ripper] I had seen in books" (510).

(1) What the actual fuck.
(2) I have never seen this "eyewitness sketch" before (that Graysmith has seen "in books"? come on), and like I said, I have done a fair amount of reading about Jack the Ripper.
(3) Looking at his reproductions of the drawings of Gibson and Jack, I don't see any resemblance any greater than you might see between any two sketches of Victorian men with small mustaches.
(4) He's hingeing a theory on the resemblance between newspaper drawings done in 1895 and a "police artist's sketch" (as it's captioned, rather different from the "eyewitness sketch" he claims in the main body of the text) which he says was published on October 6, 1888, and infers by juxtaposition was based on Lawende's description of the man he saw with Kate Eddowes on September 30. He's comparing drawings from life (although we have no way of knowing how accurate they are) with a--not very good--drawing from a description given (if it was based on Lawende's description) by a witness who looked at the man for less than five seconds at 1:30 A.M. on a drizzly night and who freely admitted he wouldn't recognize the man if he saw him again. Even if you grant there's a similarity, this still isn't even isn't circumstantial evidence. This isn't even hearsay evidence.

Okay. Even if we file the drawings under "every Ripperologist is allowed one crazy thing they can't let go of," his theory of Jack the Ripper's murders--that the Ripper was "motivated by religious mania, a hatred of prostitutes, and anti-Semitism" (462) and laid out his murders in the shape of a patriarchal cross--relies too heavily on his determination to prove that the Ripper was a clergyman and very little, if at all, on the actual evidence. The map of his patriarchal cross theory is beautiful, but it's beautiful nonsense, especially as one crucial point on the cross is actually not represented by any of the seven victims he's decided are his murderer's work (this includes Annie Millwood, who survived the attack of a man who stabbed her repeatedly in the legs and lower body on February 25, 1888). In fact, since the label for that particular X is down in the binding, I can't make out what it's supposed to be (UNREA . . . ZED ATTACK is all I can get), but Rupert Street is not familiar to me as a location either associated with the Ripper or with, say, the Thames Torso Murders. But he's numbered his seven victims (and, for some reason, Alice McKenzie, though not Rose Mylett or Frances Coles), and I found numbers 1 through 7, plus Alice McKenzie's 8. So this X is necessary to his theory (or he can't complete the upper bar of his patriarchal cross) but somewhat superfluous to reality.

And while anti-Semitism may or may not have played a direct role in the Ripper murders (it depends to a large extent on whether you count Elizabeth Stride in or out, and on whether you believe the two men encountered by Israel Schwartz were actually working together), if you leave out all of the Ripper letters, religious mania is an unsupported conclusion (very popular in the press and among the police, but utterly unsupported by the actual crimes). And there is no reason to think that any of the letters sent to anyone purporting to be from the Whitechapel murderer were genuine--except, just barely maybe, the "from Hell" letter (with accompanying half a kidney) received by the unfortunate George Akin Lusk. This is a snare that people keep falling into, and every time they do, I start to distrust their theories.

I wouldn't argue that Jack the Ripper necessarily hated prostitutes, although he might have. I would argue that he hated women, and that his victims, women who resorted to prostitution because they literally did not have the money (4d) for a bed, were women that were accessible to him. He chose them because they were the easiest possible pickings.

On the other hand, the young women murdered in San Francisco were not involved in prostitution, nor were they destitute. Blanche Lamont had been a schoolteacher in Montana before she came to San Francisco; Minnie Williams was a housemaid, greatly valued by her employers--so greatly that they endeavored to adopt her (they couldn't, because she was already 18)--and with a circle of friends. Both of them were young women who were immediately missed by family, employers, and friends. Blanche and Minnie weren't readily available on the street, and did not do their killer the ironic favor of finding a secluded spot in which he could murder them. (I am not here blaming the Ripper's victims for their deaths, any more than I blame Gary Ridgway's victims. By the nature of the only work they had, they had to go to isolated places with strange men. If you want to blame anything other than their murderers, blame the failure of Victorian London and late 20th century Washington State to legalize and regulate prostitution.) They had to be lured to the Emmanuel Baptist Church. And they weren't left on the street for the next passerby or patrolling constable to find. They were hidden (granted, Minnie wasn't well hidden, but she was hidden; Blanche and her clothing were very carefully hidden, and she probably wouldn't have been found, or at least not for a much longer span, if Minnie hadn't been). And while they were both strangled and stabbed, as general consensus is the Ripper's victims were, neither of them had her throat cut back to the bone in the Ripper's signature gesture. Also, Minnie was raped. (Blanche's body had decomposed too far for the forensic pathology of 1895 to make a determination.) And it seems fairly evident (as far as the forensic pathology of 1888 could determine) that the Ripper only had sex with his victims with his knife.

Tl;dr, I don't think Jack Gibson was Jack the Ripper.

He might have been the Devil in the Belfry (as Theo Durrant was called), but I don't know enough about the case, and I don't trust Graysmith's research enough, to make any kind of judgment.

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