truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
Q1: More about Jack the Ripper! Who do you think did it?
Q2: Research -- do you plan your approach, or is it more freeform/serendipitous/falling down rabbit holes?
Q3: Are you exclusively reading true crime? If so, what's that been like? If not, what else are you reading?
[each from a different and lovely reader]


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truepenny: photo of the keyboard and raised lid of a 1911 Bluethner grand piano; the inside of the lid has inlaid brass letters reading BLUETHNER LEIPZIG (bluethner 1911)
This is for me, as a research tool. But if you're interested, hey, it's also for you.

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truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
Ripperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary PhenomenonRipperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary Phenomenon by Robin Odell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have tried and tried, and I can't think of a better word to describe this book than "charming." Which seems so wrong in the context of the Whitechapel Murders and Jack the Ripper. But Odell is not writing about Jack the Ripper, exactly. He's writing about the people who write about Jack the Ripper, what they write, and why, and considering the crazy theories that have been put forward in the last century, Odell's wry, generous, thoughtful voice is charming, like a Virgil to lead the reader patiently and clear-headedly through the Inferno of Jack the Ripper Studies, otherwise known as Ripperology.

Odell is himself a major contributor in the field, so he knows the ins and outs of the community of Ripperology very well. He doesn't explain the actual historical crimes and investigations as well as Philip Sugden or Neil R.A. Bell, and the occasional circumstances of the book's production (the Kent State University Press asked him to write about the relationship between American Ripperologists and British Ripperologists for their imaginatively titled "True Crime Series") create an odd, intermittent emphasis on what the Americans happened to be thinking but he's very good at timelines and cross-correlations and using them to poke holes in various whacked-out theories. (His lack of patience for Patricia Cornwell made me very happy.)

This is an excellent overview of the evolution of the historiography of Jack the Ripper, and a great way to get the gist of books you (a) most likely can't find and (b) most likely don't want to have to wade through (the elaborate castles-in-the-air accusing the Duke of Clarence, Walter Sickert (with or without Sir William Gull), James Maybrick, and a number of other unlikely suspects), but that are important artifacts in the history of this particular and very narrow field of criminology.



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truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
The Black Museum: New Scotland YardThe Black Museum: New Scotland Yard by Bill Waddell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I regret to report that this book is just not very good.

Waddell is a poor writer, showing little regard for his words: e.g., "euphoria" when (my guess is) he meant "hysteria" in discussing Rose Mylett, "another name added to the endless list of murdered women who were believed to be Ripper victims, when in fact there was very little to connect them with the Ripper's modus operandi. Such was the euphoria created by the press of the time" (79). He's preachy and prone to platitudes; his prose is clumsy; and he has lamentably zero flair for true crime narrative. I admit he has an uphill battle in trying to write a book about the Black Museum, but still.

He perpetuates several myths about Jack the Ripper (there were no farthings, polished or otherwise, found near Annie Chapman's body) while taking other writers severely to task for perpetuating myths, and I'm afraid I lost a great deal of respect for him when he started defending Sir Robert Anderson's "Mad Jew" story.

I bought this book because the odds of my ever having the chance to visit the Black Museum are very close to zero. And it does provide at least some of what I wanted. But as a book, it was disappointing.



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truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
Capturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian LondonCapturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian London by Neil Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Bell is not a graceful writer, but he conveys his information clearly. He is a sane and responsible Ripperologist--meaning that he assesses evidence logically, refers generally to "the Whitechapel murders" to avoid questions about which women are "canonical" Jack-the-Ripper victims and which aren't, and regards all letters, chalked messages, pieces of kidney, and other communications alleged to be from Jack the Ripper with healthy skepticism--and has done a great deal of research into the lives of ordinary bobbies, specifically in H Division (Whitechapel), but more generally in the Metropolitan and City Police. Questions about uniforms, about training, about what a constable's "beat" actually consisted of, about the likely career path (you could rise up steadily through the ranks as long as you didn't trip yourself up by getting sacked for being drunk on duty--which happened a lot), the procedure for interviewing witnesses, communications between Scotland Yard and individual stations, what happened when someone was arrested for drunk and disorderly, where the chinks were for corruption to creep in. He goes into detail about Sir Charles Warren's rise and fall (including some incidents I had never read about before), and throughout he presents the Whitechapel murders as much as possible as they were experienced by the police of London.

Highly recommended for anyone researching--for whatever purpose--the police of late Victorian London.



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truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: castabella)
The News From Whitechapel: Jack The Ripper In The Daily TelegraphThe News From Whitechapel: Jack The Ripper In The Daily Telegraph by Alexander Chisholm

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is for you if you want primary sources and you are either:

(A) interested in Jack the Ripper
(B) interested in Victorian journalism.

Otherwise, this book is probably NOT for you, since it is a compilation of The Daily Telegraph's coverage of the five canonical murders of Jack the Ripper (Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes, Kelly). The editors have included commentaries about each murder, which I found to be little more than a distraction, but might be helpful for someone just getting their feet wet in Ripperology.

I gave this book five stars because it is an AWESOME primary source for both Jack the Ripper and late-Victorian journalism and I deeply appreciate the work the editors did to put it together, but this is very much a YMMV kind of review. If you aren't the target audience in a very small niche market, it's probably not going to be your cup of tea.

I loved it.



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truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: castabella)
Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. 2011. New York: Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin's Press, 2013.

Tucher, Andie. Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.



This is another inadvertant pairing, but even aside from the part where both Flanders and Tucher are talking about murder, they're both talking about popular culture in the nineteenth century and the way the snowballing literacy rate created popular print culture. And how popular print culture addressed the phenomenon of murder.

Tucher is interested in a very narrow window: 1836 to 1841 in New York, from the murder of Helen Jewett by Frank Robinson to the murder of Samuel Adams by John Colt. She is particularly interested in the way these two murders were reported by James Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald and the development of the "objective" style of newspaper reporting. I have some problems with the motivations she ascribes to Bennett (mostly in that I'm not sure he was as self aware as she thinks he was), and it turned out in the last chapter that she was aiming for an argument about journalism that I don't agree with, but the part about the history of the penny press in New York was excellent.

Flanders' is a much larger book, in every sense of the word, larger in scope, larger in outlook, larger in physical dimensions (556 pages vs. 257). Ignore the pretentious title (and the doubly pretentious sub-title): nowhere in her argument does Flanders claim that the Victorians "invented" murder, nor that they "created modern crime." The Invention of Murder is half an overview of the famous murders of the nineteenth century in England, from the Ratcliffe Highway murders to Jack the Ripper. (Although, oddly, Charles Bravo is nowhere to be found.) The other half is an exhaustive teasing out of what happened to those murders (those murderers and those victims) as they were swallowed by the increasingly insatiable maw of Victorian print culture, and the particular ways in which they were fictionalized. Broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers, penny-bloods (later called penny-dreadfuls), novels, plays, puppet shows, waxwork exhibits; she even notes racehorces and greyhounds named for murderers. She also follows the unfolding of detective fiction as a genre and the development of the institution of the police. And if nothing else will convince you of the inadvisability of time travel, the utterly horrific standards of justice in nineteenth-century England should do the trick.

This is a very good book, very well-written, very entertaining. If you're interested at all in the process by which fact becomes fiction, it is endlessly fascinating. In the cases where I know enough to tell, she seems to have her facts straight. (She gets some details wrong about Jack the Ripper, but everybody gets some details wrong about Jack the Ripper, and it's mean to cavil.) I inevitably disagree with some points of her interpretation, but nothing that really gets in the way.

This is not a true-crime book. Flanders pays attention to the victims and the murderers (and the victims of legal murder), but she's interested more in the cultural transmission of their stories than she is in trying to uncover the truth (or "truth," if you're feeling particularly skeptical today) about the murder of Francis Saville Kent, for instance, or Adelaide Bartlett's husband*, or the Marrs and the Williamsons back in 1811. The historiography of murder, rather than the history.

---
*Frederick Bartlett died from swallowing liquid chloroform. The general consensus is his wife murdered him, but nobody knows how the hell she got him to swallow the stuff.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: hamlet)
Bondeson, Jan. The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale. 2001. N.p.: Da Capo Press, 2002.

James, P. D., and T. A. Critchley. The Maul and the Pear Tree. 1971. N.p.: Warner Books, 2002.

Jakubowski, Maxim, and Nathan Braund. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper. 1999. 2nd ed. London: Robinson-Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008.



These books made an inadvertent trio, which actually was interesting for the chance it gave to watch the evolution of London's police force, from The London Monster, where all detection & apprehension was down to private citizens, through the muddle of overlapping jurisdictions in The Maul and the Pear Tree, to the clear understanding of roles in 1888. Private citizens might try to help the police, but they weren't doing their job. There were also several very instructive comparisons to be made about the historiography of crime.

details, for them as wants them )

Inadvertent trio, yes, but they worked well together.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: damville)
Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994. [library]



This is the best book on Jack the Ripper I have read thus far. Sugden can lay out a clear, coherent narrative of what we know about each crime, he is adamant about relying on primary sources, and when he doesn't know something, he says so flat out. He treats everything we "know" about the identity of Jack the Ripper with rigorous skepticism (including, thank goodness, the claims of Sir Robert Anderson that seem to have hypnotized so many Ripper historians), and the only time I caught him yearning, like a dog on a leash, after a crazy-ass theory was at the very end of the book.

cut for Ripperology )

There are, of course, criticisms I can make. cut for more Ripperology )

But the only one I can think of that actually affects whether or not this is a good gateway for people interested in Jack the Ripper is that, by the nature of the historiography of Jack the Ripper, Sugden spends a lot of time demonstrating that earlier historians are wrong. He has to, because so many of their claims have become things "everybody knows" about Jack the Ripper. But if you don't know the earlier theories, you may be baffled as to why the various subjects even come up. All historiography is a conversation, but the historiography of the Ripper is a party in an over-crowded room, where somebody starting shouting half an hour ago, and now everybody's talking too loudly. It can be hard to hear anything over the din.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: castabella)
Evans, Stewart P., and Keith Skinner. Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2001. [library]



It feels weird to be describing a book about Jack the Ripper as beautiful, but, in fact, this is a beautiful book. Also fascinating. It's about the letters--some 200+ in all--sent to the police and newspapers and, of course, the Central News Agency--purporting to be from Jack the Ripper. Evans and Skinner have transcribed all of them and photographed many of them and written a quiet, careful assessment of what these letters do and do not tell us.

They do not tell us anything about the actual murderer. Evans and Skinner see no reason to think any of the letters (including "Dear Boss" and "From Hell") are from the murderer, and I have to admit I agree with them. But the letters tell us a lot about the police investigation, and even more about public response. They also tell us a lot about the more unpleasant parts of human nature: Evans and Skinner discuss the two letter-writers who were actually caught, both women, both with no better motive for writing letters purporting to be from Jack the Ripper than "for a lark." And the letters themselves range from barely literate, barely intelligible scrawls from people who were clearly about as badly off, sanity wise, as the murderer himself, to hoaxes like the "Dear Boss" letter which were written by someone who knew exactly what he or she was doing.

The photographs of the letters are beautifully done. Some of the letters are themselves lovely--there's one in particular, written in October 1889, which looks more like an example in a handwriting manual than anything else--and even the ugliest of the letters (either in terms of aesthetics or contents) are fascinating to look at.

Evans and Skinner did a marvelous job with this book. If I had a coffee table, I'd totally put this on it.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: hamlet)
Douglas, John, and Mark Olshaker. The Cases That Haunt Us. New York: Lisa Drew-Scribner, 2000. [library]

FBI profiling techniques applied to famous unsolved (or dubiously solved) crimes: Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Bruno Hauptmann, the Zodiac, JonBenet Ramsey, the Black Dahlia, the Boston Strangler, and Laurie Bembenek. (It's odd, looking at that sentence, how some crimes are known, in shorthand, for their victim, some for the criminal, and some for the person accused. And the Lindbergh case is immediately recognizable from both sides.) Douglas and Olshaker are very rational, very commonsensical, and fundamentally their technique is to say, This is the crime. These are the requirements for a perpetrator. This is how we might (in 2000) go about catching such a perpetrator. This is how the accused does, or does not, meet these requirements. They figure Lizzie did it; that Hauptmann did it, but didn't act alone; and that accusing JonBenet's parents is nonsense.

This was a good read, very engaging, well laid out as a narrative, very convincing. My only complaint is cut for Ripperology ).

Otherwise, excellent book. Recommended if you're interested in criminology at all.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: hamlet)
If a person has read Donald Rumbelow's book on Jack the Ripper (variously published as The Complete Jack the Ripper and Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook), are there any other nonfiction Jack the Ripper books that one ought to read? I.e., has anything substantially new been said since Rumbelow? (And should I bother with anything pre-Rumbelow?)

Please note, I'm not asking what books about Jack the Ripper have been published since 1975; I can find that out for myself. I'm asking for recommendations about which, if any of them, to read.

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