Book Review: The Complete Jack The Ripper: A to Z by Paul Begg, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner


We will never actually know who Jack the Ripper actually was.

People will always be offering up theories, of course.  His crimes were so terrible and his nickname was so memorable and the fact that he was never caught is, to modern audiences spoiled by true crime shows and detective movies, so improbable that there’s a tendency to assume that Jack the Ripper must have been someone significant in his everyday life.  Everyone from Queen Victoria’s son to Lewis Carroll to Oscar Wilde has been accused over the years.

My personal theory is that Jack the Ripper was a nobody.  He didn’t have any medical training.  He wasn’t a part of a grand conspiracy.  He had no motive beyond his own hatred of women.  He stalked prostitutes because they were easy targets.  His murders were savage because he was a sadist who wanted to show off the power that he felt he had over his victims.  He got away with his crimes not because he was clever or protected but just because, in 1888, the police had no experience with a serial killer like Jack the Ripper.  In all probability, the killer was some anonymous loser, one of the many strange and angry men who could probably be spotted in Whitechapel on any foggy night.  

Unfortunately, after more than a 130 years of mystery, no one wants to admit that Jack the Ripper was probably some guy that no one’s ever heard of.  There’s a tendency to assume that he had to be someone important or, at the very least, someone who was at least mentioned in a handful of books about the Whitechapel murders.  Sadly, far too many people are under the impression that Patricia Cornwell solved the case in 2002.  In Portrait of a Killer, Cornwell accused the painter Walter Sickert of being the murderer.  Her main argument consisted of an inconclusive DNA test and an apparent inability to appreciate Victorian-era art.  Cornwell didn’t care much for Sickert’s paintings and therefore, Sickert had to be history’s most notorious murderer.  It’s a bit silly but a lot of people bought into it because it was Patricia Cornwell making the accusation.

To those people who insist that the murderer had to be a Victorian celebrity, I would point them to The Complete Jack the Ripper: A to Z.  Published in 2010, this book is the definitive guide to the Ripper murders.  It contains entries for every suspect, every victim, every policeman, every clue, and every theory.  There’s a lot of information to be found in this book.  In fact, there’s so much information that it’s easy to see how the actual killer could slip through the cracks and, unseen by the overwhelmed and underprepared legal authorities, disappear into the dark shadows of history.  Along with presenting a clear-eyed and nonbiased look at the suspects and the theories, the book is also to be commended for what it tells us about Jack the Ripper’s victims, who are too often forgotten when it comes to discussing the crimes.  So much time is spent on Jack’s identity that the women he murdered are often pushed to the side.  This book does not make that mistake.

This is the definitive book on Jack the Ripper, whoever he may have been.

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