Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
UBC: 3 books about crime in London, 1790-1888 
28th-Apr-2012 10:36 am
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.

The London Monster, more than the other two, was written to be popular and sensationalist (there's no need to be sensationalist about the Ripper, after all), but despite that, it is a well-written and well-researched book about an odd series of crimes in London in 1790 (I just noticed, in double-checking the date, that Bondeson refers to both the Ratcliffe Highway murders and to Jack the Ripper in his introduction. So, although the trio was inadvertent on my part, it was clearly very much on Mr. Bondeson's mind.)

The London Monster was a man (or men) who attacked respectable women on the streets of London, cutting their buttocks and thighs, or their arms, or stabbing them in the face with a knife concealed in a nosegay. It is inevitable, apparently, in reading about crimes committed before 1900, that there will be doubts expressed about the workings of justice. I'm not entirely sure whether that's a legitimate comment on the justice system of preceding centuries or whether it's simply the fashion in criminological historiography. Certainly, Bondeson follows the pattern, and I can't deny that I agree with his assessment: if we accept the eye-witness statements (which are all we have to go on), there must have been at least three London Monsters working at the same time (one man was extremely tall by the standards of the time, and one seemed to like inventing Wolverine-esque contraptions to cut his victims with), and only one of them was brought to trial. Bondeson even seems to doubt that Rhynwick Williams was one of the Monsters at all, suggesting that he was simply a creepy little stalker who made a good scapegoat. I'm not sure I want to go that far, but The London Monster is a good cautionary tale about the malleability of eye-witness testimony.

The Maul and the Pear Tree is about two horrific crimes in 1811: two houses invaded, the inhabitants beaten to death with a maul or a ripping chisel, and then their throats cut, and all for no apparent reason (one of the victims was a three-month-old baby). In comparison, the London Monster looks merely quaint; for all that he, or they, caused tremendous anxiety to the populace, and severe injury to the victims, no one actually died and there is no sign that the Monster's goal was murder. The Ratcliffe Highway murderer, on the other hand, like Saucy Jack, was interested in nothing else.

James and Critchley (on the book's original publication in 1971, it was Critchley and James, but that was another country, and besides the wench is dead) doubt the guilt of the man arrested for the crimes, John Williams, and edge toward conspiracy theory in their suggestion that his suicide in his cell, before he could be brought to trial, was actually murder. They don't go to the elaborate lengths of the crazier Ripperologists or Arnold Brown, since their suggestion is that the true murderer bribed a turnkey to get into Williams' cell, and then the investigation was dropped because the magistrates (a.) pounced on a dead scapegoat and then (b.) couldn't afford any retrograde motion. They needed to be seen to have solved the case.

I remain somewhat unconvinced. I'm not convinced of Williams' guilt, mind you, but James and Critchley just don't persuade me that their alternate theory is the truth. I'm not sure if it's due to the fact that, having been written for a popular audience in 1971, the book has no endnotes and the rigor of the inquiry has been carefully muffled, or if it's that I found the writing curiously flat (I had that trouble with James in her mysteries, and it's why I stopped reading her--she never made me care about anyone, and she never seemed to want to). So I agree that the investigation should not have stopped after Williams' death, but beyond that I'm not willing to go.

On the other hand, the book was worth the price for the description of the procession of Williams' corpse through the streets of Wapping and its burial, with a stake through its heart, at the crossroads of New Cannon Street and Cable Street.

And finally, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper, which is an excellent addition to my library because its centerpiece is a collection of essays written by prominent Ripperologists discussing their favorite candidates for the mantle of Ripper. The prize must be awarded to M. J. Trow for his deadpan satire, undectable until the reveal, putting forward the reformer Frederick Charrington. The sad thing is that his satire is better argued and more persuasive than some of the sincere efforts in the collection. Possible Rippers include William Henry Bury, Francis Tumblety, James Maybrick, James Kelly, David Cohen, Thomas Barnardo, an unamed Irish nationalist, a series of copycat murderers (apparently, the only thing that had been keeping the slaughtermen of Whitechapel on the straight and narrow was their failure to realize that their professsion allowed them to walk the streets soaked in blood and not rouse suspicion), Walter Sickert, and Carl Feigenbaum. Plus one essay that doesn't attempt to name a specific murderer, but merely to deduce the characteristics which we can be certain the murderer had from the nature of his murders. Sadly, despite the seeming restraint of the project, even this essay bounds wildly into unsubstantiatable Biblical speculation. This collection of essays is fascinating, not so much for what it tells us about Jack the Ripper as for what it tells us about his historiography and historiographers. (I need to find the earlier edition, because Jakubowski & Braund weeded out the Ripper candidates who are now unfashionable, like M. J. Druitt, and I would love to read the essays stumping for them.) It is also extremely instructive, given that the first section of the Mammoth Book is devoted to laying out the facts as we know them, to observe how many of the essayists get basic facts about the murders wrong. I said to mirrorthaw, if I were ever to teach a course in argumentation and/or historiography, I would assign The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper, because it offers such a compact smorgasbord of rhetorical tricks and logical flaws and the way we bend history when we try to write about it.

Inadvertent trio, yes, but they worked well together.
28th-Apr-2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
I can't recall if I've ever mentioned this book to your or not The Fox and The Flies, by Charles van Onselen. It's a biography of Joseph Silver, a criminal whose efforts ranged from eastern Europe to New York and South Africa. While the chance to see a documented biography of a late nineteenth=century criminal is interesting in and of itself, van Onselen speculates that Silver makes an excellent potential candidate for Jack the Ripper. I'm as unconvinced by his arguments as I am about just about all the others I've seen, but the rest of it is documented exhaustively and makes an interesting, if repellant, account.
28th-Apr-2012 05:56 pm (UTC)
This collection of essays is fascinating, not so much for what it tells us about Jack the Ripper as for what it tells us about his historiography and historiographers.

I can't recall -- did you ever read "Dance of the Gull-Catchers," Alan Moore's short comic about Ripperology? Because it's all about that, and kind of hilarious. (Not least of which because Moore acknowledges the way he, too, gets caught up in the whirlpool.)

I have the London Monster book on my shelf, but have not yet read it. I also need to find a good book about the Bow Street Runners, one of these days.
28th-Apr-2012 06:05 pm (UTC)
...a good book about the Bow Street Runners, one of these days.

A good beginning is "The Thieves' Opera" by Lucy Moore.
30th-Apr-2012 11:30 pm (UTC)
28th-Apr-2012 09:01 pm (UTC)
It is inevitable, apparently, in reading about crimes committed before 1900, that there will be doubts expressed about the workings of justice.

I recommend reading The Agitator, which follows things currently going wrong in the American justice system. I don't know whether there's any time or place where things were better in terms of procedure.

Edited at 2012-04-28 11:19 pm (UTC)
29th-Apr-2012 10:37 am (UTC)
Do you get a show called Whitechapel in the US? It's a British series from the ITV network, set in contemporary London, but using records of 19th century crimes as a template. It's fascinating, and rather nicely done.
30th-Apr-2012 02:56 pm (UTC)
One of the eps in the first series of "Garrow's Law" focuses on the London Monster.
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