The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
THE RIPPER’S VICTIMS IN PRINT:
THE RHETORIC OF PORTRAYALS SINCE 1929
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2018
softcover & ebook
239pp; notes, biblio, index
softcover £29, ebook £11.75
Rebecca Frost wanted to see how the victims of Jack the Ripper had been represented in books written since 1929, when Leonard Matters wrote the first full-length book on the subject, The Mystery of Jack the Ripper, and she hoped that she would “see a constant, steady movement toward the humanisation of the murdered women.” She saw nothing of the sort, of course, but it baffled me that she hoped to see this developing “humanisation” at all. Frost tells us that in the summer of 2009 she bought her first Ripper book, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden, and within three years she had read ‘a vast number of books on the Ripper’ and come to realise that books about serial killers were overwhelmingly devoted to the killer.’ The victims were just ‘objects’, not people, and so the idea took hold to look at how authors presented the Ripper’s victims over the past eighty-nine years. So, she tells us she had read lots of books about Jack the Ripper before she conceived her project, therefore she knew how those books represented the victims.
It’s also clear that she also knew why they are represented the way they are. Over seven or eight chapters, Rebecca Frost looks at how the victims of Jack the Ripper have been portrayed by writers and she is clear that ‘the focus of this book is the representation of the victims as living women’ and that she wasn’t concerned with the factual accuracy of what was written about them or interested in them as clues pointing to the Ripper’s identity. She was interested in what the authors of Ripper books had to say about victims as real people. Which is fine, except Frost says very clearly: “from previous research I already knew that many true crime texts present murder victims as objects and sources of evidence that can be used to point to the killer…” In other words, she knew that most true crime books primarily concerned with the identity of the murderer treated the victims almost exclusively as sources of clues to the identity of the murderer. And, of course, that isn’t just true of true crime books, but of crime fiction and real life. As Patricia Cornwell succinctly expressed it, the “most important piece of evidence in any homicide is the body.” Given that Jack the Ripper probably first met his victims a short time before the murder was committed, what they forensically told and tell investigators is very little. Authors will therefore represent the victims as little more than cardboard cut-outs. So why was Rebecca Frost interested only in how Ripper authors would treat the victims as real people when she knew (or at least had every reason to believe) that they would be treated “as objects and sources of evidence”? I wondered if Frost had another agenda. And, unfortunately that suspicion grew as I read her book.
For example, she began by looking at how the victims were represented by Leonard Matters back in 1929, and homed in on Matters’ passing observation that Elizabeth Stride’s stature was such that she could “have fought tenaciously for her life.” Matters did not expand on this, but Frost found it “intriguing” and speculated about what Matters actually meant. Did he mean that Stride wasn’t given time to fight, that she fought but was overpowered by her killer, or that Stride’s life wasn’t worth fighting for and that she might have submitted to her fate as a way to commit suicide? But as far as I can see, Matters was airing a simple thought based on Stride’s above average height. There’s no reason to suppose that he had followed through that thought and I don’t see why Frost speculated about Matters’ supposed meaning at all, or why did she credit him with possibly thinking that Stride’s life wasn’t worth fighting for and that she committed suicide by submitting to her killer. That strikes me as a pretty grim thought with which to credit him without reason and to plant into her readers’ minds.
Edwin T Woodhall wrote a single sentence about Elizabeth Stride and concluded that there was nothing more to be said “for the reason that there were no fresh aspects, beyond the fact of the crime belonging to the same class of female mass-killings.” Woodhall, a former policeman, was stating the facts as they were available to him: he knew nothing about Stride that added materially to what was already known. Frost writes that Woodhall had evidently concluded that “there is no use expounding on her presumably unremarkable life,” and that “readers should count themselves lucky to know Elizabeth’s name”. And she adds that the victims mattered as little to Dr Stanley (Matters’ suspect) as “Elizabeth Stride does to Woodhall.” Edwin T Woodhall was writing in 1937, his book was one of several pulp paperbacks he churned out in the 1930s, and it’s unlikely that Woodhall thought it merited much time for research. It’s to be doubted that Woodhall knew enough about Elizabeth Stride’s life to be in a position to expound on it all, let alone that he thought it too unremarkable to be of interest. The suggestion is therefore entirely Frost’s, and I don’t know about you but I think that it was disgraceful for Frost to say that the victims mattered as little to Woodhall as they did to “Dr Stanley”, the deranged doctor Leonard Matters postulated was Jack the Ripper.
Frost continues through the decades, speculating about what authors mean, attributing to them thoughts and feelings she doesn’t know they entertained, and struggling to find something good to say even when more fulsome praise is due. I think most commentators would agree that Neal Shelden’s research into the victims was ground-breaking, but Frost devotes a single, short paragraph to his The Victims of Jack the Ripper. Frost acknowledges that his victims book was ‘a notable goal’, but otherwise negatively writes that half the short volume is devoted to photos of descendants, that chapters about individual victims include continuations of their family tree, Shelden limits himself to recording confirmable facts, and he makes no effort to “reanimate the victims into people with personalities”.
But at least Shelden got a mention; Elizabeth Stride and Jack the Ripper by Dave Yost, which was published by Frosts’ own publisher and is a book devoted to a victim, isn’t mentioned at all!
I regret being so negative about this book because I actually come out of it quite well, although Frost has a problem with a comment I made in Jack the Ripper: The Uncensored Facts. I observed that being murdered by Jack the Ripper had conveyed upon the victims a certain immortality, adding that I doubted this would have been any consolation. Frost spends a paragraph or two speculating about what I meant and the fact that she refers to the victims’ immortality several times throughout the book suggests that this was a concept she struggled with. At one point she revealingly commented on something John Bennett and I had written: “The fact that their graves are marked and their names, according to the authors known and recognised around the world is meant to elevate them somehow above any woman who falls outside the canonical five.” Of course, having names that are known around the world and a marked grave was not “meant to” elevate the victims above non-victims, but the fact is that most of us would like to be remembered and remembering one’s ancestors even features in several major religions, but most of us won’t leave anything to show that we existed except a name in some dry and dusty bureaucratic records, and sometimes not even that. But there was intense interest in the victims of Jack the Ripper because they were victims of Jack the Ripper, which means it has been possible to construct more of their life stories than is ordinarily possible. Being remembered is not “meant to” elevate the victims, it does elevate them.
However, constructing these life stories, minimal as they might be, has only been practicable since the digitisation of newspapers and genealogical documents in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Before then authors were largely reliant on reports in The Times, the only newspaper available on microfilm in libraries across the country and indexed. Furthermore, a lot of research is discussed on-line, and this includes research into the victims (as I write there has been some excellent work done on Alice McKenzie), which tends to be posted and discussed on websites like Casebook and JTRForums and written up in articles in journals like Ripperologist. These sources did not come within the purview of Frost, nor did she consider the requirements of commercial publishers who were and are primarily interested in “sensationalist” books about the identity of Jack the Ripper. This is slowly changing, and next year will see the publication of The Five, a book about the victims by the historian Hallie Rubenhold, who has a track record for writing about the demi-monde. It’s questionable whether anyone not so qualified would have got a look in and a couple of years ago Rubenhold probably wouldn’t have done either.
So, there are several reasons why the victims of Jack the Ripper haven’t had their stories told, none of them examined by Rebecca Frost, whose approach to Ripper writing was largely negative from the outset and didn’t take into account the various factors that influence the way writers have written what they have. When reading Frost’s book it’s probably worth remembering that practically everything that’s known about Jack the Ripper’s victims was uncovered by Ripperologists. Nobody else was interested.
Review by Paul Begg.