The Writing on the Wall: Jack the Ripper – Case Cracked?

Review: Bruce Robinson, They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper (London: Fourth Estate, 2015), pp. 850, RRP £25.00

Read all about it: Jack the Ripper. Case closed, again. One of around thirty suspects. A top-hatted, Gladstone bag and Liston knife carrier. 1888, the era of high Victoriana. Poverty-stricken prostitutes butchered. Today, books snapped-up by publishers guaranteed commercial success. A miasma of words as thick as a fog swirling the cobbled streets of nineteenth-century East London. Conan Doyle, cut your heart out. Or Carry On, Hammer Horror.

An intoxicating tale, infectious. Eminent historian Charles Van Onselen ruined an otherwise excellent biography of trans-Atlantic criminal Joseph Silver by fingering him as Jack the Ripper. Further madcap final solutions include Patricia Cornwell spending $6 million to name Walter Sickert, one of Europe’s greatest artists, as the murderer. Case closed. Last year witnessed a media frenzy over the use of an old cum-stained shawl and dodgy DNA to “prove” that Aaron Kosminski was the culprit. A perpetual game of Cleudo for cunts.

2015 has not failed to disappoint. One writer claims an ancestor was in fact victim Mary Kelly and that her husband murdered her. Poet Francis Thompson has also been claimed as the killer.

In They All Love Jack, Bruce Robinson, director and screenwriter of Withnail and I and The Rum Diary, draws on two strands of his much-detested Ripperology: conspiracy theory and a hoax diary “discovered” in 1992.

An establishment cover-up comprising leading Freemasons was first popularized by Stephen Knight in 1976. Robinson believes Knight got the wrong man, but was onto something. Back in 1992 the diary of Jack the Ripper was found. The owner? James Maybrick. Wrong man again. But the diary is genuine. The owner? James’s brother, Michael, a popular contemporary singer-songwriter. One million copies of the sheet music to his song The Holy City were sold. Versions have been re-recorded by Vera Lynn and Charlotte Church. Oh, and he was Grand Organist at the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, 1891-92. By then he was living the life of a virtual recluse on the Isle of Wight, on the orders of the establishment. But as Craig Brown puts it:

All very well, but Robinson neglects to mention that, during this period, Michael Maybrick was five-times Mayor of Ryde, Chief Magistrate of the Isle of Wight, President of the Ryde Philharmonic Society and Chairman of the Isle of Wight Conservative Association, as well as representing the Isle of Wight at the coronations of King Edward VII and King George V at Westminster Abbey.

You can taste the bile seeping through the pages of They All Love Jack. Intermingled with wit and colour. Light relief is provided by the knowledge that:

It was at about this time when Verdi became popular with London’s window-cleaners, whistling while they polished to the air of La Donna é mobile lyrics courtesy of the fellows of their class

Arseholes are cheaper today

Cheaper then yesterday

Little boys are half a crown

Standing up or lying down

Bigger boys are three and six

They are meant for bigger pricks …

Overall, a gut-felt assault on the idiocies, inequalities and injustices of Victorian Britain. Blind rage. An enchanting edifice of gonzo-history:

My conclusions are that Scotland Yard under Bro Sir Charles Warren was corrupt from its back door to the front, and, as the Star put it, “rotten to the core” … Blair was afraid to admit that his nation’s foreign policy belonged to a foreign nation, just as Warren and his culpable mob were afraid to admit that their investigation of Jack the Ripper belonged to Freemasonry.

A wonderful work of drama. Fits P.D. James’s description of detective fiction:

There must be a central mystery, and one that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented.

Ah ha! The clues. An unholy trinity of traces point to Michael Maybrick as Jack the Ripper. In 1892 W.T. Stead, editor of Review of Reviews, received a letter from the mysterious Moreau Masina Berthrad Neuberg. Who was he? Michael Maybrick, of course. For MOREAU/MASINA/BERTHRAD/NEUBERG is an anagram of  I BEGAN A BRUTE MASON MURDERER HA.

The second fantastic “clue” lies on page 543 of They All Love Jack: a photograph of the in situ eviscerated corpse of Mary Kelly. Despite two large gins, two pints of cider (ice in the cider) accompanied by a Camberwell Carrot, I failed to see the letters “FM” (Florence Maybrick) “visible on the wall behind Kelly, probably written in her blood.”

For the final piece of evidence: the graffito of Goulston Street. Following the murder of Kate Eddowes, Robinson believes Maybrick chalked a message to Met Commissioner Charles Warren on a wall:

The Juwes are

The men that

Will not

be blamed

for nothing

Juwes. Referring to Jubela, Jubelo and Jubelum, Jewish craftsmen, the Three Assassins. That’s why Warren rushed to Goulston Street to obliterate this damning sign. Quite.

Or, given that two murders had occurred on the same night, Warren genuinely feared that the flames of anti-Semitism would be flamed. Cryptic clue, or an offensive piece of graffiti written by someone who couldn’t spell “Jew”? When approaching any tale of Jack the Ripper, it’s useful to use Occam’s Razor. Drew Grey who has written one of the most readable yet sensible books on the Whitechapel murders notes:

It has been noted since that the writing was in such a position on the wall that it would have to have been written in daylight. The author had chosen to write his message in chalk on the painted part of the entrance so that it was clear; he or she could not have done this in the dark.

The police were more corrupt and incompetent than pawns in a grand conspiracy. Turning to Grey yet again:

Serial killers are extremely rare and very hard to track. Most murderers leave clues behind because they kill those close to them while serial murderers choose strangers. Without the benefits of modern technology and forensic science the Victoria police were severely hamstrung and almost totally reliant on catching “Jack” in the act. The nature of the victims meant that the murders occurred in out of the way places where few witnesses were likely to have seen anything. They were also not an organization steeped in the principles of detection [the CID was created in 1878], and for this Warren and his predecessors are perhaps culpable.

Jack the Ripper, case closed? I think not. Yet the myth of Jack the Ripper endures. More candidates will be damned as the murderer. Bruce Robinson quotes Hemingway with approval: “All writers need a cast-iron bullshit detector”. Perhaps that’s difficult when you’ve spent over 12 years of your life and £500,000 of your own money writing a book. I’ll leave the final word to epic dramatist Alan Moore:

The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists    actually believe in a conspiracy theory because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the twelve-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.

Related Blog

To Hell with Hawksmoor: Alan Moore and Myths of Jack the Ripper 


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