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Drexel Ripper Conference 2011

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  • Drexel Ripper Conference 2011

    Hard to believe that it will be a decade this coming September since this event transpired....

    Martin Fido, Chris George, Drew Gray, and myself attended the gig.

    Professor Laura Marantz- Cohen wrote this for the Chronicle of Higher Learning at the time of the Conference.

    Jack the Ripper’s Interdisciplinary Rap Sheet
    By Paula Marantz Cohen
    SEPTEMBER 4, 2011
    Jack the Ripper

    The case of Jack the Ripper has long captivated amateur true-crime enthusiasts. Now scholars too have become enthralled by him, but why?

    Under the slayer’s sway ourselves, Fred J. Abbate, a philosopher, and I, a literary critic, wanted to find out. We took popular interest in Jack the Ripper to be a given. Buffs are everywhere, populating groups like the Whitechapel Society and Internet sites like the JTR Forums and Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Yet work on the case had long been dominated by these so-called Ripperologists, with academic involvement lagging behind. Despite some scholarly work going back 25 years, only in the past 10 (with two dissertations listed in the MLA Bibliography in the past three) has an academic literature begun to accumulate as the cultural turn in the humanities intersected with a widespread interest in true crime. Jack the Ripper is arguably the first publicly recognized “serial killer” (though the term was not coined until the 1970s), and the Whitechapel murders—as the Ripper case is decorously known—may be the first modern true-crime narrative.

    A brief description of the case should make clear why it tantalizes not just true-crime addicts but sociology, cultural-studies, political, economic, and literary experts too, enough so that Abbate and I have planned a scholarly conference, “Jack the Ripper Through a Wider Lens,” to be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia on October 28 and 29.

    Between August and November of 1888, five women, all allegedly prostitutes, were murdered in the impoverished Whitechapel district of East London. The victims—Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly—all had their throats cut, and, following their death, were all (with the exception of Elizabeth Stride, where the murder is postulated to have been interrupted) eviscerated with a brutality that became more extreme with each victim. The five murders displayed a similarity in technique and came to be referred to as the “canonical” Ripper murders—though there have been plenty of noncanonical ones, committed before and after, that might be the work of the same hand. Some Ripperologists include the 1907 Camden Town murder in North London; others maintain that Jack the Ripper left England after the Whitechapel killings, and that murders committed in South America bear his “signature.”

    In addition to the gruesome manner in which the victims were killed and cut up (though not apparently sexually abused), a prominent feature of the case involved the deluge of cryptically worded letters that the police and the news media received at the time. Some of these were signed “Jack the Ripper"—accounting for the name by which the killer came to be known—and contained macabre taunts and references to details about the murders. Two of the most famous are the “Dear Boss” letter, which alludes to the intention of “clipping” the ears off the next victim (who did have an ear partially severed), and the “From Hell” letter, which was accompanied by a portion of a kidney that the author claimed had been taken from the latest victim (whose kidney was indeed missing). None of the letters can be definitively linked to the crimes—information could have been leaked through any number of channels—but they influenced both the media and the police, and are now part of the folklore surrounding the case.

    The beginning of academic respectability for the Ripper can be traced to the 1987 book The Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper, by Martin Fido, formerly at Oxford and now at Boston University (and a featured speaker at the Drexel conference), and the 1988 BBC documentary Shadow of the Ripper, scripted by Christopher Frayling, a Cambridge-trained former governor of the British Film Institute. Since that time, a number of scholarly books and essays have explored the murders from different angles. Among the most recent and best include Drew D. Gray’s 2010 London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City (Continuum) and Judith Flanders’s 2011 The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created the Modern Crime (HarperPress). Gray, a historian at the University of Northampton who will also be a featured speaker at the conference, provides both a comprehensive analysis and a meticulous corrective of the many errors and distortions that have circulated about the case over the years. Flanders, an author and journalist, writes a history of true crime, which places Jack the Ripper at the end of an evolution in the representation of the criminal and the science of criminology in 19th-century England. An assortment of essays, most of them previously published in scholarly journals or books, have also been collected into a 2008 volume, edited by Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis, entitled Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History (Manchester University Press).

    Social context is obviously key to any serious exploration of the case, and will be a focal point of the conference. Speakers are sure to draw on Judith Walkowitz’s 1992 book, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (University of Chicago Press), which uses Jack the Ripper to discuss the sexual and legal threats facing women during that period. Walkowitz argues that the murders reinforced the sense of vulnerability that women experienced in Victorian society while also providing impetus for resistance, particularly among middle-class women. Andrew Smith, in his 2004 book, Victorian Demons: Medicine, Masculinity and the Gothic at the Fin-de-Siècle (Manchester University Press), also considers how the case connects to prevailing ideas about mental illness and how it gave the medical profession more latitude in finding labels for and thereby controlling a range of nonconformist behaviors.

    The Ripper case not only makes evident the ways in which Victorian society policed sexual difference and mental deviance, but it also demonstrates related attitudes toward ethnicity and social class. If the victims were all poor women who supported themselves by prostitution, many of the suspects were equally poor and marginalized. Ripperologists have traditionally made the quest for the identity of the killer the focus of their attention, but some of the most intriguing academic work examines why certain figures were suspected in the first place. What prejudices on the part of the public, the police, the media, and the medical establishment caused those suspects to be identified and labeled as threats? (One is reminded of James Shapiro’s recent book, Contested Will, which does similar work exploring the cultural assumptions underlying various theories about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.)

    One panel at the forthcoming conference will deal with Jack the Ripper and the Jews. Several of the prime suspects in the murders were Jews, not surprising given that anti-Semitism was ingrained in British society; that the Whitechapel district was inhabited mostly by poor immigrants, many of them Jews; and that immigrant unrest was a central concern of law enforcement during this period (the police were particularly concerned with Irish immigrants, who were often lumped with Jews as social threats). A cryptic message scrawled on a wall near the Catherine Eddowes murder, “The Juwes are the men who will not be blamed for nothing,” also fueled speculation regarding a Jewish conspiracy. Sander Gilman addresses the issue of anti-Semitism in the Ripper case in a 1993 essay, reprinted in the Warwick and Willis volume, and a 1996 English Literary History essay by Sara Blair, “Henry James, Jack the Ripper, and the Cosmopolitan Jew,” links anti-Semitism and the Ripper case to the ambivalence Henry James felt in being drawn to a more cosmopolitan literature on the one hand while maintaining loyalties to an elite and exclusive one on the other. Invoking work by Walkowitz and Gilman, Blair notes that “the Ripper is virtually made to order as an icon for an Anglo-America’s imagination of the Jew, and itself, at the fin de siècle"—which is to say that, like the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew, the Ripper functioned as a symbol of the disruptive political, social, and cultural changes under way in England and America during this period.

    Another subject to be addressed at the conference will be the class component of the case. The contrast between the East and the West End of London was stark during this period, making the notion of traffic between the two districts a source of particular fascination. One theory has it that the murders were an elaborate plot to protect the reputation of the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s grandson, who is said to have fathered a child by a Whitechapel prostitute. (The artist Walter Sickert is given a role in this scenario, mostly as the result of an account authored by his son and later retracted.) Drew Gray devotes a chapter in his book to the division between East and West London, and Robert F. Haggard, in a 1993 essay reprinted in the Warwick and Willis volume, discusses class tensions on the cusp of the modern labor movement.

    A panel at the conference will be devoted to news coverage and popular perceptions, building on L. Perry Curtis Jr.'s 2001 Jack the Ripper and the London Press (Yale University Press). Curtis explored the new style of journalism spurred by the case, in which sensational angles were developed to keep readers interested. Those newspaper accounts influenced the direction of police work and created a public appetite for more stories of the same kind.

    The case also spurred interest in police and medical procedures, including Victorian attitudes toward vivisection, the role of spiritualism (police were not averse to consulting psychics for help), and methods of gathering and preserving evidence. Craig Monk will be delivering a paper based on his 2010 essay in Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, “Optograms, Autobiography, and the Image of Jack the Ripper,” which discusses the belief, briefly circulated at the time, that the image of the killer might be imprinted on the retinas of his victims. Monk uses the trope to critique the memoirs of the case’s investigators, whose accounts seem as delusional as the concept of the optogram.

    Another avenue to be explored involves the art scene of the period. Since painters like James Whistler and Walter Sickert frequented music halls, kept studios, and employed models in the East End, they have become associated with the murders, if only in their fascination for an aesthetic of squalor and degradation. In his 2006 book, Given 1 Degree Art 2 Degrees Crime: Modernity, Murder and Mass Culture (Sussex Academic Press), Jean-Michel Rabate considers the Ripper case as it pertains to the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, and places it in the context of Thomas De Quincy’s 1827 essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (a work that bears comparison, in the satirical perversity of its persuasiveness, to Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal”). Jumping ahead in time, one can discern an ethical/aesthetic dilemma in the way the detective novelist Patricia Cornwell pursued her theory that Jack the Ripper was the artist Walter Sickert. Cornwell allegedly cut pieces out of a Sickert painting in a search for evidence—an uncanny evocation, to my mind, of the killer’s own modus operandi. Cornwell’s 2002 explanation of her theory, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, is at once exhaustive and unconvincing—worthy of a panel in itself.

    Cornwell’s pursuit of evidence via Sickert’s paintings might also bear comparison with the Ripper letters, which were similarly viewed as important repositories of meaning (Cornwell partakes of this view as well). Experts deem most if not all of these letters to be bogus. Yet the very fact that they exist raises questions about who wrote them and why. They also open the way to a consideration of more-established forms of literary representation on the subject of murder, and of the way writers during the period were influenced by the Ripper myth. In two essays in the Warwick and Willis volume, Nicholas Rance makes the connection to Dracula, and Martin Willis to Sherlock Holmes. Others have found parallels and resonances in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Woman in White, Trilby, and other tales involving the dark side of patriarchal Victorian culture—a subject that literary scholars have been interested in plumbing as far back as Steven Marcus’s 1966 landmark work, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (Basic Books).

    The Ripper case has also given rise to other sorts of narratives. My own recent historical thriller, What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper (Sourcebooks Landmark), employs Henry, Alice, and William James as detectives on the case. Jack the Ripper, I confess, is a McGuffin in my book; my real concern is the dynamics of the James family. But I am certainly not alone in using the case as a means to other ends. There are numerous novels, comic books, movies, and computer games in which Jack the Ripper is adapted to appeal to different audiences for different purposes. How this figure has been used—his potential for narrative adaptation in a variety of contexts—is a subject that has not been adequately looked at and will be a subject of consideration at the Drexel conference. We will also be screening winning entries of a student film competition on Ripper-related subjects.

    In planning the conference, we were surprised to unearth a number of academic courses focused on Jack the Ripper. Most of these are offered in England, where schoolchildren grow up knowing the names of the canonical victims and where Ripper tours are a London industry. Fred Abbate has decided to offer a course of his own to coincide with the conference: “Jack the Ripper and the Logic of Criminal Deduction,” which, according to the syllabus, will “cover the canons of inductive reasoning, the logic of hypothesis formation, and the pragmatics of warranted probability claims as these apply to the Ripper case.” How much such sensational details as the excised kidney and the taunting “ha-ha’s” of the Ripper letters will cloud the brains of these logicians remains to be seen.

    Despite a predilection for academic respectability, we expect the conference to bring Ripperologists out in force. They are a large and vociferous group, with a vast compendium of knowledge about the case, and they will be joined by a criminology contingent bolstered by the CSI franchise. Drexel University’s criminal-justice program has on its faculty John Maxwell, a former chief inspector of the Detective Bureau of the City of Philadelphia, who promises to bring along members of the Vidocq Society—a group of detectives, district attorneys, and customs agents who gather monthly at Philadelphia’s Union League to discuss cold cases. Richard Walter, a celebrated profiler and Vidocq Society member who claims to possess new evidence for one theory regarding the killer, will share this with the Ripperologists, even as the narratologists are sure to deconstruct it.

    For buffs and profs alike, then, file JTR under Ongoing Investigation.