Hallie Rubenhold on her Battle with the Ripperologists
The Five, Hallie Rubenhold's magisterial revisionist history of the victims of Jack the Ripper, has received both critical plaudits - scooping the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last November - and popular success. But there has been one section of the public that has always been implacably opposed to Rubenhold's argument: those men who pride themselves on their Ripper expertise, otherwise known as the Ripperologists. In this exclusive essay, Hallie Rubenhold details the abuse and invective she has suffered at the hands of these people and tries to deconstruct why their hatred has been so marked.
Authors never know how the world will receive their books. There is always an agonising period shortly after the new work appears on the shelves when we await with bated breath, and not a little dread, the verdict of the critics. Until recently, none of my books – two novels and two works of non-fiction – had been deemed especially controversial. They were born, introduced to the public, read, discussed, and, for the most part, readers were kind to them. Then there came The Five.
I can’t say that I didn’t expect some dissent when I decided to tackle a subject with a connection to Jack the Ripper. However, I hadn’t anticipated just how much fury The Five would ignite, nor how early it would begin.
From the outset, a number of so-called Ripperologists took offence at the book’s claims that it was the first full-length biography to examine the five canonical victims as a subject divorced from the story of their killer. Apart from a small booklet containing fifty-seven pages of text, nothing else on the subject existed, but somehow, I’d already got off on the wrong foot. Bit by bit, as we inched nearer to publication day, matters began to escalate. In the summer of 2018, I was hounded on social media for claiming I had discovered that there was no evidence to support the popular belief that Jack the Ripper was a killer of ‘prostitutes.’ I was told by Ripperologists that I should ‘behave professionally’ and ‘stop airing [my] opinions as fact’ before my book came out and my ‘evidence’ could ‘be assessed’ by them. Then it got worse. Photographs of me taken surreptitiously while I was giving a lecture appeared on a Ripperology Facebook page, along with encouragements to post disparaging and sexual commentary. A thread appeared on a forum site I belonged to which ripped me and my yet-unpublished book apart in the most personal and grotesque way. It is now over three hundred pages long.
When The Five was finally published, things exploded. I received abusive messages, I was denounced as a liar and accused of hiding and ignoring ‘facts’, as well as doctoring and redacting documents. One man, who shall always be remembered by the hashtag #ReadthebookTrevor, trolled me incessantly over the course of forty-eight hours. Unfortunately for him, his sexist rant coincided with International Women’s Day, and was not embraced warmly in the Twittersphere. While it was encouraging to feel championed by the public, the invective kept flowing. Perhaps the lowest point was the two-hour podcast recorded by a group of Ripperologists who tore apart The Five chapter by chapter, before finally comparing me to the Holocaust denier David Irving.
What on earth was it about Jack the Ripper that got people so hot and bothered?
Over the months, I’ve been forced to ponder this ridiculous question and it took me some time to make sense of it. I realize now that by writing a book about Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly which had nothing to do with their killer, I had completely disrupted the Ripper narrative. This narrative means a great deal to many people. Some have invested decades of their lives in trying to identify the killer, others have built an identity for themselves around being a Ripperologist. Not only am I an outsider (and a woman), but fundamentally, The Five challenges the very validity of the pursuit of Ripperology.
Ripperology likes to deal in what it cites as ‘facts’, but in researching The Five, I soon learned that these ‘facts’ are derived from a deeply problematic body of evidence. The witness statements, which supposedly document the final movements of the victims, are, with few exceptions, all unverifiable. In the introduction to The Five, I clearly explain that I have excluded statements from witnesses who never knew the victims personally, who could not vouch for their identity. So much of what is reported came from those who believed they had seen one of the victims down a dark street, or possibly heard something said in passing. Not only can none of this be confirmed, but research over the past 131 years has radically changed what we know about the perceptions of witnesses. We’ve learned a great deal about how psychology and environmental factors alter perceptions. We simply can’t lay aside advances in our scientific knowledge when dealing with material from 1888.
‘Facts’ are also not what appear in the era’s newspapers. The witness statements on which much of Ripperology relies do not come from actual documents, but newspaper reports. In many cases, there is no definitive source for what was said, and if something was said it was reprinted in multiple different and contradictory ways. Neither can ‘facts’ consist of hastily scribbled or summarised police notes, steeped in the era’s prejudice.
All documents require interrogation. In writing a history, my duty was to sift through what had been considered evidence by other authors, weigh its merits and examine its contexts. I learned that there simply is not enough viable evidence in existence to draw any conclusions about the identity of the killer, nor will there ever be. Jack the Ripper’s identity is irrelevant, and for some people that ‘fact’ is just too disturbing.
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