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Hallie Rubenhold on her Battle with the Ripperologists

Posted on 3rd February 2020 by Mark Skinner

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.

Comments

Gary Barnett

Waterstones are very much aiding and abetting here.

When the truth emerges they will end up looking rather sinister. View more

Gary Barnett
22nd February 2020
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Gary Barnett

HR’s latest insult is to describe those who are critical of her book as ‘demented’.

I suppose there are those who find dementia a source of amusement. View more

Gary Barnett
21st February 2020
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Gary Barnett

It seems there’s another spat on the boil, between HR and an ‘angry, jealous female historian’.

Gary Barnett
21st February 2020
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Gary Barnett

The male historian has said that HR is NOT an academic and did not get her PhD, but is simply someone who writes popular history and novels. The female historian is a PhD who has also gone down the popular history route, but is working with the parameters of her PhD. Could HR’s issue with both of them be a case of PhD envy?

Gary Barnett
23rd February 2020
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Gary Barnett

Without the context suppressed by Waterstones, my last comment doesn’t make sense. In shorthand, HR has issues with male and female academics as she does with make and female ‘Ripperologists’.

Gary Barnett
23rd February 2020
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Gary Barnett

But don’t let this spoil your enjoyment of having your prejudices confirmed by a writer of popular history. Please god none of HR’s followers are never called for jury service.

Gary Barnett
23rd February 2020
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Paul Begg

Why do Waterstones invite comments and then censor perfectly reasonable comments? A rhetorical question, I suppose. View more

Paul Begg
21st February 2020
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Gary Barnett

I would like to respond to you, Paul, but Waterstones have dragged my comments in for questioning and when they do that they rarely see the light of day again.

Gary Barnett
21st February 2020
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Gary Barnett

According to Hallie, Kate went to sleep propped against a wall, and she was killed while asleep. But her body wasn’t found against a wall and there were no signs that the body had been moved... View more

Gary Barnett
20th February 2020
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Robert Clack

I wasn't going to post that because one of my other comments didn't get approved for some reasons. I wonder is certain words get flagged. I was trying to post that I have been a 'Ripperologist' for 36 years. And I didn't care that these women were pros' or not. And that I didn't think any less of them if they were. It was a different time back then and they did what they had to do to survive. They didn't deserve what happened to them.

Robert Clack
20th February 2020
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Robert Clack

Would have been a bit uncomfortable anyway. I can't remember reading any mentions of anyone sleeping on the pavement like that. Shop doorways, staircases yes.

Robert Clack
20th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

Of course tbe women had to be asleep when they were killed or the probability that they went willingly into dark corners with their killer arises. It’s a pretty clumsy explanation. And any eye/ear witness reports must be dismissed for the same reason.

Gary Barnett
21st February 2020
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Robert Clack

The suggestion that Catherine Eddowes went to the corner of Mitre Square to go to sleep is one of the most ludicrous suggestions I have ever heard. Why would anyone go to sleep on wet pavement when there were covered entries and staircases in tenement blocks close by?
And the chances of Jack the Ripper even seeing Catherine in the darkest corner of the square is extremely slim. It is also worth bearing in mind that because of the square's location it is even more unlikely he would just be happening to walk through the square. View more

Robert Clack
20th February 2020
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Chris XPierre

He did not happen to walk through the square.

Chris XPierre
20th February 2020
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Robert Clack

Well, you know that and I know that.

Robert Clack
20th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

I did a search on here using the word ‘ripper’. The result was 770 items.

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Gary Barnett
18th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

It’s a brand name, I suppose. Sells books. You can’t really blame HR for insisting on linking the victims to their celebrity killer.

Gary Barnett
19th February 2020
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Robert Clack

These are books and booklets which discuss the five victims long before Hallie got involved:

Jack the Ripper and his victims by Neal Shelden 1999 50 pages
Annie Chapman Jack the Ripper Victim by Neal Shelden 2001 44 pages
Catherine Eddowes Jack the Ripper victim by Neal Shelden 2003 48 pages
Will the real Mary Kelly by Christopher Scott 2005 150 pages
The Victims of Jack the Ripper by Neal Shelden Stubbings 2007 105 pages
Elizabeth Stride and Jack the Ripper by David Yost 2008 228 pages

This doesn’t include the other victims in the Whitechapel Murder files that Haille Rubenhold ignores. There are eleven victims in the Whitechapel Murder files not five/
Emma Elizabeth Smith, Martha Tabram, Catherine (Rose) Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Unknown woman found in Pinchin Street and Frances Coles so lets not forget them as well as there story needs to be told.

Carroty Nell The Last Victim of Jack the Ripper by John E Keefe 2010 184 pages
Martha by Amanda Harvey-Purse 2019 460 pages
This list does not include the numerous articles in Ripperologist magazine that have had articles dedicated to Catherine Mylett, Alice McKenzie and the unknown woman found dead in Pinchin Street.
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Robert Clack
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

Thanks, Rob. And if you add in all the articles, ‘dissertations’, podcast discussions and online research and discussion I think it’s safe to say there was a wealth of material available to HR before she ever set pen to paper. She says there was one 57-page booklet and nothing else. What are we to make of that? (Rhetorical question)

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Robert Clack

Gary, some of these are referenced in Hallie's bibliography at the end of 'The Five' but you wouldn't have thought so from all the 'publicity' surrounding 'The Five' you could even mention books like Paul Begg's 'The Uncensored Facts' which was one of the first to go onto some background detail for the victims.

Robert Clack
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

Yes, Rob, pretty much every general Ripper book or theory book for decades has contained some biographical info about the victims. And as you say, Hallie cites many of them in her bibliography. That one fact kills two birds: Ripperologists have never been interested in the victims. Apart from the ‘booklet’ Hallie was the first to write about them.

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Robert Clack

Those who are critical of 'Ripperologists' are those who have only read Hallie's book. If they have read any mainstream Ripper books, including the ones mentioned above from the past 30 odd years, then there opinions will no doubt change.

Robert Clack
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

It’s easier to believe the hype and start throwing stones along with the rest of the mob.

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Charlotte Hughes

My favourite part of the comments on here is that there's the common belief that if you drown something in your comments and opinions it will make you appear right.
If you do not agree with the book, discuss it at a book club, make constructive criticisms, do not post on a singular post by post basis just to give yourself some kind of importance, when all you appear to be doing is spouting hot air and throwing a bit of a tantrum.
Write a counter book, create your own narrative. When discussing a character such as Jack the Ripper (because he is in essence an identity and character of his own creation) discussing who is and isn't right seems all the more pointless...
The narrative that Rubenhold focuses on is the victims, not on the mysterious figure of the Ripper, she made the victims the centre of her work, shifting the perspective in really quite an excellent way! View more

Charlotte Hughes
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

The luxury of a single comprehensive rebuttal of HR’s absurd claims has not been made available. Hence flurry of small comments.

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

Others have focussed on the victims. Hallie’s claims to the contrary are simply not true.

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

And of course, the insults continue to fly. Because I am trying to respond to HR’s absurd allegations on the platform on which they were made, but am only allowed to do so in small chunks, I am ‘throwing a tantrum’. HR has been making her accusations endlessly for two years. If my response is a tantrum, hers is a mega-tantrum.

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

Extract from a Report by Inspector Chandler, Commercial Street Police Station, 8th September, 1888:

‘The woman [Annie Chapman] has been identified by Timothy Donovan “Deputy” Crossingham’s Lodging House 35 Dorset Street, Spitalfields, who states he had known her about 26 months, as a prostitute...’

Donovan made a similar statement to the press.

Neither of these pieces of evidence appear in The Five. Why? View more

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

I attempted to provide similar evidence in respect of Polly Nichols, but Waterstones have not allowed it to appear.

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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Justin Beedie

It would obviously not fit with Hallie’s agenda, so like various other pieces of evidence has been conveniently ignored.

Justin Beedie
17th February 2020
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Gary Barnett

With the exception of Mary Kelly, the bodies were found in the most unlikely sleeping places. We are supposed to believe that on a wet night at the height of the Ripper scare Kate Eddowes agitated to be released from a safe and relatively comfortable police cell so that she could go and sleep in the middle of the pavement in a dark square from which she would have been ejected by the next passing beat PC. View more

Gary Barnett
17th February 2020
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