Books on Jack the Ripper are published every year, some with new suspects and some looking at another angle on an established theory or showing something new about London in 1888. Over the past two years, the flow of Ripper books has increased. I suspect that next year, the 130th anniversary, we will see even more.
Many authors make leaps in order to establish their suspects, such as assuming that the Ripper wrote one or more communications or accepting, without question, the police version of the number and identity of victims. After reading dozens of these books over the years, I wanted to find something unique.
In One Autumn in Whitechapel, M. P. Priestley offers the results of his research, undertaken while living in the heart of Whitechapel, on Wentworth Street. He aims to document the case as it really happened, based on original sources and detailed maps. One definitely immerses in 19th-century settings, language, and news. Priestley also uses what he calls a few “highly regarded” contemporary accounts. By this, I assume he means items from other established Ripperologists.
Praised for his Ripper tours, Priestley hopes to correct falsehoods that have been passed along in other accounts, and he lists his sources so anyone can check them. Although Whitechapel has changed a lot since 1888, the aura of this multiple murder mystery lingers. To live so close to the crime scenes while writing about them has advantages. Priestley ably retains the mood, anchored with numerous drawings and photos.
Not everyone agrees on when the murders began, but “canonically,” it was the end of August in 1888. A week apart, two prostitutes were murdered in two separate events before the so-called “double event” at the end of September in which two women were killed separately on the same night. The final official victim, Mary Kelly, was murdered inside a rented room in November.
Many Ripperologists today disagree with some of the police conclusions from 1888. However, most seem to accept that the murder spree began at some point that year. Maybe it ended in November or maybe it went on for several more years.
Priestley launches us right into it by describing several accounts of assault and murder that led up to August. He depicts continuous violence against prostitutes in this disadvantaged area of London, showing other potential Ripper victims. Surviving or being attacked with different weapons would not rule them out. (Serial killer Peter Kurten used a hammer, a dagger, and scissors, killing some and failing in his attempts on others.) Priestley provides good detail from these news reports.
Early on, he signals where he's heading. Included throughout are quotes from other serial sex murderers, which suggests that Priestley has a suspect in mind who fits in the same category. This book isn't just about historic news accounts.
Toward the end, Priestley describes a strange little man who took over the local Vigilance Committee and who liked to keep his name in the paper. He claimed to be the recipient of many Ripper communications, he was certain he’d seen and spoken to the killer, and he appears to be the source of a story that eventually became the famous fictional tale, “The Lodger” (reviewed here.) So, he’s possibly one of those killers who liked to insert himself into the investigation.
Or maybe he's just a guy who wanted attention.
Like other Ripperologists, Priestley goes into minute detail to show why he believes he has identified a viable candidate for Jack the Ripper. Unfortunately, to frame his theory, he relies on notions from a single former FBI profiler and on outdated FBI studies about sex murderers that drew conclusions from small, unrepresentative samples. Even the “organized-disorganized” categories have turned out to be less than helpful, as most serial killers are “mixed,” i.e., you can’t rely on a uniform MO for a solid linkage analysis. Within this ambiguity lies opportunity to stretch facts to suit theories.
This part of the book reads like a suspect-centered study rather than one grounded in victimology, with speculation of how it "could have" happened. Although Priestley supplies a lot of circumstantial evidence, this is where the book sounds like many others. Fortunately, it's a separate section and doesn't mar the overall accomplishment.
One Autumn in Whitechapel is valuable for a close rendering of each incident from original sources, which enthrall those who study the Ripper case.
Priestley, M. P. One Autumn in Whitechapel. Flower and Dean Street LTD.