PRINT March 1994


The Diary of Jack the Ripper

The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Discovery, the Investigation, the Debate by Shirley Harrison. New York: Hyperion, 1993.

Visitors to Madame Tussaud’s in 1974 ranked [Jack the Ripper] third on a list of most hated and feared (edged out only by Adolph Hitler and Richard Nixon).
—Jane Caputi, The Age of Sex Crime, 1987

There lives within me . . . a monstrous hybrid of the perpetrator, victim, and witness. . . . Siamese triplets with no circus to escape to, a complicitous Holy Trinity that is the closest thing to authenticity that we can experience in the land of Nod.
—Mark Alice Durant, “Overexposures in Hell: Notes on Photography, Boredom, and Murder from the Land of Nod,” Camerawork, Fall 1992

THE GREAT CRIMINALS ALWAYS make us voyeurs, but the promise of peering into a criminal diary catalyzes the violating aspect of the urge to know even more surely. There is a deliciousness to a diary’s temptations and disclosures; one lusts for the secrets one hopes are inside. Yet all diaries exist as an exquisite, essential camouflage: they lure one with the hope of revelation, but their only certain truth is the secret urge that prompts one to write them.

As Mary Shelley knew, even monsters have introspective qualities. Shelley’s Frankenstein is no kin to Hitler or Mussolini, but the desire for insight into an evil inwardness is why fake diaries have shadowed those tyrants. (It is also why Hannibal Lecter was such a popular hit.) The diary suggests not so much that we can unmask these terrible apparitions as that we can veil them in a homey shroud of familiarity. It proposes a subject who longs for an absent, unavailable interlocutor—which we, as readers, become, and by becoming, engage the subject in a mutual recognition across death. The criminal is given history and, more shocking, subjectivity. Meanwhile, we the readers recede into a role that Mark Alice Durant, describing a chance encounter with a street murder, calls the odd authenticity of our time: simultaneously perpetrator, victim, and witness.

Now, supposedly, the diary of a notorious criminal—one whose identity has been contested for a century, and who is the founding celebrity of modernity’s gothic reality—has been discovered accidentally, and is published as The Diary of Jack the Ripper. The book unites many modern fascinations: psychosexual murder, tabloid sensationalism, voyeuristic confession, seductive narrative, unsolved mystery, true crime, recovered memory, and the simulation of authentic interiority (reproducing the diary in facsimile, the book claims to show the Ripper’s handwriting). There is also the endless blurring of fiction and fact, for The Diary of Jack the Ripper includes an appendix of expert arguments for and against the manuscript’s genuineness. Yet the cloud of questionable authenticity is surely a suitable form for the return of so mythic an apparition as Jack—in fact it adds that perfect odor of post-Modern melodrama. The text identifies itself as the Ripper’s diary, but does not explicitly reveal its author’s real name. Tracing that author’s identity to the Victorian cotton merchant James Maybrick, of Liverpool, we learn that the only surviving samples of Maybrick’s handwriting are a single signature and a tainted will. There is, in other words, no “original” trace of Maybrick to which to compare the diary’s script.

Is it really possible to know who the Ripper was? At this point he is a multidecade industry (spawning the admittedly rarefied profession “Ripperologist”). Serial murderers have become a form of mass celebrity, entering our living rooms to speak to us in their own words, through made-for-TV movies (Ted Bundy), Geraldo specials (Charles Manson), and Hard Copy illuminations (Jeffrey Dahmer). Yet what could be more riveting than to hold in one’s hand the interiority of Jack the Ripper? There is certainly a market. Look at Time-Life Books’ current “True Crime” series: a publisher once known for texts like The Art of Woodworking, Lost Civilizations, and Home Repair and Improvement now brings us Serial Killers, Mass Murders, and Compulsion to Kill. These slick, seductive productions disturb in their lack of conceptual framing: they just push one headlong into the terrors, inscribing one without incident into the text.

I wonder if next time I can carve my funny little rhyme on the whores flesh?

I am afraid to look back on all I have written. Perhaps it would be wiser to destroy this, but in my heart I cannot bring myself to do so.
The Diary of Jack the Ripper

There is a history of connection between the mutilation of a body and the need to record that feat, whether through writing, photography, video, or the telephone. One authority quoted in The Diary of Jack the Ripper remarks that serial murderers “typically feel inferior to others, except when writing or thinking about their crimes.” Dahmer took Polaroids of the men he killed, both before and after their deaths. In 1963, the British serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley stuffed a suitcase with photographs and tapes of their victims. Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, Los Angeles’ Hillside Stranglers, photographed their deeds. And the Ripper diarist writes, “I cannot stop the thrill of writing.”

Apparently there was a stabber and ripper rash in the London of the 1880s and ’90s. Jack, Shirley Harrison writes, “was one among many. He might have been just another murderer had it not been for his self-determined nickname.” It wasn’t his crimes, then, but his inscription of his name that granted him the status of the cultural undead, rising and revisiting us according to a strange law of eternal return. At this moment of vampiric media interest in true crime, it makes sense that the Ripper’s identity would not only be miraculously discovered (again), but discovered as a diary.

Nowhere do inscription, mystery, and crime merge as frenziedly as in the media. We tend to think of our present media mayhem as a recent phenomenon, but Edgar Allan Poe had already registered the mystical potency of newsprint in the 1840s: introducing one of his founding stories of the detective genre, he writes, “The ‘Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ was composed at a distance from the scene of the atrocity, and with no other means of investigation than the newspapers afforded.” In both “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” 1842, and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841, the narrator relies on newspaper accounts for evidence. And so emerges an industry as bloodthirsty as the murders it records, one that entices us with the possibility of transcending the law, then introduces us to the somber reality where our identity within this system can only be as perpetrator, victim, witness.

The publisher is wise to publish the experts’ debate with the diary itself. Only Poe could have found such a compelling framing ruse. There are reasons to believe in the diary’s authenticity, though Harrison’s narrative is sensational and open to question. But whether “real” or not, the two criminal tales she weaves together, of Maybrick and the Ripper—both of them celebrated at the time, though Maybrick’s is now relatively forgotten—converge on astoundingly contemporary issues of gender, violence, addiction, sexuality, law, the media, and the return of repressed history. Together, they illuminate the tragic depths of misogyny to which Anglo-European and American culture is bound.

When Maybrick died (eight days, apparently, after the diarist signed his final entry, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper Dated this third day of May 1889”), his wife, Florie, was accused of poisoning him. The trial was a media event. Evidence of Florie’s guilt was sparse, but the fact that she was having an affair seems to have marked her as capable of murder. (His infidelities were of course ignored.) A woman who could administer “poison to a poor, helpless sick man upon whom she has already inflicted a dreadful injury—an injury fatal to married life,” the presiding judge argued, must be “destitute of the least trace of human feeling.”

From Harrison’s account, however, it seems likely that Maybrick died by his own hand—that he was desperately addicted to arsenic, then a recreational drug. If Harrison’s argument is true, it suggests a slip of the cultural unconscious of horrific but telling magnitude: a century after the events, it is revealed not only that Florie was unjustly convicted of murder, but that the man so “injured” by her adultery was himself a mutilator of women. It is one of those weird warpings of historical actuality in which the events exposed, the connections made, the inversions produced, seem surely those of imagination rather than “fact.” Yet history’s marvel is always the excess that pushes beyond what we can imagine.

One envisions the movie that could emerge from this tale—or, better yet, the interactive CD-ROM disk (available free from Time-Life Books, perhaps, with subscriptions to “True Crime”). Here is the medium through which one might draw out the characters of The Diary of Jack the Ripper—the handwriting experts, the serial-murder psychologists, the historians of drug addiction, the book’s publishers and its critics, Jack himself; and also the women Jack killed, and Florie Maybrick, and perhaps a feminist critic like Jane Caputi—and, in a turn of the perpetrator/victim/witness paradigm, you the viewer, slogging it out for yourself.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a writer who lives in Vermont. She is working on a book on memory and the Gothic in modern American culture.