Jack the Ripper and Black Magic: Victorian Conspiracy Theories, Secret Societies and the Supernatural Mystique of the Whitechapel Murders by Spiro Dimolianis
Dimolianis, Spiro. Jack the Ripper and Black Magic: Victorian Conspiracy Theories, Secret Societies and the Supernatural Mystique of the Whitechapel Murders. Jefferson, NC; London: McFarland & Company, 2011. 228 pp.
In the case of Jack the Ripper, not only do we not know who did it, we don’t even know what was done. What we do know about Jack the Ripper is that the murders of several women in London in late 1888 have come to be grouped together under that name. Beyond even the question of who committed the murders, it remains unclear how many of the murders are genuinely related. At this point, more than a century after the murders apparently ceased, most researchers are even convinced that the letter that gave the world the name Jack the Ripper was a hoax. As the events of this particular unsolved case – and the related actions of the police and society at large – recede farther into the past, the interest of researchers has shifted to consider Jack the Ripper more as history and less as a criminal. Spiro Dimolianis’ book Jack the Ripper and Black Magic is part of the wave of Ripper scholarship that is less interested in “whodunnit” than it is interested in what the case, with more than a hundred years of theories attached to it, says about the time and place of its origin. Unfortunately, Dimolianis’ book, despite its subtitle Victorian Conspiracy Theories, Secret Societies and the Supernatural Mystique of the Whitechapel Murders, requires the reader to come to the text already fairly familiar with the vortex of theories and mystique that Dimolianis, an Australian independent scholar, is interested in exploring. Because he is interested in the origin and significance of Jack the Ripper theories, Dimolianis focuses on presenting documentary evidence to debunk theories but fails to explain those theories. Jack the Ripper and Black Magic draws on an impressive amount of research to discuss the historical context of the Ripper cultural phenomenon, but remains frustratingly inaccessible.
The title of Dimolianis' book is an inversion of Black Magic and Jack the Ripper, the title of an unpublished 1958 manuscript by crime reporter Bernard O’Donnell which, Dimolianis demonstrates, not only includes fabrications concerning the case, but also became an authority for later, even less grounded theories. Dimolianis is, by contrast, forming a theory about the vortex, the mystique of theories that surrounds the historical reality of Jack the Ripper. In Dimolianis’ words, “a historical vacuum has expressed itself in conspiracy theories about corruption in high places at the expense of the lower classes” (190). Similar historical vacuums express themselves in other unfounded but common convictions about the Ripper: that he was a practitioner of black magic, that he was tracked to America by Scotland Yard, that he was a woman. The task of this book is to revive the “period associations” – the historical context – of the “suspicions, perceptions and theories” of the murders, which have become “lost in the politicized labyrinth of intervening years” (26). Dimolianis’ research is largely concerned with finding and illuminating the original sources of different theories about the Ripper killings and providing historical and social context for the history of Ripper theories.
To that end, Dimolianis has sifted through a mountain of evidence to produce a somewhat smaller mountain of evidence – evidence in the sense of significant documents, that is, rather than any new clews of the sort that Scotland Yard would have been seeking in 1888. Dimolianis admirably resists the temptation to make his book another explosive theory that supposedly reveals the guilt of Madame Blavatsky, Bram Stoker, Sir William Gull, Inspector Athelney Jones, the Loch Ness Monster, etc. In Jack the Ripper and Black Magic, the reader is dealing instead with a study of a cultural moment, and Dimolianis is presenting us with a theory about Jack-the-Ripper-theories. In the face of some of the reasoning that has previously been applied to the case, the fact that Dimolianis focuses on the idea of Jack the Ripper rather than the person Jack the Ripper demonstrates the author's critical awareness. Dimolianis demonstrates that, for example, the simple fact that no killer was caught became the evidence for Sir Robert Anderson’s statement that the killer was a Jew being sheltered by his kind, Aleister Crowley’s belief that the killer was a mystic rendered invisible, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s deduction that the killer went about dressed as a woman. That these theories, as Dimolianis notes, tell us more about Anderson, Crowley and Doyle than about the killer, suggests the constant movement of his criticism from actual events towards the culture in which they took place.
Since the book is not an introduction to the world of so-called “Ripperology” (the preface recommends two other books as appendices to this work) the book can be quite confusing to a reader unfamiliar with the at times obscure elements of Ripper theories. For example, Chapter 4 discusses “Dr. Roslyn D’Onston,” an odd character who introduced many ideas that would later be taken as evidence that D'Onston himself was the murderer – and later, evidence that the Ripper was a magician of some kind. Part of D’Onston’s theory, aside from a truly bizarre deduction about the killer being French, involves a map of the murder sites, which form a mystical cross. Dimolianis includes a section of D’Onston’s article for the Pall Mall Gazette in which D’Onston explains the theory. Dimolianis does not, however, provide a map, a decision that is symptomatic of a larger problem with the book. Maps of Whitechapel with the relevant locations marked out are not difficult to find: Jack the Ripper and the East End, edited by Alex Werner, includes a chapter by Laura Vaughan discussing maps and the East End of London, with no less than five maps on which the reader can visualize the supposed cross. Since, ultimately, Dimolianis argues that D’Onston and W.T. Stead were engaged in tabloid journalism to save a floundering newspaper, a map may not be necessary, but its absence stands for the way that this book can easily become a labyrinth itself. The text does not explain what Parnellism was, who the Theosophists were, what was involved in the Maybrick diary controversy, or what the Special Branch of the Scotland Yard CID was, despite Dimolianis' acknowledgement that these, and other equally unexplained reference points, are highly significant for understanding the context of Jack the Ripper theories.
This problem is not helped by the book’s confusing syntax. On page 77, in the context of a police report on D’Onston, the form of the book shifts to a timeline written in the present tense, leading to sentences such as this: “Though documentation of the outcome of the police interview or of [Chief Inspector] Swanson’s conclusions is not available, Inspector Root’s previous knowledge of him appears to discount D’Onston as Jack the Ripper.” Does Inspector Root’s knowledge discount D’Onston to us, the readers, in the absence of documentation? Or does Inspector Root’s knowledge discount D’Onston as a suspect to Chief Inspector Swanson at the time, an event for which there is no available documentation? I remain unsure what Dimolianis is asserting in this sentence and this ambiguity is unfortunately representative of the entire book.
The value of Jack the Ripper and Black Magic is in the amount of primary source research Dimolianis has assembled. Each chapter contains ample quotations from police documents, private letters, out-of-print books, and difficult to find newspapers and newsletters. If a reader is interested in learning about the immediate context of the Ripper murders, this would serve as a guide to particular sources. Dimolianis’ focus is on a few particular nodes of Ripper history, and therefore his book does not address the shadow of the Ripper in popular culture, or even try to theorize most of the winding, elaborate corners of Ripperology. The book, in conjunction with others on the subject, could provide a resource for the reader to form his or her own theories – theories about the solution to the murder, or their cultural significance. That this is the most valuable part of this book, rather than Dimolianis’ vague theory about mysteries becoming the site of overdetermined cultural work and anxiety, demonstrates the need for further development of this body of research.
It becomes clear in this book that the particular problem of Jack the Ripper is in the cultural illegibility of what I will euphemistically call his actions. Dimolianis points out that “it is with the subjective question of motive that conspiracy theories are born in unsolved murder inquiries” (28), but elides the fact that all the theorizing surrounding the killings is an attempt to understand particular acts of violence: it is the actual specific outrages performed on the women in Whitechapel that fuel the theorizing. Contemporaries and later theorists suspected a doctor or a butcher (whether Jewish or gentile) because of the precision of the wounds; they suspected a magician because Catherine Eddowes’ uterus was removed. In theory, an analysis like Dimolianis’, which deliberately chooses not to make the Ripper the subject of a horror novel or a conspiracy thriller, should have the effect of dispelling lofty and distant theorizing and reminding us that at the base of Jack the Ripper the cultural node centers on violently murdered women. Robin Odell’s 2006 Ripperology is also ostensibly a study of the phenomenon of Jack the Ripper, but while it begins with a fact file explaining each murder in turn, which could seem ghoulish or cold, in context the work is grounded by the recollection that murder, rather than relatively comforting police reports and newspaper articles, is the ultimate historical vacuum here. While Dimolianis provides much information shedding light on how the Jack the Ripper theories can have very little to do with those murders, he also replaces a vortex of misguided conjecture pointing nowhere with an overwhelming chaos of confusing information that sprawls endlessly outward.
Odell, Robin. Ripperology: A Study of the World’s First Serial Killer and a Literary Phenomenon. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2006. Print.
Werner, Alex, ed. Jack the Ripper and the East End. London: Chatto & Windus, 2008. Print.
Neale Barnholden is a PhD student at the University of Alberta, and the PhD Co-Chair of the Graduate Students of English Collective.