Who was Jack the Ripper? Was it Aaron Kosminski? George Chapman? Walter Sickert? Bigfoot? Spring-Heeled Jack? There is no shortage of theories about the identity of the infamous Whitechapel ripper, and no shortage of books written about it. Unfortunately, no amount of sleuthing will ever unveil the mask because the crimes happened 133 years ago, making it kind of hard to track down a, now, very dead serial killer.
Most true crime readers already have an idea who they believe Jack is though, as do the many authors who write about him. If you pick up enough of these “unmasking” books you’ll find a lot of them share one major flaw- the inability to bend, or rather, arrogance. These authors are so positive in their theories that they’ll refuse to listen to anyone that may offer a counterpoint. Russell Edwards of Naming Jack the Ripper is no different, and it’s the one dumbbell that weighs down his otherwise compelling analysis.
Jack the Ripper, also known as the Whitechapel Murderer, and sometimes The Leather Apron, was a serial killer who murdered and mutilated an estimated number of five women in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. The first serial killer in history to be heavily followed and obsessed over by the media, Jack the Ripper may be gone but he continues to live on in folklore, pop culture, and in the minds of millions to this day. This man who murdered five women so horribly has made himself immortal by simply remaining a mystery.
Jack’s crime spree officially started on August 31, 1888, and ended 70 days later on November 8, 1888. Only a few months forever cemented in history. It’s not at all a surprise that Jack wasn’t caught as criminal investigations back then relied almost entirely on eyewitness statements. You either had to be caught in the act or seen by someone you knew in order to be properly identified, and the Ripper case had neither of those. There was also the issue that was 1800s police work, it wasn’t exactly that professional. Ironically, this is the only reason Naming Jack the Ripper even exists because back in the 1800s, it was apparently okay for policemen to take accessories off dead bodies and gift them to their wives as Police Constable Amos Simpson did on the morning of September 30, 1888, when he allegedly took a shawl from one of the Ripper’s victims.
(By the way, Amos Simpson’s wife did not appreciate this particular gift. She took one look at that thing and said, “are you nuts? Why would I want a dead woman’s bloody scarf?!” and made him put it in the closet. I don’t actually know what he did with it but point is, she didn’t want it, so fellas, don’t be cheap. Just buy your girl a scarf.)
Naming Jack the Ripper is not the best “unmasking” book out there, but it is one of the most convincing. That is something I will praise this book on, Russell Edwards is good at making you believe him.
Edwards is a Ripper fan down to his very core and he writes his “evidence” with a clear passion for the subject. You’re moved by his earnest desire to find Jack’s identity and he’s not too bad of an investigator either. Published in 2004, Naming Jack the Ripper started all from a rumor about a mysterious shawl that may or may not be a piece of evidence in one of the world’s most famous unsolved criminal cases of all time. It’s the Kentucky Fried Mouse of true crime circles.
Supposedly the shawl had belonged to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes and that she’d been wearing it the night she was murdered. According to the story, it was removed from her body and then passed down through the family of Amos Simpson. Generations later, it was handed over to Scotland Yard’s Black Museum where it sat in a dark room until it was finally sold to Edwards at an auction.
Honestly, I’m surprised this shawl isn’t more famous. Whether or not it actually belonged to Eddowes, it’s still connected to a case so famous it has its own fandom. Despite being debunked by experts, the Ripper letters have continued to live on in importance, yet this simple shawl gets the cold shoulder.
An ominous piece of true crime history, the shawl’s shadowy presence among those who believe its story is only amplified by the dark reddish stains that defile it. If it actually did belong to Eddowes, and if she really was wearing it that night, and if those stains really are her bloodstains, then that makes the shawl the only existing piece of physical evidence regarding the Ripper case. Edwards had no doubt though. He runs hard with all these “what-ifs” and sets out to unmask the Ripper, and before the book even ends, he has his man.
“He is no longer just a suspect. We can hold him, finally, to account for his terrible deeds. My search is over: Aaron Kosminski is Jack the Ripper.”Russell Edwards, Naming Jack the Ripper
Naming Jack the Ripper goes into great detail about this mission that Edwards bestows on himself and I will say, it makes a compelling case. For one, Edwards has clearly done his research. He dives deep into the history of Jack and his victims, as well as the Whitechapel area, discussing the social issues of the time along with the economic struggles and how they possibly resulted in the birth of Jack. Even if you don’t agree with his final verdict, I suggest giving Edwards’ book a try for these sections alone. He lays out the case in a neat linear fashion and hands over every tiny detail that was available at that time.
Then comes the unraveling. He ties everything around the shawl. No matter how far he might steer away, he eventually goes back to Eddowes’s delicate fashion piece that’s older than everyone’s grandmother. It’s understandable why Edwards clings to it so desperately though, it is the whole basis for his case, and through it he offers something that most “unmasking” books do not have- DNA. This is of course, debatable, but using the shawl Edwards finds “proof” that it belonged to Eddowes and that Jack was a pervert as he apparently ejaculated on the fabric. Using these light traces of blood and sperm, Edwards matches the DNA to Aaron Kosminski who was a suspect back in 1888. The rest of the book then does what it can to connect the dots with Kosminski taking the shawl’s place as the book’s centerpiece.
I really liked this for its persuasive power and the historical details it offers, which is what a book like this is supposed to do. It’s meant to persuade you and Naming Jack the Ripper certainly does its best. However, the riveting journey of the shawl as it’s tested for DNA and connected to numerous persons in history becomes a slog when Edwards comes bouncing back into the picture with a big, non-subtle sign that might as well say “I’m a Hero!”
If anything lowers this book’s rating for me it’s how much Edwards insert himself in the story. Naming Jack the Ripper is 10% the case, 30% the shawl, and 60% Edwards talking about himself. It takes you out of the narrative, away from the shawl, and into the Edwards home office where you can see him making a Charlie Kelly “Pepe Silvia” type conspiracy chart with a picture of the shawl pinned at the center. It reminds me of Steve Hodel’s Black Daliha Avenger where everything is somehow framed to be about the author. Edwards even connects the streets of Whitechapel to himself by recounting the years he spent walking through them as a college student having a connection with the city.
If you can ignore all that, it’s a very good read. Whether you believe everything Edwards presents, it’s hard to ignore everything he offers which in my opinion, makes this book a successful, not to mention fun, endeavor.(3.5 / 5)