Saturday, May 05, 2007

Jack the Ripper and the Limits of Human Knowledge

Something that's been bugging me for a while is Jack the Ripper. Perhaps not so much in a literal he-lives-next-door-and-plays-his-music-too-loud-at-4-am-and-his-dog-shits-on-my-doorstep sense but more in a I've-bumped-into-Jack-related-info-recently-and-I-find-myself-less-convinced-every-day sense.

When we first moved back to Canada I pulled Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed from the ol' Ottawa Public Library.

Let me back up. It was a little before this, still in Japan in those days, that I saw From Hell which put forth the notion of the Royal Family involvement and merged it with the second theory of Freemason involvement. There were some short docs on the special features which briefly discussed some of the theories. I read the original graphic novel a while later (don't you wish Kinokuniya books had chairs like Chapters?)

Now let's face it, it's not like that was my intro to Saucy Jack. The image and legends abound in our society, from the Michael Caine TV mini-series in 1988 to Star Trek's Jack the Ripper episode (you know: Scotty on trial, Jack was an alien entity)

A year or two later I came back to Canada and read Cornewll's bood. Okay now we're back to chronology.

There were some documentaries from time to time on the Discovery Channel, people talking, pub talk about goes on.

In September my wife and I took my folks on a Jack the Ripper walk in London's East End, including by the Ten Bells and the Whitechapel church across the street from it that gives the area it's name. We ended in Mitre Square when the guide, who is also a Beefeater at the Tower of London, gave us his theory. Freemasons, and he named the guy. It's not important, except that the guide was also a Freemason so he knew a few things about the rituals and their parallels in the killings.

And so on: Discovery Channel :: News - History :: Jack the Ripper ID'd by Historian

An eminent South African historian believes he has stumbled on the identity of Jack the Ripper.

Charles van Onselen said at first he wasn't sure he wanted to publicize the conclusions he drew when he noticed parallels in the century-old, unsolved Ripper case and the background of Joseph Silver, who terrorized women as "King of the Pimps" in Johannesburg.

So a South African historian has found that Jack the Ripper was actually South African? Amazing. As amazing as the fact that a Freemason sees Freemasonry in the killings. Or someone with republican leanings seeing a Royal involvement.

Scores of people have been accused of the Ripper murders, but no one has ever been proven guilty and London police put the number of most likely suspects at just four, among them a poor Whitechapel resident named Kosminski who, like Silver, was a Polish Jew. At the time, Londoners speculated the killer was Jewish, leading to fears of an anti-Jewish backlash.

Van Onselen believes Silver fits the psychological profile of the Whitechapel murderer and he places his subject at the center of the scene of the Ripper murders. The evidence that Silver was in Whitechapel at the time of the Ripper murders includes the birth of his daughter there, van Onselen said.

But that's the point, isn't it? There are a half dozen historical and traditional suspects and little evidence left.

And from there Jack the Ripper becomes a historical Rorschach print, free of restricting detail and constraints and open for everyone to graft their own views onto.

There are a half dozen or so 'traditional' suspects (List of proposed Jack the Ripper suspects - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) (Casebook: Jack the Ripper - Suspects) All of them have a few points in their favour and a few counter-arguments against their guilt.

Patricia Cornwell's book accusing Walter Sickert of being the Ripper is based on 'if' after 'could' after 'should.' I found myself noticing hour the potential problem with Sickert's penis possibly causing embarrassment and perhaps impotence and maybe even a loathing of women could have pushed him toward the killings. Umm, okay.

There are a few things around the whole process I don't accept about Ripperologists and their work. How do we prove anything about the suspects? Consider:

  1. There wasn't solid investigation, not by modern standards.
  2. There's dispute over whether or not medical knowledge was needed for the mutilations.
  3. Parts of the police archives were hit in the London Blitz destroying some of the Ripper evidence.
But most importantly, the flaw I find with every suspect:

Everyone assumes that the culprit is someone still known to history.

It is the sad fate of the majority of people to be lost to history. There's no shame in it; that's life. Even in today's world, few of our names will stay much longer than our deaths.

Consider this point, the surviving names from the original investigation tend to be locals with a small reputation or suspects in other murders. Later suspects are people of increasing fame: Prince Albert Victor, Lewis Caroll (where's the WTF? punctuation mark, anyway?), Walter Sickert, Sir William Gull, etc.

The further we get from the era of the Ripper, the less evidence survives; the greater the distance in time the greater the stature of the suspects or the further afield the come from.

Don't get me wrong: one of the list could be the culprit. Still, it could be someone else.

What does it mean? Ultimately it places the identity of Jack the Ripper in the category of unknowable things. A known unknown in the language of Donald Rumsfeld.

Certain things in the world and in history are probably not knowable.

Recently I was reading about Constantine the Great. Although in 326 he had his son Crispus executed then shortly after his wife Fausta as well, many historians debate the reason. Did Crispus rape Fausta as accused or was she trying to secure a better position for her sons? Who knows?

Historical Jesus? Was there a 1 AD Britannica Yearbook we can check? No.

Steven Pinker had a throwaway comment in How the Mind Works to the effect that it's likely we won't really understand consciousness in humans, if only because the tool is the same as the subject. Using consciousness to dissect consciousness is like using glass to cut glass.

In the end, we should never stop trying, never stop striving. We also need to accept that no matter how close we get on some questions we may never really get to the finish line.


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