Say something about yourself!
The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is a maddeningly fascinating work. It was reportedly discovered in 2008 in the possessions left to his heirs by S.G. Hulme-Beaman, a children's author and illustrator best known as the creator of the Toytown stories and their characters (including Larry the Lamb) who died in 1932. The manuscript is attributed to "James Carnac," who professes to be the real Jack The Ripper writing about his gruesome exploits 40 years after the fact. The book is made up of four parts: 1) Introductory notes apparently made by S.G. Hulme-Beaman, which explain how he came upon the manuscript while acting as executor of Carnac's estate, but failed to follow Carnac's directions to send the manuscript to a publishing house due to its disturbing and distasteful subject matter; 2) the first two sections of the narrative, which relate the story of Carnac's young life (including his father's murder of his mother and subsequent suicide) and Whitechapel years (including the Ripper slayings); 3) the third section of the narrative, produced on a different typewriter than the first two sections and written in a different, more "fictional" voice, bringing Carnac's story to an all-too-neat end; and 4) commentary by Alan Hicken and respected Ripperologist Paul Begg.
What is this book, exactly? Several possibilities exist. It might represent Hulme-Beaman's attempt at a "true crime"-inspired novel, but this seems unlikely due to both the man's workload and his personality. It might be a novel by another author that came into the possession of Hulme-Beaman. (There is no record that James Carnac ever existed.) It might be a genuine autobiography of Jack the Ripper, and either the author's name is actually a pseudonym or somehow the historical James Carnac managed to live and die without creating a paper trail. Or perhaps it is a modern-day hoax purporting to be a manuscript from the late 1920s.
I went into this with the intention of reading it much like The Lodger (1913), an early twentieth-century novel by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes, a woman who lived through the Autumn of Terror and evoked it well in her story. As such a work of fiction, The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is effective. Carnac's fascination with blood, his knowledge of his father's act of murder/suicide, his curiosity about his French ancestors' roles as executioners, and his own strange (and resisted) compulsion to kill his kind uncle set the stage well for the horrors to come.
The descriptions of his behavior as Jack the Ripper offer the most interest. Unlike most works and speculations of the time, which attributed to the Ripper complicated motives (religious fanaticism, a personal vendetta against women, a desire to undermine the police force and law in general), Carnac comes across much in the way we understand modern psychopaths today. He killed because he liked killing, and he got away with his crimes because he was smart enough to choose his victims carefully. His dark, wry sense of humor is both startling and convincing. What is more, the end of the Ripper's murderous spree has a believable justification: Carnac was badly injured in an accident with a carriage (while crossing the street to get to a paper detailing his latest crime), losing both his leg and his mobility.
What I find most fascinating about the book is how it follows and deviates from known facts about the murders. Carnac admits that he had kept scrapbooks of media coverage of the crimes, and the similarity between some of his narrative and contemporary newspaper accounts can be explained by the fact that, after forty years, he returned to his clippings to remind himself of particulars. That said, he also deviates in some critical ways from widely-reported details -- and, in one case, provides a detail only known to have been reported in one account published in New York -- which certainly creates the effect of firsthand knowledge.
The odd ending, with its vastly different tone -- and, seemingly, purpose -- is also a mystery unto itself.
It's interesting to speculate on the real nature of this work. I am not suggesting that I was persuaded that Carnac existed or that he was the Ripper, but I was impressed by the psychological insight of the text and the historical mysteries it provides.
A riveting true crime story that vividly recounts the birth of modern forensics.
At the end of the nineteenth century, serial murderer Joseph Vacher, known and feared as “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” terrorized the French countryside. He eluded authorities for years—until he ran up against prosecutor Emile Fourquet and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the era’s most renowned criminologist. The two men—intelligent and bold—typified the Belle Époque, a period of immense scientific achievement and fascination with science’s promise to reveal the secrets of the human condition.
With high drama and stunning detail, Douglas Starr revisits Vacher’s infamous crime wave, interweaving the story of how Lacassagne and his colleagues were developing forensic science as we know it. We see one of the earliest uses of criminal profiling, as Fourquet painstakingly collects eyewitness accounts and constructs a map of Vacher’s crimes. We follow the tense and exciting events leading to the murderer’s arrest. And we witness the twists and turns of the trial, celebrated in its day. In an attempt to disprove Vacher’s defense by reason of insanity, Fourquet recruits Lacassagne, who in the previous decades had revolutionized criminal science by refining the use of blood-spatter evidence, systematizing the autopsy, and doing groundbreaking research in psychology. Lacassagne’s efforts lead to a gripping courtroom denouement.
The Killer of Little Shepherds is an important contribution to the history of criminal justice, impressively researched and thrillingly told.
Simon Winchester recounts the tale of a collaboration that helped bring life to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): that of the Scottish Professor James Murray, editor of the OED, and one of his most prolific and invaluable volunteer contributors, former U.S. Army surgeon W.C. Minor, who was committed to Broadmoor Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane, after committing murder in London.
Murray, Minor, and their relationship are fascinating subjects, but in telling their story Winchester also detours onto a variety of other compelling topics, as well, from the unique plight of the Irish soldiers who fought for the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War to the evolution of scientific thinking about and treatment for schizophrenia. All paths in this book eventually lead back to the daunting task of creating the first edition of the OED, and Winchester makes his case for why this achievement is worthy of attention and no little awe.
Solidly narrated, this audiobook is both brief and admirably wide-ranging, a treat for lovers of intellectual history.