Ripper Book Reviews – Double Bill!

Jack the Ripper is a name that everyone knows – he’s become a legend, a man who stalked the streets of Whitechapel murdering prostitutes. Except no one knows who he was, only what he did. There’s this huge mystery surrounding him that for over a century has had historians and the public alike scratching their heads and wondering just who he was. The Ripper has been an interest of mine for a while but until now I haven’t really sat down and read anything on him other than a little on the canonical five murders, so when the lovely Pen & Sword offered two Ripper books to review, I jumped at the chance. So today’s post is two very brief reviews of these books, both of which I devoured within just a few days.

The Hidden Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Victims – Robert Hume

This book took me about a day and a half to read – I just couldn’t put it down! Just as it says on the cover, this piece of work delves into the lives of Jack the Rippers victims and explains that, contrary to popular belief, they were more than just prostitutes who sold their bodies on the streets of Whitechapel.

Hume tells us the real stores of these women, their history and how they ended up in the poorest area of London. Each story is incredibly sad in it’s own way – each of these women had jobs, homes and families only to find themselves at the bottom of the ladder thanks to perhaps a simple mistake. One example being Annie Chapman. Despite being born out of wedlock (her father married her mother after she was born), Annie grew up in a respectable area and eventually married a respectable man in regular employment. Things started getting difficult when a little one was born. Then her husband was fired from his job, likely due to Annie stealing something from his employer. Heavy drinking then ensued and, when her husband left her, she ended up in the East End. There, with little money of her own, she became desperate and like many other women, resorted to prostitution to make ends meet.

The lives of these women are shockingly similar and reading their stories honestly filled me with sadness. They apparently never knew each other but were linked in so many ways – their lives, their falling from grace, and their horrific deaths at the hand of Jack the Ripper.

I highly recommend this book if you have any interest in women’s history, particularly around the Victorian era, and true crime. It is incredibly well written and Hume presents his subject with candour.

5/5

Who was Jack the Ripper? All the Subjects Revealed – Members of H Division Crime Club

This book, written by members of the H Division Crime Club, is basically a collection of essays around the main Ripper suspects and delves into the psychological profiling of the sort of man who could have committed such atrocities. Whilst this is certainly an interesting way of looking at the suspects, and probably the only way that a book of this type could be written, it does come across as if they expect the reader to have at least some basic knowledge of the time and the event.

Each chapter/essay focuses on a different suspect and argues as to why this individual is the most likely to be the infamous Ripper. Each chapter is well written and presents evidence behind the theories exceptionally well – only to then be totally discredited by someone in the next chapter. Of course, in a book like this there will be totally conflicting arguments and, at the end of the day, no solid conclusion as to who Jack the Ripper really was.

This was an interesting read but I do think you need at least some knowledge of the events (beyond the legends and films etc that have sprung up around the Ripper case) to be able to take it all in. Parts of it are a difficult read – the final chapter is written by a forensic psychologist and goes into some psychological profiling quite deeply.

A fascinating read but not one that everyone will enjoy. And ultimately this book just goes to prove that the identity of Jack the Ripper will forever remain unknown.

3/5

 

[Review] The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather

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How do you keep fighting in the face of unimaginable horror?

This is untold story of one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War.

In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interred at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich.

His mission was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. The name of the detention centre — Auschwitz.

It was only after arriving at the camp that he started to discover the Nazi’s terrifying designs. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities to the West, culminating in the mass murder of over a million Jews. His reports from the camp were to shape the Allies response to the Holocaust – yet his story was all but forgotten for decades.

This is the first major account of his amazing journey, drawing on exclusive family papers and recently declassified files as well as unpublished accounts from the camp’s fighters to show how he saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The result is a enthralling story of resistance and heroism against the most horrific circumstances, and one man’s attempt to change the course of history.

It’s not very often that you finish a book and then sit there for a moment before breathing out the word “s**t”. And let me tell you, in the case of ‘The Volunteer’, that exclamation is definitely not meant in a bad way at all. If I’m being brutally honest with myself, I can’t remember the last time that a book struck me so hard, that had me brought close to tears on way too many occasions to count. But this book, by Jack Fairweather, has done that. It has brought me to tears on many an occasion, parts of it turned my stomach because of the absolute horror yet I couldn’t stop reading this story of complete and utter heroism, of a man who willingly volunteered to set foot in a place that would come to embody the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution. Much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t heard of Witold Pilecki until just a few days before I picked up this book. An article crossed my facebook page which I decided to read at daft o clock in the morning and my interest was peaked – then, whilst I was at work, I saw an interview on BBC news with Jack Fairweather, the author of an award winning biography on Pilecki. I knew then, that I had to find a copy so after work, off I trotted into town to find it.

This biography tells the story of Witold Pilecki, a Polish cavalry office and Polish resistance leader during the Second World War, a man who willingly volunteered to get himself imprisoned in Auschwitz and put together an underground resistance within the fences of the concentration camp. Once there, Pilecki observed as the camp was turned into a machine of mass murder yet he never once gave up hope – not really – and he built a resistance, placing his own underground operatives throughout the camp and planned to rise up against the Nazi’s who had them all imprisoned. Not only that, but he sent reports to the outside world, detailing the horrors that were taking place.

Fairweather’s writing style is near flawless and the whole book reads like a thriller. It truly is a page turner – and in my opinion this book needs to be turned into a film. Pilecki’s story is one of incomprehensible bravery not only during his time in Auschwitz, but after his escape as well – he was a patriot, he loved his country and was loyal to his friends. He fought hard for what he believed in, only to be arrested in the days following the end of the war and the communist takeover of Poland. Then, this man who had so willingly stepped into hell, had been executed as a traitor.

I would truly recommend this book to anyone with even an inkling of interest in history. It should also be on the reading list of every single history student who studies the Second World War. These days there are so many out there trying to deny that the holocaust even took place and it is so important that we remember the atrocities that happened. This book is a heartrending tale of a man who helped bring the horrors of Auschwitz into the public record and a chilling reminder of the evil that happened because of the Nazi’s ideology. There are moments within the text that are not for the faint of heart – after one paragraph detailing one of the first gassings within the camp, I had to close the book and put it down for a bit because it made me feel physically sick. But that, I feel, is what this book is supposed to be doing.

This book is a must read.

5/5

More information on Jack Fairweather and his work can be found on his website. He is also on twitter.