By Alexander Wallace
Let us be frank for a moment: our societies love serial killers. We have created terms like ‘morbid fascination’ to attempt to lessen the impact of that obsession, but the truth remains the truth; some people just love the thrill of the unknown and the revulsion provoked by the macabre. It is not exactly surprising, then, that alternate history would feature stories about serial killers; one such is Mike Resnick’s Redchapel involving a serial killer and another beloved figure in the genre.
The year is 1888, and Theodore Roosevelt is at a scientific conference in London. There, he is contacted by a member of the Metropolitan Police who asks Roosevelt to help him solve a case that has beguiling the police for some time now: the killer who is known by the sobriquet ‘Jack the Ripper.’
My colleague Adam Selby-Martin has previously reviewed the story for the blog and was quite positive about it. I can certainly see why; I’ve reviewed Resnick’s Dragon America for this blog and likewise enjoyed it. The story itself is written well and constructed well; Resnick does a particularly good job of immersing you into the impoverished squalor that was 1888 Whitechapel. It is a miserable place where life is nasty, brutish, and short, made all the worse by its presence in a city where the most powerful empire in the world is run. The characters are drawn well; Roosevelt is his gregarious self, as alternate history tends to make him, and you have a clever policeman and several interesting denizens of Whitechapel.
One of the major themes of this novel is that of public apathy. Throughout the story, it is made clear as day that upper-class London as outright neglecting their duty to their poorer countrymen. Much of the story is a blistering tirade against Victorian inequality, and how the apathy of an elite makes the poor starve and sleep on pavement. It is a message that still resonates today.
However, the story is undone because Resnick’s writing reflected the consensus of 2001, when the story was written: that all of the Ripper’s victims were prostitutes. This is an understandable assumption; Wikipedia repeats this as fact on several pages, and many nonfiction works have been written using this conventional wisdom.
In the London of 1888, as now, prostitutes were looked down upon, scorned, spat at. This was a product of an intersection between misogyny and classism; these were women forced into this profession because they were poor and desperate and needed money to survive. It was common among that society to assume that any woman of such a low station was a prostitute, and thus worthy of scorn.
When I read this story, I had already read a book that took a sledgehammer to the way that we remember Jack the Ripper. That book, as recommended to me by the ever-insightful Liam Connell (of ‘peasants not kings’ fame within the online alternate history community), is Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Story of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, for which she was nominated for the Wolfson History Prize and won the Baillie Gifford Prize.
Rubenhold makes an argument that will shock those who have only known of the Ripper in passing: that only two of the women killed by that man were prostitutes. The others were of a variety of occupations, all those held by poor women of the era in reasonable numbers. Rubenhold stresses time and again how the misogyny and the classism of the era led to them being described as prostitutes in the press and in police reports, a misconception that has stuck.
What Rubenhold has done is that which few historians, or alternate history writers for that matter, have done: emphasize the humanity of the people who were the casualties of the stories that enthrall us. She methodically goes through the lives of each of the women who met their ends at the hands of that cruel man, telling you of their loves and their pains and their flaws, foibles, and charms. Lurking behind these wonderful character portraits lurks a smoldering rage at the voyeurism of a culture that has looked to the story of Jack the Ripper as a tantalizing, salacious intersection of violence and sex, ignoring the fact that those corpses were once living, breathing people. In doing so, she issues needed condemnation of genres like true crime that fawn over the identity of a killer, without bothering to get to know the killed.
Our culture has turned Jack the Ripper into a universal symbol of evil. He has been a villain pit against Batman. He has lent his name to a baseball team in Ontario. He was a spirit in Grimm and abducted by aliens in Babylon 5. There is a cottage industry dedicated to figuring out who he was; I remember that Weird Virginia, an entry in a series of books about oddities in various American states, argued that he was originally from Norfolk, Virginia. None of these really concern themselves that the Ripper was a real person who really killed real people.
Our genre is long guilty of this sin; I will always recommend this essay on the Alternate History Weekly Update by rvbomally (author of Ad Astra Per Aspera and Vivere Militare Est) on how the large scale of much alternate history work reduces real living people into numbers on graphs and border changes on maps; in other words, our genre creates distance between us as writers and the people that we kill.
The case of Jack the Ripper shows that this dynamic can happen even on small scales. That killer ended the lives of five people for certain and maybe a few others; in any case, that number is not high. Redchapel falls into the trap that many other stories have by focusing on the killers and not on the killed. All too often, we are fascinated by those who mete out death and ignore those who die. Alternate historians will read hundreds of pages about Hitler or Himmler or Goring, but few, if any, about the Jews and the Romani and the myriad others who died in those gas chambers.
In his afterword to his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder said something about this phenomenon that has stuck with me for years:
“Victims left behind mourners. Killers left behind numbers.”
Jack the Ripper, known only for being a killer, left behind a number of five. Those interested in history are all too often voyeurs; we read with horrified fascination of Nazi death camps, but all too often neglect the real people and real cultures that were annihilated in those gas chambers. Similar applies to Jack the Ripper, and by extension, Redchapel: it is a story that is fascinated by the killer but uninterested in the killed and comes from a culture that too often is obsessed with murders but ignores funerals.
After reading The Five, Redchapel hits differently. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the story; Resnick is a good writer, and I have enjoyed his short fiction before (I quite liked his story in Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois). But Rubenhold’s argument is a compelling one, and after reading her book it is clear that Redchapel inadvertently buys into the misconceptions that were based on a deeply biased and unfair reporting of a society that was unwilling to see the poor, and women, as full people. Accepting such myths ends up reflecting the biases of a society that was willing to do anything but accept the fact that real people had died needlessly.