Popular Delusions

This week, thanks to a post shared in a facebook group, I listened to a 1988 lecture by Professor John Pick about Jack the Ripper. It formed part of a series on Rumour, Disease and the Madness of Crowds. Given this title I expected something like the epic study of crowd psychology, by Charles Mackay in 1841 with a focus on how the public behaved during the period of the Ripper murders and the role of the emerging tabloid press. Instead Pick promoted another popular delusion, namely that the Jack the Ripper murders were part of a masonic conspiracy to conceal a secret royal marriage.

The idea formed the basis of the bestselling book, The Final Solution by Stephen Knight, in 1976. Aspects of it, minus the freemasons, appeared in a television mini-series, broadcast six weeks before the lecture. Most researchers dismissed the claims, with good reason, and so I was surprised to find it backed by an academic. However, I admired Pick’s oratory skills and the way that he held his audience, including this later sceptic. Oral presentations are a dying art, sacrificed to PowerPoint and the mercy of listeners distracted by personal technology.

Six years after Pick’s lecture another academic, Philip Sugden, swept away many of the myths associated with Jack the Ripper. He went back to the primary sources and produced a first-rate account, speaking despairing of those who sought to pin the crimes on mad freemasons and erring royals. Yet those theories remain alive and, even some who followed Sugden, have espoused them. Sometimes fiction is more popular than fact.


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