The Devil's Work, Garry Linnell
A while ago another much admired true crime writer mentioned the name Frederick Deeming to me, and kindly sent me a short synopsis about the man's background, and the theory that he could be the notorious Jack the Ripper. Prior to that time I confess to never having heard of him, or the crimes that were definitely committed by him, so when THE DEVIL'S WORK appeared on my horizons I was mightily intrigued.
Styled as what I'm calling narrative true crime (facts intertwined with story telling), Garry Linnell has drawn out a story of the man, his movements, and his crimes, including elements that are speculative - motivations / thoughts / observations by third parties, etc. All of which gives the story depth, and a place in the times, creating a voice for those not normally heard from - long-dead victims, family, associates and passers by.
Along the way we learn just how mobile, inventive and horrible Frederick Deeming was. We learn about his family background, and it teases out the age old argument of born mad or bad. Obviously there's mental illness in Deeming's background (his father was a profoundly troubled man), but it's hard to believe that Deeming was mad - the level of ruthlessness, the planning, the range of his crimes just didn't seem to sit well with the idea that they weren't planned, calculated, and self-serving to the point of self-obsession. Certainly this reader came away from the story convinced he was monstrous, a human being with absolutely no redeeming features at all.
THE DEVIL'S WORK is a wide ranging undertaking though, and it goes not just to Deeming's life, travels and crimes, but the fascination that there was in the 1800s with the supernatural, ghosts and the definition of insanity (in later life Deeming vowed his dead mother was visiting him nightly / urging him to commit crimes), hence some of the viewpoints explored. This does mean that the book meanders down quite a few supplementary paths, taking the reader into the lives of people other than Deeming, those that met him, those that observed him closely, and then into the trial in Australia that ultimately saw him sentenced to death for murder.
By that stage Deeming had been accused, but never tried of the murder, of his first wife and four children in the United Kingdom (discovered buried in concrete in their house); had been believed involved in some very suspect goings on in South Africa as well as all over Australia; before killing his second wife, burying her body in yet another shallow concrete grave in their Australian house. He'd been trying to convince a third young woman to marry him at the time of his arrest (luckily she'd been unconvinced by his advances and hadn't followed him to the Western Australian goldfields where presumably a concrete hearth awaited her as well). Overall there is a litany of deceitful dealings, thefts, dodgy financial undertakings and a myriad of other crimes following him around, committed under a plethora of aliases he was prone to using.
The wider question of whether or not he could have been Jack the Ripper, is mostly speculative it seems, based on the understanding that he was probably in the UK at the time of the killings, gone at the time that they ended and believed perfectly capable of those sorts of viscious killings. I'm not sure that THE DEVIL'S WORK really addressed this theory all that comprehensively but, on the question of whether or not he was syphilitic and nasty enough to kill women in the way the Ripper's victims were - well there's more than enough there to encourage the rumours, if not actual evidence to support.
Either way, THE DEVIL'S WORK is an interesting undertaking. It's always tricky to come to true crime stories set so long ago as those involved are obviously long gone, and records weren't that comprehensive or easily accessed - especially given the considerable distances over which Deeming moved. The style of this as a narrative, a yarn being woven, worked though, with only a few minor boggy bits overall making for an engaging, rolling along tale. Well worth reading to understand just what a monster Frederick Deeming was, be he Jack the Ripper or not, and what he got away with before finally being bought to justice.
He was a murderer, swindler, bigamist and suspect in the Jack the Ripper killings.
Frederick Deeming was also the most hated man in the world.
Claiming to be haunted by the ghost of his dead mother, Deeming had spent years roaming the planet under various aliases, preying on the innocent, the gullible and the desperate.
But the discovery by Australian police in 1892 of the body of one of his wives in a shallow concrete grave triggered one of the greatest manhunts in history and exposed a further series of grisly murders – those of his first wife and four children - that stunned the Victorian era.
The Devil’s Work is a gothic journey into the twisted mind of a serial killer, set in the dying years of the 19th century when science and religion had collided and some of the world’s most powerful and influential people believed in spirits and an afterlife.
It reveals Deeming’s crime spree across three continents, raising fresh questions about his role in the Jack the Ripper killings and culminating in his sensational trial where he was defended by a future Australian Prime Minister who believed he could also speak to the dead.
Born bad or simply mad? It’s time to meet Frederick Deeming, the man known and reviled throughout the United States, England and Australia as the Criminal of the Century.