“Shadow Pasts: History's Mysteries” is a somewhat surprising book by a British historian, William D Rubinstein. The book examines various “alternative” theories about important historical events, often critically, but with a minimum of name-calling. Books written by skeptics and debunkers are usually harsher (and perhaps more hard-hitting) than this one!
Among the topics covered are conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination, Jack the Ripper, “The Da Vinci Code” and the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Most of the speculations analyzed by the author are of a non-supernatural character, although the occult does intrude on the chapters on ancient Egypt and the Jesus bloodline. The author reaches the conclusion that the “official” view holds water on most issues – thus, he believes that Lee Harvey Oswald really did kill Kennedy and that the deranged Oswald acted alone.
What makes the work surprising is that Rubinstein was “converted” to an alternative theory himself while researching the issue – in his case, the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Together with Brenda James, Rubinstein has written an entire book arguing that Shakespeare's plays were really written by Sir Henry Neville, a British politician and diplomat who was Shakespeare's contemporary. I also note that Rubinstein's book “The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies could not have saved more Jews from the Nazis” is considered very controversial in some circles. Perhaps this explains why is unusually open to “fringe” beliefs, at least for a tenured professor?
The book is relatively short and covers a lot of ground, which may explain why the arguments are of varied quality. The chapter on Shakespeare strikes me as the best one. That Jack the Ripper was a Freemason is rejected with the naïve statement that Freemasons don't commit murders (somebody should tell the don about the William Morgan case), and apparently Zionists and Jesuits are quite innocent, too. Rightly or wrongly, Rubinstein has a soft spot for non-conventional speculations about Jesus. Of course, sometimes the demi-monde of alt-history and conspiracy claims is almost brilliantly weird, so weird that I understand why the author doesn't entirely “get it”. Rubinstein directs one of his few sarcasms against “The Stargate Conspiracy” by Picknett and Prince, an admittedly outré work, and yet one which seems to contain some useful information about cults deeply embedded in the U.S. intelligence community. Yes, truth *is* stranger than fiction…
If “Shadow Pasts” will lead to a useful dialogue between scholars and amateur researchers remains to be seen. Some parts of academe are apparently hermetically sealed to all alternative influences (English Literature departments accept postmodernism and Marxism, but not debates about the Shakespeare Authorship Question), while many alternative writers, not to mention their fans, are cultic and believe all criticism simply *must* be CIA or Illuminati. Still, I believe this volume is a good first attempt to take the discussions to a more constructive level.
And since you must know, here are my takes on the topics mentioned in the book. JFK: Of course it was the Cuban Mafia. Jack the Ripper: Can't be bothered. Shakespeare: No idea, but I will read the Neville book (“The Truth Will Out”). I mean, *something* is rotten in the kingdom of Denmark, yes? Richard III: Can't be bothered. Jesus and Mary: “The Da Vinci Code” is WRONG. Rudolf Hess: No idea, but seems important. Egypt: Probably a real mystery, but with a non-supernatural solution. Also, read my review of “The Stargate Conspiracy”! ;-)