A Very Popular Murder

So, among all the other poignant, pointless and terrifying news stories that broke last week, it was announced in a Daily Mail ‘world exclusive’ that the hunt for the true identity of Jack the Ripper was over (again). Journalists across the land sprang into action, plundering Wikipedia in order to throw a bit of vintage murder porn together. This was all in aid of the latest book on the subject, Naming Jack the Ripper: New Crime Scene Evidence, A Stunning Forensic Breakthrough, The Killer Revealed by Russell Edwards (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2014). You’ve no doubt seen the story: ‘The landmark discovery,’ said the Mail on Sunday, ‘was made after businessman Russell Edwards, 48, bought the shawl [of Catherine Eddowes] at auction and enlisted the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a world-renowned expert in analysing genetic evidence from historical crime scenes.’ Apparently it was Aaron Kosminski, a mad Polish hairdresser, and one of the original suspects. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment, other than on the title, which is certainly optimised for maximum search engine coverage, but a trifle ungainly, although very Victorian in its verbosity. Reviews are mixed, ranging from very positive – it’s a page-turner – to sceptical – it’s popular history and science, rather than a well referenced and peer-reviewed piece of research. (Perhaps Dr. Louhelainen has a more formal paper in the pipeline.) Either way, I’m sure it will sell like eel pies at a hanging, while I look forward to also finding out who really killed the Kennedys and which is the one true god.

Catherine Eddowes
Catherine Eddowes, Unknown Artist, The Penny Illustrated Paper (1888)

I already own Patricia Cornwall’s Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed (2002) – it was Walter Sickert what did it – and The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Discovery, The Investigation, The Authentication by Shirley Harrison (1993) – the fake memoir of James Maybrick – and Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight (1976) – the popular Royal/Masonic conspiracy theory – so I think I’ll pass. You’ve read one of these things, and you’ve essentially read them all: sensational retellings of the original murders, pseudo-science and dodgy historiography, new artefacts discovered, and an evangelical level of epistemological certainty. So saying, it probably was Kosminski, or someone very much like him, an anonymous psycho, a nobody who wanted to be a somebody, socially alienated and otherwise powerless, and forced to stop by external circumstances (he was committed for something else). You pays your money and you takes your choice, although, as Julia Laite pointed out in Tuesday’s Guardian, while each self-styled ‘Ripperologist’ claims to have solved the crime, as a body of armchair detectives, amateur historians and tour guides they also have a vested interest in maintaining the mystery. But, as far as we’re concerned – this is a creative writing blog, remember – who the killer really was is not the point. What interests me about ‘Jack the Ripper’ is the narratology.

In truth, there was no ‘Jack the Ripper,’ beyond the miserable reality of an anonymous little prick who liked to carve up women. ‘Jack the Ripper,’ on the other hand, was (and remains) a fictional construct.

It is a common argument that the sheer brutality these crimes made the perpetrator so notorious. But even if you forget, for a moment, that we live in a world where people are beheaded on the internet, serial killers are celebrated, and images of death and violence are shown on mainstream television news channels that would have been banned by the 1984 Broadcasting Act even if they’d been faked… if you forget all that and just do your homework on the Victorians, it is clear from the police records of the period, as well as social investigations, popular literature and the press, that life was always very cheap in the rookeries of London. The Whitechapel murders were undoubtedly horrific, but far from unprecedented in the annals of popular murder.

The majority of the famous Regency and Victorian murderers have been forgotten now, but their names were still common cultural currency in 1888, and many of them featured in Madame Tussaud & Sons’ ‘Chamber of Horrors.’ The century started well, for example, with the ‘Ratcliff Highway Murders’ of 1811, in which two families in Wapping were attacked and seven people killed by an unidentified assailant (presumed to be the sailor John Williams, who hanged himself while on remand in Clerkenwell Gaol). Then there was the ‘Gill’s Hill Tragedy’ of 1823, in which John Thurtell, a boxing promoter from Norwich (and his accomplices Joseph Hunt and William Probert), beat the solicitor William Weare to death over a gambling debt; the ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in 1827; Burke and Hare (1828); the murder and dismemberment of the washerwoman Hannah Brown (whose head was found jammed in the sluice of the Ben Jonson lock in the Regent’s Canal) by her fiancée, James Greenacre, in 1836; the murder of the retired M.P. Lord William Russell by his valet, François Courvoisier, in 1840; the ‘Murders at Stanfield Hall’ in 1849 (Norwich, again, my home town, by the way), in which father and son Isaac Jermy and Isaac Jermy Jermy were shot to death at the family mansion by James Bloomfield Rush, a delinquent tenant farmer; the ‘Bermondsey Murder’ of 1849, in which husband and wife Frederick and Maria Manning killed Maria’s lover, Patrick O’Connor, and buried him under the flagstones in their kitchen; the case of Dr. William Palmer, ‘The Rugeley Poisoner,’ convicted for the murder of his friend John Cook in 1855, but suspected of also killing his brother, mother-in-law, and four of his own children. There was also Edward William Pritchard, ‘The Glasgow Poisoner’ (another doctor), who killed his wife and mother-in-law in 1865 (and, probably, a servant a couple of years before, although this was never proved); the murder and awkward disposal of Harriet Lane by her lover, Henry Wainright, in 1874; and the ‘Richmond Murder’ of 1879, in which the rich widow Julia Thomas was murdered and dismembered by her maid, Kate Webster. Neither were ‘serial killers’ a new idea, as shown by the career of the multiple poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794 – 1847).

You get the general idea. As far as ‘’Orrible Murder’ was concerned in the 19th century, there was a lot of it about, and people got off on reading about it in much the same way as they now hungrily consume true crime on Investigation Discovery and the Crime and Investigation Network. Violent crime, trials and executions were reported with a ghoulish relish throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the Newgate calendars, broadsheets, penny bloods, and the emergent tabloid press, most notably the Illustrated London News and its dark reflection, the Illustrated Police News, the CI channel of its day. Like his popular predecessors, ‘Jack the Ripper’ was not, therefore, simply a murderer, he was a hyper-real media event, and, apparently, he still is.

So how did this lunatic become the Elvis of murder?

The continuing obsession with Jack the Ripper is all about genre, setting, and the lack of a third act. The press figured out the Whitechapel killings were a genre piece from the start. ‘The mind travels back to the pages of De Quincey for an equal display of scientific delight in the details of butchery,’ said the Times on September 10, 1888, reporting the death of Annie Chapman a couple of days before, and continuing, ‘Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” recur in the endeavour to conjure up some parallel for this murderer’s brutish savagery.’ (Thomas De Quincey loved a good murder, and had written the Swiftian satire ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1827.) Similarly, in an article in the Pall Mall Gazette called ‘Murder and More to Follow,’ which ran on the day of Chapman’s murder, the crusading journalist W.T. Stead had already made the connection with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, first published in 1886, giving the reading public a recognisable gothic correlative for the killer. Some concerned members of the public even wrote in suggesting that the actor Richard Mansfield, then playing Jekyll and Hyde in the West End, might be the murderer, on account of the disturbing authenticity of his performance. So, after only two victims, the press were placing the killer firmly in the tradition of the literary gothic, where he has remained ever since.

The setting was similarly as sinister as it was sensational. With its proximity to the City, Whitechapel had always been the Other of bourgeois London: a dark hinterland a few streets over from the financial district, on the edge of the sprawling East End, an alien world of nine hundred thousand lost souls that had come to epitomise sex and violence in the minds of the middle class Victorians. To the social explorers and reformers, Whitechapel was a symbol of urban deprivation, with poor, over-crowded housing, high rents, sweatshops, rising unemployment, crime, epidemic disease and prostitution. But to rich young bloods, bucks, and plungers it had always been something of a playground, a place where one might have a bit of a spree, slumming it in the penny gaffs, the music halls and the low taverns, and then sampling the girls on offer on and around Whitechapel Road. To the Victorians, Whitechapel was as fascinating as it was appalling.

Shut your eyes and see. Doesn’t the visual language of film and TV give us a vivid picture of these killing streets? Imagine labyrinthine, Dickensian neighbourhoods, crooked, shored-up building with windows out like broken teeth, wraithlike urchins with haunted eyes, hard men, and the remnants of once fine girls; a grey, bleak, infernal place, where gaslights fail to pierce the choking smoke and pestilential fog, and coppers travel in pairs, if they venture there at all. You’ve all seen Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street, right? The mise-en-scène is somewhere between a Hammer film and a BBC costume drama; onto this dimly-lit, expressionist stage steps the nameless assassin and his victims. Lacking an identity, which is what immediately separates this killer from the other Victorian studies in scarlet listed above, he is christened by the press.

In news terms, when a murder a day is preferable, there was a very long gap between the murders of Polly Nichols (August 31) and Annie Chapman (September 8), and the next victims (the so called ‘double event’ of September 30). Thus, on September 25, someone (almost certainly an enterprising journalist trying to keep the story going), sent a letter to the Central News Agency purporting to be from the Whitechapel killer. He signed it ‘Jack the Ripper.’ The letter was written in red ink, and in a confident and literate hand that was ill-disguised by some deliberate grammatical lapses. The tone is straight out of the confessional magazine tales of terror that Edgar Allan Poe had refined and perfected in the 1840s, and which Stevenson had tapped into in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: ‘I am down on whores and I shant [sic] quit ripping them till I do get buckled.’ This is a long way from the chilling, semi-literate note subsequently sent to George Lusk, the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, ‘From Hell,’ on October 15, which came along with part of a human kidney, and was notably not signed ‘Jack the Ripper.’ Perhaps this one was real, the infernal address indicating the waking nightmare of a disintegrating mind, or maybe it was a medical student having a laugh. Either way, it’s not so much a piece of the puzzle as it is part of the legend, the backdrop; another gothic device.

The 'Dear Boss' letter, September 27, 1888
The ‘Dear Boss’ letter, September 25, 1888

As is well documented elsewhere, the ferocity of the murders escalated until the appalling death of Mary Kelly on November 9 (the fifth victim), and then they just stopped. The killer was never identified or caught, and the world has been trying to figure out who he was ever since, to the extent that the search now constitutes one of the last thriving British industries, with endless books, movies, documentaries, exhibits, and tours perpetuating the story and presenting it as part of our cultural heritage.

In narratological terms, it is the ‘high concept’ simplicity of the story that makes it so versatile, a kind of Jaws meets Oliver Twist, in which the lack of historical closure offers a multiplicity of possible solutions and interpretations. There is just Whitechapel in 1888, the five women, and a man with a knife. It all started with The Curse Upon Mitre Square by John Francis Brewer, a little gothic number published in October, 1888, so before the final murder, and the story has been reworked ever since, with Naming Jack the Ripper being the most recent instalment in a body of work that I suspect one person would be hard-pressed to read and view in a lifetime. The paraliterary benchmark is probably the novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes (1913), which has been filmed five times, most notably by Hitchcock in 1927 as The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. A century later, the novels are still coming, the most recent being The Heart Absent by Carla E. Anderton (2013).

An early or possible first edition of The Lodger (with expressionist cover) by M. Belloc Lowndes (1913)
An early or possibly first edition of The Lodger (with expressionist cover) by M. Belloc Lowndes (1913)

These are mostly gothic stories and whodunits (and I include the non-fiction in these categories). The most interesting follow a symbolic line started during the murders by the philanthropist Sydney Godolphin Osborne in his letters to the Times, and picked up by John Tenniel in a Punch illustration called the ‘Nemesis of Neglect,’ in which the faceless Ripper comes to personify some sort of malevolent manifestation of the city itself. Although first seen in terms of social depravation, this presence has grown into something much more ancient and terrible in the works of Iain Sinclair (Lud Heat, 1975, and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, 1987), Peter Ackroyd (Hawksmoor, 1985, and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, 1994), and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (From Hell, 1989 – 1996), supposedly channelled by the mystic geometry of ‘The Devil’s Architect,’ Nicholas Hawksmoor.

There was a memorable variant of this concept in Star Trek, in an episode entitled ‘Wolf in the Fold’ (1967), written by Robert Bloch, the author of the original Psycho. In this version of the story, the Ripper is a vicious alien consciousness possessing beings across the universe and killing through them. I remember being particularly traumatised by this as a kid, as the latest Ripper, ‘Administrator Hengist,’ was portrayed by the actor John Fiedler, whose distinctive voice was also that of Piglet in the Disney Winnie the Pooh movies. This was not Bloch’s first Ripper story either, and his Star Trek screenplay was not a million miles from his short story ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper’ (first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1943), in which the killer was a gothic immortal who had to sacrifice human beings in order to prolong his own existence.

That Captain Kirk matched wits with the Ripper really demonstrates the unlimited narrative possibilities. Like the DC and Marvel Universes, crossovers are positively de rigueur in popular fiction, so, for example, Batman fought the Ripper in the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight (1989), while Sherlock Holmes was inevitably cast in the ultimate Victorian team-up. In A Study in Terror (Dir. James Hill, UK, 1966), the great detective was beautifully played by John Neville (but it’s worth watching just to see Barbara Windsor get murdered), while Christopher Plummer took the lead in Murder by Decree (Dir. Bob Clark, Canada/UK, 1979), which used Stephen Knight’s Masonic conspiracy theory as its frame. As far as I know, the most recent Sherlock Holmes/Ripper bout occurs in the novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye (2009). Another period piece frequently plundered in popular culture is Time After Time (Dir. Nicholas Meyer, US, 1979), in which H.G. Wells (Malcolm MacDowell) pursues the Ripper (David Warner) across time like Dr. Who.

The UK poster for A Study in Terror (1966)
The UK poster for A Study in Terror (1966)

As far as the actual writing of all this stuff goes (and there really is far too much to even enumerate), whether fiction or speculative non-fiction, it’s always an interesting case study in the adaptation of the historical record as historical fiction, with chronological events re-ordered, re-interpreted, and re-imagined as the plot of a prose or film narrative. The difference with ‘Ripperology’ is that the authors insist on pretending that it’s all real. If you write historical fiction, it’s always important to remember the golden rule that novels are novels and history is history. They are different forms of narrative, and although historians interpret the raw data as much as novelists, imposing order on the facts, such as they are, to create meaning, they’re usually less bothered by story arcs, tragedy, and dramatic expediency. If you’ve ever tried writing effective historical fiction, I’m sure you’ve broken through the barrier by which the historical record dictates your plot, because real history often makes very bad drama. The writer of historical fiction tries to keep to the essence of the story, while being mindful always of dramatic pacing and the perils of information dumping. But in ‘Ripperology’ it all crosses over. Russell Edwards, for example, cites seeing the film version of From Hell (2001) as his primary influence in pursuing the case. This is a stylish thriller, but denuded of Moore’s elegant and deeper symbolism, it is essentially a re-telling of Murder by Decree, but without Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not Mr. Edwards is aware of the graphic novel as well I cannot say, but I’m sure the latest collision in the narratological multiverse of ‘Jack the Ripper’ would appeal to Moore’s sense of irony.

As the identity of the killer continues to expand and develop, it is worth noting, in conclusion, that the reverse is the case with his victims. The killer started the process himself, stealing their lives and physically obliterating their identities through grotesque mutilations that we can still see in the snuff Victorian autopsy images plastered all over the internet. Catherine Eddowes, for example, the penultimate victim whose shawl supposedly contains traces of Kosminski’s DNA, is the naked woman without a face, emaciated by poverty and disease, and laid out and stitched together like some obscene mummy. Until it was replaced in 2003, her grave in the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park bore the inscription ‘Victim of Jack the Ripper.’ (She now has a ‘Heritage Trail’ plaque.) There’s a bitter, gallows irony here, because the level of investigation during the murders means that there are very detailed portraits of the lives of the victims available in a story that is, apparently, not considered to be worth telling. Coroner’s reports are scrutinised by generations of ‘Ripperologists’ looking for clues, and missing the point when it comes to the real narrative of these women’s lives, their relationships, and their living conditions. Final movements were reconstructed, regular haunts listed, incomes assessed, and friends and families investigated; while every pathetic little personal possession was itemised and catalogued at the time. Funnily enough, there’s no official record of Catherine Eddowes wearing a shawl at the time of her murder, but what do I know, I’m not a detective.

As the dead recede further into the past it is easy to forget that they were once as we are now, living, feeling, loving, and easier still to turn them into characters in an entertaining fiction. (Perhaps they went to Jack the Ripper heaven, a bit like the one at the end of James Cameron’s Titanic.) But Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catharine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly are all secondary characters in this long running melodrama, nowhere near as well realised, for example, as Dickens’ Nancy in Oliver Twist. As with any slasher movie, it is the killer who’s the star of the show, equally fictionalised to the extent that, just as many tourists supposedly believe Sherlock Holmes was a real person, Jack the Ripper has become a fantasy. He is a gothic icon, up there with Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Invisible Man, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Who he really was remains of no account in the continuing chronicles of a cultural obsession, in which history is fictionalised and fiction is historicised. So Jack the Ripper’s hit the headlines again, but then, he’s never really left them, has he?

Yours Truly

Blot the Skripper

4 thoughts on “A Very Popular Murder”

  1. Hey there! This post couldn’t be written any better!
    Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this.

    I will forward this write-up to him. Pretty sure he will have
    a good read. Thank you for sharing!


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