By Thomas C. Wescott
|A Ripper Notes Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripper Notes. Ripper Notes is the only American Ripper periodical available on the market, and has quickly grown into one of the more substantial offerings in the genre. For more information, view our Ripper Notes page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripper Notes for permission to reprint this article.|
On October 16th, 1888, George Lusk, the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received through the post a most gruesome package-half a human kidney that may well have belonged to Ripper victim, Catharine Eddowes; and a sardonic note addressed 'From hell'. Much has been written over the years regarding the provenance of the kidney, mostly theorizing over it's legitimacy (was it a medical student's prank or the real thing?), but what of the letter and it's foreboding heading? There is no doubt that the two words 'From hell', when together, invoke a very powerful image. Two books and the upcoming film will attest to it's potency in gaining attention as a title. But what motivated it's writer to choose these words? What was his inspiration? A likely explanation, as first noted by researcher Larry Barbee, is as follows...
In the September 7th, 1888 edition of The London Times an advertisement for a book was published. It read as follows...
Letters From Hell
14th Thousand. From the Darfish. With an introduction by DR. GEORGE MACDONALD. In one vol., crown 8vo., 6s. "Should be read by every thinking mind."-Morning Advertiser.
As The London Times were very thorough in their coverage of the Whitechapel murders, and quite accurate when compared to their contemporaries, it would be hard to imagine that the Ripper (or hoaxer) would not be devouring each issue for it's articles on the crimes and the ensuing investigation. If he indeed were then he would have come across the above advertisement for the book, Letters From Hell, an advertisement that no doubt appeared in other newspapers along with reviews, as the Morning Advertiser endorsement attests to.
The term 'From Hell' is so rarely used that I cannot recall having come across it outside of my studies in Ripperology. Despite all the films and television shows made, all the books written, and all the albums recorded over the past century, I am at failure to think of one time the phrase 'From Hell' was used not in reference to the Ripper. Yet, here in a London newspaper, published at the height of the Ripper scare, we find that phrase. What is even more amazing is that the two words are not alone, but accompanied by another word that has become a most significant part of Ripper lore, the word 'Letters'. Is it possible that this advertisement, or one like it appearing in another newspaper, is what gave fuel to the Ripper in his need to horrify and make himself heard, or in the case of a hoaxer gave him confidence to carry out his sinister scam? Indeed it is, especially when one considers that this advertisement was accompanied in this issue of The London Times by another such advertisement that read...
The Whitechapel Horror Resumed Inquest; Funeral of the Victim; Strange story of a Ruffian called "Leather Apron."--LLOYD'S NEWS. 66 columns. One penny.
So, the unique phrase 'From Hell' and the Whitechapel murders came together for the first time, not in a letter sent to George Lusk in October, but in the advertisements of a London newspaper in early September, twenty days before the receipt of the 'Dear Boss' letter. But what of the book itself?
In his preface, Dr. George MacDonald, who translated the book from it's original German dialect into English, tells us that the German version from which he translated was "somewhat modified" from the first edition that appeared in Denmark around 1868 and quickly went out of print. Oddly, he professed to have 'faithfully translated' the book into English while " pruning certain portions, recasting certain others, and omitting some less interesting to English readers." Whether or not MacDonald's was a faithful translation or not matters little as the Ripper, had he read the book, would have read MacDonald's English version (although the substitution of 'when' for 'if' in the phrase "Catch me when you can" found in the 'From hell' letter is does appear to be of German origin), and that is where we must look.
The book, Letters From Hell , is a Theological study of what happens to a man once he has been condemned to Hell for the sins he committed while on Earth. It is told in the first person, and from the point of view of the open letters that our anti-hero, named Philip, and also referred to as 'The Writer', writes while in Hell. The opening sentence of the book is, "I FELT the approach of death" , and it doesn't get any prettier from there. It is an amazing volume full of powerful and sometimes shocking scenarios such as paedophilia, promiscuity, Victorian vanity, anti-semitism, and the recurring sub-plot of our anti-hero's dysfunctional home life, complete with a cold, domineering mother and weak-willed father. An amazing work in it's own right, it certainly deserves consideration as the possibility that this book sat on Jack the Ripper's bookshelf is very real.
We will now look at some select passages from the book, dealing with 'Philip's' views on women, lust, and how they led to his downfall... On page 40, it reads, 'Even before my lips wore the first downy signs of manhood, I was already corrupted. Of misleading companions there was no lack, those of my own sex not being the worst. Such things, however, avenge themselves: being misled at first, I began to mislead.' Then, on page 17, we find - 'I suffered an agony of cold, but within me there burned the quenchless torment of sin and sinful desire - a two-fold flame, I know not which was strongest; it seized upon me alternately, my thoughts adding fuel to the terrible glow.' And on page 28 - 'This then is the misery of Hell for me; I am hungering after enjoyment, pure or impure, but there is no sense left to gratify; reality has vanished, the greed only remains. Is it not madness?'
As to his mother and father, Philip writes...
'The circumstances in which I grew up in the world could not be called happy. My parents were so unlike in character and so little suited to each other that people were fully justified in wondering how they could have married at all.' - Pg. 34.
'My mother's rule was marked by gaiety; she loved to live in style. My father, excused by business, but rarely took part in her doings; and if he made his appearance at times, I, foolish child, felt almost ashamed of his presence, -He looked so little like the master of the house in the simplicity of his habits and unpretending ways.' - Pg. 36.
'Did I love her (his mother)? Well, if I must answer the question honestly, I am bound to say I also rather admired than loved her.' - Pg. 35.
And as to a sinner's life in Hell...
'The miser is forever dreaming of riches, the voluptuary of uncleanness, the glutton of feasting, the murderer of his bloody deed.' - Pg. 31.
While the book contains no 'Contents' page at the beginning, the 'Index' at the end provides a list of various scenes and actions that appear in the book. Two listings that immediately caught my attention were 'The great city of the Jews-a world apart, 312', and 'Post-office, the, in hell, 153'. We will now take a closer look at these...
The book paints a very bleak future for the Jews... The bleakest, in fact. Separated from all others in Hell they live in a world that mocks their holyland, but with all sacred meaning now lost. The first three paragraphs of 'Letter XXVIII' describes life in Hell for the Jew as such...
'Far away, and separated from the continent of hell by an immeasurable waste, lies the great city of the Jews - a world apart. And there, in perpetual cycles, the dread history repeats itself, from the catastrophe of Golgotha to the final destruction. Upon the sacking of Jerusalem the whole is engulfed in darkness; but daylight reappearing, the wheel of history has run back, once more to begin the awful period.
Any one entering the city as the night is dispelled finds the Jewish people overwhelmed with horror at the recent deed. The awful words keep sounding about them: 'His blood be on us and on our children!' They seem aware that a terrible thing has been done - that a terrible retribution is at hand. Jerusalem trembles. Those who have taken part in bringing about that most fearful of crimes ever perpetrated by man, but whose consciences are not seared entirely, raise the question whether, after all, He was the Son of God whom they crucified; they smite upon their breast and rend their garments.
Even the chief priests and elders, hardened though they be, are disturbed. But they flatter themselves with the consolation that the sepulchre is made sure. As the great Sabbath breaks, behold them going forth to the garden with Caiaphas at their head. Pale are their faces and bloodshot their eyes; they grind their teeth, but Satan upholds them! The three crosses from Golgotha look down upon them: but not one of those men dares lift an eye to the place where they hanged Him on the tree. Where is their priestly dignity? See how they snatch up their long clothing and hasten apace to the tomb!'
A little later in the same 'letter', as 'Philip' makes his trail to the city of Politicians, also known as the town of Injustice, he comes across as executioner...
'Still thirsting for blood, this graceful image of gentility; but hell yields nothing for the quenching of thirst, not even blood. He is always looking at people's necks, as shown by his very compliments, such as they are. 'Sir,' he says, 'your neck is very fine. Madam, allow me to congratulate you upon a lovely throat!' Followed by his creatures, a very hangman's company, he likes to ride abroad among the people, upon whom he looks as a kind of raw material for his philanthropic experiments. But the common folk make faces at him, calling him a fool possessed of a harmless mania. No one is afraid of him now, for power over necks is not given him here; the unsatisfied craving is his punishment also.'
In 'Letter XII', 'Philip' discusses his trip to Hell's post office, whereupon he discovers exactly how accountable people are for the words they write, be it crank letters, letters of defamation, letters or treason, or even the forgery of a signature...
'I have been to the post-office. That institution also is represented here, as I found out quite recently. Truly nothing is wanting in this place except all that one needs in order to live and to hope.
I had gone to inquire for letters. There is something very curious about this post-office of ours. You have heard of what befell Uriah. There have always been people who, betraying their neighbor, have done so by writing. But the invention is older even than that notorious letter, originating, no doubt, with the father of lies in the first place. It was he who inspired that piece of treachery, just as he inspired Judas' kiss. Treason by writing is known all over the world now. There are those who delight in the cleverness of such a letter, quite priding themselves on the art of taking in their fellows. '
Two paragraphs later, it continues: 'But such letters are not all: there are spurious documents and false signatures here more than can be counted. Let men beware how they put pen to paper; writing has a terrible power of clinging to the soul. None but God Himself can blot it out.'
While many parallels could be made between the contents of this book and many facets of the Jack the Ripper case, allow me to point out that I have not yet found any reference in the book to 'Juwes', nor the use of the phrases 'catch me when you can', or 'Dear Boss', nor have I discovered any character addressed as 'Sor'. In other words, no undeniable proof that Jack the Ripper, or the writer of any of the well-known 'Ripper letters', should they be a different person, ever owned or read Letters From Hell . Therefore, no direct link between the book and the Whitechapel murders exists. What does exist, however, is the very real possibility that Jack the Ripper, or the person responsible for the most notorious of the 'Ripper letters', came across the discussed volume and allowed it to serve, not as a motivation, but as an inspiration, when pen was put to paper, or chalk to black dado.
Much research still needs to be done not only on Letters From Hell, but on researching other newspapers and journals of the time period for references, advertisements, and reviews of the book, such as the one in the Morning Advertiser mentioned above. It is also worth noting that Dr. George MacDonald, in the preface, makes mention of a book with a similar title...
'It may be interesting to some to know that the title is not quite a new one, for just before the death of Oliver Cromwell a book was published entitled 'Messages from Hell; or Letters from a Lost Soul.'
With every new find in this case doors do not close, they open. Perhaps, someone reading this will take up research and find some interesting nugget in Letters From Hell that I failed to notice. For a good portion of those studying the crimes the idea that the Whitechapel murderer penned any of the infamous missives himself is preposterous. However, somebody....somewhere...recognized and realized the "cleverness of such a letter."