|A Ripperologist Article
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 67, May 2006. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.
CINDY COLLINS SMITH
Okay, everything you’ve heard is true. The Curse Upon Mitre Square is a pulpy piece of exploitation trash. Think Elvis clones. Think Alien advisors to the White House. Think Batboy. Think entertainment value. Written and published in October 1888, this first piece of Jack the Ripper fiction exploits the recent and ghastly murder of Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square, but makes no pretense of actually solving the Ripper case. Because it contains plot holes bigger than the Grand Canyon and proposes the ghost of a mad monk as a potential Ripper suspect, students of the Ripper case often dismiss the book as an insignificant curiosity. Yet in addition to its entertainment value, The Curse Upon Mitre Square actually provides valuable insight into the mindset of the culture during the Ripper killings.
In the wee hours of August 31, 1888, the unfortunate Constable John Neil turned his lamp upon the mangled body of the first universally agreed upon Ripper victim: Mary Ann Nichols. Her throat had been slashed, and (as the coroner later discovered) she had been disemboweled. Contemporary British society thought her the third victim of the same killer(s) who had recently murdered two other prostitutes in Whitechapel streets, even though neither of those women had been similarly ripped.
The day after Nichols’ murder, the high-society Times of London spouted the official police line: that the killings all appeared the work of “a gang of ruffians” from the “neighborhood, which, blackmailing women of the ‘unfortunate’ class, takes vengeance on those who do not find money for them.” That same day London’s progressive and populist Star newspaper ran a front-page editorial attributing the crimes more likely to “a murderous maniac loose in East London.” The Star went on to add that
Nothing so appalling, so devilish, so inhuman - or, rather, non-human - as the three Whitechapel crimes has ever happened outside the pages of Poe or DeQuincey. The unraveled mystery of “The Whitechapel Murders” would make a page of detective romance as ghastly as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
The “hellish violence and malignanty of the crime,” coupled with its apparent lack of motive, led the paper to conclude that the “murderer must be a Man Monster.” With these final words, the Star unleashed every form of mythology that would soon surround the vicious serial killer who would come to be called “Jack the Ripper.”
Ten days later, the stodgy old Times would draw out the same comparison for its West End readers, claiming that “one may search the ghastliest efforts of fiction and fail to find anything to surpass these crimes in diabolical audacity.” And the Times, too, would invoke Poe and DeQuincey (Confessions of an English Opium Eater) to reinforce the heinousness of the crimes. These papers clearly determined that the easiest way to comprehend these seemingly motiveless murders - committed so audaciously, in Whitechapel streets, against women who had no known enemies and certainly no money - was to interpret them through the filter of pre-established nightmares. Though no credible interpretation ever argued that the killings must be the unintended massacres of an agitated and frightened orangutan, these comparisons to The Murders in the Rue Morgue show how truly “non-human” the killings appeared.
Soon the public began its own attempt to explain the Whitechapel murders. Within five weeks of Nichols’ death, three more prostitutes had died on East End streets: Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, and Catherine Eddowes. Each woman had had her throat slit, and both Chapman and Eddowes had been ferociously ripped. Also within five weeks of the Nichols murder, the killer had acquired his trade name, and various interpretations - published in the pages of London newspapers - established some of the most enduring themes for Ripper lore:
* Dr L Forbes Winslow claimed that the “lunatic” killer belonged to “the upper class of society” (Times, 12 September).
* Coroner Wynne Baxter noted at the Inquest on Annie Chapman that the killer not only possessed surgical knowledge, but also may have taken Chapman’s uterus for research purposes (Times, 27 September).
* Edgar Sheppard, a medical doctor, wrote that perhaps the killer “may be an earnest religionist with a delusion that he has a mission from above to extirpate vice by assassination. And he has selected his victims from a class which contributes pretty largely to the factorship of immorality and sin” (Times, 2 October).
The mad upper-class doctor on a mission from God became part of the foundation for The Lodger, the first full-length novel based upon the killings.
Yet for one very large segment of London, it was impossible to conceive an Englishman as the Ripper, and so the killer must be “other.” In the East End, which housed a large immigrant community, the local newspaper claimed not only that “no Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime,” but “that it must have been done by a Jew.” In letters written to the Times Edward Dillon Lewis’s knowledge of the English “phlegmatic nature” caused him to implicate the more volatile French or Italians, while “Nemo”’s time in India led him to indict the “methods of Eastern criminals.” “Nemo” claimed that the mutilations visited on these women were “all peculiarly Eastern methods and universally recognized, and intended by the criminal classes to express insult, hatred, and contempt” (Times, 4 October).
As soon as Kate Eddowes’ slaughtered body was found on September 30 in Mitre Square, J F Brewer found a way to hang the crimes on the ultimate “other”... and make some money in the process. Published within weeks of the Stride/Eddowes killings, his resulting piece of Gothic entertainment recounted the story of the mad monk Martin, whose ghost could now be seen during the witching hour, walking the haunted corridors of Mitre Square, where he was rumored to kill those who came to mock him. Described by noted “Ripperologist” Donald Rumbelow as a “piece of nonsense,” The Curse Upon Mitre Square is certainly a shameless bit of exploitation fiction. Nevertheless, its contemporary popularity shows that it served a purpose for its public. It offered a “motive” - or at least an “explanation” - for the inexplicable crimes taking place in the East End.
In fact, for its Victorian audience it may almost have seemed more logical to posit that a malign supernatural agency lay behind the killings than to accept the conventional notion that not only could a human mind concoct such atrocities, but that a mere human being could commit them so silently in London streets and leave no trace behind. When Mary Kelly—the last of the killer’s five “canonical” victims - died in her room at Miller’s Court on November 9, the sheer grotesqueness of her mutilations could be perceived as validating even the most sensationalistic and exploitative explanations... even though nobody (outside of fiction and film) ever seriously ascribed the killings to a supernatural force.
In fiction and film, our culture has sometimes imagined the woman who brutalizes and murders children as the victim of a vampire who must now seek blood herself. We have imaged the likable guy next door who dismembers strangers as a werewolf who has lost conscious control of his actions. We have imaged the abused child who turns to violence as a Frankenstein’s monster. And even as recently as Twin Peaks, we have imaged the father who molests and then murders his daughter as merely the physical host for an evil entity who takes control of him. In “real life,” these horrors are perpetrated by friends and neighbors - by people too much like ourselves. No wonder that culture often finds a supernatural explanation far more appealing. It is psychologically easier to externalize monstrous human impulses and blame them on a non-human “other” than it is to confront the monster lurking within ourselves.
Yet in December 1957, when police discovered the contents of Ed Gein’s “charnel house” in Plainfield, Wisconsin, there followed a cinematic trend towards looking at the psychological mechanisms behind the deeds of thoroughly human “monsters.” Inspired by the Gein case, Robert Bloch wrote Psycho, in which he portrays a seemingly normal but oedipally warped motel proprietor who commits serial murder just underneath the gaze of his small town neighbors. While Bloch goes out of his way to make Norman Bates unattractive, Alfred Hitchcock makes him every bit as physically and socially attractive as he needs to be for the screen. He becomes, distressingly, the “serial killer next door.” And even more distressingly, audiences are implicitly compelled to ask themselves if they, too, could commit such abominable deeds.
Fourteen years later, in the analytical early 70s, audiences were more than ready to stop naval gazing and self-questioning. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the next major film inspired by the Gein case), there is simply no time to worry about motivation. It is far more important to run! In this film, the serial killers (who live literally next door) are a family of inbred hillbilly cannibals. Human, yes. But still about as “other” as any of the non-English groups suspected in 1888 of producing the Ripper.
Since these two Gein-inspired films become foundational to the slasher genre, it is interesting to note that the trend is to move away from realistic human characters and into mere parodies of human beings. By the time we get to our iconic slashers, the transformation from human into monster is complete. Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th), and Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street) have all been human. But by the time they begin their sprees, they have been transformed somehow into supernatural killing machines - a curious fact to keep in mind while reading The Curse Upon Mitre Square.
The Curse Upon Mitre Square marks the beginning of a trend in Ripper lore - the impulse to create fantasy from the Ripper case.
Robert Bloch is perhaps the primary practitioner of Ripper fantasy, in both the supernatural and science fiction genres. His story Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper (1943) - which has also been adapted for radio and television - presents the Ripper as a sort of human-turned-vampire who feeds off the life force of others. He must kill ritualistically in order to prolong his own life. In his teleplay, A Wolf in the Fold (1967) for the Star Trek series, Bloch presents the Ripper again as a parasite - this time, an immaterial entity feeding insatiably off death and fear. And in the story A Toy for Juliette (1967) (and in Harlan Ellison’s sequel to it, Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World) the Ripper gets transported into a future far more evil than any world he could have envisioned.
But Bloch and Ellison are not the only creators of Ripper fantasy. The Ripper (or some version of him) has appeared in The Twilight Zone, in The Night Stalker, in Babylon 5. His spirit has variously possessed his daughter, a film professor, and a disgraced San Diego doctor. He has appeared as an organ-seeking Sister Hyde and a freebase-deranged Mr Hyde. He has come back to life in a wax statue, has been resurrected from blood dripping on a stone from the Thames, and has taken residence in a ring he once wore. We have seen him immortal and nearly invincible; used by powerful aliens for their own purposes; shot into the 20th century and beyond.
In short, Jack the Ripper has become one of the single-most obsessive subjects for fantasy fiction and film.
Yet beneath all the fiction and sensationalism lay a few - very few - bare facts: a killer or killers brutally murdered several women in the East End of London; the modus operandi included slashing the throat and disemboweling the victims; the victims were members of what was termed the “unfortunate class”; each woman was a prostitute, each an alcoholic; several had been working-class wives and mothers before their drinking drove them away from their families and into the extreme poverty of the East End; there was never any public acknowledgement that a killer had been caught; the insolubility of the crimes created an outcry against the government, forcing the resignation of Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren and nearly bringing down the Home Secretary.
Everything else constitutes interpretation. We simply do not know for certain how many women died, or the killer’s gender, occupation, social class, motive, or precise method. We simply do not know how the killer (or killers) selected victims, whether there was any significance to the type of victims selected, or whether the victims were targeted because they were prostitutes... or because they were alcoholics, women, weak, middle-aged, easily available for slaughter, or reminded the killer of a hated mother. We also do not know for sure why the police never solved the case, why so many police files disappeared, or even if the killer wrote any of the taunting letters purporting to come from “Jack the Ripper.” In other words, aside from the bare facts, we really know nothing.
It is, of course, within this “nothing” - this cipher - that Ripper interpretation and the resulting fiction (and cinema) operate. Each fills in the blanks according to its own needs. And since The Curse Upon Mitre Square fills in the blanks according to a cultural imperative to supernaturalize such horrors and shift responsibility to something truly “other,” this first piece of Ripper fantasy cannot be so easily dismissed as mere “nonsense.”