Horrid Mutilation! Read all about it!

Richard Davenport-Hines

  • Jack the Ripper and the London Press by Perry Curtis
    Yale, 354 pp, £25.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 300 08872 8

When Tennyson and Jowett sat up late together, it was to talk of murders. The Victorians took a ghoulish pleasure in every phase of their more ghastly homicides; from the moment a corpse was found the hunt for morbid thrills was intense. After seven members of the Marshall family were hacked to death at Denham in 1870, ‘pleasure vans’ brought hordes of day-trippers from London to see the gore, and to purloin souvenirs. The Victorians were not dainty in their interest, and journalists were seldom squeamish in their reporting. The Times of 4 January 1856, for example, described the inquest held at the Talbot Inn, Rugeley on the exhumed body of Walter Palmer five months after his murder by his brother William, the multiple poisoner.

On the removal of the outer coffin a hole was bored in the leaden receptacle in which Walter Palmer’s body was confined, and instantly a most sickening and noxious effluvium escaped, which permeated the entire building, affected parties at the other end of the inn, and produced a sickening effect on all in the immediate vicinity of the coffin. Subsequently the leaden lid was removed, and the spectacle presented by the body was absolutely frightful. The cheeks were so terribly distended as to extend to either side of the coffin; one eye was opened, and the mouth partially so, presenting the appearance of a horrible grin and grimace. Each limb was also swollen to prodigious proportions, and the sight was revolting in the extreme. Nearly all the jurors were afflicted with vomiting or fainting.

The inquest on Charles Bravo in 1876 lasted a month and provided his parents’ solicitor, George Lewis, with the national celebrity which made him the upper classes’ favourite, and most expensive, legal confidant. In 1865, Sir James Willes wept as he sentenced Constance Kent to death for suffocating her little brother and hiding his body in the vault of an outside privy. That’s the sort of court-room occasion the Victorians loved.

Newspaper agitation for the commuting of death sentences provided another form of sensation. After the conviction in 1877 of Louis Staunton, who starved his wife and baby son to death to obtain an inheritance, the novelist Charles Reade led a strenuous campaign in the Daily Telegraph which successfully pushed the Home Secretary into remitting the sentence. Riots were feared in Liverpool after the conspicuously unsound conviction and death sentence passed on Florence Maybrick in 1889; but executions generally fed a public appetite. Twenty thousand people went to watch William Palmer hang outside Stafford Gaol (we owe the drinkers’ ‘What’s your poison?’ to public interest in his trial). Coventry Patmore’s rousing poem ‘A London Fête’, describing ‘the wicked treat’ of a public hanging at Newgate, conveys the public’s ‘horrid thirst’ for gore. Even after public executions were abolished in 1868, they remained an entertainment for the elite. In 1875, the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of London invited 60 guests to watch the execution in Newgate Prison yard of Henry Wainwright, a prosperous brush-maker who had shot and dismembered his bigamous wife. The scene, according to an eye-witness, was

absolutely Hogarthian and horrible, the cold December morning, the waning moon, the rope dangling to and fro in the shed awaiting its victim, a gaslight that flared noisily, the well-dressed crowd of privileged visitors come to see the show, the Sheriffs’ footmen, who had some of them obviously fortified their spirits for the occasion; the whole scene . . . ghastly and sickening in the last degree . . . I have felt sick and mean and ashamed of myself ever since.

In the history of Victorian sensationalism, however, the Whitechapel murders of 1888 were an episode apart. Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, was not exaggerating when he told the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, that the murders were ‘unique in the history of our country’. They were not the first serial sex crimes, but the first media(ted) serial sex crimes. They influenced Wedekind, Berg and Brecht, and have provided a staple film subject since Marie Belloc Lowndes’s Ripper novel, The Lodger (1913), was first adapted in 1926 by Alfred Hitchcock, with Ivor Novello playing a suspected serial killer known as the Avenger.

It was through the print media of the 1880s that they had their greatest impact, however. Revolting details – surpassing even Walter Palmer’s exhumation – were plumped onto breakfast tables, and telegraphed round the world. The murders were indivisible from their accompanying reportage. Lord Cranbrook, a Cabinet-Minister, recognised the association in his diary on 2 October. ‘More murders at Whitechapel, strange and horrible. The newspapers reek with blood.’ This media storm, and its meanings, form the subject of Perry Curtis’s carefully researched and informative study.

Violence against women was so routine in Whitechapel that it’s difficult to agree when the series of murders began. The killing in April 1888 of Emma Elizabeth Smith was probably a street robbery and gang-rape, but is sometimes reckoned as the first of the Whitechapel murderer’s crimes. The murder on 7 August of Martha Tabram is attributed by some to an unidentified soldier while others identify it as the first of the serial homicides. Curtis’s study begins with the murder on 31 August of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nichols, whose abdomen was so savagely ripped open that her intestines were exposed. Her windpipe, gullet and spinal cord were severed, and her private parts had been stabbed. The murder on 8 September of Annie Chapman was even more ferocious. Parts of her intestines, belly wall and pubic area were extracted and laid out by the body; her pelvis, uterus and the upper third of her vagina were taken away by her killer. On 30 September, the same murderer is believed to have killed first Elizabeth Stride, and then nearly a mile way, in Mitre Square, Catharine Eddowes, whose left kidney and womb were removed from the scene. Finally, on 9 November, the Whitechapel murderer killed Mary Jane Kelly, who is treated by Curtis as the final victim.

The murderer was almost certainly male and probably right-handed. He possessed either some anatomical training or enough education to study surgical textbooks. Even if one discounts the xenophobia of contemporary reports, there are indications that he was a foreigner. His victims (with one possible exception) were destitute and drunken prostitutes, but there was no evidence that he raped or penetrated them. A few people claimed plausibly to have glimpsed him near the scenes of his crimes, but their evidence as to his age and appearance was contradictory. More than 130 suspects are listed in Paul Begg, Martin Fido and Keith Skinner’s authoritative The Jack the Ripper A to Z (1991). Curtis claims that Ripperologists have ‘brought us no closer to the real culprit than did the exertions of Scotland Yard in 1888’, but he is unduly dismissive of Stewart Evans and Paul Gainey’s The Lodger: The Arrest and Escape of Jack the Ripper (1995). This indicts a ferocious misogynist, Francis Tumblety (c.1833-1903), an American quack who peddled a patent medicine known as the Tumblety Pimple Destroyer. (He was arrested for complicity in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was suspected in the Whitechapel murders, and was charged in November 1888 with gross indecency with males, but he skipped bail and fled to the United States.)

The killer was referred to as ‘the Whitechapel murderer’ or ‘Leather Apron’ (the nickname of a notorious local man who bullied prostitutes) until, on 27 September 1888, the Central News Agency received a red-inked, defiant, semi-literate letter beginning ‘Dear Boss’ and signed ‘Jack the Ripper’. This message was probably spurious, and quite possibly concocted by a journalist at the Agency. It certainly had many bogus imitators. Whoever coined the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ had an instinct for the successful catchphrase. As Curtis remarks, ‘Jack’ connoted a sailor, a privy, the British flag, a phallus, money, boots, a hammer, a clown or mummer, an informer and a peasant. Jack Sheppard, ‘picaresque superstar of English highwaymen’, who after escaping prison strolled around in fancy clothes as if to defy the authorities, was celebrated in ballads, songs and popular biographies. The spectral bogeyman known as ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’, clad in helmet and body suit, who leapt over tall buildings and emitted dark blue flames from his mouth, had been scaring men, women and children since his first appearance in 1837. As to the word ‘ripper’, it not only conjured up butchers slitting open animals’ stomachs and hospital assistants preparing corpses for dissection but blackmailers, ponces, protection racketeers, a well-bowled cricket ball and a knockdown blow in boxing. It is appropriate that the murderer has become known by a name devised in a journalistic stunt, given that he was the first criminal to become a figure of international mythology thanks to the global print media.

Journalists were no more crude or excitable in this case than they had been before and had no need to exaggerate the gore; the mutilations were horrific and related news stories often shockingly explicit. Curtis’s book analyses both the lurid feature articles and the sermonising editorials published by a dozen London newspapers and three East End weeklies from 31 August to 9 November 1888. His sample includes the Tory Morning Post and its two evening counterparts, the Globe and the Evening News, as well as a Tory Sunday newspaper, the People. Another of his sample, the Times, was also essentially Conservative. He has conscientiously studied the radical Star and the hugely popular Lloyd’s Weekly and Reynold’s Newspaper. He reckons the Daily Telegraph as a Liberal Unionist newspaper, and the Daily Chronicle and Weekly Times as supporting Gladstonian Liberalism. These political alignments were crucial to reporting of the murders, for Liberal newspapers were hostile to Warren and Matthews because of their responsibility for the Bloody Sunday baton charges against Irish and radical militants in Trafalgar Square in 1887. The East London Observer, East London Advertiser and East London News were less interested in politics. Curtis places the iconoclastic Pall Mall Gazette, edited by W.T. Stead, in a compartment by itself. It exemplified the New Journalism which, according to Edward Dicey, then editor of the Observer, catered to consumers who ‘liked to have their mental food given them in minces and snippets, not in chops and joints’.

As Curtis demonstrates, Law and Order reports increased newspaper sales. After the Chapman killing, the halfpenny Star was selling 261,000 copies daily, rising to a peak of about 300,000 just after the Kelly murder. Scotland Yard imposed a news blackout during much of the Whitechapel crisis, but sometimes relented by issuing statements to the various news agencies. Nothing held journalists back. Hacks from the Pall Mall Gazette and the Globe, for example, concocted lurid details as they trawled Whitechapel together. When composing their stories, they vied to produce picturesque theories about the killer’s motives and techniques. Because the attacks seemed to be random, and the motivation impenetrable, journalists were all the wilder in their speculations. The crimes seemed very different from the pattern of Victorian homicide. Instead of the conventional murders motivated by adultery or money, they were a new kind of gratuitous violence against the most unfortunate members of an already vulnerable group. The murderer made no effort to conceal his savagery: indeed, it appeared (thanks to the Central News Agency hoax) that, most unusually, he taunted detectives with messages defying them to catch him. As Curtis concludes, ‘drawing on second-hand reports, rumours, interviews and accounts found in other papers, reporters cobbled together disjointed articles that often contained internal contradictions.’ Little wonder that Sir Robert Anderson of the Criminal Investigation Department said that enough nonsense was written about the Whitechapel murders to sink a dreadnought.

As in the Palmer and Bravo cases, inquests were crucial in maintaining the level of excitement. The coroners’ deliberations on Nichols and Chapman, which occupied nine days spread through September 1888, enabled journalists to sustain the excitement with false leads, wild conjectures and unconscionable scare-mongering about the lawlessness of Whitechapel. Each murder was such a fillip to sales that some editors made money by outright trickery. The News of the World cheated consumers by rehashing the previous weekend’s double murder, and instructing street vendors to shout: ‘Two more murders in Whitechapel! Horrid mutilation! Paper! Paper!’

Whitechapel had an unusual mix of races and nationalities. Margaret Harkness, novelist, cousin of Beatrice Webb and East End charity worker, described a Saturday night on Whitechapel Road in the late 1880s.

One sees all nationalities. A grinning Hottentot elbows his way through a crowd of long-eyed Jewesses. An Algerian merchant walks arm-in-arm with a native of Calcutta. A little Italian plays pitch-and-toss with a small Russian. A Polish Jew enjoys sauerkraut with a German Gentile. And among the foreigners lounges the East End loafer, monarch of all he surveys, lord of the premises.

During the alarms of 1888, not surprisingly, Jack the Ripper was regarded as so powerful and threatening that he must be alien. Typically, the Star of 8 September was blazoned with multiple headlines:

horror upon horror

whitechapel is panic-stricken

at another fiendish crime

a fourth victim of the maniac

The text read:

London lies today under the spell of a great terror. A nameless reprobate – half-beast, half-man – is at large . . . The ghoul-like creature, who stalks through the streets of London, stalking down his victim like a Pawnee Indian, is simply drunk with blood, and he will have more.

The combined suggestion of foreignness and animal savagery recurred in many comments. An old India hand suggested in the Times (4 October) that the criminal was ‘a Malay or other low-class Asiatic’ who had been wronged by a prostitute.

Such a man in ordinary life would be harmless enough, polite, not to say obsequious, in his manners, and about the last a British policeman would suspect. But when the villain is primed with his opium, bhang or gin, and inspired with his lust for slaughter and blood, he would destroy his defenceless victim with the ferocity and cunning of the tiger.

Some guesses about the culprit’s background were interesting. The psychiatrist Sir George Savage suspected ‘post-mortem room and anatomy room porters’ and speculated that ‘imitative action may have come into play.’ He suggested the killings were acts of emulation, committed by more than one maniac, possibly including someone bent on ‘world regeneration’. Whatever the truth of this, the phrase ‘Jack the Ripper’ represented a gothic state of mind – a paroxysm of horror, fear and fascinated disgust. The killer’s random, incomprehensible violence recalled Edward Hyde, that ogre of latency smouldering under the civilised repression of Henry Jekyll. Stevenson’s recent novella – written in ‘an age’, as he wrote in 1886, ‘morbidly preoccupied with sexual affairs’ – seemed pertinent to several journalists. The Pall Mall Gazette noted (8 September): ‘There certainly seems to be a tolerably realistic impersonification of Mr Hyde at large in Whitechapel. The Savage of Civilisation whom we are raising by the hundred thousand in our slums is quite as capable of bathing his hands in blood as any Sioux who ever scalped a foe.’

Like the murder of James Bulger in 1993, the shocking circumstances precipitated anguished discussion on Britain’s moral state. The murders were magnified and projected to justify strenuous hand-wringing and conscience-searching about the nature of evil, innate depravity, the vulnerability of children, urban deprivation and social sickness. During the Bulger moral panic an insistent but mistaken effort to link the killing to the fashion for video nasties like Child’s Play 3 ultimately resulted in stricter censorship rules. During the moral panic of 1888 advocates of censorship also seized their opportunities. In the Times (1 October) a supporter of the National Vigilance Association blamed the profusion of penny magazines for the Whitechapel crimes.

The street children of London read little else, and their minds are stuffed full of the deeds of successful murderers, pirates, burglars, thieves &c. We have taught our children to read in order apparently to familiarise them with every conceivable form of human wickedness.

The moral panic was an exciting opportunity for evangelicals like Frederick Charrington, who supposedly sacrificed a fortune of £1,250,000 by resigning from his father’s brewery to live in Mile End, where he devoted his life to Christianity and Temperance. Charrington, whose other bugbears were music halls, the Football Association and pimps, organised the great Purity Demonstration in Hyde Park, attended by van-loads of young girls dressed in white, which promoted the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Afterwards, in 1887, he persuaded the police to use their powers under this Act to close brothels in Tower Hamlets. In the words of Charrington’s admiring biographer, ‘our “Valiant-for-Good” began a furious, God-inspired onslaught upon the dens of East London, which actually resulted in the closing of 200 brothels and in purifying the East End.’ Charrington’s admirers called him ‘an avenger of Christ’, but his activities drove hundreds of sex workers onto the streets, where they could be attacked by the Ripper.

One of the most compelling suggestions in Michael Mason’s The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (1994) concerns 19th-century attitudes to prostitution. Previous historians had stressed that the Victorians regarded prostitution as a sink of corruption and disease to be treated, like open sewers, by sanitary reformers. Mason argued that the most distinctive characteristic of Victorian sexual culture was the desire to rescue prostitutes. But the special circumstances of the Whitechapel murders compromise his view: they aroused as much talk of sewers as of rescue initiatives. The author of Hints for the Amelioration of the Moral Condition of a Village Population, Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne, for example, wrote two diatribes to the Times during the autumn of 1888. In one he described ‘unfortunates’ as ‘a sort of human vermin, unclean parasites’; in the second he stigmatised Whitechapel’s inhabitants as living in ‘godless brutality, a species of moral sewage, the very drainage of the vilest productions of human vice’.

Cheap pleasures were considered peculiarly vicious. On 11 September, the Globe described Whitechapel at night as full of ‘gaudily-dressed, loud-mouthed, and vulgar women, strutting or standing at the brightly-lighted cross ways, and the still larger proportion of miserable, half-clad, dejected creatures of the same sex, upon whom hard life, unhealthy habits, and bad spirits have too plainly set their stamp’. It is striking how much comment focused on conditions in Whitechapel, and loaded responsibility for crime there on society, or environmental conditions, rather than individuals.

In 1888 it was generally agreed that the Whitechapel murderer was abnormal. A century later, as Curtis notes, the notion developed that all men have the potential to commit such murders. He quotes from Joel Norris’s Serial Killers: The Growing Menace (1988) to indicate ‘the fine line that separates each one of us from yielding to the primal, instinctual, animal behaviour that lurks beneath the veneer of psychological self-control and social convention’. Another quotation – from Of Men and Monsters (1997), Richard Tithecott’s book on Jeffrey Dahmer – advances the idea that ‘the serial killer . . . is the monster within, or rather he is monstrous normality within the monster of serial killer mythology.’ Curtis is polite about these claims, with their implication that every man who has been disappointed in his relations with a woman has a ‘monster within’, or has precariously socialised his primal instincts to murder and mutilate women.

The stealing of the wombs of Chapman, Eddowes and Kelly – the attack on the part of women’s bodies which, even more than the breasts, represents the maternal role – requires Curtis to discuss gynocide, defined by Andrea Dworkin as ‘the systematic crippling, raping and/or killing of women by men’. The murder of Mary Jane Kelly took place indoors, which enabled the Ripper to indulge his rage with a reduced danger of being discovered. He flayed and disembowelled his victim, cut the flesh from her thighs, sliced off her breasts and nose, tore out her viscera, dumped abdominal organs on the bedside table and unsuccessfully tried to decapitate her. Her heart was excised and taken away. These climatic mutilations seem intended to destroy every element of Kelly’s femaleness.

One consequence of this particular murder was that human mutilation became universally imaginable (by contrast, Goya’s cartoons Desastres de la Guerra, 1810-20, had a tiny circulation). Lloyd’s, Reynold’s and the Daily Telegraph had all mentioned that Chapman’s uterus had been stolen, but reports of Kelly’s murder were literally visceral texts. The Star had a special edition on 10 November:

The poor woman lay on her back on the bed, entirely naked. Her throat was cut from ear to ear, right down to the spinal column. The ears and nose had been cut clean off. The breasts had also been cleanly cut off and placed on a table which was by the side of the bed . . . The kidneys and heart had also been removed from the body, and placed on the table by the side of the breasts. The liver had likewise been removed, and laid on the right thigh. The lower portion of the body and uterus had also been cut out, and these appeared to be missing.

Such an attack on the human form was a kind of blasphemy. The Whitechapel murders – together with reports of the crimes – undermined Christian belief in free will, since it was hard to accept that the Ripper’s crimes were wholly voluntary, or that he had the power to resist his impulse to do evil. When the murders stopped, it was generally agreed that he must have died, been restrained in an asylum or gone abroad. No one suggested that the murders ceased by the killer’s choice.

In the Times of 6 October, Godolphin Osborne recognised that reports of the coroners’ inquests were pagan in their impact: ‘the sickening details published for our whole Christian nation’s perusal’ struck at the roots of faith. It seemed to Christians, as another correspondent noted, that ‘the latest development of our 19th-century civilisation is to feed the basest appetites of degraded human beings with the foulest details of crime.’ This was an initiation into a special kind of horror. On or about September 1888, human nature changed, and tilted religion, conduct, human relations and literature towards new, less innocent angles. Dame Henrietta Barnett’s ‘East London and Crime’, published in the National Review for December 1888, captures it all:

Lately the action of the daily press has declared nothing too ghastly to be described . . . And it is not only the East Londoner’s mind which is soiled. ‘Shall we pass Mitre Square?’ asked a beautiful girl, sweet-natured and kindly-souled, when talking over an invitation to East London, adding, ‘I shouldn’t mind if we do’; and this same girl was not allowed, a few years ago, to read Adam Bede!