Showing posts with label Whitechapel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Whitechapel. Show all posts

22 November 2017

"...This Sad Havoc"

David Edgerley Gates

East London, the 1890's. Whitechapel is still scarred by Jack the Ripper's terrors, and the men who police her streets are haunted, too. The late Victorian, a time and place of huge instabilities, that masquerades as a somehow immutable and granite-solid social and political norm, with its seething discontents just barely contained.

Ripper Street. A period series that's run five seasons. You'd think this ground had been pretty well ploughed and harvested by now, but not so. Sharp writing, animated characters, a terrific cast, and solid production values. This is the kind of thing the BBC does incredibly well when they bring their A-game. Downton Abbey as cop shop.


Matthew Macfadyen as Reid
Inspector Edmund Reid, commander of H Division, holds down the center, but Reid is nowhere near as foursquare as he first appears. His sergeant, Bennet Drake, later himself promoted to inspector, is likewise morally compromised. And the American surgeon, Homer Jackson, a former Pinkerton's man, may well be a fugitive living under another name. The whorehouse madam, Long Susan Hart, of suspect origins, also in flight. Lastly, the Yard's eminence grise, Chief Inspector Abberline, at one time lead detective on the Ripper case, who never caught his man.


Jerome Flynn as Drake
It's a charged dynamic, and it keeps shifting. The orbits erratic, the gravitational influences uncertain, as each major player moves their own boundaries. Drake, for example, is a bare-knuckles guy, what the Irish call a hard boy, but it's his softness that leads him astray. Reid is a self-righteous bastard, and trips on skirts because he sets the bar so high. (He carries the enormous guilt of blaming himself for his daughter's death.) All of this, and more, the scenery not a backdrop, but an ecosystem, a laboratory, a Petri dish that cultures infection. The medium is a character. Social position is destiny, capital is corrupt, brute strength is master.


Adam Rothenberg as Jackson
This is noir well before the term gained currency, and the interior darkness a dread that isn't named. The broken men who 'copper' these sooty tenements and narrow cobbles are honorable if not always honest - least of all with themselves - but they fear the deadening of their own hearts. The 'abyss,' Reid calls it. "Is it ourselves?" he wonders to Sgt. Drake, and Drake has no ready answer.


MyAnna Buring as Susan Hart
Bennet Drake, over time, comes to seem the most conflicted of the characters. Not that all of them don't have their individual weaknesses and ambiguities, but at first glance, Drake presents the fewest doubts and afflictions. He's muscle. He doesn't philosophize. Reid is supposed to be the brains. More often than not, though, it's Drake who shows the greater wisdom, and even restraint. They have a careful balance. Reid doesn't always know when to hold his tongue. Drake speaks less, and reveals more.


Clive Russell as Abberline
A mystery surrounds the two Americans, the surgeon Jackson and the businesswoman Susan Hart, but what they seek in London is reinvention. This might be counterintuitive, in a place so stratified by class, but in fact it gives them an advantage, because they can choose to erase the past. It's no disqualification, for an American. After all, they arrived from the New World. Others, however, are trapped. Whitechapel is both opportunity and quicksand, each of them a lure. There are masks, of convenience, of propriety, there is nakedness, of both flesh and ambition. There are predators and victims. The faint of heart don't prosper. "I would spare you," Bennet Drake tells the whore Rose, "from this sad havoc." But the knight of deliverance is no proof against calamity.

Ripper Street isn't allegory. It's flesh and blood, and plenty of it - full frontal gore, by and large - vivid and convincing. And this visible despair is always grounded in the iron courtesies and awkward frictions of class, a comedy of manners, you might say. Black comedy, and bad manners. An overcast of melancholy. A pinch of solitude. And the historical ironies, thrown into relief. It's an age of wonders, of industry and invention, the coming of a new century, but the dislocations of that new century are unlike anything we could have imagined beforehand. From this remove, Ripper Street foreshadows our loss, the end of innocence.

18 September 2012

Saucy Jack

By David Dean

It was inevitable, I guess, that after doing postings on Lizzie Borden, the princes in the tower, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the child murders in the Bahamas, and even Uncle Jimmy, that I must, at last, come to this--Saucy Jack...that Jack...the Jack.  I do so almost reluctantly because of the emotions  he stirs to this day, and the controversy that continues to swirl round his legend.

By today's standards, Jack the Ripper's body count wouldn't even get him into the top ten of modern serial killers.  He had only five, though some argue there are one, or more, additional murders that should be attributed to him.  Whatever the true count may be, his savagery places him right up there with the heavy hitters of any age.  Additionally, he has the distinction of being both an original and uncaught.  After five (or more) unsolved murders of prostitutes, he simply stopped--his mystery remains.

Just like Lizzie, but much, much more so, there have been millions of words written about Jack--so much, indeed, that you might think he was still among us and practicing his devilish trade in murder.  There have been dozens of suspects offered up by writers and scholars that were unknown to the police of that time, or never considered by them if they were.  In fact, there has probably been no case in the history of recorded crime in which the public has done more second-guessing of the police than this one.  It went on during Jack's heinous career, and has continued to this day.  I will not be doing that.  I can't come up with a single theory or suspect that hasn't already been put forth by someone...somewhere.  So I'm not even going to try.  Why this case continues to fascinate us so long after the brutal acts were committed--that, I might can answer.


A number of elements conspired to make Jack the Ripper a household bogeyman during his own time: The emergence of the modern tabloid newspaper, a Victorian-era fad of philanthropic concern for the destitute of London's slums, the thwarting of the seemingly implacable Scotland Yard, and interest in the case from Queen Victoria herself.  For later generations, I would add that the glamor of a seemingly genteel, mysterious, and by-gone era, cloaked in fog and black lace, provided an irresistible backdrop to Jack's horrors.  He was a real-life Mr. Hyde, and the mystery lay in trying to uncover his Dr. Jekyll alter ego.

Of suspects, there is one for every taste; they run the gamut from butcher to surgeon, royal heir to crazed foreigner.  But Jack was no gentleman, whatever his day job might have been.  Though his murder spree only extended over a few months (much longer according to some), each killing was more brutal than the last.  The victims, all the poorest of prostitutes, were savagely killed, their throats sliced, their abdomens mutilated, and in several instances, organs were removed.  All, but one of the murders were carried out on the streets, the bodies left for a terrified public to discover.  The last was accomplished indoors, in a small, bed-sitter, as the British dub them.  There he was able to work without fear of discovery or interruption, and he, quite literally, destroyed the poor woman.  Then, he seemingly vanished.

There are as many theories about his disappearance as there are about his identity: he killed himself, he was imprisoned on unrelated charges, he was committed to an insane asylum, or he fled to another country; perhaps America.  These are just a few of the ideas put forth.  Of course, it is unlikely we will ever know who he was or what became of him, but his stealing away into the fog has impressed an indelible image into our collective minds; adding to his myth.

Jack was also his own publicist, which was a new wrinkle that contributed greatly to his legendary status.  He wrote several letters "From Hell," expressing his glee and enjoyment with mutilation and murder.  He signed himself, "Jack the Ripper" and also coined the coy moniker of "Saucy Jack."  The details leaked out to the public--the denizens of London may have been terrified of Jack, but they were also insatiably curious about him.  Jack was proud of his horrific deeds and didn't mind saying so; writing in  red ink, and once sending a piece of human kidney along with his message to the world.  He was truly a vile creature.

Much has been made of these letters, and like everything else about Jack, they have inspired debate and controversy.  The police and the professional ripperologists disagree over the authenticity of every letter attributed to the murderer.  Scotland Yard settled on two as being from the real Jack, the others they laid to "copycats."  None featured a return address, which  might have been useful.

Another factor that fueled the growth of Jack's hellish reputation was the slum of Whitechapel that he prowled.  This teeming, filthy neighborhood was no stranger to murder before, or after, Jack.  And the prostitutes that plied their trade there were often the victims of it, even as they are today.  But after the advent of the Ripper murders, every unsolved murder of a female in Whitechapel was laid at his door.  According to some his spree continued until February 1891; the police of that time lay only the five murders to Jack, the last being in November 1888.  In fact, the Metropolitan Police of London divide the murders into two categories: the Ripper murders and the Whitechapel murders.  They do so with good reason.  The details of many of the murders that took place in Whitechapel during the period of August '88 to February '91 show them to be clearly unrelated; the modus operandi, beyond the fact that the killing was of a prostitute, bore little resemblance to Jack's handiwork.  Ironically, some of these "Whitechapel Murders" may also have been the work of the same killer, an unknown person no less brutal than Jack who successfully operated in his shadow.  This, I caution, remains a possibility, not a proven fact.

In most minds, the shadowy, knife-wielding Jack remains the epitome, the touchstone of our acquaintance and fascination with serial murderers.  In spite of that, he was not the first.  Jack was predated by such bloodthirsty villains as Gilles de Rais, who may have murdered hundreds of children before being executed.  Sadly, there were others, as well...many, many others throughout history, and quite probably even before recorded history.  There's no particular reason not to think so.  But Jack remains the penultimate to much of the world because of a perfect storm of factors, not least of which was his penchant for self-aggrandizement and a voracious press.  Add to that mix a mysterious, fog-clad setting offering occasional and salacious glimpses of the seamier side of Victorian London and you have the makings of a dark legend.

On a personal note, I would add that Jack, just like those that come before and after him, was not, in any sense, a romantic creature.  He was a vicious, merciless killer of defenseless women--a monster, really.  You have only to look at the crime scene and autopsy photos to see that.  The last murder, that of Mary Kelly, is not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach.  Jack may have written his gloating letters "From Hell," but if there's anything certain in this case, it's that he's certainly there now.