Even those who are not True Crime aficionados know of Jack the Ripper, a mysterious serial killer who slaughtered women in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888, took body parts for trophies, and on one occasion wrote to the authorities boasting of having eaten a victim’s kidney. Well, half a kidney – the other half was enclosed in the letter, and was positively identified as human tissue. The letter was entitled “FROM HELL”.
In my thesis, I date modern, domestic cannibalism from 1888, when Jack the Ripper murdered five or more women in the summer and autumn of that year.
The From Hell letter was sent to the Chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee in October with a box containing half a kidney. The letter stated that the writer had taken the kidney from a woman, and half of it was enclosed as proof. “tother piece I fried and ate it very nise” (sic).
This letter, and the half-kidney, are featured in this week’s movie.
A huge literature has developed on the history and likely identity of Jack, but none of it is conclusive; the crime writer Patricia Cornwell argued that the Ripper was the famous artist Walter Sickert. Others have written credible accounts of other suspects, including Prince Edward Albert Victor, second in line to the British throne. The enduring mythology of Jack the Ripper, though, depends on the fact that he remains unknown, a figure hidden by his presumed uniformity with those of his milieu. Jack was the domestic cannibal – murderous, voracious, and indistinguishable from any other citizen, just another face in the street, as demonstrated by the fact that he was never apprehended, or even conclusively identified.
Jack rapidly became an international phenomenon. A Chicago doctor wrote in the Medical Standard that,
… the Whitechapel murderer is a cannibal pure and simple. The Whitechapel murders are clearly the work of a lunatic of the so-called “sexual pervert” type, fortunately rare in Anglo-Saxon lands but not infrequently met with in Russia, Germany, Bohemia and France. In these lunatics there is a return to the animal passions of the lowest cannibalistic savage races. Cannibalism is shown in a thirst for blood, and these animal passions come to the surface when the checks imposed by centuries of civilization are removed either by disease or by the defects inherited from degenerate parents.
So critical to the creation of the domestic monster was The Ripper that almost a century and a half later, books and films are still investigating and theorising on his acts and identity.
Jack went “viral” long before the internet was around to invent the term. Jack conventions are held around the world offering attendees the opportunity to view and buy merch and listen to “experts” tell them who Jack (maybe) was. Many books have offered definitive proof of Jack’s secret identity, only to have other experts contradict them. One writer actually bought at auction a shawl belonging to one of the victims, Catherine Eddowes, and had it forensically examined, finding, through links to the DNA of descendants, that it contained her blood, and the semen of a long-suspected Polish immigrant named Aaron Kosminski. Seems conclusive, doesn’t it, but other Jack-fans were sceptical; DNA can be contaminated. Richard Cobb, who organizes Jack the Ripper conventions, told the Guardian that the shawl had been “openly handled by loads of people and been touched, breathed on, spat upon.”
This film, From Hell, has a somewhat more circuitous lineage, being based on a graphic novel (formerly called comic book series) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell which was published from 1989-1998 and then collected into book form. That novel is based on a 1976 non-fiction book by Stephen Knight with the rather unfortunate title of Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. Knight’s theory proposes a conspiracy by the Freemasons, in which high-ranking Freemason Sir William Gull, royal surgeon to Queen Victoria, is told to cover up the marriage of a shopgirl, Annie Crook to Prince Albert Victor, the heir to the throne, which had resulted in a baby who would be in line for the crown, particularly as the Prince was dying of syphilis. The murders themselves were not the crimes of passion common in impoverished London, particularly from the pimps that the women feared most, but involved the careful dissection of the bodies and removal of organs and often vulvas. The basis of many theories was that these were clearly the work of an educated man with medical or at least anatomical training.
“Martha Tabram was raped, tortured and killed. This is methodical. The butchery is irrational, yet meticulous and deliberate. Altogether a different breed of killer.”
The film had mixed reviews, getting a 57% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I found it an easy to watch, interesting tale told with some gusto, by a stellar cast: Sir William Gull, physician to His Maj and presumed serial killer, is played by the late lamented Ian Holm, who was playing a sweet, doddery, 111 year old Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring the same year he played Jack.
Johnny Depp plays Inspector Abberline, the cop searching for Jack, with his usual brooding sensual close-ups, while Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) is quite luminous as the sex worker Mary Kelly, who becomes his love interest as well as a target of Jack. Then there’s a delightful performance by Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from the Harry Potter films) as Abberline’s sergeant, who quotes Shakespeare as he tries to revive Abberline from his opium den dreams, where he imbibes absinthe laced with laudanum and “sees” the murders as they happen.
Ian McNeice (Bert Large from Doc Martin) pops up as the coroner, and there are a host of other familiar faces. If you like a boisterous story and some great performances, you might enjoy this. But if you are serious Jack groupie, you will wince at the anachronism that puts the receipt of the kidney some time before the murder of Catherine Eddowes, from whom that kidney is likely to have been taken.
Like any fictional recreation of history, there is inevitably exaggeration and speculation. The film depicts an all-powerful Freemason movement infiltrating the police and medical establishment and threatening or killing anyone in their way. There is an evocative depiction of the life of late nineteenth century sex workers (called “whores” by the police, and often themselves, and “unfortunates” in official language). There is also some cursory mention of the classism and racism that English society exhibited in the age of Empire (and still does), seeking to blame the American natives in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” (perhaps a wink to the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs?), foreigners, Orientals, Jews, Socialists – anyone other than the rich and powerful. Several scenes feature the hatred of Jews that saw the police and the populace open to antisemitic provocation when looking for a scapegoat. The chasm between the respectable killer and the honest but disreputable poor is made by means of an (otherwise gratuitous) appearance by the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick who, like Jack, was a famous denizen of Whitechapel. He stands surrounded by respectable white men, wondering at his ugliness, but having no inkling of his humanity.
Foreigners, the disfigured, the “unfortunates” and Jews were outsiders in English society, and outsiders are denied the protection that other citizens expect, and so are easily accused, attacked, killed and sometimes even eaten. The “unfortunate” mother of the royal baby is kidnapped and given a frontal lobotomy, a new scientific technique which was instantly turned to the advantage of the elite.
In Victorian England, the poor were blamed for any and all of society’s ills, with the idea of suspecting a rich, educated man excluded from consideration. Of course, the Indigenous people in Queen Victoria’s empire were similarly objectified, enslaved or slaughtered, also using the benefits of modern technology such as the gunboat and machine-gun.
The movie opens with a quote, Jack, saying “One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century.”
I can see no other reference to such a quote in any source other than this movie, but it has a certain ring to it, it makes sense of this modern drama between the rich, who only ever want more, and the poor, who scrabble just to stay alive. At a time when the environment has been appropriated and cannibalised by the ruling class, has Jack’s comment in 1888 proved prophetic?
Jack the Ripper was less “a return to the animal passions of the lowest cannibalistic savage races” and more a manifestation of the voracious appetite and greed of modern capitalist industrial society, where the value of everything, including the life of humans and other animals, is counted only in monetary terms, and the marginalised and objectified are cast out and consumed.