Steampunk Sourcebook: Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper is the world’s most famous serial killer, both because of the brutality of the murders and the fact that the crimes are still unsolved. I have seen many Steampunk works make reference to the Whitechapel Murders as a means of situating their stories in time, as well as Jack appearing as a character in movies and books. But with so many interpretations floating around, it can be hard to keep the facts straight, so here is a cheat sheet to help you get it right.(I went on a Jack the Ripper tour while I was in London for my Steam Tour research and you can read about it here.)
- In 1888 there were a string of murders in the Whitechapel District of London. Due to the similarities between the victims, modus of the murders, and the proximity of the crimes they were attributed to the same killer. There are five women who are generally accepted as victims of the same serial killer, but there easily could have been more murders that were never discovered, or there could have been more than one murderer.
- Murder #1: Mary Ann Nichols, killed sometime between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m. on August 30, 1888. She was an alcoholic, which led to her separation from her husband in 1882 and her inability to keep any other job than prostitute. Her throat was cut and her abdomen was mutilated.
- Murder #2: Annie “Dark Annie” Chapman, killed at approximately 5:30 a.m. on September 8, 1888. After the death of one of her children by meningitis, she and her husband both became heavy drinkers and separated in 1884. Her husband was required by law to provide for her welfare, but he died in 1886 from alcohol poisoning. She tried to support herself through crocheting and selling flowers, but was also involved in prostitution.
- Murder #3: Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, killed sometime between 12:35 and 1:00 a.m. on September 30, 1888. Her throat was cut and her abdomen was mutilated. The postmortem doctor identified the weapon as a thin knife blade, approximately 6-8 inches in length. Like the other victims she and her husband separated, but she was a prostitute before and after her marriage fell apart. She spoke Yiddish and Swedish in addition to English.
- Murder #4: Catherine Eddowes (aka Kate Conway and Kate Kelly), killed a few hours after Elizabeth Stride on September 30, 1888. She left her first common-law husband, Thomas Conway, and her three children in 1880. Later, she took up with John Kelly and they lived together in a lodging house on Flower Street. The night of her death she was arrested for drunkenness and held at the Bishopsgate police station until approximately 1:30 a.m. Within minutes she was killed on her way home. Her face and her abdomen were mutilated, and a piece of her ear as well as her kidney was taken by the killer.
- Murder #5: Mary Jane “Fair Emma” Kelly (aka “Ginger” and “Black Mary”) was killed November 9, 1888. It is believed that the increase in police patrols accounts for the lag between the deaths of Eddowes and Kelly. Her origin is less well-documented than the other victims, but sources say she was the widow of a coal miner with the surname Davies who died in an explosion around 1881. Like the other victims, she was a drinker and reportedly sang Irish songs while enjoying her gin, so it is believed she hailed from Ireland. Unlike the other victims, she was found murdered in her home around 10:45 a.m. and the time of death was set at between 6 and 8 a.m. that morning. Her body was extensively mutilated, the coroner believed the murderer took more than two hours to complete his task.
- During press coverage, the killer was most often referred to as “The Whitechapel Murderer” or “Leather Apron” because of the aprons worn by butchers. The name “Jack” became connected to the murders after letters began to arrive at news outlets and signed by that name.
- The five canonized Ripper killings occurred between August and November of 1888, but police continued to investigate a total of 11 murders that they suspected were linked up until 1891.
- Historians and hobbyists alike have speculated over the identity of The Ripper, and some sources say as many as 500 different people (including at least one woman) have come under suspicion. Many of these people were not suspects during the actual investigation and that is far too many to talk about here to I will only highlight the most well-known and/or plausible.
- According to some, Jack’s identity was already discovered in 2014—or was it? A silk shawl that supposedly belonged to one of the victims underwent DNA testing starting in 2007. In 2014, a book by Russell Edwards detailed the findings of scientist Jari Louhelainen, who claims to have definitive evidence that identifies Aaron Kominski as the notorious murderer. Kominski came under suspicion in 1888 at the age of 23 and died in a mental institution 30 years later. Unfortunately, Louhelainen made at least two major errors in his analysis that were brought to light in October 2014, rendering the conclusions useless. The search continues.
- Others think that the Jack the Ripper conspiracy went all the way to the highest levels of government. Spoiler alert! In the 2001 Johnny Depp flick called “From Hell,” Jack is in fact Prince Edward “Eddy” Victor, aka “grandson” to queen Victoria. According to the theory, Eddy impregnated a low-class girl (and a Catholic no less!) and to avoid the scandal, the queen ordered the matter be “taken care of.” Annie Crook and her royal offspring are spirited away by the royal physician, John Gull, but her friends like Mary Kelly are making too much noise about the disappearance and must be silenced. The serial killer who hates prostitutes is created to cover the real scandal and claims many victims.
- Others actually suspect John Gull himself as the murderer because of the precision of the cuts made to the victims and the fact that Jack was never caught points to some kind of conspiracy in the minds of many enthusiasts.
- One of the more likely suspects is Seweryn Klosowski (aka George Chapman), a Polish-born Jew who had only been in Whitechapel a short time before the murders began. In 1903 he was convicted on three counts of murder and hanged for killing his wives. This would seem to make him a very good suspect indeed, but he killed his known victims with poison, not brutality, and serial murderers rarely change their modus operandi.
- John Pizer was arrested in 1888 for the murders, but was later let go because he had alibis (including talking to a policeman) during two of the five canonical murders. The Sergeant who arrested him, William Thicke, allegedly had personal animosity against Pizer and no evidence whatsoever. Pizer sought reparations from at least one of the news outlets that reported he was the murderer. Thicke was later accused as being The Ripper in a letter sent to The Home Office, but this was likely a hoax and was never followed up on by the authorities.
- Gotham by Gaslight (1989) pits Jack against Batman in Gotham City.
- In the Steampunk Chronicles series by Kady Cross, Jack is a character.
- Ripper (2012), by Stefan Petrucha, follows the quest of young man from New York City to find his father in London, but instead finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation.
- Ripper (2012), by Amy Carol Reeves, is about a young woman who is volunteering at a Whitechapel hospital and has visions of the Ripper’s murders before they happen.
Jack the Ripper in Other Media
- “Ripper Street” is a BBC show about rebuilding Whitechapel in the wake of the Ripper killings. It began in 2012 and the third season is airing as of now (January 2015). (Review coming soon!)
- “Time After Time” (1979) Jack the Ripper uses H. G. Wells time machine to escape his own time and is pursued by Wells to San Francisco, CA.
- “From Hell” (2001) Johnny Depp and Heather Graham star in this film that takes its name from one of the famous Ripper letters that were sent to the press.
- “Progress” is a webseries that operates in an alternative Victorian London where there is already a steam-powered internet. You can watch the first three episodes for free at progresstheseries.com.
- A game for Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows entitled “Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper” was released in 2009.
Did I miss and Ripper references, books or movies you know? Please leave a comment so I can add to my list!
Steam-powered Internet? Now That’s What I Call “Progress”
I was just putting the finishing touches on my Jack the Ripper Sourcebook for Steam Tour and I ran across an intriguing webseries called “Progress.” This “period cyber-thriller” takes place in an alternative Victorian London. A hacker uses the steam-powered internet to investigate a coded message written by Jack in an attempt to save the lives of his intended victims. It was originally an Indiegogo campaign in 2013, but even though it fell short of its funding they have made the first three episodes of the intended 10-part series in hopes of courting a larger production company.
The trailer is below, and you can watch the chilling episodes (and perhaps make a donation?) at their website.
Want to Learn About Jack the Ripper? Skip the Tour.
My original plan had been to sample at least two Ripper Tours while in London, but after running into 6 other tour groups on my maiden voyage, I decided it wasn’t necessary. The groups ranged from 12 members to more like 40, and they all (unsurprisingly) were stopping at the same places. One group was headed up by a vintage bobby, my guide was in waistcoat and hat, and others were dressed in normal street clothes.
I knew there would be at least a couple other groups around but this was nuts, especially considering there was hardly anything to see. That area of London had suffered a great deal during the London Blitz of WWII, so there weren’t really any historic buildings left standing, so the tour meant walking through a long street lined with curry restaurants and maneuvering around construction zones. By about 30 minutes in, the Mister and I were joking that we should have just stopped at the beginning for curry instead.
I was on a tour using what they called “Ripper Vision” and some large historical photographs to try to enhance the experience, but it still fell flat for me. Ripper Vision consisted of a handheld projector that the guide used to show photos of the victims and newspaper stories from the Ripper days, but he couldn’t keep the projector steady so I ended up actually feeling sea sick from all the jerking around and had to look away. The guide was well-versed in Ripper lore, but without any real sites that still looked like they did during the Victorian era, it definitely could have been a lecture in a hall and saved my feet the trouble.
If you want to learn about Jack, I’d say get a book. I’ll be writing a Jack the Ripper Steampunk Sourcebook article for my ezine which will be available around Christmas time, and will not only look at the history and mystery surrounding the murders, but also Jack’s appearances and role in Steampunk so far.
Have you ever read any Steampunk fiction or seen any good movies that featured Jack the Ripper? Do tell!
Get to Know Victorian London’s Underbelly a Little Better in From Hell (2001)
One of Victoriana’s headliners will always be Jack the Ripper, a serial killer immortalized in the London newspapers of 1888. A string of murders committed in the East End neighborhoods like White Chapel and Aldgate were attributed to a single person because of the distinctive way he dispensed with his victims. He was sometimes called “Leather Apron” because after he killed he butchered the bodies and left them in the open to be found. These murders predate forensic science so there was never a conviction, only a number of letters (thought to be fraudulent) that were sent to the press and signed Jack The Ripper. One that was not so signed is referred to as “The From Hell Letter” because the writer used Hell as the return address. If you want to check out the original letters you can find them here.
The 2001 Johnny Depp Thriller, From Hell, gives audiences just one possible version of events. In this adaptation of a an Alan Moore graphic novel, Depp is a detective who gets psychic visions of murders. He is based on the real life chief of Scotland Yard, Frederick Abberline who worked the Ripper case. With the help of Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid of Harry Potter fame), Abberline uses his flashes of insight to catch criminals. Unfortunately, Depp must be “chasing the dragon” (ie on opium) in order to get his visions.
When the prostitutes of London’s East Side start turning up dead, he goes to them and finds a reluctant ally in Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). She and her circle of friends are being targeted by the ruthless killer, but none of them know why. But no matter the danger, these women must work the streets or risk the wrath of a local gang, which puts them at the Ripper’s (total lack of) mercy. Abberline must discover the dark secret that connects them before there are none of them left. Ian Holm (Fifth Element, The Hobbit) and Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) round out a great cast.
I don’t always like horror films because of the gore, but I felt this movie showed just enough blood to be a Ripper film but relied on good acting while shielding the audience’s view for most of the yuckiest parts. I would call it a thriller rather than a horror movie for just that reason. I haven’t read the graphic novel, but the movie does a great job of weaving conspiracy into a tale of terror.