Jack the Ripper's long shadow: From Sherlock Holmes to "Jekyll & Hyde"

In 19th century London, fact, fiction and mass media were mixing to create the terrifying legend of Jack the Ripper

Published October 18, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from “The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.”

In 1888, a serial killer was terrorizing the East End of London. The few undisputed facts about him are rather grubby and shop-soiled from so much handling, and the identity of the murderer is still a complete mystery. Over the summer and autumn, several killings of prostitutes on the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields became linked—at least in the public’s imagination—with a single perpetrator. The removal of internal organs from three of the women led people to think that he must have had medical knowledge, and be experienced in dissection. The final touch came from a hoax letter, purporting to be from the killer but probably written by a journalist aiming to stir up the story. He signed it with the name that stands today as shorthand for a whole ragbag of half-facts and inferences: the assumption that there was a single killer and mutilator, trained as a doctor, who called himself ‘Jack the Ripper.’

(When I interviewed Judith Flanders about the ‘Ripper,’ she pointed out that of the many hundreds of Victorian murders she investigated in her research, only four remain unsolved. Of these, three had a closed group of suspects of whom the guilty party must have been one. Only the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case remains completely open. More than one hundred different named suspects have been put forward during the course of the century that has followed.)

The case was recreated in fiction almost immediately. "The Curse Upon Mitre Square" is a novelette inspired by one of the Ripper killings and published by John Francis Brewer as early as October 1888. And, of course, its influence is felt to this day, with TV dramas like "Whitechapel" and "Ripper Street."

But historians have recently pointed out an extremely interesting relationship that goes in the other direction, from fiction to real life.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s story "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" (1886) was inspired by a nightmare—‘I was dreaming a fine bogey tale,’ as he put it—and he wrote it in three furious days. The short novel is about a respectable doctor with a split personality. By day, he is a fine upstanding member of his profession and community. At night, though, he is transformed into a terrible, dark inversion of himself. Through the consumption of a magic medicine, he would ‘turn into’ the other, baser, half of his character: the monstrous killer Mr Hyde. The story opens with a description of Mr Hyde, rampaging down a London street at night, and in a blind fury trampling down and crushing a little girl who had been sent out by her family to run for a doctor for a sick relative. His evil actions are particular terrifying because they appear to be random and without motive.

Accosted by spectators, Mr Hyde agrees to pay compensation to her family for hurting the child, but the cheque he makes out is in the name of the highly respectable Dr Jekyll. This is the first hint that the evil, deformed and violent Mr Hyde—he later bludgeons someone to death with a walking stick—has some sort of relationship with the virtuous doctor. It’s initially assumed that Mr Hyde is blackmailing Dr Jekyll, but the two of them are never to be seen in the same place at the same time. Eventually, when Hyde is suspected of having murdered Jekyll, the secret comes out that they are one and the same person. Along with it the source of the transformation is revealed: it lies in the potion and the special salt with which it must be mixed. Dr Jekyll had been performing chemical experiments to explore the ‘thorough and primitive durability of man’, and, through a batch of contaminated drugs, had stumbled upon unforeseen and tragic consequences.

Once again the Victorian love/fear of poisons raises its head, as does the idea that darkness lurks in the heart of the respectable doctor, like William Palmer. The theme of a man’s being able to present two very different faces to the world runs through Victorian literature: it would be seen again in "The Picture of Dorian Grey" by Oscar Wilde (1890).

Stevenson’s book was enormously successful and soon became a stage play, which opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre on 5 August 1888. The murder of Martha Tabram, a crime some people think is the first in the series committed by ‘Jack the Ripper,’ took place just two days later. Other murders followed swiftly on.

Every night at the Lyceum, in front of a couple of thousand people, an actor named Richard Mansfield (1857-1907) played both of the characters, the good Dr Jekyll and the evil Mr Hyde. The climax of the play came when he transformed himself, on stage, from Mr Hyde back into Dr Jekyll. The film versions of the story show the transformation going the other way, from good to bad, from Jekyll to Hyde. But the original stage version showed the monster turning in the man.

Stevenson’s story described the transformation as:

the most racking pangs…a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceed at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably sweet.

This was what Richard Mansfield had to convey—and he was an extraordinarily skilled actor. His background had been in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and he would go on to be a hugely popular Shakespearian performer. When he died, the New York Times called him ‘the greatest actor of his hour, and one of the greatest of all times.’

Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde was the role that made Mansfield’s reputation. The Daily telegraph claimed that ‘his nervous electricity caused silence throughout the house—the surest test of power’. (This also shows that audiences were not yet expected to sit in the well-mannered, attentive silence that we know today.) ‘Mr Mansfield,’ the reviewer continued, ‘has come, he has seen, and he has conquered as an actor of remarkable power and intelligence.’

How did Mansfield achieve the changeover from Hyde to Jekyll? There was much speculation about his use of make-up, trap doors and secret lighting effects. ‘Every one speculated on the secret of the transformation which they saw yet could not believe.’ Mansfield’s obituary would claim. ‘He was accused of using acids, phosphorus and all manners of chemicals.’ Indeed, one witness ‘declared it was “all perfectly simple. He uses a rubber suit which he inflates and exhausts with pleasure!”’

Mansfield was understandably reluctant to reveal the secrets of his craft, but it does not seem that the transformation was achieved through the physical body alone. He did, however, receive help from the swelling music of the orchestra, and some nifty lighting. As Mr Hyde, he was lit from below, to darken and deepen the eye sockets. As Dr Jekyll, he was lit, flatteringly, from above, as the conventional handsome, juvenile lead in any play would have been. (The critics generally preferred Mansfield as the twisted Mr Hyde rather than as the much more straightforward and run-of-the-mill hero, Dr Jekyll.) But most of the effect he achieved by himself. The moment Mr Hyde swallowed the magic poison, Mansfield would turn his back on the audience, writhing and grimacing as it went down his throat. Then, as he completed his circuit, he faced them one again as the smiling doctor. The Evening Standard described how: ‘It is the puny fiend that swallows the draught, then the figure straightens itself, actually seems to increase in stature, passes its hands upwards over its face, and Jekyll stands revealed. The change is amazing in its completeness and rapidity.’

Mansfield would have adopted the overblown, melodramatic acting style necessary for two thousand people to be able to see clearly what he was doing, and they found it thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.

It was a remarkable performance, and people were amazed, partly because they had simply never seen anything like it before. The effect on the audience’s nerves was so deep as to be almost dangerous. One newspaper reported:

I was attracted by a crowd in the Strand the other night, and on investigating the matter, found that they surrounded a well-dressed young man who had bolted out of a ‘bus while it was going at a rapid rate, and then fallen down in a fit. It appeared that he had been to see Mr Mansfield as Dr Jekyll, and on getting into the ‘bus found himself beside a most repulsive-looking man, whom he immediately concluded must either be the Doctor himself or the Whitechapel Murderer, In a fit of fearful nervousness, he jumped from his seta, and came to grief as mentioned.

The press were reporting that ‘Jack the Ripper’ had been removing internal organs from his victims with some skill, suggesting that he, too, had a medical training—and it wasn’t long before people began to mix up fact and fiction. In an article for The Ripperologist (the journal for historians of ‘Jack the Ripper’), Alan Sharp analyzes the links the media made between the ‘Ripper’ and Mr Hyde during London’s fearful summer of 1888. He notes how the Freeman’s Journal began in a sober, comparative note, reflecting that ‘these atrocities and apparently causeless murders show that there is abroad at the present time in the East End a human monster even more terrible than Hyde’. Meanwhile, another gentleman wrote to the Telegraph with a stronger connection, suggesting that ‘the perpetrator [of the ‘Ripper’ killings] is a being whose diseased brain has been inflamed by witnessing the performance of the drama of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”’ Others went still further than the facts warranted. A correspondent to The Star insisted that: ‘You, and every one of the papers, have missed the obvious solution of the Whitechapel mystery. The murderer is a Mr Hyde, who seeks in the repose and comparative respectability of Dr Jekyll security from the crimes he commits in his baser shape.’

There were even those who insisted that the actor Richard Mansfield was himself the killer. After all, every night, on stage, he showed that he had the capacity to be both a healer and a killer: ‘I do not think there is a man living so well able to disguise himself in a moment as he does in front of the public,’ claimed the Pall Mall Gazette under the headline ‘Mr Hyde at large in Whitechapel.’

As Judith Flanders has pointed out, the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has had a powerful effect upon people’s understanding of who ‘Jack the Ripper’ might have been. The killer is never assumed to be a local East Ender with a history as a ne’er-do-well. He’s always judged to be a man out of place, flipping between high society by day and the dark and dirty streets of Whitechapel by night. The suspects put forward include the artist Walter Sickert, the writer Lewis Carroll, and Edward VII’s eldest son, the Duke of Clarence, all of them embodying the idea that within a respectable man may lurk a monster.

Reality and fiction seem to become entangled even further when one considers the interrelationship between ‘Jack the Ripper’ and another character who began walking London’s streets around the same time, the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes. Holmes made his first appearance in a Christmas album in 1887, and the same story, A Study in Scarlet, was published as a novel in 1888, the same year that the ‘Ripper’ terrorized the nation.

The ‘Ripper’s’ crimes had not yet taken place at Holmes’s debut, but as his character developed during the numerous stories that followed, Holmes seems to become almost a mirror image of ‘Jack the Ripper’. Where ‘Jack’ is uncontrollable, mysterious and motiveless, a creature of the night, Sherlock is rational, reassuring and brilliant, shining a light into the darkest places. Where the police fail—both in the real-life Whitechapel murders and in the many fictional cases described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—Holmes is always successful. And in a strange intertwining of our images of ‘Jack’ and Sherlock, on of the very few eyewitnesses thought to have actually seen the serial killer reported that he was wearing a deerstalker hat.

Fittingly, it is to Sherlock Holmes that government ministers, successful businessmen and the royal families of Europe turn to solutions to their knottiest problems. On the whole, though, Holmes’s clients aren’t the great and the good. They also include vicars, typists, engineers, landladies, governesses…the very sort of people who had to walk home along the streets at night, who read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories in magazines and who were encouraged by them to imagine that ‘Jack the Ripper’ might yet be caught.

There is something solid and reassuring about both Sherlock Holmes and his world. At the same time though—exactly in common with many people’s conception of the ‘Ripper’—Holmes is an oddball, somebody standing outside normal society. Lacking close family ties, subject to spells of deep depression, dependent on morphine and other drugs to carry him through periods of boredom and lassitude, he is so unfailingly devoted to what he sees as justice that is sometimes causes him to act thoughtlessly or even dangerously.

It makes for a thrilling, if occasionally unsettling, reading experience. Holmes is the hero of the story, taking hansom cabs and chasing criminals through the Pool of London by boat. But he also haunts opium dens, and the very first time we see Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet, he is indulging in a suitably ‘Ripper’-ish activity: beating a corpse with a stick.

This, of course, was part of his work as that latest of Victorian invention: the forensic scientist.

Excerpted from “The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock” by Lucy Worsley. Copyright © 2014 by Lucy Worsley. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.

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