The Ripper Texts ‘Curse Upon Mitre Square’ And ‘Leather Apron’

Hannah Irwin
Hannah Irwin

John Francis Brewer wrote the first known text about the Jack the Ripper murders in October of 1888, a sensational horror monograph entitled ‘The Curse upon Mitre Square.’ John Francis Brewer made use of well-known Gothic tropes, such as the trans-generational curse, the inclusion of a ghost and the setting of an old church for the murder of an innocent woman. John Francis Brewer blended fact and fiction, making the Whitechapel murderer the inheritor, or even perhaps the victim of an ancient curse that hung over Mitre Square, where the second murdered prostitute, Catherine Eddowes, had been found the month before. According to John Francis Brewer, the curse originated from the murder of a woman in 1530 by her brother, a “mad monk,” on the steps of the high altar of the Holy Trinity Church in Aldgate. The monk, Martin, committed suicide, realising what he had done, and his ghost now appears pointing to the place where the murder occurred, promising that other killings will follow.

Whitechapel is written as both a cursed and haunted Gothic space in ‘The Curse upon Mitre Square.’ John Francis Brewer’s description of the area reflected the contemporary public opinion, describing the Whitechapel Road as a “portal to the filth and squalor of the East.” However, Mitre Square is the former location of a monastery torn down by a corrupt politician; this place, which should have been holy ground, is cursed. Mitre Square’s atmosphere ensures the continuation of violent acts in the vicinity; indeed, it seems to exude a self-aware and malevolent force that results in the death of Catherine Eddowes centuries later. This idea of Whitechapel as somehow complicit in or even directing the acts of Jack the Ripper will later become a popular trope of Ripperature.

John Francis Brewer’s work was advertised in London on posters splashed with red, a reminder of the blood spilt by Jack the Ripper’s victims only weeks earlier. It was also widely promoted by the media and reissued in New York in 1889. It is likely that a “suggestion effect” took place during the telegraph-hastened, press-driven coverage of the Jack the Ripper story, including John Francis Brewer’s monograph, spreading the image of Gothic Whitechapel as fact to the world.

Samuel E. Hudson’s account of Jack the Ripper murders differs in style from John Francis Brewer’s because of his attempt to engage critically with issues such as the failure of the police force to find the murderer and the true identity of Jack the Ripper. His book ‘Leather Apron: Or, the Horrors of Whitechapel, London,’ was published in December of 1888. Samuel E. Hudson described the five murders canonically attributed to Jack the Ripper, wrote an analysis of the police investigation that followed, and speculated as to Jack the Ripper’s motivations. Despite his intention to examine the case objectively, Samuel E. Hudson writes Jack the Ripper as a Gothic monster, an atavistic and savage creature prowling Whitechapel to satisfy his bloodlust. Jack the Ripper is associated with several Gothic tropes in Samuel E. Hudson’s work, and described as different types of monsters. He is called: a “fiend bearing a charmed and supernatural existence,” a “human vampire,” an “incarnate monster” and even, like John Francis Brewer, the perpetrator of “ghoulish butchery.”

Samuel E. Hudson describes Whitechapel as “the worst place in London (…) with innumerable foul and pest-ridden alleys.” Whitechapel becomes implicated in Jack the Ripper murders because of its previously established reputation as a crime-ridden slum. Poverty forced women into prostitution, meaning they were often out alone late at night, and its many courts and alleyways allowed Jack the Ripper an easy escape from his pursuers after each murder. The aspect of Whitechapel that Samuel E. Hudson emphasises the most is its darkness; “off the boulevard, away from the streaming gas-jets (…) the knave ran but a slight chance of interruption.” Whitechapel is a place of shadows, its darkest places negotiated only by “fallen women” and their clients, and Jack the Ripper himself. Samuel E. Hudson’s casting of Jack the Ripper as a vampire makes his preference for the night, and his ability to skillfully disembowel prostitutes and disappear without a trace, intelligible to his readers as the attributes of a Gothic monster. Significantly, Samuel E. Hudson’s London is personified as female, the same sex as Jack the Ripper victims, evoking a sense of passive vulnerability against the acts of the masculine and predatory Jack the Ripper, Samuel E. Hudson writing that “it was not until four Whitechapel women had perished (…) that London awoke to the startling fact that a monster was at work upon her streets.”

Historically, the murders forced Queen Victoria to call for redevelopment in Spitalfields, the improvement of living conditions for the working class, and for a better police force to patrol the East End to prevent similar crimes. The fact that Jack the Ripper was never captured “seemed only to confirm the impression that the bloodshed was created by the foul streets themselves: that the East End was the true Ripper,” using the murderer as a way to emerge into the public consciousness.

In Ripperature, this idea was further developed by the now popular image of Jack the Ripper “stalking the black alleyways [in] thick swirling fog.” This otherworldly fog seems to imply a mystical relationship between Jack the Ripper and Whitechapel, shielding him from view and disorientating his victims. Whitechapel shares the guilt of the murders as a malevolent and essentially pagan space.

The notion of Whitechapel as being inscribed with paganism and magic has become an enduring and popular trope of Ripperature. It relates to an obscure theory that drawing lines between the locations of the first four Jack the Ripper murders created Satanic and profane religious symbols, suggesting that they were predetermined locations for a black magic ritual. This theory was expanded upon most extensively in Alan Moore’s graphic novel ‘From Hell,’ published in 1999.

In ‘From Hell,’ Jack the Ripper connects several important historical and religious sites around London by drawing a pentacle on a map of the city. He explains the murders as a reinforcement of the pentacle’s “lines of power and meaning (…) this pentacle of sun gods, obelisks and rational male fire, within unconsciousness, the moon and womanhood are chained” London becomes a “textbook,” a “literature of stone, of place-names and associations,” stretching back to the Romans and their pagan gods. Buck’s Row, the real location of the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, is pagan in origin; named for the deer that were sacrificed to the goddess Diana’s altars. However, Alan Moore’s Whitechapel is also Hell itself, the result of Jack the Ripper slipping further into insanity as the murders continue. ‘From Hell’ is illustrated in black and white, which emphasises the shadows and darkness of Whitechapel. The buildings are indistinct scrawls of shadow, Jack the Ripper often nothing more than a silhouette, forcing the reader to occupy the same “murky moral and spiritual darkness” that Jack the Ripper does. Artist Eddie Campbell’s use of shade and shadow in his illustrations also contribute to the image of Whitechapel-as-Hell as a subterranean place.

Therefore, in tracing the representations of Whitechapel in the London press and in Ripperature from 1888 onwards, the development of Whitechapel as a Gothic location becomes clear. From the geographical setting of Jack the Ripper murders, Whitechapel has become a Gothic space, complicit in Jack the Ripper’s work if not actively inspiring the murders. Whitechapel, although known to the public before Jack the Ripper as a crime-ridden slum, developed into a Gothic space because of the murders, and continues to be associated with the Gothic in contemporary Ripperature as an uncanny and malevolent space “which seems to compel recognition as not of this earth.”

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