Welcome to Behind the Screams! In this article, we will be taking a look at the true stories that inspired some of our favorite horror films. Each month, we will dive into the stories behind these films and see that, sometimes, the truth is far more horrifying than fiction.
What do you see when you close your eyes and imagine Victorian-Era England? What do you smell? For the majority of Americans, this time period in English history conjures visions of fancy dress, elaborate parties, gothic architecture, and extended pinkies. We imagine sitting in the shade of a tent, enjoying a tea while we watch the mounted men play the Sport of Kings. If we close our eyes tight enough and allow the smells of the era to completely dominate our olfactory systems, we might catch the faint whispers of lavender, talcum, and red currant jam.
This is an idealized version of the era, of course. It’s the life that the elite lived on the West side of London, where lavish estates and bloated banks lined the streets. If you followed the River Thames East, you would start to see and smell the real London. In a place like Whitechapel, haunted by the suffocating smog of desperation, your senses would be bombarded with something much more primal. Instead of lavender and lace, Whitechapel would give you blood, shit, and hate.
“If we want to really understand Jack the Ripper, then we must strip away the artifice of Royal Conspiracy and expose the black and rotting core of human nature.”
This is the world that gave birth to Jack the Ripper, and he still lives there, even after 130 years. Hundreds of books, documentaries, and movies have explored this mysterious killer and have named suspects ranging from Turkish sailors to H.H. Holmes himself. One of the most outlandish of these theories was introduced to the world by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in their graphic novel From Hell and expanded upon in the Johnny Depp-starring film of the same name.
This theory, while admittedly far-fetched, is extremely intriguing. Hiding in its darkened alleyways are ancient societies, illicit affairs, ritual magic, and royalty. It has everything a devilishly handsome true crime lover could ask for, but there’s a serious problem lying at its heart. While fascinating and fun, the theory behind From Hell is dangerous. It’s a sanitation of what really happened in Whitechapel in the fall of 1888. It gives us the gory details, sure, but it romanticizes the reality surrounding the crimes, allowing the true horror to hide behind a sexualized mask of cloaked figures and strangers in the dark. If we want to really understand Jack the Ripper, then we must strip away the artifice of Royal Conspiracy and expose the black, rotting core of human nature.
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Directed by the Hughes Brothers in 2001, From Hell stars a semi-handsome Johnny Depp as the clairvoyant Inspector Abberline and a distractingly-beautiful Heather Graham as sex worker Mary Kelly. As Abberline gets high on opium and looks around semi-handsomely, women are being ripped apart by a mysterious killer who gives them grapes and laudanum before he slices them with a Liston knife (on behalf of my 5th Great-Grandfather, I apologize to the women of Whitechapel).
As the investigation moves along, and as women continue to die, we learn that a friend of the victims, Ann Crook, had unknowingly married Prince “Edward” Albert Victor, grandson to Queen Victoria and second-in-line to the throne. You see, the Prince liked to do things a little differently than the rest of his royal kin, so he snuck off to Whitechapel to marry a shop woman he had fallen in lust with. Under the guise of being an art dealer, Prince Albert would come and go often, finding comfort in the arms of his secret wife. After a short while, Ann became pregnant and had a child named Alice. Unbeknownst to everyone there, including her mother, Alice was the heir to the throne of England. The couple was happy keeping house until Albert came down with a severe case of syphilis.
“The danger the Royal Conspiracy presents is not about hurting anyone’s feelings […] it distracts from the true root of the problems that led to the Ripper.”
This diagnosis alerted the monarchy, and his dalliances were found out. To cover up the affair and child, the Queen asked her loyal surgeon, Sir William Gull to destroy all evidence, including the five women who were present at the Prince’s wedding to Ann. Gull, in an attempt to both fulfill his duties to the throne and become a master of the Freemasons, murdered these women in a horrific manner and removed body parts to use in his ritualistic magic.
This interesting conspiracy theory has been popular since the release of Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, a book written by Stephen Knight in 1976, but it was perfected by From Hell. It gave a face to the Ripper and created a portrait of an aristocratic assassin murdering sex workers for “the good of the empire”. Sir William Gull was a loyal man, but he did not kill Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, or Mary Kelly. What he did do, however, is become the “outsider” boogeyman the people of London had been looking for, for over a century.
The danger the Royal Conspiracy presents is not about hurting anyone’s feelings. I could care less about besmirching the House of Hanover’s good name. I don’t care what the Queen thinks of me, either. The problem is that by placing the blame at the feet of Sir Gull, it distracts from the true root of the problems that led to the Ripper.
The True Culprit
In 1888, Whitechapel was one of the poorest sections of London. The Industrial Revolution was a time of great technological advancement and massive wealth generation, but that wealth didn’t trickle down like American Republicans have been trying to convince us it does for the past 40 years. The workers in the factories and at the docks were barely human to their employers. Long hours, terrible conditions, and minuscule pay at these jobs led to many in Whitechapel resorting to crime to feed their families.
This was especially true for women. In Victorian England, the “nuclear” family became the most important aspect of life. Part of this was the idea that men should handle all public aspects of the home (job, politics, getting drunk and having fun) while the women were in charge of the home itself (cooking, cleaning, moral and religious instruction). In Whitechapel, the men weren’t earning enough to sustain a home, so the women were forced to try to make money on their own. Unfortunately, there were very few opportunities for women workers. They were forced to travel across town to be a servant, working poorhouse, or sell trinkets and crocheted flowers on the street. When even this wasn’t enough, they then had to start selling their bodies.
During this time, there were an estimated 1,200 sex workers living in Whitechapel, which was only about a mile square. The nights were filled with rowdy sailors and workers getting drunk off their asses and looking for a “good time”. You couldn’t take three steps along its main thoroughfares without women asking if you’d like them to entertain you. It was degrading, embarrassing, and the only way many of these women could survive. To combat the crushing desperation they constantly felt, these women turned to booze. They would take three or four clients in a night, but spend all of that money at the pub trying to forget that they had to take three or four clients in a night. They wouldn’t have money for a bed in a lodging house, so many would either sleep on the street or in one of the local parks.
From Hell does a good job showing what life was like on the streets of Whitechapel, except for one thing: it was far too bright. People tend to think that Jack the Ripper was murdering these ladies by gaslight, but that wasn’t necessarily true. Whitechapel, and the rest of the Eastern side of London, was dark. Lamp posts were few and far between, and usually reserved for the wealthy. So, when these women walked the streets looking for a few pennies to buy food with, they were doing so in pitch blackness.
The harsh truth of the matter is that these victims were forced out into the streets, and into the pages of true crime history, by capitalism. It wasn’t their intelligence, or their morality, or their alcoholism- it was because there were no opportunities for women during that time. The men of the time barely brought anything back home. This wasn’t because of their intelligence, or their morality, or their alcoholism, either. It was because the wealthy men in charge exploited the labor of the working class to build vast fortunes, leaving the women and men of Whitechapel to fend for themselves.
Placing the blame on Sir Gull, like From Hell does, ignores the fact that these women were forced under the Ripper’s blade by their poverty and status. Not because they were stupid, or “unfortunate”, but because the West Enders of London were piling their money up high so they wouldn’t have to see “the poors” when they looked out their windows. Making Sir Gull the Ripper makes it seem like there was nothing that could have been done to save these women. A madman crossed over into Whitechapel and took their lives to protect a secret, and it could have happened to anyone! But, that’s not true.
Who do serial killers normally target? The vulnerable. They feast upon hitchhikers, sex workers, the mentally ill, and the homeless. The wealthy in London loved the idea that one of them was the killer because they all knew that they were in no danger. Creating the Royal Conspiracy ignores the fact that with a living wage, guaranteed housing, mental health care, and access to education, those women would not have been on the streets to begin with. Making Gull the monster focuses the blame on one person, instead of on the shoulders of everyone benefitting from an unfair system like it should be.
What can we learn from the Jack the Ripper slayings and From Hell? That the fanciful re-writing of history means that we will never learn the lessons needed to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Turning a blind eye to the rampant, and avoidable, poverty in Whitechapel guarantees that the capitalism machine will keep turning, making a select few wealthy while the rest of us are driven to the slaughter.
“Turning a blind eye to the rampant, and avoidable, poverty in Whitechapel guarantees that the capitalism machine will keep turning…”
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