A big welcome to Sarah Pinborough who is here to telling us about Jack the Ripper, opium, and 19thC London in award-winning author Sarah Pinborough’s MAYHEM and celebrating the release of Mayhem, Mayhem, #1 (published on April 25, 2013 by Jo Fletcher). Want to win a copy? Enter via the widget below.
Jack the Ripper, opium, and 19th century London in MAYHEM
On October 2nd 1888, two days after Jack the Ripper’s ‘double event’ murders of Stride and Eddowes, a gruesome discovery was made in the furthest corner of a basement vault below a building site. The area, pitch black even in daylight hours, had been used by workmen to store their tools away from thieving hands, and it was a carpenter, Frederick Windborn, who lit a match that morning and spied the package in a recess in the wall. Once he’d opened it up and recoiled in horror, he sent for the police. Police presence shouldn’t have been too tricky. After all, the building they were working on was New Scotland Yard.
Dr Thomas Bond – a man who history would remember as the first criminal profiler for his report on Jack the Ripper – was summoned and in the glow of hastily set up lamps, he examined the remains. The female torso, which had been wrapped in a section of the Echo newspaper dated the previous August and tied with scrappy pieces of string, was missing the head, legs and arms. Instead of cutting her legs off at the joint, the killer had cut through an inch or so below her navel, allowing access to her lower cavity, taking some of her organs with him. The recess was black where her rot had seeped through the paper, and the wall was slick with maggots. The workmen had been storing their tools there for several weeks unsuspecting that a decaying corpse was hidden alongside them in the darkness.
Police bloodhounds were immediately called, but they found nothing. Embarrassingly for the police, it was a terrier called Smoker, property of a reporter called Jasper Waring, who, after being allowed access to the vault in the dead of a foggy night (it really was a foggy, eerie night), would dig up a further arm and a leg buried in the muddy earth barely feet away from the original find. Back in the mortuary, Dr Bond realised that they already had the victim’s second arm. It had been pulled out of the Thames at Pimlico a few weeks before.
So far, so brilliant for any crime writer to feast on. A mutilated body found in the basement of Scotland Yard. Body parts pulled out of the river. If this had been a one-off, it would still be a fascinating and gristly piece of history that deserved to be better remembered, and I’d still have wanted to write a novel about it. However, the Whitehall Torso was not the killer’s first victim. Neither would it be his last. In November 1886, the mutilated remains of a woman – missing the head, all limbs and with right breast and uterus missing – were found on the steps of a church in Montrouge, Paris. A few months later, much closer to home, the body parts of a woman were found, one by one, packaged up in sacking and string, along a stretch of the Thames from Rainham to Victoria Embankment.
Next came the Whitehall torso, and the realisation for the police that they had two killers at work in London’s streets. In a society that might not have known the phrase, ‘serial killer’ London in the late 1880s was a city very much living the meaning. Jack’s ‘last of the six’ killings came shortly after with Mary Jane Kelly, but the Torso killer would strike three times further. So why, although his killings were equally as gruesome – if not perhaps more so given that one of his victims was seven months pregnant – has the Thames Torso killer been largely forgotten by history?
Some people, both at the time and now, believe that he and Jack were one man and often all the deaths are placed under the inclusive banner of ‘The Whitechapel murders.’ Dr Bond, however would disagree, and so, I imagine would eminent profilers of today. Although there were some similarities – they both attacked women and mutilated their bodies, and the police believed both to have some surgical skills, their methodology was entirely different. Jack struck in the moment, his attacks swift and frenzied, and with the very real possibility of being caught. His victims were found where he killed them, bleeding out in the grimy streets where they lived. The recognised six victims were all killed within two or so months, starting with Martha Tabram and finishing with poor Mary Jane Kelly’s terrible death tableaux.
The Thames Torso killer, on the other hand, operated over several years (his final victim was found in 1901) and with much larger gaps between his attacks. We don’t know where he killed his victims, but it’s clear he took them somewhere private where he could dismember them at his leisure before depositing his gristly parcels primarily in the Thames. Did he keep them alive for hours before killing them? Was death by strangulation or by the knife itself? Where did he store the parts before disposing of them? Everything surrounding this killer was a mystery then, and still is now.
Herein lies what I feel is the root cause of why the Thames Torso killer has slipped quietly into the faint sidelines of history while Jack took the glory. Identity. As with Jack, the police never identified the killer (or in fact, ever came up with any suspects), but perhaps more pertinently, aside from one woman identified by a clothing label, none of the Torso victims could be named. It’s not that easy to identify a headless corpse now, but back then, in transient grim London, it was nigh on impossible. From an observer’s viewpoint, it’s also hard to engage emotionally with an anonymous. We can’t put ourselves in the victim’s shoes. We can’t re-trace their last steps. We can’t see physical or lifestyle similarities that allow us that shiver of ‘there but for the grace of God, go I.’ They are no longer like us. He reduced them simply to parcels of meat. There can be no ‘Thames Torso Tours’ to allow people a hundred years on a glimpse into the bloody streets of the past. We have no victims’ names, no murder sites, no clue as to whether there was a type of woman he preferred. We don’t understand his motivation.
Jack, on the other hand, is entirely different. Although we might never know who he was, as soon as the first ‘Jack’ letter was published, he had an identity that gripped the public, then and now. His victims are almost as famous as he is, women discarded by society in their own time, now played out in films and books across the world. Jack was all style – in words taken from Dr Bond’s report, he was ‘a man of great daring.’ The Thames Torso killer was something altogether colder. Aside from the moment of flamboyance in leaving a torso in the heart of New Scotland Yard, he worked carefully and methodically. There was no courting of the press. He did not risk capture by working ‘in the moment.’ He appeared to have no interest in grabbing attention. He worked solely for his own purpose. By keeping their heads as souvenirs, or destroying them to avoid risk of detention, he also robbed his victims of leaving their own mark in history. With the exception of Elizabeth Jackson, no one will ever know who they were and what they’d suffered either in their lives before fate brought them to their end. Nor can we imagine the terror they must have felt once in their murderer’s grasp. The Thames Torso killer didn’t just murder his victims, he erased them. For me, that is altogether more terrifying.
As a storyteller, I find him, and his backdrop of attention-seeking Jack, irresistible. The terror that between them, they brought to the streets of a city I love. One claiming all the glory, and the other working quietly in the shadows. In Mayhem, I hope I bring some light into the shadows. Step forward, Thames Torso killer, and take your bow for history. You earned it.
Sarah was the 2009 winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, and has three times been short-listed for Best Novel. She has also been short-listed for a World Fantasy Award. Her novella, The Language of Dying was short-listed for the Shirley Jackson Award and won the 2010 British Fantasy Award for Best Novella.
One copy of MAYHEM
Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough
Available on April 25, 2013 by Jo Fletcher
A new killer is stalking the streets of London’s East End. Though newspapers have dubbed him ‘the Torso Killer’, this murderer’s work is overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel crimes.
The victims are women too, but their dismembered bodies, wrapped in rags and tied up with string, are pulled out of the Thames – and the heads are missing. The murderer likes to keep them.
Mayhem is a masterwork of narrative suspense: a supernatural thriller set in a shadowy, gaslit London, where monsters stalk the cobbled streets and hide in plain sight.
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