Monday, May 21, 2012

Random Thoughts on Victoria Day

Today, May 21, is Victoria Day in Canada. A National Holiday. National Holidays are always something to be happy about, especially when the weather's nice, as it is now in Ottawa.

Readers who live south of the "world's longest undefended border" – the 49th parallel – might not know what this is all about. Some who live close to the border might know. In colloquial terms, today is The Queen's Birthday. An odd sort of thing to celebrate, perhaps, but Queen Elizabeth II is (still) Canada's Head of State. She has no political power, of course, but she is still there, and will be for some time yet.

The day's name, though, goes back more than a century to Queen Victoria, who reigned for almost 64 years, the longest tenure of any British Monarch. Elizabeth II has been on the throne now since 1953, a total of almost 59 years, and odds are better than good that she will have a reign longer than Victoria's. Elizabeth is now 86, a good age by any standard, but she in excellent health, and her mother – the late Queen Mother Elizabeth – lived to be almost 102. If I were a betting man with cash to spare, I would lay money on her reaching the century mark.

The National Holiday – Victoria Day – used to be celebrated on May 24th, Victoria's actual birth date, May 24, 1819. Now, however, by Government decree, Victoria Day is celebrated on the last Monday of May before the 25th.

For the record, Elizabeth II’s actual birthday is April 21.

So, what does any of this have to do with a mystery writers' blog? Well, cast your mind back a century or more to the Victorian Era, and you will probably recall that one of the most infamous criminals in history walked the grim and fog-bound streets of London then. I am talking about Jack the Ripper. Somehow, this seems an appropriate subject for today's blog post. And even if it isn't really appropriate, I will do it anyway.

The "Ripper murders" took place in 1888, between August and November. The city was London, the area London's East End, specifically the district known as Whitechapel. Hence the killings are often referred to as the "Whitechapel murders". The number of victims of the Ripper – all of them female, all of them prostitutes – is generally set at five; and they are known in the literature as the "canonical five". Their names: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.


These are the official photographs of four of the victims, from police files. The fifth victim, Mary Kelly, is shown below, in a picture taken at the crime scene:

                                                Black and white photograph of an eviscerated human body lying on a bed. The face is mutilated.

                                                                 Mary Kelly

Although five is the usually cited number of the Ripper's victims, the actual tally might have been considerably higher; ten, fourteen, even thirty. No one really knows for sure. Police investigative techniques then were primitive by today's standards, and Whitechapel was a massively crowded area, with rampant crime, and frequent murders.

The Ripper, or "Whitechapel murderer", was of course never arrested, or identified. There were suspects, but none that have stood the test of critical examination. There are even more theories. In today's terms, the Ripper would be described as a "serial killer"; although that term did not become current until 1981 when the horrific cases of John Gacy and Ted Bundy came to light.

But there could be basic similarities between the Ripper murders and certain characteristics we ascribe today to a serial killer, through the process of profiling. We can guess some things about the Ripper that would fit with profiling theory. He may have been a resident of the Whitechapel area, the location where the five "canonical" murders took place; modern day serial killers are believed to hunt their victims on familiar turf. The Ripper was likely a white male between the ages of 20 and 35; serial killers are most likely to be white males, and that is the most common age range. He likely had regular employment; this is deduced from the fact that the murders took place on weekends and holidays. The Ripper was likely soft-spoken and personable, and drew little attention to himself; that is typical of known serial killers: they seem like "regular guys", a characteristic that would allow them to approach their victims without raising an alarm.

And it's likely also – in keeping with my most recent post – that the Ripper might well have been a psychopath, able to kill repeatedly, and without any regret or real emotional involvement. Although the savage manner in which some of the victims were mutilated, particularly Mary Kelly, could indicate intense rage.

Largely because the Ripper murders were never solved, a veritable "industry" has grown up around the killings, and the unidentified perpetrator. In 2003, it was stated that some 114 non-fiction books had been written about the Ripper and his murders, with a half-dozen new titles appearing every year. Most recently, an experienced "Ripperologist", John Morris, has written a book, Jack the Ripper – The Hand of a Woman, theorizing that the Ripper was actually a female. This new thesis has not apparently met with much enthusiasm. But that will probably not harm sales.

In 2002, Patricia Cornwell – creator of the fictional Kay Scarpetta – wrote a book that modestly stated in its title, "Case Closed". She identified the Ripper as the English painter, Walter Sickert – and one could say that the surname alone is suggestive. It's in fact almost too clever. But Cornwell's thesis has also been generally dismissed. That hasn't stopped the book from being, like the Scarpetta books, a huge bestseller.

The movie industry has been much involved also. And as I am a movie buff of some repute – at least among a small circle of friends – there are some entertaining films on the Ripper that I can recommend. My favourite is the 1979 film Murder By Decree, with Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. John Watson:

                                Murder By Decree (Sherlock Holmes) [DVD]

Holmes does solve the mystery of the Ripper's identity and motive. Of course he does. And with Plummer (an Oscar winner this year for his role in Beginners) as Holmes, he does it in great style.

Other films on the Ripper that I can recommend are:

            From Hell (2 Disc Special Edition) [2002] [DVD]
                   Time After Time [DVD] [1979] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] 

                                              Jack The Ripper [1988] (Michael Caine) [DVD]

I saw the Johnny Depp film some years ago, and was very impressed. But, then, I am almost always impressed by Johnny Depp. (Call it a weakness!) Time After Time is an interesting film which has H.G. Wells travelling through time in the time machine of his own creation, to nab the Ripper. The Michael Caine film is actally a TV mini-series from 1988, and was well-reviewed. 

The best novel I have read on Jack the Ripper is by the late Michael Dibdin: The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.


Dibdin casts Holmes and Watson in this fascinating treatment of the Ripper muders; and it's a fascinating treatment of Holmes himself. I think it is a great book. And with a very surprising ending.

For those who would enjoy a non-fiction dissertation on the Ripper, a Ripper-dedicated website, Casebook – recommends The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, by Philip Sugden.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Thomas, I had never come across the term "ripologist" before. Love the apt one-word summary of this obsession.

Anonymous said...

hi thomas..

Anonymous said...

have a nice day.. thanks for the comment...

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