Arthur Conan Doyle

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ – HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

THREE – THE LEGEND

 

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The parents of Frederick Bailey Deeming described their son as a difficult child.   The troublesome child became an impossible adult. In 1891, Deeming killed his first wife and four children and buried them all under the floor. Fortunately there were no children in the second marriage. After moving to Australia, Deeming hid his dead second wife under the hearthstone in the bedroom. A dollop of cement kept the body secure and discreet. Deeming was arrested for his murders while arranging a wedding with his third beloved. The first family was murdered near Liverpool in the large village of Rainhill. The village is known for the steam engine trials of 1829. There was plenty of puff and noise that day but the place is quiet. In the trials Stephenson introduced the Rocket, and it became famous as being the first modern steam locomotive.   There are a couple of miles between Rainhill and where I lived as a child.   I attended school with children from the village. We all knew about the Rocket by Stephenson. If the adults had discussed Deeming the murderer and his crimes, the house where the bodies were discovered would have been a magnet for children. But, like a puff of steam from the Rocket, the gossip about Deeming faded away.

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The consensus is that Jack the Ripper killed five prostitutes. Deeming murdered six people, and four of them were children. His name is known by some but only because Jack the Ripper experts have felt obliged to name Deeming as a possible suspect for the Jack the Ripper crimes.   The reasoning is simple. Deeming was alive at the time of the murders and he killed people. He is not, though, Jack the Ripper. Because he had an active criminal life that included fraud and theft, Deeming was in prison when the five prostitutes were being murdered in Whitechapel.   The investigation of the homicides by Deeming, like that of Doctor Crippen, involved communication between countries separated by oceans. Jack the Ripper and Doctor Crippen became notorious and their crimes inspired novelists and filmmakers. Poor Frederick Bailey Deeming is not even remembered in a village on the outskirts of Liverpool and where not much happens.

The name Frederick Bailey Deeming did not help him. It is too precise a name for mystery. Frederick Bailey Deeming sounds like a title or a definition of a particular human being rather than a clue to identity. Although he was not middle class, the name of Deeming suits a posh accent. The name Jack the Ripper suits all tongues and is as mysterious as the London fog in which five Whitechapel prostitutes were killed.  Doctor Crippen has a name that is also evocative. It does not swirl like fog but it suggests cruelty and sticks between the teeth. The Doctor is preserved as a second rate wax dummy in the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds.   The story of the romance that inspired Crippen to kill suggested lost opportunities. Ernest Raymond recognised this and wrote the entertaining and gripping novel We The Accused.  Doctor Crippen, though, is not a legend. His temptation and weakness that led to his false steps are qualities we all understand. We are curious about Doctor Crippen rather than mystified.

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Fame depends on timing. Edward Carpenter the political radical and poet described the Victorian age as a ‘fascinating and enthusiastic period.’ Much of that enthusiasm was sparked by a changing world. Politics, art and industry were all affected. Jack the Ripper was not the first psychopath to murder women but his narrow interests, poor and hardened women in an area blighted by poverty and prostitution, gave him a foothold in modernism. Jack the Ripper is not regarded as a human suffering from temptation and weakness. His crimes suggest the strength of a monster. Jack the Ripper is a creature that belongs in comic books. He was regarded as the superman of criminals.  Elements of the Victorian printed media responded to the fantasy figure and indulged in sensational cartoons and reports.

The solitary human icon, though, is more rare than we think.   The artists and scientists that create revolutions are part of cultural shifts that affect more than them. Movements and trends are important.   Jack the Ripper was a clever fiend that had a monster within him.   Robert Louis Stevenson published Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, two years before Jack the Ripper committed his first murder in Whitechapel.   Stevenson imagined modern science being used to liberate the monster within men.   The poverty and slums of Whitechapel inspired Jack the Ripper, and his escape was aided by the London fog, the industrial pollution that scarred lungs and English pretensions.  Jekyll sipped his serum, and Jack the Ripper sniffed London fog and industrial blight.

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Sherlock Holmes was also important to the Victorian imagination that was haunted by Jack the Ripper. For Christians the existence of the devil confirms the presence of God. Sherlock Holmes was the alter ego of Jack the Ripper, two men without empathy and shaped by crime. Jack the Ripper existed to supply mysteries, and Sherlock Holmes was created to solve them.   Both men had odd behaviours. Jack the Ripper murdered women, and almost as bad, Sherlock Holmes played unlistenable melodies on his violin and took cocaine.  Jack the Ripper even left a clue that belonged in a story by Conan Doyle, the odd inscription on the wall about ‘the Juwes’ not being blamed.  Holmes, Jekyll and Jack the Ripper connected in the imaginations of the British.  Each made the legend of the other two more potent.  All three were imagined to be gentlemen. Holmes and Jekyll are the upper class creations of Stevenson and Conan Doyle. Despite there being no evidence to suggest Jack the Ripper had surgical skill the newspapers established the myth of a slayer in top hat walking the streets of Whitechapel.   Comic books and action movies demonstrate the importance of the exceptional costumes in melodrama.   The top hat, cloak and cane were an imagined and inappropriate costume but still potent symbols. Add an upper class accent and refined features and we have not just a solitary murderer but also an exceptional figure. No one wanted to meet Jack the Ripper but plenty wanted a glimpse.

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The ease with which Jack the Ripper was given a false upper class identity was not a consequence of sloppy thinking.   Social class was important to the Victorians.   Many workers were antagonistic towards the wealthy but others talked about their ‘betters’. The middle classes and men believed their privilege was justified by industry, superior intelligence and a sense of honour.   Jack the Ripper did not lack industry and he was clever enough to mutilate bodies in the dark and escape detection.  The crimes of Jack the Ripper involved daring and risk, qualities in the world of commerce that earned reward and affluence. There is also the suspicion that the murderer may have had a sense of honour or a code that belonged to a gentleman.  The victims led what were considered to be immoral lives.

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The notion of the Ripper as a gentleman with purpose and method has persuaded some that the Monarchy was involved in the murders. This notion is as daft as the suggestion that Deeming might have been Jack the Ripper.   The British Monarchy is far from being an attractive institution but it was not involved in the crimes of Jack the Ripper.  The stories, though, have done the legend no harm.   The powerful do protect their own but in the case of Jack the Ripper we are all baffled by who or what he might have been.   We have to assume that the police wanted to catch Jack the Ripper but in a society etched in social class and snobbery it is not difficult to imagine a police force rendered incompetent by deference, hierarchy and an entitlement to privilege.  It is now believed that the letter from Jack the Ripper to the Press was faked by a newspaperman. Back in 1888 it would have reinforced the suspicions of the poor and confirmed for them that the police were dumb lackeys for the powerful. One of the Sergeants on the case even had the unfortunate surname of Thicke.

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All the above contributes to the legend but none of it as important as the mystery of the identity of the killer. The inexplicable is not just addictive. It permits thought and fancy and appeals to frustrated engineers who do not like to have dirty hands. In the years between the end of the Second World war and 1960 the complicated light from the legend was dimming.   The sixties generation pledged to overthrow any remnants of Victorian puritanism but the decade had elements of the end of the last Century.   The period was ‘fascinating and enthusiastic’. It also produced know-alls who believed that modern and superior detective work would identify the killer. Amateur detectives bred like rabbits, and books promised a solution to the mystery.   Author Patricia Cornwell is a recent example. When her theory was dismissed as silly, she claimed that it was because she was American and female. The thrillers of Cornwell have sold over a 100,000,000 copies. The woman is a slick operator yet Cornwell bought 30 paintings by artist Walter Sickert.  She believed their dark themes established his guilt. This is bizarre logic.   Paintings are an exercise in imagination and, although Cornwell does not think it important, Sickert was in France for four of the murders by Jack the Ripper.  The sensible books on Jack the Ripper avoid extravagant claims.   A mystery is different from a puzzle. It does not need to be solved to be interesting.  Silliness, though, will continue.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE

USA, 1948.

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The actors are great, which is a surprise because Bruce Bennett and Tim Holt had modest careers. Bruce Bennett went to Hollywood to earn money after being an Olympic athlete.   Because of his physicality and good looks, he was cast as a muscular Tarzan in a string of B movies. Tim Holt was nowhere near as physical but he did something similar in cheap Westerns. In The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre the two B-movie men are pitched against top grade Hollywood talent. Tim Holt is ordinary but convincing as a naïve young man. Bennett sought advice on his characterisation from director John Huston. Bennett was told that the character he played was more intelligent than the three prospectors. It worked. Bennett was believable as a man who told it straight and who was prepared to think it through. He was effective in a similar role in Mildred Pierce.

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Holt and Bennett coped and survived in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, which is just as well because Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston deliver unforgettable performances, possibly the best they ever did in Hollywood.  Barton McClain is also great as the slimy businessman who objects on principle to paying wages to his employees. Alfonso Bedoya plays the Mexican bandit, Gold Hat. He became famous for how he spat out the line, ‘I don’t have to show you any stinking badges’. But every time Bedoya appears in the frame he is a reminder of how The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre inspired the great Sam Peckinpah.  Part of the fun of watching The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is spotting the moments that Peckinpah borrowed for his Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch. These moments include the final conversation against a broken wall, the fight over the shoes of a dead man, the arrival of sinister but innocent Mexican villagers, the adoration of the American guests by the spiritual villagers, and Walter Huston stamping his feet as he, in rapid fire dialogue, expresses maniacal contempt for his colleagues.

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Although acclaimed by critics The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre was not a box office hit. There are no heroes in the film and no happy ending unless you happen to be a German left wing anarchist who by 1927 had had enough of modern capitalism.  B Traven was the name used by the author of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The identity of Traven is a mystery but we know he was German.  What may or may not have happened to Traven has inspired a couple of books.  John Huston may have been a talented director but he relished his celebrity and he often behaved like a scoundrel. For some years his daughter Angelica and the irresponsible and self-serving Jack Nicholson lived together. For a while Nicholson was useful as a father substitute. Traven was different. He walked away from fame and fortune and disappeared somewhere in Mexico. The rumour is that Traven ran a bar that was successful at deterring customers. His legend may have inspired Sam Peckinpah when he made Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.  In that film an expatriate American hero owns a run-down bar in Mexico.   The name of the hero was Benny. The Christian name of B Traven is unknown.   People speculated, and Peckinpah let them.

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The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is not without flaws. The plot is not coincidence laden but it feels a little neat. The arrival of James Cody at the camp of the three prospectors adds a lively scene to the narrative but it is no more than an addition and, if anything, it diminishes what distinguishes the characters of the three prospectors. The mental decline of Fred C Dobbs is too rapid to be believable. The deterioration, though, is not relentless. There are moments when Dobbs becomes sympathetic to his fellow prospectors and forgets his compulsion to triumph and have all the gold. These interruptions in the unravelling of Dobbs add some credibility to the events.

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Traven claimed that his novel was inspired by a German ballad. If this was the case, Rudyard Kipling must have had a knack for remembering German folk songs. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre both evokes and mimics Kipling. It is neither subtle nor original. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre just happens to be a fabulous movie. Huston was a fan of Kipling and the adventure stories of Victorian imperialists. B Traven provides the thrills of predecessors like Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle but, because of his sympathies for anarchism, he avoids racist right wing baggage.  When the old prospector Howard visits the Mexican village to care for a sick child, he is welcomed with spiritual warmth that is absent from his own Western society.  The gold is blown away by the wind. It will return to the mountain from where it came.  Howard the old prospector recognises this as a joke played by God.  Howard and Curtin sit down against a wall, think about what happened to Dobbs because of his desire for gold and settle for mere survival.  Nobody says so but the two men have found valid purpose, the treasure that too many of us ignore.   The scene and film may have religious significance.  Dobbs, Curtin and Howard meet in a town called Tampico. The Spanish word for neither is tampoco.   The Treasure Of Sierra Madre is an adventure that perhaps begins in Purgatory.

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The characterisation in the movie is solid. Howard is an independent and self-reliant eccentric, Curtin is the loyal companion and Fred C Dobbs is competitive and ambitious.   Dobbs dominates the movie. The opening scenes are devoted to Dobbs begging in the streets of Tampico. It helps us understand his need for wealth.  Dobbs wants vengeance against a world that has inflicted him with indignities. The prospect of fortune allows Dobbs to imagine what it will be like to assert his status over others.  The anger that was previously suppressed surfaces and twists his character.   Ambition, though, makes him vulnerable to fate, and he becomes paranoid. Dreams shaped by wealth not available to others have to be protected and require aggression and suspicion. It makes sense that the three prospectors are separated by age. Howard is old and has no need to worry about the behaviour of others. He can rely on an identity shaped by experience and memory. As the youngest of the three men, Curtin has not yet suffered the indignities of the middle-aged and weary Dobbs. The other characters are incidental but have memorable detail. Gold Hat is a little slow, friendly but ruthless.  Pat McCormick is the unprincipled businessman that prospers because he is shameless and values money more than people. He wears two hats. One is a Stetson, and the other a straw hat. It is clear that they help McCormick lie and perform, provide him with alternative identities. And James Cody is rational and honest but also mysterious. Howard and Curtin find a purpose they do not understand, and Cody leaves a legacy that will soon be shaped by another man, a stranger.

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American fans of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre are keen to admire the characterisation and make great claims about what it says about human nature. B Traven was, though, a left-wing anarchist. The movie follows the plot of the book and makes the same political points.   Greed, hierarchy, selfishness, inequality, and the exaggerated role wealth has in human affairs, are what create not just the tragedy of Fred C Dobbs but also the confusion that leads to the gold returning to the mountain where it belongs. What has happened to the gold has to be explained by an innocent child. Audiences may have yearned for a recognisable happy ending but there is final contentment. Howard will have a privileged existence as the medicine man in the Mexican village but he will also work to support the lives of the peasants. Curtin feels a responsibility to the widow of James Cody.  Both men understand the attraction of space and landscape and, because neither will no longer be diverted by the need for gold and wealth, they will spend the rest of their lives close to the land and appreciating serenity. This message is not unique to Traven but what made him unusual as a writer and man was his willingness to test his beliefs.  There are various theories but the real identity of Traven remains unknown.  Somewhere in Mexico, though, the legacy of a secretive man who settled for a quiet life amongst human beings he regarded as his equals will be remembered. Or so I like to think.  If not, we can always watch The Treasure Of Sierra Madre, a film that has a sympathetic character called Howard. This alone makes it an event.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.