Sir Alfred Hitchcock

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

33 INQUEST OF A RIPPER VICTIM

 

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The paranoia of Sir Alfred Hitchcock meant he understood the accusatory nature of inquests and how the death of anyone prods guilt in the survivors. In Rebecca there are anxious and unsettling moments at an inquest but the difficult questions from the Cornish coroner are swatted away by upper class confidence and disdain. The Americans do it differently. Because innocent Americans are shocked by capricious guilt, Scottie Ferguson, the confused policeman in Vertigo, is obliged to suffer and endure baffled scrutiny from his friends. His deceitful friend Gavin Elster pretends to sympathise. ‘That was rough, Scottie,’ says Elster. Scottie never really recovers, and Elster triumphs somewhere in Europe. Only the treacherous are able to sidestep guilt.

The inquest of Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes began on the 4th of October 1888, four days after she was murdered in Mitre Square. S F Langham was the coroner. The Coroner’s Court was in Golden Lane. S F Langham was an MP and a neighbour of a very young Boris Karloff. Some ratepayers had complained about the £13,000 it cost to build the Court but it was also described as ‘the best building of its kind in London’. Golden Lane was where the City of London attended its dead. It had a mortuary, a post mortem room, a disinfecting chamber and an ambulance station.

 

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There are over a 100 press cuttings on the inquest of Catherine Eddowes. The Evening News was responsible for nine of those reports.   The Times recalled the proceedings in depth and in grisly detail. Their reports were confined to page four of the newspaper. The inquest was reported outside Britain and in American and European newspapers. The last newspaper reference to the Eddowes inquest that can be regarded as contemporary appeared in the Trenton Times in 1982. At the time of her death Catherine Eddowes was believed to be the seventh victim of the Ripper.

Eddowes has acquired celebrity status but the two days devoted by Coroner S F Langham to examining the circumstances of her death was not exceptional. Emma Smith, who was murdered six months earlier in April, was allocated one day. The inquest for Polly Nichols, murdered in August, lasted for three days. Mary Jane Kelly, whose murder was the most graphic of all, had an inquest that was also sorted within a single day. In view of what had happened to Kelly this was a blessing.  After the first day of the Eddowes inquest the Court adjourned for a week. The length of the adjournment was typical. The inquest of Martha Tabram also lasted for two days but was separated by an adjournment of two weeks. Martha Tabram may or may not have been a Ripper victim. She was murdered in August 1888.

 

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The purpose of an inquest is to establish the identity of the deceased, record how, when and where the subject of the inquest died and to provide the necessary details for the death to be registered. This suggests that the summary by the coroner would include specific and numbered judgements that refer back to the purpose of the inquest. But, as in the movies of Hitchcock, coroners can be tempted by the theatrical. They are not always methodical. In summing up the Eddowes inquest, Coroner Langham observed that the evidence ‘had been of the most exhaustive character’. Eddowes is not mentioned by name in the summary of her own inquest. Langham refers to her death as ‘the matter’ and to Eddowes as ‘the victim’. He decides that it will ‘be far better now to leave the matter in the hands of the police’. After various diversions some regard was given by Langham to the purpose of the inquest. He recorded a verdict of wilful murder. Thanks were given to the jury and the police solicitor Henry Homewood Crawford. Juries are required at inquests when the cause of death is unknown, violent or ‘unnatural’. When a jury is in attendance, its members will decide the cause of death.   Less formal than a criminal court a jury representative can present questions to witnesses.

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The police solicitor Crawford was active throughout the inquest. He questioned witnesses, pointed out discrepancies and added extra information that was available to him. Despite being the police solicitor, Crawford challenged PC Alfred Long about his discovery of the graffiti in Goulston Street. He queried both how the sentence was structured and even suggested that there was confusion about the spelling of the crucial word Jews and that it might have been spelt Juewes. If there was a Freemason conspiracy by Warren and others against revealing the truth, either no one told Crawford or he ignored them.

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Written evidence from seven witnesses was submitted to the inquest. Apart from Eliza Gold, the sister of Catherine Eddowes, all the witnesses signed their names to their statements. Eliza signed her statement with an X.  Three witnesses knew Eddowes or John Kelly her partner. The others who submitted written statements included two policemen, a lodging house manager and the surveyor who drew a map of the crime scene.   Sixteen witness statements were heard at the actual inquest.   The mixed bunch consisted of seven policemen, two doctors, a fellow of the Chemical Society, a public analyst, a lamp back packer, a watchman, a casekeeper, a commercial traveller and a butcher. One of the policemen, Detective Halse, revealed that plain-clothes detectives were patrolling the streets on the night of the murder.   The ambition had been to prevent the murders of Whitechapel occurring in the neighbouring City District.  John Kelly, the partner of Eddowes, was a possible suspect but witnesses and the court established he was innocent.   The night Eddowes was murdered, Kelly was seen asleep in a common lodging house. Three of the policemen who gave evidence described the earlier arrest of Eddowes for being drunk and disorderly. She was released from the Bishopsgate Police Station forty-five minutes before she was murdered.

Included in the evidence submitted to the inquest was a list of the possessions of Catherine Eddowes. What she owned she carried on her person. The items reveal someone who at times was homeless or at least lived some of her life on the open road.   Not long before her death Eddowes and John Kelly had returned to London from hop picking in Kent. Included in her possessions were clay pipes, sugar, soap, flannel, knife, spoon, comb, pins, needles, a tin box containing tea, a spoon and various rags. In his statement Inspector Collard mentioned a mustard tin containing two pawn tickets. There was no reference to a mustard tin in the list of possessions that was documented. Instead the list included a tin matchbox. This item has acquired subsequent significance because of its supposed relevance to the theories that identify brothers James and Michael Maybrick as potential Ripper suspects.

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The most graphic evidence heard in court was given by Dr Frederick Gordon Brown. Despite the unsavoury and intimate details of the mutilations the evidence was not censored by Langham the coroner. The same details are recorded in full in the report that is published in The Times newspaper. This did not happen in the inquest of Mary Jane Kelly where Coroner Dr McDonald asserted that the physical descriptions were not suitable for the ears of the public.   Dr McDonald was also keen to complete the inquest within a single day.  Amidst the details of the slaughter provided by Dr Brown at the Eddowes inquest he revealed that physical death was determined by a haemorrhage from the left common carotid artery.   Brown also gave his opinion on the number of assassins, there was just the one, the degree of anatomical skill possessed by the murderer, ‘a great degree’, and how long it took for the victim to die, her death was immediate. The absence of poison in the corpse of Eddowes was confirmed by the Public Analyst, William Sedgwick Saunders.  Witness Joseph Lawende described how before her death he saw Eddowes talking to a man in Mitre Square.

At the funeral of Catherine Eddowes the hearse was pulled by two black horses that wore full black plumes. The funeral procession was well attended but the crowds were not invited inside the church. Her partner john Kelly and her sister Eliza were present at the graveside. Catherine Eddowes was buried on the 8th of October and three days before the second day of her inquest. The grave was unmarked until 1996 when a plaque was added to the graves of Catherine Eddowes and another Ripper victim Polly Nichols. The two women are buried within thirty feet of each other. The plaques are made of bronze, and both names are misspelt. Eddowes is spelt Eddows, and Nichols is spelt Nicholls. More people have seen the terrible and uncensored photograph of the naked and mutilated corpse of Catherine Eddowes than the bronze plaque.

 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

HAPPY DEATH DAY

USA, 2017

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The title is not as smart as the people who made the movie but the word happy is important.  Happy Death Day is feel good horror.   The movie borrows from the light but entertaining comedy Groundhog Day, which is referenced in the final scene inside the coffee shop.   It is not the only cinematic reference in the film. The reverse tracking shot up the staircase that first appeared in the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo is repeated in a cute almost sentimental suicide scene. There are also references to post-modern horror movies like Scream and Halloween. Films that paid homage to earlier movies are now themselves objects of deification. Talk about going round in circles.

Happy Death Day may depend on Groundhog Day for its basic theme and ideas but it is an okay film. It is not, though, much more than that. Utilising the idea of the self-recycling day so that the heroine is repeatedly slashed to death is bold and clever, a concept that any horror writer would envy. The execution of the idea is also accomplished.  Happy Death Day was made by Blumhouse Productions. So far the company has produced half a dozen films. None are weak although a couple are routine.  The Gift is not a bad idea for a thriller but the final result is a little flat. Sinister is well made and has strong performances but is unexceptional. Oscar winners Whiplash and Get Out are not to be missed movies. The films from Blumhouse Productions have made enough money to keep the Company in business for a lifetime.    Happy Death Day cost $4.6m to make and so far has earned $122m. The business model for the company is to produce independent films but then sell them to the big studios for distribution.   This can be called having your cake and eating it.  It is how smart people sometimes think, and the people at Blumhouse Productions are very smart.   If they are undone, and if Happy Death Day has weaknesses, it is not because of stupidity.

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Jason Blum has his full name on the film as producer, and his surname features in the title of the production company.   Blum learnt how Hollywood operates working for Harvey Weinstein.   He would have needed pragmatism or something to survive. Pragmatism is not as self-effacing as the pragmatists suggest.  Often it nurtures wilful determination. If Happy Death Day had been pitched as an offbeat horror movie for art cinemas, it would have less ambition. The writer would have settled for exposing how lives are defined by predictability and routine. The changing but same scenes would have revealed the way we unwittingly shape what is around us and how our decisions and development influence other lives more than we imagine.  Those elements exist in Happy Death Day but, because the producers want maximum audience appeal, we also have a feminist message wrapped inside sentimental and conventional concerns that are anything but feminist.

Tree the heroine escapes death and learns how to be polite to her father and fall in love with a young man who is as cute and as dull as a young Tom Hanks. Tree has scope for moral progress, being slashed to death every night is bound to change a person, but her rapid moral transformation that covers all bases will make many wary and unsympathetic.   And yes the name Tree is intended to have significance.

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After preview screenings left audiences feeling something other than satisfied the final scenes of Happy Death Day were changed and that had implications for the rest of the film. There are holes in the plot of Happy Death Day but the repetitive day and its variations make it feel as if the holes are being filled in after the event. They are not. It just feels that way.  Tree assumes that the days will repeat themselves without a conclusion. Later she asks the question that has already occurred to the audience, whether there might be a day when she really does die. In one scene the boyfriend of Tree suggests how she can use the repeating days to discover the identity of the person who has slashed her to death. This scene is way too premature in the plot but on subsequent days it is ignored by Tree and has no consequence, so its slipshod heavy handedness is subsequently distilled. There are also loose ends like the issue of what happens to the other victims when days are repeated. Jason Blum has a track record that proves he is smart. Maybe, though, he thinks the rest of us are stupid. The climax has two twists, and in a film that is obliged to vary and repeat a single event the denouement needs to be simple and neat and not add more chaos.

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Happy Death Day was directed by Christopher Landon who is the son of the Little Joe who left the big house of Bonanza to live in a little one on the prairie.   Christopher Landon has talked about being gay and how it affected his family. There is a brief reference to coming out in Happy Death Day. As the reincarnated and reformed Tree conquers all, she persuades an ex-boyfriend to admit to his sexuality. The scene is glib but is not alone. The reconciliation with Dad not only provides healthy competition but also adds to an overburdened plot.   Happy Death Day may or may not have a gay context. The repetitive day that requires a false performance and ends in disappointment is an idea that suggests the experience of suppressed sexuality. Happy Death Day begins with the suspicion of what was probably unsatisfactory sex, not remembered and best forgotten. And in a sense Tree does eventually come out to reveal her authentic self. It helps the film that the character is female, and the absence of a male hero is evidence of the progress that has been made since The Graduate appeared in the late 60s. Both films, though, are lined with treacle.  Happy Death Day would have been improved and made more sense if Tree had been gay.   That, though, would have meant commercial underachievement, and Jason Blum is too smart for that.

Happy Death Day, like other ‘slasher’ horror movies, requires a resolute woman but any notion of female emancipation is undermined by the romantic ending and the contribution of the Tom Hanks lookalike.  Happy Death Day is smart but heartless. Instead, we are given slippery and calculating sentiment. The movie is weighed down by astute commercial ambition and a determination to embrace a wide audience. It lacks the clarity and the genuine grievance that informed Get Out.  In its favour there is the energetic performance of Jessica Rothe who is believable as both good and bad girl. Despite being almost thirty years old she looks like an adolescent student and it is encouraging that her boyfriend is played by an actor who is seven years younger.

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Happy Death Day, for all its superior compromises, is worth an hour and thirty-six minutes of the time of anyone. The defiance too often becomes a fashionable pose but the film has the charm and energy of TV hits Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I-Zombie. The movie is on the right side of tolerance and a reminder that we are too inclined to make decisions about who and what other people should be. Not only does this long-standing and regrettable inclination have unfortunate consequences for those we oppress it does not help us to make the right decisions about who and what we should be ourselves. Many go to their graves without a clue as to how their identity has been constructed, what is authentic and what is artificial.   In Britain right now we have a political leader whose identity was shaped by a narrow world and excess ambition.   Who or what she may be is for Theresa May to ponder. We are neither obliged to like the woman nor vote for her. Theresa May, though, has lost something in the construction of her identity. Otherwise she would not be able to tell conscience free lies in such a measured and confident accent or have needed to make the unforgettable hurried retreat from the victims of Grenfell Tower.   Her latest untruth concerns the dates documents of British citizens were destroyed, when the identities of some British people were redefined by politicians and opportunistic bureaucrats.

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When she was Home Secretary, Theresa May was keen to create what she called a ‘hostile environment for immigrants’. Few of us thought that would include those who had been welcomed to the UK over 50 years ago to ease the problems of an economy that had labour shortages. As Home Secretary, Theresa May was determined to not just define the numbers of the British population but to insist on who would qualify as pedigree stock.  Britons live in a country where the homes of people are invaded so those without identification papers can overnight be separated from their families and dumped into detention centres. For some time this has applied to people we would expect to be accepted as contributors to our society.  Now we know it was even happening to long-standing British citizens. Because of a rush to prejudice and persecution, the British Government has forced some British citizens to live in countries of which they have no knowledge.  It has even prepared advice on how these British citizens can adapt to the local population and pretend to be something other than, well, British.  Meanwhile the Government and the press celebrate the colour of what is an increasingly dubious British passport. Welcome to the 2017 version of what we call the United Kingdom.

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.