LONDON — If Sherlock Holmes was such a smart detective, why was he not put on the case of Jack the Ripper? It’s a reasonable question. After all, Sherlock made his first appearance in 1887 and the Ripper’s killing rampage took place between August and November 1888. With all other sleuths failing to catch the beast, why not call in the world’s greatest forensic mind?
Of course, you could protest that Sherlock did not really exist and the Ripper did. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the mind behind Sherlock, was real enough and he—like his creation—inhabited the feverish world of late Victorian London. He would have followed the series of eviscerating murders in the sulfurous alleys of East London as they were reported in the press.
This thought began to trouble me as I immersed myself in the truly Holmesian world created at the Museum of London, at a show called “Sherlock Holmes, The Man Who Never Lived and Who Will Never Die.” To be honest, the visit did not begin well. The entrance to the show is a wall lined with books that conceals a secret door. It took several attempts for me to find the door and gain admission—a performance regarded with some contempt by the people behind me.
Holmes addicts had arrived at the show from all over the world. Language was no barrier; just about every tongue on the planet was babbling away, caught up in the elaborate mystique of a cult. There were learned discussions about the domestic arrangements at 221b Baker Street, surely the oddest of bachelor pads, with its armory of weapons—various makes of revolver, walking sticks concealing swords, and a dopehead’s full paraphernalia of pipes (Holmes’s preferred trips were morphine and cocaine)—and wardrobe of tweed capes and deerstalker hats.
However, the most striking thing about the show is its evocation of a character that Conan Doyle described but did not invent and yet is indispensable to his yarns: London. Holmes inhabited a posh part of central London, Marylebone. Terraced townhouses had basements and attics large enough for live-in domestic staff—and also large enough to be divided into the kind of generously sized flats replete with a housekeeper that Conan Doyle allotted to Holmes and where he was attended by his sidekick, Dr. John Watson.
Baker Street was far enough north from the Thames to be clear of the worst of the foul odors and vapors of a river that had become a vast waste pipe for the first world city. With Britain at the peak of its imperial and industrial power, London was layered with the detritus of more than a century of commercial development, most of it concentrated around the docks of East London. Here was the other extreme of the polarized society in which Holmes dwelt, a maze of alleys, narrow streets, and waterfront dives—the habitat of the Ripper.
The Museum of London deploys its visual resources to recreate both worlds—the affluence of Baker Street and the squalor of East London. There are the illustrations that went with the Holmes stories, contemporary photographs, paintings, and some flickering footage from very early documentary film. Caught in these frames is a capital city of dense, manic energy, the streets gridlocked with hansom cabs and horse-drawn omnibuses.
Often present, enrobing many of the street scenes, is the indigenous special effect that all London writers enlisted for their darker tales. Here is Dickens, in Bleak House: “…smoke lowering down from chimney pots making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow flakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”
Or later, from Oscar Wilde: “Those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows.”
Holmes’s amanuensis, Dr. Watson, noted the contrasts of summer and winter as observed from 221b Baker Street: “It was a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of the houses across the road was painful to the eye. It was hard to believe that these were the same walls which loomed so gloomily through the fogs of winter.”
In August, 1889, Conan Doyle met Wilde for the first time at a dinner given at one of the most fashionable hotels of the time, the Langham, by J.M. Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. This dinner not only acquainted two mutually respectful writers, but Stoddart also commissioned a Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, from Conan Doyle that helped to create an insatiable demand that the author was powerless to halt. By 1893, when he was turning out a complete Holmes story every month for The Strand magazine, he tried to kill off Holmes in the famous combat with his nemesis, Moriarty, at the Reichenbach Falls but reincarnated him in 1902, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and ended up writing 56 Holmes short stories and four novels.
It’s hard to believe that Conan Doyle and Wilde did not discuss the most sensational murder case of their day, the outrageously savage killings perpetrated by the Ripper less than a year earlier. Ripper theories, fanned by journalists who make today’s hackers seem models of propriety, were fueling gossip from the lowest pubs to the most decorous salons, where there were rumors that the psychopath was a member of the royal family. And the Ripper industry was already born. Doing a roaring business in Whitechapel High Street, close by the Ripper’s chosen turf, there was a waxworks displaying grotesque models of the victims.
How would the mastermind of criminal investigation, the true precursor of today’s CSI shows, have approached the Ripper case?
I fancy he would have said it was not the murders themselves that were the riddle but why they stopped. The usually accepted number of victims is five, although two more murders are sometimes attributed to the Ripper, Mary Anne Nichols on August 3 and Mary Kelly on November 9.
Did they end because the beast had been sated? Did they end because in killing prostitutes he was making a point about the desperation and hopelessness of these women? At that time Whitechapel had at least 1,400 prostitutes and more than 80 brothels, but, the knifing of women was rare, with only 11 in the whole of England the previous year.
Did the Ripper quit because he feared that he was close to being caught? He wasn’t. The cops were as incompetent as they often appear to be in the Holmes stories. Later heads of Scotland Yard admitted that the Ripper should have been caught. Was he dead, by his own hand or others? Or—as some still believe—were the murders an accidental conjunction of separate killers and not of anyone called Jack?
Holmes’s mental powers were ideal for a case like this. He could read far more into a letter than its message. He would have given careful scrutiny, for example, to the note that arrived at the Central News Agency on September 27, addressed to “Dear Boss” and signed “Jack the Ripper,” the note that first sent the story viral.
Or, for sure, Holmes would have been eager to examine a letter received on October 16 containing what is believed to have been half a kidney of one of the victims. After all, Holmes could break a case simply on the basis of how a package was addressed, as he did in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, in which the package contained two severed ears. The address was printed “in rather straggling characters. Done with a broad pointed pen, probably a J, and with very inferior ink.”
Give the great sleuth a few clues like that, and presto! He’s on to the killer.
Conan Doyle’s apparent contempt for the forensic skills of Scotland Yard at the time is embodied in his invention, Inspector Lestrade—“wiry, dapper and ferret-like.” Ferret is a carefully chosen comparison, implying diligence but absolutely no imagination. Lestrade’s role is to seek Holmes’s help and then resent the efficacy of his method. Conan Doyle’s deployment of the dim-witted Lestrade was made in the wake of the Yard’s futile pursuit of the Ripper, and it’s almost like a disguised editorial on the failings of the police. And since it’s Conan Doyle’s imagination that brings credibility to Holmes’s laser-like powers of observation, we should wonder why the author didn’t take the tour of Ripper crime scenes himself and talk to the many (and conflicting) witnesses.
Had he done so, we might just have been spared the Groundhog Day sensation of reliving the Ripper case every year as a “breakthrough” theory proposes a new perpetrator. Patricia Cornwell’s own lavishly funded research turns up the artist Walter Sickert as the prime suspect, only to be followed by the Ripper-industry promoter Russell Edwards with his choice of the Polish barber Aaron Kosminski, both of them employing mitochondrial DNA and both adamant they have the right man. I fancy Holmes would have destroyed those theories with nothing more than his intuition.
If you do want to drink deep of the London of the Ripper and Holmes, go to Louis’ London Walks for handy pocket-sized guides on both. But since Holmes is an invention, along with his haunts and habitat, there really is no shred of authenticity to cling to, just a make-believe tour of pubs and tourist traps.
With the Ripper it’s different. Whitechapel and the rest of the Ripper topography retain the identifiable streets and alleys of the late 19th century and have historical merit that can help you rise above morbid CSI curiosity. Successive waves of immigrants have come and gone, from Huguenot silk weavers in the 17th century to Eastern European Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries to Indians and Bangladeshis now. Synagogues became mosques, the mosques are surrounded by some of the best Asian food in London.
For the most part, the fogs have gone. These days they are occasional meteorological irruptions, white river mists, not dense and toxic industrial pea-soupers. This makes the guide to the Jack the Ripper Walk seem rather dated. It warns: “We do not advise you to take this walk after dark.” These days the only danger to night walking in Spitalfields, a neighborhood including three Ripper murder scenes, is that you might find it hard to escape the carousing of bankers burning their bonuses in the glitzy clubs and restaurants.
It was on the fringe of Spitalfields, in Hanbury Street, that on September 8, 1888, a prostitute called Annie Chapman was literally torn apart by the Ripper’s knife and left in a backyard. The night before she had been seen leaving her house with a client and standing on a corner talking to him. Witnesses said he was “wearing a black coat and a deerstalker hat.”
Ahah! So that explains everything. Elementary, my dear Watson.