Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Sir John Tenniel & Jack the Ripper

No, this post isn't about the bizarre theory that Lewis Carroll was responsible for the Whitechapel murders (though the idea is too funny not to mention later in this post). It covers cartoons on 'Jack the Ripper' by John Tenniel, who is best known now for his Alice illustrations, but who was famous at the time as a cartoonist for satyrical magazine Punch, or the London Charivari.

Jack the Ripper is probably the most famous serial killer, despite his relatively low body count; this is partly because he was one of the very first, partly because of the brutality of the killings, and partly because he was never caught.

The 1888 Whitechapel muders mingle with the fictional creations of the period: Victor Frankenstein had been harvesting organs for his infamous experiment fifty seven years before; Mr. Hyde was stalking the streets of London doing who knows what; Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were pioneering forensic science to solve murder cases; and Count Dracula was preparing to infiltrate the Empire in the bloodiest way possible.

The list of real-life suspects grows steadily longer every year. One of the favourites is Francis Tumblety, an American quack doctor whose criminal connections stretched to a possible involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (though he was cleared for that allegation). Tumblety fiercely disliked women, particularly 'fallen women', and owned a collection of wombs in jars - comparable to the murderer's passion for removing the wombs of his victims, amongst other organs.

But there have been many more theories, some bordering on the comic. Among the most outrageous claims is the theory that the murderer was a syphilis-crazed Prince Albert Victor. There have been other conspiracy theories involving the Royal Family and the Masons. But the craziest one is probably the above mentioned theory of Richard Wallace, who asserts that Lewis Carroll inserted anagrams of confessions in his writings. Needless to say, these theories are generally regarded as entertaining, but not taken seriously.

The cartoons below are by John Tenniel, who was probably Punch's best cartoonist. His illustrations were normally given a full page, sometimes even a double-page spread. The first reviews of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland focus as much on Tenniel's illustrations as Carrol's text. Other Tenniel Punch cartoons contain prototypes of Alice, the Queen of Hearts and various other characters from the two books (see Michael Hancher, Tenniel Illustrations to the 'Alice' Books, 1986).

Given the goriness and brutality of the murders, it is perhaps not surprising that Tenniel chooses to focus on the circumstances and cultural effect of the killings, rather than the killings themselves.

(By the way, Punch's alternate name of The London Charivari, refers to the French satyrical periodical for which Gustave Dore, J. J. Grandville and Honore Daumier all at some point drew.)

First is a Punch engraving from September 22, 1888, fourteen days after the murder of Annie Chapman, the second of the Ripper's five victims. At this point, the closest the murderer had to an identity was the name 'Leather Apron', who had apparently been threatening the Whitechapel prostitutes for a year. This name had entered public consciousness via a September 5th article in The Star.

The cartoon, Blind Man's Buff, mocks the police's methods of detection. The policeman shown is gagged, cutting off his sight, hearing and sense of smell. He blindly gropes about while various disreputable types mock and jeer. Note the neanderthal-like physiognomy of these characters; ever since the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, attempts had been made to profile criminals as devolved throwbacks, a perceived physical manifestation of their opposition to civilisation.

The cartoon is accompanied by a poem:

A strange mad game to play in such a place!
The monster City's maze, whose paths to trace
Might tax another Theseus, the resort
Of worse than Minotaurs, for blindfold sport
Would seem the most unfitting of all scenes;
What is it there such solemn fooling means?

Means? Ask purblind Municipal Muddledom
The true significance of the City Slum.
Ask, but expect no answer more exact
Than blundering palterers with truth and fact
Range in their pigeon-holes in order neat,
The awkward questionings of sense to meet,
And meeting, blandly baffle. Lurking crime
Haunts from of old these dens of darksome slime.
There, where well-armed authority fears to tread,
Murder and outrage rear audacious head,
Unscanned, untracked. As the swift-sliding snake
Slips to the covert of the swamp's foul brake,
Fearless of following where no foot may find
Firm resting, where the foetid fumes that blind,
The reeking mists that palsy, guard its lair;
So Crime sneaks to the Slum's seclusion. There
Revealing light, the foe of all things ill,
With no intrusive ray floods in to fill
Those hideous alleys, and those noisome nooks,
With health and safety. Flush with limpid brooks
The slime-fouled gutters of the Ghetto, drive
Phinlimmon's breeze through Labour's choking hive,
But let not light into the loathsome den.
 Where hags called women, ghouls in the guise of men
Live on death-dealing, feed a loathly life,
On the chance profits of the furtive knife.
The robber's mountain haunt, the outlaw's cave,
Guarded by rocks or sheltered by the wave
From feet intrusive, furnish no such lair
For desperate villany or dull despair,
As this obscene Alsatia of the Slums.
Town's carrion-hordes flock hither; hither comes
The haggard harpy of the pavement, she
The victim's victim, whose delirious glee
Makes mirth a crackling horror; hither slink
The waifs of passion and the wrecks of drink.
Multiform wretchedness in rags and grime,
Hopeless of good and ripe for every crime;
A seething mass of misery and of vice,
These grim but secret-guarding haunts entice.
Look at those walls; they reek with dirt and damp,
But in their shadows crouched the homeless tramp
May huddle undisturbed the black night through.
Those narrow winding courts - in thought - pursue.
No light there reaks upon the bludgeoned wife,
No flash of day arrests the lifted knife,
There shrieks arouse not, nor do groans affright.
These are but normal noises of the night
In this obscure Gehenna. Must it be
That the black slum shall furnish sanctuary
To all light-shunning creatures of the slime,
Vermin of vice, carnivora of crime?
Must it be here that Mammon finds its tilth,
And harvests gold from haunts of festering filth?
How long? The voice of sense seems stricken dumb,
What time the sordid Spectre of the Slum,
Ruthless red-handed Murder sways the scene,
Mocking of glance, and merciless of mien.
Mocking? Ah, yes! At Law the ghoul may laugh,
The sword is here as harmless as the staff
Of crippled age; its sleuthhounds are at fault,
Justice appears not only blind but halt.
It seems to play a merely blinkered gamer,
Blundering about without a settled aim,
Like boys at Blind-Man's Buff. A pretty sport
For Law's sworn guards in rascaldom's resort!
The bland official formula to-day
Seems borrowed from the tag of Nursery play,
"Turn around three times," upon no settled plan,
"Flounder and fumble, and "catch whom you can!"

Five days later, the famous 'Dear Boss' letter arrived at the Central News Agency, signed 'Jack', giving the killer his name in the media. The police would not release the letter, however, until 1st October.

The September 29th edition of Punch featured perhaps Tenniel's most famous Ripper cartoon, The Nemesis of Neglect. The killer, identity still unknown in reality, is a gruesome ghoul stalking the run-down streets of the East End. The phantom hovers over a ground littered with rubbish and broken bottles, while the top of a ladder peeking up at left hints at the multileveled, labyrinthine quality of these urban catacombs. Glass panes are broken; walls crumble; wooden doors are rotting away - the emphasis here is not so much on the incompetence of the police so much as the debauched and dystopian nature of society, from which such a spectre must inevitably rise. The media attention the Whitechapel murders attracted also drew attention to the level of prostitution in the area, a subject previously ignored.

Tenniel's skill as a draughtsman is evident here; he manages to create a very eerie, sinister atmosphere primarily through the use of lines and hatching. The semi-transparent density of the ghoul, who is framed against the receding darkness of the avenue in the background, emphasises the supernatural nature of the mystery surrounding the murders as perceived by the public.

As before, the cartoon was printed alongside a sizable text, beginning with a quote:

"Just as long as the dwellings of this race continue in their present condition, their whole surroundings a sort of warren of foul alleys garnished with the flaring lamps of the gin-shops, and offering to all sorts of lodgers, for all conceivable wicked purposes, every possible accomodation to further brutalise, we shall have still to go on - affecting astonishment that in such a state of things we have outbreaks, from time to time, of the horrors of the present day." - "S. G. O.," in Times of 18th September, in his Letter entitled, "At Last."

This is followed by another rhyming description of the scene:

There is no light along those winding ways
Other than lurid gleams like marsh-fires fleeting;
Thither the sunniest of summer days
Sends scarce one golden shaft of gladsome greeting.
June noonday has no power upon its gloom
More than the murky fog-flare of December;
A Stygian darkness seems its settled doom;
Life, like a flickering ember,
There smoulders dimly on in deathly wise,
Like sleep-dulled glitter in a serpent's eyes.

Yet as that sullen sinister cold gleam
At sight of prey to a fierce flame shall quicken,
So the dull life that lurks in this dread scene.
By the sharp goad of greed or hatred stricken,
Flares into hideous force and fierceness foul,
Swift as the snake to spring and strong to capture.
Here the sole joys are those of the man-ghoul.
Thirst-thrill and ravin-rapture.
Held DANTE's Circles such a dwelling-place?
Did primal sludge e'er harbour such a race?
It is not Hades, nor that world of slime
Where dragons tare and man-shaped monsters fought.
Civilisation's festering heart of crime
Is here, and here some loathly glimpse is caught
Of its barbaric beating, pulsing through
Fair limbs and flaunting garb wherewith 'tis hidden.
Mere human sewage? True, O Sage! Most true!
Society's kitchen-midden!
But hither crowd the ills which are our bane:
And thence in viler shape creep forth again.

Whence? Foulness filters here from honest homes
And thievish dens, town-rookery, rural village.
Vice to be nursed to violence hither comes,
Nurture unnatural, abhorrent tillage!
What sin soever amidst luxury springs,
Here amidst poverty finds full fruition.
There is no name for the unsexed foul things
Plunged to their last perdition
In this dark Malebolge, ours - which yet
We build, and populate, and then - forget!

It will not be forgotten; it will find
A voice, like the volcano, and will scatter
Such hideous wreck among us, deaf and blind,
As all our sheltering shams shall rend and shatter.
The den is dark, secluded, it may yield
To Belial, a haunt, to Mammon profit;
But we shall reap the tillage of that field
In harvest meet for Tophet.
Slum-farming knaves suck shameful wealth from sin,
But a dread Nemesis abides therein.

Dank roofs, dark entries, closely-clustered walls,
Murder-inviting nooks, death-reeking gutters,
A boding voice from your foul chaos calls,
When will men heed the warning that it utters?
There floats a phantom on the slum's foul air,
Shaping, to eyes which have the gift of seeing,
Into that spectre of that loathly lair.
Face it - for vain is fleeing!
Red-handed, ruthless, furtive, unerect,
'Tis murderous Crime - the Nemesis of Neglect!

It was in the wee hours of the very next morning that two more victims were discovered: Elizabeth Stride - whose murder may have been interrupted by the police - and Catherine Eddowes - a number of whose organs were removed, including a kidney supposedly enclosed in the second 'From Hell' letter of October 16.

Three days before this letter, Tenniel's final cartoon linked to the murders was released. Whitechapel 1888 is the only cartoon of the three to refer specifically to the site of the murders, though the allusions in the first two are evident. The subject of the cartoon is again the lack of effectiveness of the police. A policeman at left seems oblivious to the two members of the 'Criminal Class' - more devolved thugs with ape-like physiognomy - who lurk in the foreground. The policeman is unlikely to find many unseemly characters around the gaslight he patrols near.

The text accompanying this cartoon is considerably shorter than before:

"I have to observe that the Metropolitan Police have not large reserves doing nothing and ready to meet emergencies; but every man has his duty assigned to him, and I can only strengthen the Whitechapel district by drawing men from duty in other parts of the Metropolis." - Sir Charles Warren's Statement.
"There is one Policeman to every seven hundred persons." - Vide Recent Statistics

Sir Charles Warren, quoted above in the caption to the cartoon, eventually became fed up with all the criticism and resigned several days later, just before the body of Mary Jane Kelly - probably the Ripper's final victim - was found in a rather sorry state.

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