Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—Another Murderer in Victorian London

This post is about the historical basis for the murderer in my novel,
The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir.

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Someone took apart women in the most gruesome fashion in London in the late 1880s. Following that statement, many would say, “Yes, Jack the Ripper terrorized London in 1888,” yet I do not refer to the Ripper.

Between the years 1887 and 1889, headless, limbless torsos appeared in odd places in London. One turned up in a chamber within the excavation for the future home of Scotland Yard in the heart of Westminster, the seat of the British Government. Another was found under a railway viaduct. Several homeless people sleeping nearby were unaware of the horrid presence. Another washed up along the banks of the River Thames downstream from London. Body parts were found in the city or likewise washed up along the waterway. Few of the women were identified. One, possibly identified as Elizabeth Jackson, turned up along the Thames in at least ten pieces, often wrapped in cloth, tied with string.

Of course, as many of us would do today, the media of the time presumed that the killer known as Jack the Ripper had committed the crimes, but since insufficient similarities existed between the manner of dismemberment in the torso murders and the mutilations performed by the Whitechapel murderer, the police authorities in London of the 1880s did not believe the crimes were committed by the same person. They also did not believe that the remains were somehow the mislaid remnants of legitimate medical dissection of cadavers.

While the torso murders didn’t get the kind of press the Ripper killings got, they are to my mind just as  horrific, the mutilations similarly revolting, if different. The Ripper’s victims were left in plain sight on the streets, an affront to the sensibilities of any society. Identified and their names and histories given out through the media, they were made somewhat whole again, that personhood making the outrageous insult to their flesh, and the theft of their lives all the more horrible.

The unidentified random body parts of the torso killings were just that—parts, objects.  One can imagine that’s all they were to the perpetrator of the crimes. Life was cheap in Victorian London. A prostitute could be had for 4 cents, the same as the cost of a pint of ale or a glass of gin.

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“An Illusion of Safe Sex” copyright © 2003 Alan M. Clark

In an economic environment in which jobs were disappearing, many taken from human hands and backs and given to machines, countless people became unemployed. Employers had the upper hand. With a threat of termination, they could push any employee hard. In the unregulated, laissez-faire capitalist system that existed in London at the time, workers were frequently exposed to working conditions that destroyed their health through exposure to dangerous chemicals, mechanical equipment, toxic work environments, or sheer exhaustion from severe hardship. If an employee failed, or worse, fell dead from exhaustion, he or she could easily be replaced, perhaps more like business equipment or raw materials than human beings.

The Ripper’s victims were all unemployed middle-aged women, worn out drunkards who survived on odd jobs, begging, and casual prostitution. Likely, so were the victims in the torso murders.

Yes, life in Victorian London was cheap, and at least two murderous bastards took advantage of the over-abundant commodity wandering the streets.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon