“Miller’s Court,” a Short Animated Film by Alan M. Clark

I created the animated film “Miller’s Court” from illustrations I’ve done for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series of novels about the lives of the women JTR murdered.

Here are some of the illustrations I put into motion:

“Miller’s Court” copyright © 2016 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil, digitally colorized.

 

Study for “Of Thimble and Threat” copyright © 2012 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil.

“The Double Event” copyright © 2015 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil, digitally colorized.

Detail from “In the Dark, In the Night” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Acrylic on board.



At present, there are four novels in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series”

A Brutal Chill in AugustWord Horde.

Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man — IFD Publishing

Say Anything but Your Prayers — IFD Publishing

Of Thimble and Threat — IFD Publishing

The fifth and final novel in the series will be released in 2018.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Breathing Life into the JTR Victims

Writing the Jack the Ripper Victims Series, I’ve tried to give readers some sense of what the murderer took from the world. As part of that effort, I’ve manipulated mortuary photos to breathe a little life back into the women he killed.
Fascination over who committed the heinous deeds of the Autumn of Terror will always overshadow any interest in the lives of his victims, rather ordinary as they were in their time. Yet without them, I suggest that the murderer has little of value to offer us, perhaps even less than what the women had to offer. They suffered privation and degradation, especially late in their lives, but in their time, they no doubt also experienced love and good cheer with family and friends, not much different from what human beings have always known.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Link to the Jack the Ripper Victims Series on Amazon.com

 

Chapter 1 of APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Frontispiece for APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark

Chapter 1

Rivals

Saturday, September 1, 1888

“You pay for Eliza’s bed too,” Annie said to Eddie, careful not to sound angry.

They sat together in the early evening at the Britannia Public House, known locally as the Ringers.

He gazed across the stained and worn table at her, expressionless, his eyes cold and his mouth, hidden beneath his great mustache, offering no clue as to his feelings. Something about his look, a certain darkness around the eyes, echoed the frightful visage of Mr. Stewart, the cat’s meat man Annie had feared when she’d been little. Whenever Annie had heard Mr. Stewart’s song or seen him selling his tainted meat to pet owners about her childhood neighborhood, she’d fled and hidden from him.

What a pitiless master Eddie has become, Annie thought. Too bad I can’t say what I think of him.

The day before, Francis Booth had told her of Eddie’s two-timing with Eliza Cooper, and Annie had been trying to think of a way to talk to him about his deception.

Both Annie and Eliza lived at Crossingham’s Lodging House in Dorset Street. Although an illegal practice, the lodging house deputy, Timothy Donovan, allowed Eddie to sleep with women on the premises. No doubt, whatever arrangement the two men had involved money.

Eddie was a brick layer’s mate and pensioner with a curious surplus of funds. He currently had Annie over a barrel. She couldn’t afford a room of her own without help. As he had done for the past few months, he’d paid half her lodging fee for the week at Crossingham’s in exchange for sexual favors. Annie’s room was held as long as she paid the rest, four pence, due each night. Failing to pay, she’d lose a night on the back end. If she missed paying three nights in a row, she’d lose the room.

Likely, he had the same arrangement with Eliza because, apparently, he spent other nights with her. He had been able to get away with his cheating because the women lodged in rooms on different floors, Annie in 29 on the second floor, and Eliza in 36 on the third floor.

Number 29 was small and drafty. The loose glass in the rotten window sash rattled when anyone mounted the lodging house stairs, and the floor creaked loudly beneath one’s tread. The only heat available came through the open fanlight above the locked door to the adjoining room, number 28, which held the coal grate. Because the fanlight remained open, occupants in each room could hear what went on in the other.

On the good side, number 29 had a bed large enough for two. On the nights Eddie didn’t spend with her, she had the straw mattress all to herself—quite a luxury.

At present, she had no other prospects for lodging without going to a doss house and sleeping with strangers.

With his silence, Eddie clearly indicated he didn’t want to discuss the matter. In the midst of the busy pub, the hubbub of the patrons—the murmur of conversation, the laughter, the periodic shouting, the occasional insults hurled, both playful and serious—allowed him to turn away easily and ignore her as if he hadn’t heard. To repeat herself would seem like harping.

“Drink your stout and I’ll buy you another,” Eddie said seductively.

Annie struggled to finish her drink without appearing to do so in a hurry. The stout felt warm and comfortable in her belly.

She picked up the copy of the Evening News Eddie had discarded on the table. In it, she found an article about the murder that had taken place two nights earlier. The story had been all over the streets since yesterday. A woman named Nichols had been brutally assaulted and murdered, her body left on the street less than a mile away.

“Did you read about the murder in Buck’s-Row?” Annie asked Eddie. “Says her throat were cut, her bowel ripped open.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m certain they’ve made it out to be much worse than it was.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Another whore went against her minder.”

Annie could easily believe that the newspapers, always in heavy competition with one another, exaggerated to make their stories more sensational and improve sales. What she’d heard on the street about the murder, coming through the rumor mill, was much the same. She set aside the paper.

“Although I paid on your room,” Eddie said, “by chance, I may be gone much of the week. If so, you will give me extra satisfaction next week.”

I hope you are gone this week, she thought, disgusted that he brought up their transaction in a public place. Becoming angry would do her no good. She tried to look relaxed, even as Eliza Cooper and Harry the Hawker came into the pub and approached the table.

“Sit,” Eddie said, gesturing to empty seats, “and I’ll buy you a drink.”

The women merely nodded to one another.

“Dark Annie,” Harry the Hawker said in greeting. He called her that, as many in the neighborhood did, because her dark hair helped distinguish her from Annie Platt, a woman with fair hair who also stayed at Crossingham’s from time to time. Harry wore a brightly colored, green and coral-colored neckerchief, a ratty old maroon doublet, and a brown tricorn hat. His beard had grown exceedingly long and was held in an elaborate braid. “Anything to stand out in a crowd,” he’d said to Annie one day. “That is the way to make a sale in a crowded market.”

Eliza, a book seller, set down a heavy sack before taking her seat. She had a look of resentment about her as she looked at Annie. Possibly Francis had told Eliza about Eddie’s two timing. Then again, she could be angry simply because Annie hadn’t returned the soap she’d borrowed that morning.

Annie tried to relax and quiet her own resentment toward the woman while Eddie fetched drinks for everyone.

“Odd weather,” Harry said. “Got cold early. Were a brutal chill in August too. Hard on my knees.”

“Brutal, is it?”Eliza asked, chuckling. “Getting old, Harry?”

Harry merely huffed at her.

Annie could not determine Eliza’s age. Her body seemed younger, more powerful than Annie’s, but her round face had a weathered look. Her dark, curly hair had little gray.

Eddie returned, placed drinks before his guests and sat. He set a coin on the table, perhaps absentmindedly. Annie recognized the silver disk as a florin.

Eliza bent as if reaching for her sack, placing her right hand on the table for support, right atop the two shilling coin. When she straightened, holding a book, and lifted her hand, Annie saw that the two-shilling piece had become a penny.

“I’ve a new book to sell,” Eliza said, holding up the volume, “Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille, what come all the way from New York City.”

Seeing the theft, Annie thought she had an opportunity to turn Eddie against Eliza and have him all to herself.

Annie interrupted the woman’s sales pitch, addressing Eddie. “She took your florin.”

Eliza turned hateful eyes on her, as Eddie looked to the tabletop. He then looked at Eliza.

“Your sleeve might’ve thrown the coin to the floor,” she said, her eyes wide, “so I moved it.”

“You put a penny in its place,” Annie said with disgust.

Eliza glared again, rose up, and swung a fist from across the table. The blow connected with the right side of Annie’s face and bowled her over backwards out of her seat.

Harry the Hawker grabbed Eliza’s shoulders and pulled her back. Nearby patrons of the pub paused to turned and watch the rough goings-on. Eliza got free, picked up her sack, and left the pub.

The slight lull in movement and sound within the establishment ended as Annie got up, righted her chair, and sat. She stared back at curious onlookers until most became uncomfortable and looked away.

She glanced at Eddie, hoping to see some evidence that he was displeased with Eliza. Instead, he gave Annie a stern look. He and Harry drank their stout, and said nothing about what had happened.

Exploring the tenderness around her right eye with her fingers, she winced in pain. The blow would leave a bruise.

Annie wanted to condemn Eliza’s actions further, but couldn’t afford to get on Eddie’s bad side. Although ashamed of her opportunism, she couldn’t help thinking bitterly, That were an easy two shillings for Eliza.

I must find a way to be done with Eddie. Once this week is past, I’ll work harder to fully earn my nethers, so I don’t depend on him.

 

(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is available from online booksellers)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Chapter 6—Cat’s Meat

(Excerpt from the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, by Alan M. Clark)

“The Cat’s Meat Man” copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark

Around age twelve, Annie cut her right hand while helping her mother slice bread for an evening meal. Over the ensuing muggy summer days, the wound became red and hot. The hand swelled and the wound began to suppurate.

Early evening of one of those days, when their room above the cobbler shop had grown unbearably stuffy, she lay miserable and wet from sweat in bed, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in her right hand, and an increasing need to get up and use the chamber pot.

“You must get better so we can play Old Maid,” Emily seemed to say to the doll cradled in her lap, though clearly she meant the words for Annie. The two sisters didn’t get along most of the time, possibly because Emily knew Dadda looked upon Annie as his favorite. Still, she sat in a chair beside the bed and held Annie’s left hand. “I’m no good alone, and Mum’s too busy to play.”

Their father came clomping up the stairs. Annie heard him hop over the two rotten treads beneath the roof leak and the room shook a bit. She ceased to moan and writhe for fear of disappointing him. Mum, preparing supper, greeted Dadda, then he moved to the bed to have a look at Annie. Over top the odors of old leather and shoe black, he smelled most strongly of drink.

“If it worsens,” he said, turning toward Mum, “she’ll lose the hand.”

“No, Dadda!” Annie cried as he turned back to her.

Emily made a face and climbed down from the chair. She dropped the doll as she backed away toward Mum.

Hot tears poured from Annie’s eyes. She shifted uncomfortably in the bed and the rough straw inside the mattress bit into her painfully. Her bladder let go and she urinated there in the bed. He would discover the urine later, but she could not worry about that yet.

“Should they take your hand,” Dadda said, “they’ll give it to the cat’s meat man. You don’t want that, do you?”

Emily buried her face in her mother’s skirts.

“He’s teasing you,” Mum said. “Don’t believe your father.”

Busy, her defense of her daughter was weak and did not prevent the girl’s imagination from providing further torment. Annie saw the cat’s meat man, Mr Stewart, in his broad, brightly colored neckerchief, selling her severed fingers, dyed green and stabbed onto wooden skewers, to Mrs. Salter, who lived in the building next door. The woman kept a dog and a cat, and bought meat regularly from Mr. Stewart to feed her animals.

Thinking that one hand might satisfy the takers as well as the other, Annie frantically tried to pull herself together enough to say, “Tell them to take the other one, Dadda. It doesn’t work as well.” Sobs came out instead, drowning in the salty fluids of her mouth and nose.

“Cease your blubbering, girl,” Dadda said. “I’m trying to make you fight for that hand. We would not give it to the cat’s meat man.” Then he smiled with mischief. “Yet if you don’t fight to keep it, he may come in the night for it all the same. I’ll leave the padlock off the door to make it easier.”

“You are a drunken lout, George Smith,” Mum said, “terrorizing your own young the way you do.” She threw a wooden spoon. The implement smacked into Dadda’s head with a loud knock and bounced off. Unfazed, his mischievous smile remained.

Too late, Mum moved to settle Annie’s fears and calm her.

Although the wound healed and she kept her hand, afterward she knew she wasn’t up to the hardships life would throw at her. As she grew, Annie found her squeamish and fearful response to the world an increasing source of distress. She would have to become someone else if she wanted to survive.

The cat’s meat man seemed to follow her around and pop up in her imagination when Annie felt vulnerable.

(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, written by Alan M. Clark, is part of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series.)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Author’s Note from APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

(This is the author’s note from the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man a novel of Annie Chapman, the second Victim of Jack the Ripper.)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Author’s Note—Historical Terror: Horror that Happened

In September1888, after the brutal murders of Martha Tabram and Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols in August, how did Annie Chapman reasonably persuade herself to walk the streets of London’s East End looking for a stranger to pay her for sex? Seeking an answer to that question was in part my purpose in writing Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man.

The novel is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Annie Chapman, a woman believed to be the second victim of Jack the Ripper. I made an effort to stick to what is known about her, yet for purposes of storytelling, I did not adhere strictly to her history, in part because much of her life is obscured by the relative anonymity she had in her time. I have assigned to my main character emotional characteristics and reactions that seem possible and consistent with her life and circumstances.

To be clear, the novel is not about Jack the Ripper. The Jack the Ripper Victims series, of which Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is the fourth book, is not about the killer. Instead, each of its novels explores the life of a different victim. The books in the series can be read in any order, as each is a stand-alone account, their timelines overlapping.

“Ghost of Whitechapel” copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustration from APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

For me, history is stories, perhaps more fact-based than fiction, but stories nevertheless. Good tales are driven by emotion. Following the emotional motivations of characters is compelling for me, as I think is true for most people. When the motivations are a mystery, such as those surrounding a horrible crime, I want to make sense of them. I want order in my world, and with horrible crimes, the acts by disturbed individuals and sometimes their victims hang out there in time, niggling for answers. Part of the puzzle that wants answering is context. How could that person do such a thing? What made their actions seem reasonable to them? Answers lie within the person’s time and circumstances, the world as he or she knew it and how that individual in particular responded to the comforts and stresses within interpersonal relationships and environment.

History, sufficiently remote, but somewhat familiar, like the Victorian era, makes for interesting story context for me because I know something of that world. Remnants of that time still exist today, and I have communicated with family members who grew up close enough in time to the period that they knew something of the constraints and opportunities of life then. That era seems slightly alien and a little exotic. I also find I have a borrowed nostalgia for simpler times in which the people seemed to have had a naive innocence. Of course, that is a product of my complacency.

We’re basically the same creatures we’ve been for thousands of years, with all the same emotions. What stimulates those emotions varies for all of us, yet we’re good at interpreting and understanding others’ moods within the context of their experiences.

When stories of times past hold situations sufficiently developed that the complexity of human emotion is revealed, that supposed innocence of a “simpler time” vanishes. Suddenly, understanding the historical and emotional context, the characters are no longer quaint and simple. I am right there with them, having some understanding of their motivations.

Through the research and writing of historical fiction novels, I must use my imagination to project myself into another place and time. In the midst of the effort, I feel like I’m engaged in time-travel. My wife often asks about that far off look in my eyes when I’m in the middle of a several-months-long project involving historical fiction. We might be at the grocery store or the post office at the time. Little does she know that I’m not actually standing next to her in those moments.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is the 4th novel in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series by Alan M. Clark.  Each novel in the series is a standalone story.

Mysteries of Elizabeth Stride

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In researching the life of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of Jack the Ripper, for my novel, Say Anything But Your Prayers, I discovered several fun mysteries beyond the most obvious one concerning the identity of her murderer. In the process of writing a fictionalized account of her life, I had to make sense of the mysteries, and that meant coming up with reasonable story elements to stand in for missing information. One of the most interesting mysteries involves a misidentification of her body while it was at the mortuary. I will get to that shortly. First a couple of smaller mysteries.

On the surface, Elizabeth and her husband, John Stride, seemed to have had good opportunities. They opened a coffee shop in London in 1870. Although the shop was moved to two other locations within the city over time, they ran it until 1875 when their ownership of the business was sold. John Stride was a carpenter during a time when London was growing in leaps and bounds. Despite these endeavors, in the end, the couple was impoverished and both spent time in the workhouse.

Concerning the coffee shop—the Strides could have been terrible at business. In researching the possibilities, I discovered another likely explanation: The Ceylon coffee crop, which was the main source for the British Empire, was all but destroyed by a fungus known as coffee rust in the early 1870s. As a result of the damage to the crop, the price of coffee might have become too high.

Concerning John’s carpentry—yes, London was growing by leaps and bounds, but the industrial revolution had eliminated so many jobs throughout the countryside and the unemployed flooded into the city to find work. Competition for jobs was fierce. Any stain on a worker’s reputation might leave him out in the cold, and that could include not making the required “contributions” to organizations that organized carpentry work and workers. Victorian London was a challenging environment in which to live and thrive. The possible reasons for a lack of success for John Stride’s carpentry are endless. I chose one that made sense within the context of the tale I was telling and helped further the plot.

Two days after Elizabeth Stride’s death, on Tuesday, October 2, during the inquest into her murder, a woman named Mary Malcolm testified that she’d seen the body at mortuary twice and was certain it was that of her sister, Elizabeth Watts. She said that she met with her sister each Saturday on a street corner to give her financial assistance. She’d been meeting her for that purpose for at least three years, yet on the previous Saturday, her sister didn’t show up. Mrs. Malcolm recounted a strange experience she’d had that night. “I was in bed, and about twenty minutes past one on Sunday morning, I felt a pressure on my breast and heard three distinct kisses. It was that which made me afterwards suspect that the woman who had been murdered was my sister.” This occurrence, coincides approximately with the hour of Stride’s death.

Under questioning by the coroner, Detective-Inspector Ried, and the Foreman of the inquest, Mrs. Malcolms said of her sister, Elizabeth Watts, that she’d once had a policeman as a lover, that she’d lived with a man who kept a coffee shop in Poplar, that she’d gone by the nickname Long Liz, that she was a drunkard who had been arrested more than once for public drunkenness, and that she’d gotten released from jail on one occasion by saying that she was subject to epileptic seizures. All six of these descriptions seemed to also hold true for Elizabeth Stride.

Mrs. Malcolm said that in part she could recognize her sister’s body because the right leg had a small black mark. “It was from the bite of an adder. One day, when children, we were rolling down a hill together, and we came across an adder. The thing bit me first and my sister afterwards. I have still the mark of the bite on my left hand.”

The Coroner had already received information from other borders at the common lodging where Elizabeth Stride had been living that the body was hers. He instructed Mrs. Malcolm to go as usual on the upcoming Saturday to the corner where she met Elizabeth Watts to see if her sister turned up.

Elizabeth Watts—who had taken the name of her current husband and was named Elizabeth Stokes—did turn up.  When the inquest reconvened on Tuesday, October 23, the woman became a witness, declared herself very much alive, and said many things meant to discredit Mary Malcolm.

Still, there are the six elements of description Mrs. Malcolm gave that fit Elizabeth Stride. I found only weak explanations for this mystery. Applying the principle of Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is that Mary Malcolm lied, but coincidentally offered up so many descriptions that actually fit Elizabeth Stride that she might have been believed if Elizabeth Stokes had not shown up.

The solution to the mystery that I chose seems to be the next-simplest, and helped me to further develop the character of Elizabeth Stride. I had a lot of fun fitting my solution into the greater puzzle of her life.

Say Anything But Your Prayers, was released by Lazy Fascist Press in 2014. The novel is the second book in my Jack the Ripper Victims series, the first being Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes—Lazy fascist Press in 2011. Exploring the long gone, but not lost world of Victorian London has been an immense pleasure for me as I perform research for the books. The first two volumes within the series are also available in one ebook titled Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event.

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The third novel, A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of the first victim, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, was released on August 31st, 2016, the 128th anniversary of her death.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

The artwork with this post: “Her Client” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark.

Reaching for a 19th Century State of Mind

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Revised detail from acrylic painting “Ethan’s Hair” copyright©2010 Alan M. Clark

In developing Victorian era characters for my historical fiction horror novels, whether they are Americans from my early western, The Door That Faced West, or those from across the Atlantic Ocean used in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel A Brutal Chill in August, I give each of them a mindset appropriate for the environment of the tale in which they appear. Although broadly our forbears reacted emotionally the same as we do, the thinking behind their response to the natural world, disease, death, violence, and perpetrators of violence could be very different.paperbacknovelspromobanner

The mindsets of my characters often contrast dramatically with my own. Science provides me with answers to things that might have been mysterious and therefore mystical to those who lived in the 19th century. While writing The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, as it is both memoir and fiction, I had the opportunity to juxtapose my thinking with that of a 19th century serial killer. Although a weird, creepy exercise, it was a lot of fun.

Living in the United States in modern times, I did not grow up around much death. My grandfather, my father’s father, died when I was very young. I didn’t know him well. Other family members who lived in other cities died, but I knew little of the events surrounding their deaths. My family didn’t go to funerals. A boy who I played with was killed in a car accident, and he seemed to disappear from my life. He was an only child, so I had virtually no contact with his family after he was gone. I did not truly know much more of death until my early twenties, when I pulled a drowned friend from the ocean off the California coast and held his lifeless body in my arms.

If I’d lived in 19th century London, I would most likely have known much more of death and the rituals surrounding it. The infant mortality rate was very high throughout the Victorian period in both America and England. In London, through most of the 19th century, at least 30% of children died by the age of five. With that, the life expectancy of the average human being hovered around 40 years. The infant mortality rate was responsible for the lifespan number being so low. If one lived to become an adult, there was the chance, although somewhat slimmer than what we have today, that one might live to a ripe old age.

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Detail from etching “Forgotten” copyright©2016 Alan M. Clark

Death visited the living earlier, more often, and for what could frequently seem mysterious reasons in the Victorian period. The rituals surrounding the loss of life had a large presence in social culture, especially for the higher classes, with set terms for grieving, mourning clothes, and other observances meant to help the living let go of the dead.

A simple cut that drew blood could easily develop into a fatal infection. Of course, that can also happen today, but we have many ways to prevent or fight off such bugs. A secondary illness from a cold or flu, such as a sinus infection or bronchitis, was more likely to become fatal in a time before antibiotics. Because of the unknown associated with infection at the time, If I’d lived in the 19th century, I believe I’d have had more concern than I currently do about small wounds and simple viruses.

Science usually provides us with solid answers regarding cause of death today. The question of why some survive what kills others has never been settled easily by considering who is more fit physically, emotionally, intellectually, or morally, but imagine having to sort through such things without the aid of the science of today. Human beings have a tendency to seek what’s equitable, even in nature. If I were one living in the Victorian era, perhaps with religious views, I would probably view deaths by natural causes, disaster, and disease very differently. Regarding the mysteries that arose concerning who survived and who perished from such misfortune, I might have even considered whether or not the individuals involved deserved what they got. That is not how I do think of such things, in part because I am not a religious fellow.

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“A Vast Landscape” copyright©1991 Alan M. Clark

The discovery of and acceptance of microbes as a matter of fact was a slow process in the 19th century. Although the word “virus,” meaning slime or poison—something that causes illness—had existed for many hundreds of years, the distinction from bacteria as a mechanism to bring on something like the common cold or flu would not be established until later. The discovery of the first pathogen of a type we call a virus today would not occur until 1901. Even late in the 19th century, when those in the medical community were accepting the science of microbes (we’re talking primarily about bacteria that could be seen with the aid of instruments of the period), the majority of human beings knew nothing of bacteria and continued to view infection, whether bacterial or viral, with a superstitious eye.

Today, although many seem to lack an understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses, most of the people I know assume that pathogens have no motive beyond simple survival and reproduction. Infection is neither deserved by the infected person, nor is it a particularly personal attack upon that individual. My view is that death, whether caused by violence—accidental or purposeful—or as a result of disease brought on by exposure to pathogens, wear and tear of tissues, or as a product of genetic traits, says little about the deceased’s character.

Many in the Victorian era could not understand crimes committed for reasons other than passion, greed, or hatred. If such abhorrent acts as killing, raping, or maiming resulted from impulse, superstition frequently colored the thinking of those trying to interpret motive. Today, with studies of criminal behavior and psychology, we often have much more substantial ideas as to what motivates those who commit violence and murder. Although we still do not understand completely, we don’t often call such criminals “Fiends.” The word means evil spirit or demon, which suggests the acts committed by such disturbed individuals have supernatural origins and are somehow furthering the motives of powerful, unseen entities. Jack the Ripper was referred to as a fiend, but I don’t recall the modern serial murderer, the Green River Killer, ever being referred to that way. He may have been, but that was probably not the trend.

Since the concept of the subconscious was young in the 19th century, the average person had no knowledge of it. Therefore, one was either consciously and rationally responsible for ones thoughts and feelings, impulses and compulsions, or, since those can seem to come out of the blue, one might consider they arrived in the mind from supernatural agencies or as a product of lunacy, both possibilities clearly a cause for extreme concern.

If a Baptist man working a coal mine in Virginia in the19th century found the impulse to strike his boss destructive, then did it on several occasions against his own better judgement and despite the consequences, he might decide that he was beset by demons.

If a Catholic woman from the Victorian era in Scotland found herself in the downward spiral of alcoholism, she might decide that the corrupting compulsion in her life was punishment for sinful thoughts or actions.

A soldier in the American Civil war whose eyes showed no injury, yet whose sight had been lost because his mind could not accept what he’d seen in battle, would be considered a willful malingerer. Consider how the soldier’s commander viewed him. If he didn’t believe that the soldier was indeed blind, he might reasonably think him a coward or insane.

If these uncontrollable aspects of the human psyche were attributed to insanity, again frequently supernatural forces were blamed.

I don’t mean to single out religion as the only purveyor of strange beliefs. Science of the 19th century, especially medical science, had just as much weirdness in it, but since science is a growing thing, most of the bizarre notions from the time, like the idea that illness was transmitted by smell, are not well known today.

Of course, I have generalized throughout this article. There are few absolutes when talking about the trends in human thinking. Little exists today in the way of human attitude and thinking that didn’t at least get its start among those living in the 19th century. And the people of modern times hold just as many, if not more, boneheaded beliefs and superstitions as did people of the past. Some throwbacks persist. For instance, I have family members who insist that I’ll catch a cold if I get wet and cold. I am certainly not immune to such thinking and have a powerful imagination. Human beings seek to make sense of what they don’t understand and work with what they have, even if that is purely imagination. That doesn’t mean we’re backwards or nuts. It just means we’re human, our thinking much like those who have gone before. Since I like history and human beings, I find it intriguing.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon