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Lara Rutherford-Morrison, Jack the Ripper Was A Murderous Medieval Monk; Or, I Read The Curse Upon Mitre Square So You Don’t Have To

2015 May 19

Lara Rutherford-Morrison earned her PhD in Victorian literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in December of 2013. She is currently an Affiliated Scholar at Concordia University in Montreal and blogs daily for Bustle. Her research considers the ways that contemporary culture reimagines and plays with Victorian literature and history, in contexts ranging from adaptations of Victorian novels in film and fiction to heritage tourism in the U.K. She can be found at her website and on Twitter @LaraRMorrison.

 The Curse Upon Mitre Square is not a good book. In fact, it’s terrible. It is unlikely that the gothic novella, essentially a penny dreadful, would have retained any interest for readers after its 1888 publication if it weren’t for a single distinguishing feature: it was one of the first works of fiction to take on Jack the Ripper, the still-unidentified murderer widely regarded as the world’s first serial killer [1]. It’s a sensational, badly written, altogether trashy book, but, as a contemporary response to the Whitechapel murders, it reveals how fiction, and particularly the gothic, came to shape public perceptions of what are possibly the most famous crimes in English history.

Written by John Francis Brewer in October of 1888, as the Ripper’s stream of inexplicable murders were still occurring, The Curse Upon Mitre Square’s plot hinges on the brutal killing of Catherine Eddowes. Eddowes was the fourth of the killer’s five “canonical” victims (the possibility of other victims is still hotly debated among “Ripperologists”); she was the second killed in what is known as the “Double Event” of September 30, 1888, the only known time that the Ripper murdered two women in a single evening. Jack the Ripper’s string of murders lasted throughout the autumn of that year, causing panic in London and igniting an intense media storm that spanned the globe. Readers from every class were simultaneously horrified and titillated by news reports of killings that were astonishing in their brutality, involving extensive mutilation of the victims’ faces, bodies, and reproductive organs. The fact that all five of the murdered women worked as prostitutes only added further sensationalism to the story.

The Curse Upon Mitre Square, Lovell’s Library Edition (1889)

An 1889 advertisement for The Curse Upon Mitre Square in The American Bookseller (pictured below) includes an ostensibly positive review for the work that describes it as “A thrilling little tale, as condensed as a meat lozenge […].” To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what “condensed as a meat lozenge” actually means in regard to fiction, but having read the novella, I’m going to have to assume that it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of describing a plot that is schlocky in the extreme. The Curse Upon Mitre Square begins in 1530, at the Holy Trinity Priory, a monastery dissolved in 1532 that once existed on the site that would, centuries later, be the approximate location of Catherine Eddowes’ murder. The narrative focuses on a new monk, Martin, a clever, passionate young man with a remarkable face that cycles between looking saintly and looking like “the incarnation of evil” [2], a skill that, naturally, seems to concern no one. There is a complicated subplot in which a fictionalized version of Thomas Audley attempts to overthrow the monastery by having a mysterious woman seduce the young monk. The story reaches its crisis when Martin, driven to madness by his lust for the woman, violently murders her, mutilating her face and casting her entrails about, only to discover in horror that his victim…wait for it… is actually his long lost sister! Martin promptly kills himself, and his ghost haunts the spot for the next 350 years. The novella ends with the murder of Catherine Eddowes, her brutalized body mirroring that of Martin’s first victim. The narrator asks, “Who is there so bold as to say […] that there is no Curse Upon Mitre Square?” [3]

 

Advertisement for The Curse Upon Mitre Square in The American Bookseller (1889)

Populated by medieval monks, monasteries, and incestuous ghosts, The Curse Upon Mitre Square places the Ripper murders firmly within the gothic tradition. In doing so, Brewer follows a general trend established in the press coverage of the murders of looking to fiction, particularly the gothic, as a way to contextualize killings that in 1888 had no clear referents. The serial killer is now an established criminal type, but no such category existed for the late-Victorians, who regarded murder as springing from certain customary motives, like jealousy, greed, and revenge. There was no precedent for someone who killed with extreme violence, simply for the fun of it. The press thus seized upon the gothic in its reports, frequently referencing supernatural monsters and writers like Poe and De Quincey. The language of the reportage itself often reflected sensational stories; this article in The East London Advertiser, for example, published less than week after the Eddowes’ murder, would have been at home alongside The Curse Upon Mitre Square:

 [T]he mind turns as it were instinctively to some theory of occult force, and the myths of the Dark Ages rise before the imagination. Ghouls, vampires, bloodsuckers, and all the ghastly array of fables which have been accumulated throughout the course of centuries take form, and seize hold of the excited fancy. […W]hat can be more appalling than the thought that there is a being in human shape stealthily moving about a great city, burning with the thirst for human blood […]? [4]

Now little more than a novelty, The Curse Upon Mitre Square is one of the first in what would prove to be a long – and continuing – tradition of Ripper-based fiction, and it is the first of many that would figure the mysterious killer as supernatural (Others in this field range from Robert Bloch’s 1943 short story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” to the 1971 Jekyll and Hyde/Ripper mash-up Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, to a 1995 episode of Babylon 5). Brewer’s writing is distractingly bad, characterized by nearly incessant, exclamatory appeals to the reader (like this one: “Stay! What was the crimson stain on yon altar step? Horror! It seemed to move! It must be blood! Nearer and nearer it came! It almost approached her!” [5]). However, there is something more sinister than an abuse of exclamation points at work in the story, an element that continues to plague fictionalizations of the Whitechapel murders, even after more a century: The Curse, like most Ripper fictions, focuses on the killer only, glorifying him as cunning and exceptional, while his victims function as little more than props, convenient objects for the killer’s violence.

All fictionalizations of the Whitechapel murders are haunted by a tension between narrative license and the real events of 1888. I think few would argue that The Curse Upon Mitre Square is anything more than a curiosity, or an exercise in the excesses of late-Victorian sensationalism, but it does bring this tension into stark relief. When we remember the timing of the novella – published practically before Catherine Eddowes’ body had gone cold, and only weeks before Mary Kelly would meet her fate as the final victim – we are reminded that, however cartoonish Jack the Ripper may have become in his 125 year tenure as England’s most famous and “popular” killer, at the base of it all are five real bodies, of five real, slain women in Whitechapel.

 

[1] The Curse Upon Mitre Square was published around the same time as a serialized penny dreadful, The Whitechapel Murders, or Mysteries of the East End, which followed fictional detective Richard Ryder on his quest to unravel the Whitechapel mystery. Both works appeared in October of 1888, before the murder of the Ripper’s fifth victim, Mary Kelly, but I have so far been unable to track down which work came first.

[2] John Francis Brewer, The Curse Upon Mitre Square, in The Curse Upon Mitre Square & The Lodger: Two Jack the Ripper Classics (Elektron Ebooks, 2013). Kindle ebook.

[3] Brewer.

[4] ‘A THIRST FOR BLOOD’, East London Advertiser, 6 October 1888, in Casebook: Jack the Ripper <http://www.casebook.org/> [accessed 1 October 2014]

[5] Brewer.

 

RELATED JVC ARTICLES:

Imagining the Ripper

CSI: Whitechapel’: Ripper Street and the evidential body

Ripper Street Reflections

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Joseph permalink
    May 31, 2015

    A very interesting article indeed. The plot of “The Curse” seems to mirror some of the central narrative elements of Lewis’s “The Monk”. Then again, murderous monks, ghosts, incest and improbable twists are typical of the genre.

    Incidentally, as a Maltese national, what caught my eye in the illustration from “The American Bookseller” is the advert for “The Girl from Malta” by Fergus Hume. Is Hume’s novel available as an ebook? Tried to trace it but no luck so far.

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