The Austin-Whitechapel Theorem

Picture it: 

An animated gif of Sophia Petrillo, from Golden Girls, saying

Austin, Texas. Christmas Eve, 1885.

The entire city is overcome with fear and tension.  City-wide curfews have bars and saloons closing at almost reputable hours.  People are forming neighborhood watch groups (or the 19th Century equivalent) to patrol their streets.  Vigilantism is the newest fad (minus the utility belts and cowls, of course).  Anyone who crosses the town line and isn’t instantly recognizable as a local is accosted for identification or gets escorted back out of town.  Why all the hullabaloo, you ask?  Because for the last year, crime has been running rampant in Austin, the worst of it being the brutal murders of six people by an unknown assailant.  And guess what?  That number is about to increase by two before the night’s over.

Over the course of 1885, eight people – 4 African-American women, 1 child, 1 man, and two white women – were struck while they slept, dragged from their homes, and murdered.  Seven others were seriously injured in similar attacks.  Some reports indicate the bodies were mutilated.  There are conflicting reports about whether or not the victims were raped as well.  An axe, typically left behind, seemed to be the weapon of choice.  The majority of the victims were servants, hence the spree becoming known as “The Servant Girl Murders.”  The single male and child were victims of consequence who happened to be in the exact wrong place at the wrong time.

(For the record: “Servant Girl Annihilator” was a term coined by the writer O.Henry and wasn’t ever how the contemporary papers referred to the case, so I won’t, either.)

Violence wasn’t unheard of in the Old West, of course, but this was different.  So many murders, with such specific similarities, targeting a specific group?  People in Austin at the time couldn’t even comprehend the possibility, even with all that, that one person could be behind all this chaos.  This was still three years before Jack the Ripper would terrorize Whitechapel;  Eight years from H.H. Holmes opening his Murder Hotel at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Humanity hadn’t yet been formally introduced to the concept of “multiple murderers” and wouldn’t hear about serial killers for decades.  At best, the citizenry of Austin thought they were beset by a gang of murderers running amok in their streets.

Only two people ever stood trial in connection to the crimes – James Phillips and Moses Hancock, the husbands of the last two recorded victims.  Of them, only Phillips was convicted (though it was overturned later)and that was despite evidence introduced of a possible alternate (though dead) suspect.  Hancock, thanks to said alternate theory and a sheriff’s convincing testimony, got off.  The man that spared Hancock but failed to save Phillips was 19-year-old Nathan Elgin, an African-American cook at a local restaurant who was shot (in the back) and killed after attacking a young saloon girl in early February, 1886.  Elgin was linked to the crimes by circumstance, temperment, previous run-ins with the law (which amounted to things like carrying a pistol in town, public disturbance, shooting outside the governor’s house, and making written threats to the deputy sheriff), and a missing toe on his right foot that officials said matched bloody bare footprints left behind at the other crime scenes.  At the time of his death, it had been a little over a month since the last attack.  No others ever happened in Austin after.  Some felt sure they got their man.

But not everyone agreed.  Some people thought that maybe the reason the Servant Girl Murders ended is because the murderer left town and unleashed his impulses on a whole new city.  Say, London, circa 1888.

Come on, you knew we were going there as soon as you saw the title.

Newspapers were making the connection between Jack the Ripper and the Servant Girl Murderer as early as 1888, and who could blame them? Both instances involved horrifying acts of violence, mostly upon women, and featured mutilation.  Now, granted, the modus operandi of the two killers isn’t a perfect match.  Austin’s victims were servants (and people who shared homes with them); Jack hunted prostitutes.  Some accounts point to the probability the Servant Girl Murderer raped his victims; no such claims exist about Jack.  Bloody axes were left behind in Austin; Jack was meticulous about his tools.  But it’s close.  Close enough to maybe point to an evolution in his method.  Close enough people have spent over a century speculating on the possibility of a connection.

A frequent suspect floated by those who like this theory is a Malaysian cook named Maurice who worked at the Pearl House hotel during the time the Servant Girl Murders took place.  The Pearl House was geographically significant, lying in the middle of the killing ground.  Also working against Maurice is the fact he left Austin for London three weeks after the last murder and had, by some accounts, been a potential suspect.  Which sounds like a good reason to get a job on a steamer and get the hell out of Dodge, for sure.  But Maurice doesn’t quite fit the image people have in their minds of Jack the Ripper.  People like to theorize that Jack was a surgeon, was upper class, was maybe even part of the nobility.  Something to keep in mind, though: nothing definitely points to that having to be true.

Writer Shirley Harrison offered up another suspect in her book Jack the Ripper: The American Connection.  The book is based in part on an anonymous diary reportedly attirbuted to James Maybrick that includes a confession that he was Jack the Ripper.  Maybrick was a Liverpool cotton merchant who died from arsenic poisoning – either at the hand of his wife or from a malaria medication he became addicted to in his youth; Florence’s murder conviction was overturned in 1904, so there is some potential question there – in 1889.  (Shirley Harrison also wrote The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Chilling Confessions of James Maybrick about the much-disputed diary, for the sake of transparency.)   Leaving the issue of the diary’s authenticity aside, Harrison claims other, less-disputed journal entries prove that Maybrick was in Austin during the timeframe of the murders, as well as being in London during the atrocities in Whitechapel, and that makes him a valid suspect in Harrison’s wreckoning.

I do not claim to be an expert on Jack the Ripper.  That is a case sufficiently disturbing enough that previous attempts at in-depth research have just left me kind of disturbed.  It fascinates me in the same macabre way these sorts of things fascinate any of us, but I have to maintain a certain distance to sleep anywhere near soundly at night.  I’m also only a casual reader of things about the Servant Girl Murders.  It’s only been on my radar for a month or so and I only dipped my toe into the veritable ocean of information out there on the topic.  So I don’t know if I can pass judgement on the possibility the two things are connected, or on either of the presented suspects.  I’d like to think there weren’t multiple men running about brutalizing women in the most horrific ways possible then.  But I also know, come 1893, a man was luring hotel guests to their doom just for the “fun” of watching them die.  Yes, the world has the capability of giving us multiple monsters at any one time, which just means that anything’s possible in regards to the events in Austin and Whitechapel.

But it’s an interesting thing to think about.


“Can We Get Back to Politics Now?”

No, we’re not getting into politics.  If you’re not familiar with the musical “Hamilton,” the title comes from a line by Thomas Jefferson after some very unhappy and dark things happen in the second act.  It seemed appropriate to borrow it for this post for two reasons – the post this morning, and the content of this one.

I’ve mentioned a passing interest in the musical before, right?  Well, I may have spent part of my day filking part of it.  Filking, for the unaware, is the act of taking an existing song and rewriting it to make it about something else, usually a science fiction or fantasy property.  That’s where filking got its start, anyway.  I first played around with filking in my previously mentioned Highlander fandom days.  I may have tried to filk the entire “A Kind of Magic” album.  I made it three songs in, I think.  Thankfully, those efforts are well-hidden in a defunct forum and a more defunct Tripod-hosted website.

Given the theme of this blog,you can guess what the subject matter of my parody is, right?

Continue reading ““Can We Get Back to Politics Now?””

Holmesian v. Sherlockian

When you say the word “fandom” to someone, they’re usually going to think one of five things:

  1. I’m totally a *insert fandom here* fan! *Pairing* is my OTP! (One True Pairing – the pair of characters in a particular fandom that is nearest and dearest to your heart) 
  2. That’s just something bored teenagers who like Harry Potter do on the internet. 
  3. Isn’t that, like, Transformers porn? (if you didn’t know explicit Transformers fanfiction exists, I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. A horrible, awful person exposed me to it years ago and I still haven’t forgiven her for it. She knows who she is. I’m not judging, by the way, just offering the warning. Also? Do a Google search for your favorite childhood cartoon at your own risk.) 
  4. That’s a hobby for obsessive nerds that started because someone wanted Kirk and Spock to get it on, I think. 
  5. Fan-what? 

(All based on actual responses I have gotten from people exposed to casual use of the word.)

Full disclosure – I cut my online fandom teeth in the Rysher “Highlander: the Series” forums back in the days before Yahoo ruined Geocities and when IRC chat rooms were where it was at. I remember trolling Livejournal and for all the good fanfiction. I was a bystander, not a participant, in the shipping wars in Harry Potter and the Great Rose vs. Martha Debate (and I wasn’t even into Doctor Who at the time). Yes, I am possibly one of those “you kids and your tumblr get off my damn lawn” people the youngins complain about on the interwebs.

Most people, if they don’t fall into category five, anyway, operate under the assumption that, whatever it is, it’s a fairly modern invention and the internet may somehow be to blame. But the thing is? Fandom’s been around a lot longer than that. In fact, Sherlock Holmes fandom has been alive and well pretty much since Doyle started serializing Holmes and Watson’s adventures in The Strand. And, like all fandoms that have been around more than a minute, it’s always had its issues. Nothing demonstrates the longevity or the ridiculousness of those issues better than the “Holmesian v. Sherlockian” divide.

Once upon a time, not too long after Holmes burst forth from Doyle’s skull ala Athena, fully formed and ready to roll, people who considered themselves learned fans of the Great Detective called themselves Holmesians. Well, people in Britain, anyway. Doyle’s American fans were referred to as Sherlockians. In the late 19th Century and most of the 20th, this was the basic gist of the divide; geography. Local Baker Street aficionados – like William Gillette, for example – were the former. Mark Twain, across the sea writing and publishing Holmesian pastiche set in the States, was the latter. It was just that simple. And, heading into the later part of the 20th Century, Sherlockian became a much more catch-all term for Sherlock Holmes fans in general.

Now, though, the two terms have taken on a bit more of a contentious context. While fans of the canon – especially those who like to consider their involvement more intellectual and analytical despite geographic location – still lay claim to Holmesian, Sherlockian’s become a much different word. It started when fans of BBC’s “Sherlock” began using the term to describe the fandom specifically surrounding the show. In the UK especially, Sherlockian translates as “those who appreciate the television show.” On a broader scale, it’s come to be associated with someone who comes at their Holmes from the screen adaptions – “Sherlock,” “Elementary,” the Ritchie-verse movies. And therein lies the contention. There are those who consider the newly converted, the fans brought in by Cumberbatch or Miller or Downey, jr., to be lesser. Their enjoyment and interest is less valid, their opinions even more so.

Exclusion and elitism is a real thing here. People who have been in the “fandom” – and I’m sure they likely object to the term, too; they “play the game,” damn it – consider Sherlockians to be interlopers and trespassers into their world. These aren’t “real” fans. They haven’t poured through the texts to study Holmes’ methods or suss out all Doyle’s tiny little references and clues. They quote Moffat or Ritchie’s version of the characters, not the “real” thing. They have no “street cred”, no voice, no right to a place at the table.

Sure, this concept isn’t new or necessarily unique to the Sherlock Holmes fan community. Any fandom that’s big enough, popular enough, or long-running enough has had to deal with exclusion and fannish classicism. Every group has that segment of people who go around wearing the “We Were Here First” badge a bit too proudly, or make sure everyone knows how many times they’ve watched all the movies or episodes or read all the books. The difference is, this isn’t just about internet bullies and Big Name Fans singling out the newbies and chasing them out of the yard. This becomes more an issue of a group perceived as just a bunch of old white dudes telling a fanbase that is heavily made up of young, female fans that they aren’t welcome, specifically because of their age or their gender or the assumptions to be made based on both; that because of those things, their opinions and thoughts and appreciation are invalid; that they don’t belong.

None of this is news to anyone who has been in online Sherlock Holmes fandom for more than five minutes. My decrying it isn’t new, either. Lots of people have had this discussion before. So why bring it up? Mainly as a springboard to discuss my own experience and the importance of finding your people, even in a sea of judgmental sharks.

I haven’t really dipped my toe into Sherlock online fandom.  I follow a few tumblrs.  I listen to the Baker Street Babes podcast.  Previous experience has me reluctant to dive back into waters I used to swim in like a pro.  I’ve very much remained an outside observer this time around.  And then, “Holmes on the Range” happened.

“Holmes on the Range” is the kind of group that those staid and starched arbiters of traditional Holmes appreciation would probably despise. We don’t get together and drink high-end Scotch in our deerstalkers – which aren’t even canon! – discussing the importance of Holmes’ choice of dressing gown in “The Blue Carbuncle” or the socio-political meanings therein. The basic purpose of our meetings is an excuse for this group of wonderful, silly, intelligent women I know to get together, eat good food, drink fantastic cocktails, and watch things related to Sherlock Holmes. That’s pretty much it. As a concept, it began brewing in my brain after a collection of people from my local NaNoWriMo group decided to get together to see “The Abominable Bride” while it was in theaters. It was so much fun I thought, hey, maybe we could do this again, but in my living room, with alochol and less innocent bystanders.  Others agreed.
 I made a Facebook group, invited everyone local I thought would enjoy it, and we negotiated out first get together.

Thus far, our blasphemous formula has included the first season of the BBC series, a relevant episode of Veggie Tales (“Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler,” in case you’re curious), and “Elementary, Dear Data” from Star Trek: the Next Generation. There’s been discussion of adding things like episodes of “House,” the Ritchie-verse movies, “Elementary,” and a certain Asylum Films movie adaption. Generally, there is also pre-meeting “homework” – a story (or two) from the canon that relates to the episode we’re watching. Discussion ensues, of course. Sometimes, it’s even relevant discussion. What it always is, though, is fun.

We all come at Sherlock from different perspectives. Some of us have read the canon before, maybe years ago, and got back into things because of the BBC series. Some of us never read a single story before we started but have seen associated media. And some of us study the canon, write pastiche about the characters, and decided six months ago that it would be super fun to re-read it all and blog about it in a year.   Some of us are casual fans who don’t care about shipping; others have deep and extensive thoughts on the true definition of Sherlock and John’s affection towards each other (#teamjohnlock!).  Some of us love Sherlock; others of us are more Watsonites.  We have all the bases covered, you might say.

We aren’t a traditional Holmesian society – ones registered with the Baker Street Irregulars get to call themselves scions and be all fancy about it – and that’s awesome. If we were? That would also be awesome. It’s not the purpose of the group that determines whether it is or not, or how serious it takes itself, or how long any of the members have been into the canon, or even whether all of the members are.  What makes it awesome are the people. HotR is made up of some of my favorite people on the planet and that is why I love it.  

And that’s kind of the point of fandom. Find something you dig, then find people out there who share your joy of it and appreciate how you choose to celebrate it. Cherish those people, because if you’re very lucky you’ll find amongst them some very good friends that your life would be rather dull and dreary without.

Go out and find your fannish bliss. And for God’s sake, don’t judge how other people choose to find theirs. Even if it involves intergalactic robots that can change into automobiles falling in love with humans.

Invasion of the Body-Snatchers

I am a prodiguous consumer of podcasts.  I have never been a fan of talk radio – maybe because the available topics were always so limited – but I love podcasts.  My subscriptions consist of a strange combination of audio theater (my favorite work-time background noise), craft-related writing podcasts, true crime, fandom-related, odd history, and, of course, the Nerdist (if you haven’t listened to the Anthony Mackie one yet, do.  Right now.  It’s hilarious).  I binge-listened to the first season of Serial (three times) and every season of “Wormwood“.  I’ve been working my way through the first “We’re Alive” story for the past couple months so I can get caught up with the second, “Lockdown,” eventually.

I listen to a lot of podcasts and my tastes are varied, I mean to say.  (And you should listen to the linked ones, too, because they’re awesome.)

All this is meant as lead up to this story, which appeared on the Criminal podcast yesterday.  I spent a lot of time while I was preparing the second Holmes and Watson book researching British resurrectionists – way too much time for such a small plot point, but when I fall down a research black hole I sometimes never emerge.  I enjoy research; it’s probably why I minored in US History and was part of the history honor’s society in college.

The story of “One-Eyed Joe” Frankford is further evidence that, for a long time, the US lagged behind Great Britain in just about everything – including dealing with grave-robbers and body-snatchers.  The problem the UK legislated out of existence (for the most part) in 1832, we didn’t deal with until 1898.  Of course, it took two Edinburgh boys named Burke and Hare who decided it was easier to kill a body than dig it up to help push through the Anatomy Act of 1832.  The criminal trials of Dr. William Forbes of Jefferson Medical School in 1882 and Dr. John Bacon of Eastern State Penitentiary in 1897 helped force the issue in the US.  To Dr. Forbes’ credit, he had a hand in writing the 1898 Act (which was specific to Pennsylvania, but started a more widespread conversation), as well as its predecessor in 1867.

This is the kind of odd stuff that will come up if anyone ever digs through my internet search history.  (This is probably one of the tamer things, actually.)