The Austin-Whitechapel Theorem

Picture it: 

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

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.

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And now for a little “sub”text

I’m finally writing a post about something that my friend James knows way more about than I do. (Be gentle, JY, if my facts go slightly off the rails here. This is your area of expertise, not mine.)

In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are tasked by the British government – or at least the manifestation of it that is Mycroft Holmes – to retrieve the stolen plans for a top secret submarine. Did you know, though, that at the time Doyle was creating the fictional version, the British government was working on an actual, real-life one? 
(Okay, you may have known that already. I didn’t, though, and I find it pretty interesting. But, I’ve already demonstrated that I find very odd things interesting.)  

The British Royal Navy began playing with submersible ships with the A-Class submarines which rolled out in 1902, but the idea of submerging a boat for tactical purposes dates back to the US Civil War and ships like the Confederate Navy’s H.L. Hunley. Early attempts had as many failures as successes – the Hunley sank off the coast of Charleston in February of 1864 with all eight of its crew; the A-Class subs tended to have issues with their petrol-based engines and every one of the 13 boats fell victim to some kind of fatal accident in their lifetimes. Failure just led to innovation: Britain rolled out the B, C, and D-Class in short order over the next decade, and finally unveiled the E-1, the first of the E-Class submarines, in November of 1912.   

(Apropos of hardly any of my point: I need to remember to make use of the Hunley if I ever get back to things that aren’t Holmes adjacent.)

There is a lot of speculation that this submarine – or the rumored existence of it – inspired Doyle to have someone steal plans for a highly classified submarine in “The Bruce-Partington Plan.” 

Nothing about the E-1 probably sounds all that revolutionary compared to modern submersible warships. It had a maximum recommended depth of only 100 feet, though some later models managed to hit the 200s. These weren’t exceptionally fast ships by our standards, either: surfaced, it could only manage around seventeen miles per hour; diving, it topped out around nine and a half. While it had four engines – two 800 horsrepower diesel-powered ones that did most of the heavy lifting above water and two six hundred horsepower electric ones for under water – it had a maximum range of somewhere around 3,500 nautical miles. Considering its predecessors were mainly stuck doing coastal missions, though, that was a monstrous leap in distance. For its time? The E-Class were some badass mothers. 

E-Class subs performed admirably for Her Royal Highness’ Navy during World War I, primarily seeing battle in the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Turkish theater, though some served – and then were scuttled – off the Russian coast. The Germans made wider, and more notorious, use of subs during the First World War, of course (does the Lusitania sound familiar?), but the rest of us weren’t far behind the curve there. World War II would see an increase in submarine warfare, as well as a broadening of its boundaries and its users, but those strategies began being tested more than twenty years earlier. 

So, how much evidence is there that Doyle based the Bruce-Partington sub on the E-1? Well, there’s good old coincidence, and if Leroy Jethro Gibbs (random NCIS reference) has taught me nothing else, it’s that there’s probably no such thing as coincidence. Doyle published his fictionalized theft in 1908, just four years before the E-1 was launched and three years before construction began. The plans had to have been in existence by then. It’s not beyond possibility that Doyle heard about the ship’s future existence from one well-placed acquaintance or another and that it laid the groundwork for his imagination to run a bit amuck. Holmes and Watson had retrieved their fair share of national secrets by then, so giving them another opportunity to save the day and prevent nationwide scandal seems almost obvious. 

This story also features one the cleverest bits of deduction I think Doyle ever wrote (and possibly the least possible plot point as well, though I’m not going to wait for a metro train to park outside my window so I can push a body out onto the roof and see if it’ll stay there), but I don’t want to go too far into it and spoil it for you (oops? Ignore the previous parenthetical). Needless to say, there’s a reason so many people enjoy this story, and why it made it into the number two slot on Doyle’s own list of his favorite Holmes and Watson adventures (he apparently made two of these lists in his lifetime, and “Bruce-Partington” made it onto the second one; it wasn’t written yet when he made his first).   

If this all sounds familiar, and you’re only a fan of BBC’s “Sherlock,” this would be the case Mycroft keeps trying to give Sherlock but gets pushed off onto John repeatedly in that ever important subplot to “The Great Game.” That episode packed so many fantastic canon references in, it’s almost hard to keep track, but that one featured very prominently.   

Now, let’s all sit back and see if James reads me up one side and down the other for my military knowledge/research, shall we? 

“And Peggy!”, or, “The Other 46 (Cops, That Is)”

Did you know that, over the course of 56 short stories and 4 novels, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to twenty-five Scotland Yard Inspectors, fourteen Constables, three French inspectors, two Pinkerton Agents, one German Inspector, one private detective, and one New York City cop in a pear tree?  That might seem hard to believe, considering most adaptions only focus on G Lestrade (he of the first initial and no canon given name) or Tobias Gregson, but there was an exhaustive cast of supportive Yardies and other law enforcement personnel bumping heads with and lending a hand to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  And they get forgotten way too often.  

A lot of what looks like favoritism or forgetfulness might be nothing more than quantity – Lestrade shows up in eleven of the Sherlock stories and two of the novels – the two more well-known and more frequently adapted, A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The frequency of his appearance means we have far more time to get to know him and for Doyle to develop his character.  His continued antagonism of Holmes and his frequent disrespect of Holmes’ skills also makes him a popular friendly foil.  Gregson’s adaption popularity probably stems in part from his long-standing feud with Lestrade, and the fact Holmes considers him the smartest of the Yardies.  In fact, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes refers to Gregson and Lestrade as “the pick of a bad lot.”  

Quick historical sidebar (I promise it’ll be quick) – Scotland Yard (aka the Metropolitan Police Force) was a fairly young institution at the time Doyle was creating the likes of Lestrade and Gregson.  Policing in any form close to what we’re used to didn’t come to exist in England until the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.  Previously, London had been overseen by the Marine Police Force (created in 1798), the Bow Street Runners (1749), and the Bow Street Horse Patrol (1805).  None of these groups had extensive governmental oversight.  Previous experience with less than entirely moral and law abiding “cops”- both before the MPS was created and after – led to considerable distrust of the police.  When you take into account unofficial “thief-takers” who would extort victims in order to get the criminals that wronged them punished, the public just had more reason than ever to not trust the “official” versions blessed by the government.  It took time, and some good cops, for the general populous to begin seeing cops as anything but a public menace all their own.

I could make a comment about history repeating itself where public perceptions of law enforcement are concerned, but I try to keep this blog, at least, fairly politics-free.
If I wanted to really stretch this out, I’d go into the difference between the Metropolitan Police Force and the City of London Police, but that might lead into other tangents, and we all know what happens if I give in to too many of those. Chaos, that’s what.

So why am I talking about the other 46 (#hamilparaphrase) in regards to “Black Peter,” since that’s the story I’m supposed to be blogging about?  Because this story is the second time we get to spend a little fictional time with Inspector Stanley Hopkins, who we previously met in “The Golden Pince-Nez.”  (We’ll meet him again in “Abbey Grange” and he gets mentioned in “The Missing Three-Quarter.”)  Hopkins is something of a student of Holmes’methods, even if how he applies them is sometimes…well, wrong.  But hey, he’s only human.  It’s not his fault the evidence of a notebook at a crime scene pointed to a killer who couldn’t actually manage to commit the murder.   We’re all susceptible to falling for a red herring when it drops in our lap, right?  As was discussed back when I covered the “Boscombe Valley Mystery,” it’s super easy to take the, well, easy way out. 

Hopkins isn’t the only dutiful student among the Yardies: Alec MacDonald, which we met in The Valley of Fear, appears to be studying – and applying – Holmes’ methods.  Unlike other members of the force, MacDonald is willing to believe that Moriarty might not be all he says he is – remember, VOF is set in a time before Reichenbach, possibly to deal with the fact Doyle basically one-shotted the man who was supposed to be Holmes’ ultimate nemesis.  We know, from Watson, that MacDonald is big, brash, ginger, and from Glasgow, and that he and Holmes are close enough that Holmes has given him a cute nickname – Mr. Mack – which is something none of the others earn (unless ferret-faced is a term of endearment). 

Inspector Bradstreet, he of no first name or initial, appears in three stories, but we don’t know much about him at all, except he was a Bow Street Runner before he became a cop.  He doesn’t make much of an impression on Holmes – or not enough of one to have him say anything about him to/around Watson that gets conveyed to us.  He does get to carry the ball in one of the most iconic of Holmes stories – “The Blue Carbuncle” – and has been used as a fill-in for Lestrade in the Granada series in an episode where the actor playing Lestrade was unavailable.

Then there’s Inspector Baynes, who only shows up in the two-part story collected as “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.”  Baynes is the only inspector ever shown to be even close to as good an investigator as Holmes, and that’s potentially because Holmes just didn’t care enough to really investigate (or was a ghost, or a doppleganger, or sick…see this post about “Wisteria Lodge.”). 

Of course, I’m as guilty of forgetting about the rest of the Yardies as anyone else.  When I started writing Charlotte – when I started outlining and world building and filling out the stick figures holding places for actual characters in my universe – I went straight to Lestrade.  Which is funny, since I still haven’t written the story where Charlotte and Lestrade first cross paths, though I’ve got a clear picture of it in my head.  I’ve dusted off Bradstreet – he even clocked Watson – but I’ve stayed entirely away from Lestrade so far.  That was an entirely unconscious decision that I find really interesting now.

(Confession: I played with Lestrade a bit in November.  But he was backup to my playing mostly with Inspector MacDonald.  I may have relocated him to Scotland.  I needed an excuse to romp about in the Highlands for a month.  Fictionally.)

So, my point is this – the bullpen at Scotland Yard is very deep and a lot of the relievers Doyle traded for don’t get the innings of work they should.  There is a very handy Wikipedia list of all the canon inspectors, constables, detectives, and agents that worked with or assisted Holmes.  If you’re writing pastiche or fanfiction and you need a handy Yardie or two, try looking into one of Lestrade and Gregson’s colleagues and give them the ball for a couple innings.  You might find something really fun.

Like a cheeky, kilt-wearing Glaswegian who tries his damnedest to take over your story.

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.)