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The Ripper and The Vampire

The Ripper and The Vampire – In this article, Craig O Reilly explains how the real life Ripper killings would inspire Stoker’s Count

It’s often easy to reduce an author’s work down to a single influence, or make assumptions about inspiration, but in the case of Bram Stokers Dracula, it’s almost impossible to separate the nightmarish novel from the dark streets of London City, and the real horror story which was playing out during the author’s stay.

Before he ever wrote Dracula, Stoker witnessed, like many, the horrific murders of a group of women in Whitechapel, whose bodies were mutilated by a serial killer who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper.

The killings caused a panic, and the frenzied speculation surrounding the Whitechapel murders caused a phenomena which captures the imagination of the public to this day. They occurred at a time of heightened crime and declining public trust in the authorities.

In the late 19th century, London was the centre of the British Empire at the height of its power, but the huge impact of the industrial revolution had changed the way people felt about the city. At this time, we see poets like Charles Baudelaire writing about the alienation of blending into a huge crowd, and the demonic like attractions of the nightlife. Cities were a place where one could easily disappear, and London was no exception.

Whitechapel in particular was overcrowded with a prevailing element of poverty. Many of it’s workers were immigrants who laboured hard to make ends meet, while often women turned to prostitution. Stoker as an immigrant himself would have encountered the clash between the impoverished and the upper classes.

The king of vampires, Dracula, is also an aristocrat who has travelled over from a country with long, obscure origins. He is getting in touch with the modern world and its nightlife to further enact his evil designs. Many 19th Century stories focus on gentlemen’s clubs, or opium dens, rough cracks in the city through which a seemingly respectable person may find themselves in danger. This fascination among the wealthy classes obscured the issue of real poverty which was rife at the time. When the real Jack the ripper killings began, there were all kinds of people writing letters pretending to be the killer. The culture of fear and sensationalism around Jack the RIpper provided fertile ground for Stoker to write his Dracula story a few years later.

Henry Irving in his study

The Lyceum Theatre

One area where we can see the huge influence Jack the Ripper had on the arts scene and on Bram Stoker is by looking at the Lyceum theatre. In 1878, Bram Stoker married Florence Balcombe, who had once been courted by Oscar Wilde. They moved to London, where Stoker took up a position as business manager of the Lyceum theatre, owned by the popular actor Henry Irving.

It’s widely assumed the enigmatic Irving, with his suave and fluent movements, and penchant for playing villainous roles, provided Stoker with a basis for the character of Dracula. He may have felt like Jonathan Harker, having to look into his masters accounts.

The Lyceum theatre itself was never without controversy. In 1888, the strange case of Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde caused a stir due to one of the actors; The Evening News wrote in a review that:

In the delineation of Mr. Hyde, in all his blood-curdling repulsiveness, the true power, the unmistakable grasp of the genuine artist is felt. It is realistic to the highest degree; but it goes beyond mere realism, it is the finished, vivid study of an actor of more than the average ability.

The actor in question was Richard Mansfield, and he was so brilliant at being able to change between the meek Dr Jeckyl and the menacing Mr Hyde, that a letter was sent to the police accusing him of being Jack the Ripper. Only two days after one of the performances, Martha Tabram was murdered, the first of many victims by the Whitechapel killer.

Richard Mansfield had terrified audiences with the beastly character of Mr. Hyde, but the real killer was more calculating. The incisions used on the victims suggested someone more like Dr. Jekyll. Their calculated nature led to one of the very first examples of profiling, where the case was examined to see if there was evidence of the killer being someone with surgical and anatomical knowledge.

Some feared that the authorities themselves could be involved in the cover up of a “gentleman’s” crimes. This perhaps most of all, was to prove significant for Bram Stoker’s novel.

Distrust in the Police as an institution.

It’s a curious aspect of Dracula that although victims are being stalked throughout the streets, and even in their bedrooms, no-one really considers the idea that perhaps the police could save them.

This seems to have been a deliberate choice made by Bram Stoker after he came to the conclusion that the inability of the police to catch Jack the Ripper made them less likely to be believable as heroes bringing the Evil Count to justice. Stoker’s nephew Dacre Stoker confirms this with evidence from his notebooks.

Jack the Ripper cartoon from Punch Magazine

It’s worth noting that though the magazine Punch depicted the police as incompetent, it also seemed to mock and caricature the very impoverished class which were being preyed on.

This apparent distrust in the police was a sentiment widely shared. In 1877, three high ranking detectives had been tried for corruption, and in subsequent years the detective branch needed to be reorganised. During the period when the killings occurred, The Whitechapel Vigilance Committee was set up by sixteen concerned citizens to patrol the streets and look for suspicious individuals. This is the same element used for Stoker’s novel, where citizens themselves who have been affected by Dracula, take it upon themselves to root out the killer.

The Legacy of Jack the Ripper

The real Jack the Ripper was never found, it is even unclear whether there was a he at all, since some speculate there could have been more than one killer. Instead what we are left to consider a wide variety of perspectives. Like Stoker’s Dracula, it is a case which is put together through diary entries, accounts, and lurid descriptions of horror. Jack the Ripper was a cruel, vicious sadist whoever his true identity may have been. The impoverished nature of his victims brought to light new conversations that go on to this day about overcrowding in cities. Many of the slums of this period were subsequently demolished.

Like other so-called bogey-men of the media however, he began to take a life of his own in fiction and folk-lore. To explore the story of Jack the Ripper and his victims now, is to go deep into a rabbit hole, all in search of a killer who appears unable to die, so often does the spectre arise again in our imagination. This strange blend between fact and fiction is something Bram Stoker of all people would have appreciated.

One Response

  1. Daniel O'Reilly says:

    I appreciate these literary/historical articles. It’s interesting to consider the influence of the Jack the Ripper scare on Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and on the late Victorian Gothic movement as a whole.You can even see the same themes evoked in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ which was written and published amid the furore of the Whitechapel murders.I hadn’t realised the connection between the Lyceum Theatre and Jack the Ripper.

    Some good food for thought here.I hope to read more articles like this.

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