“Do you do more research for your fiction or your nonfiction?”

An academic friend of mine asked me this after my novel was announced. She’s familiar with how much work (a lot) goes into academic writing, and she wanted to know how fiction compares. It’s a good question, but I don’t really have a short answer.

My upcoming novel deals with a serial killer. Generally writing about characters who are nothing like you takes a lot of research. However … that is my research area. I’ve read true crime documents in the hundreds, from the cheap paperback, read-it-on-the-beach variety to textbooks used in training courses. That includes execution sermons from the 1700s, newspaper articles from the 1800s, the best-selling books from the 1900s, and Netflix documentaries from this century.

And that’s just the nonfiction. I also read widely when it comes to books generally shelved under thriller or mystery. True, there are some I put down before I finish them, but I still make it through most of them. (Usually I google the plot of something I’m not sure is worth my time, just to see if it’s worth finishing. Sometimes the twist or reveal makes me keep going just to see how the author pulls it off. Other times I put the book down because it’s the author playing with the reader instead of the characters doing the concealing – it’s a small difference, but a deal breaker for me.)

I picked up a lot of the true crime specifically for my academic side, but I generally want to just be able to enjoy my thrillers when it comes to fiction. I want a book I’m going to enjoy and want to finish because I care enough about how it’s all going to come out, whether it’s written “well” (whatever that means) or not. I want a story that’s going to pull me through to the end and then, only after I’m done, will I sit back and start to pick it apart.

(Side note: it kind of sucks making your passions into your research. You can’t just read things for fun anymore.)

So when I think about research for my fiction, I’m including not just the shelves upon shelves of true crime, but also all of those novels on my “have read” list. The novels don’t really feel like research, and the research is usually directed toward my nonfiction writing … but it all plays together when it comes to writing fiction about serial killers.

I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived so I don’t have to spend too much time figuring out the literal lay of the land or the sort of people who live there. I don’t need to look up “common Midwestern sayings” because it’s the sort of stuff that just comes out of my mouth, or to wonder about what sorts of restaurants are available to my characters. I’ll bring up the website and double-check the menu, but I already know where they’re eating.

I don’t usually stop in the middle of writing to look something up, but then, I also put off actually starting the writing for months at a time, letting things swirl around in my head. Not Your Mary Sue was initially drafted during NaNoWriMo 2017, in November, but I had the idea going since February that year. Instead of drafting on paper, I was putting things together in the back of my mind, examining them, and taking them apart, all the while reading things and adding to my general store of knowledge. I had a very solid idea of who my serial killer was – his motivations and his personality – before I sat down to write him.

So when I look back on it, the answer is “A lot. Seriously a lot.” That’s a ton of research I’ve been over and over, all sorts of words from both killers and authors, perspectives from killers to prosecutors to researchers to surviving family members of victims, all piled up and put into my writing. I mean, I wrote my dissertation on the history of written crime narratives in America and then came up with a situation where someone’s demanding his own written crime narrative. The two things can’t easily be separated.

So really, if you’re considering writing fiction, I’d suggest starting by taking a look at what you’re already reading and what you already know. The areas where yeah, maybe you need a little more exploration on some specific details, but you’ve already got the broad strokes handy. It’s not so much “write what you know” as “write what you’ve read,” especially when you’ve already done so much work to learn about your passions. Not every tiny tidbit of information is going to make it into a novel, but it can inform a lot, from plot to characterization to setting.

How about you? How much research do you do? Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Rodgers and Charles Cole

Not all of H. H. Holmes’ murders occurred within his Murder Castle in Chicago, even after he’d begun killing people there. And not all of his murders are worth more than a couple paragraphs. The two we’re discussing today, a man only referred to as Rodgers and a man named Charles Cole, have very little information attached to them.

Holmes confesses to murdering Rodgers as his fifth victim in 1888, even though his previous murder – the double murder of Julia and Pearl Conner – took place around Christmas 1891. Wait, what?

Similar things happened in Holmes’ previously published autobiography, Holmes’ Own Story, where the timeline jumps around as though the reader won’t notice. It’s entirely possible they won’t – although Holmes opens Rodgers’ tale with the year, the only date he includes in his short discussion of the Conners is in reference to when the newspapers caught the story. The casual reader, eager to snap up the Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wouldn’t be looking for such inconsistencies.

Apparently murdered in 1888, although now of course in doubt as to his standing as fifth, Rodgers was murdered in West Morgantown, Virginia, while Holmes was “boarding there for a few weeks.” Why was he in Virginia? Holmes doesn’t say.

What he does say – and what tracks with some of his other stories – is that he found out Rodgers had money and decided to kill him for it. Holmes invited Rodgers on a fishing trip and killed him with his near-trademark single blow to the head, this one on purpose and using the boat’s oar. Although Rodgers’ body was found about a month later, Holmes writes that he wasn’t suspected until after his trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Apparently upwards of fifty people in Virginia recognized Holmes’ picture in the papers and therefore suspected him of the then-unsolved murder.

Because Holmes wasn’t home in Chicago, with his usual method of disposing of a body, he apparently had to leave it. How much money he took from Rodgers, and what he did with it, is left up to readers’ imaginations.

Charles Cole suffered a similar fate, although he met his death in Chicago. Cole was a Southern speculator who had been corresponding with Holmes for some time and had finally been convinced to come visit the Castle. Cole died because of a single blow to the head, yes, but there’s an added wrinkle here: Holmes didn’t strike him. It was apparently his job to distract Cole while “a confederate” wielded a pipe and “crushed his skull to such an extent that his body was almost useless to the party who bought” it.

Hang on.

Holmes, in writing his final confession to be published mere weeks before his execution, tells the world that he didn’t act alone in all of his murders. In the case of Charles Cole, he both lured and distracted the man, but someone else killed him. Someone Holmes refuses to name. He simply teases readers by observing it was likely the other man’s first murder, but that the unnamed other man is even “more heartless and bloodthirsty” than Holmes is when Holmes is awaiting execution and confessing 27 murders … but he doesn’t name him. He’s just dropping hints that hey, there’s still another murderer wandering around Chicago, and he’s probably got some help, too.

In other words: dear reader, this doesn’t stop with me.

Holmes may not have been much for keeping his timelines straight, but he was an accomplished liar and teller of tall tales. He knew how to capture other people’s attention – usually in person, but in writing, too. His confession, real or fake, was written in order to sell newspapers, and Holmes added his own flair. A flair that Ted Bundy would repeat almost a century later when he threatened “We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.”

These contrasts exist throughout Holmes’ confession: the reassurance that all of his victims died suddenly, as the result of a single blow, so he’s actually less of a monster than he might seem … followed by references to his accomplices and helpers, people who have killed for him or kept his secrets, and who are still anonymous and out there, ready to strike again.

At this point it seems ridiculous to ask if Rodgers and Charles Cole actually existed, and if they were murdered the way Holmes claims. Instead, let’s focus on the storytelling aspect. Knowing he was two weeks away from his execution, what do you think Holmes was trying to accomplish? Did he only write these things so he could entertain, or was he hoping for a stay of execution while people fought to get those names out of him?

What we leave out when we talk about writing

I’m working on knitting a sweater right now. It’s far enough along that I tried it on to check for the sleeve length and posted a mirror selfie, and one of my friends commented that the body is a perfect fit. Which meant I made a list of all the steps I’d gone through to make sure of it. And then got me musing on knitting patterns and writing books.

Bear with me.

When you buy a knitting pattern, you get instructions on how to make the exact object in the photo, sometimes in different sizes. Let’s focus on a sweater. You choose your sweater size off the bust measurement – how big around you want to make it – and go, right? Because all the information is right there. Nyoom! Sweater!

Well.

When you walk into a store and can try on clothes, they’re sized. You know what one to start with and what generally fits, but if it’s more expensive, you’ll take it back and try it on and see how the standard measurements actually look on you. So yes, you can make a sweater following a pattern exactly – and that’s the easiest way to do it the first time – but … it’s not just about customization. It’s about apparently commonly-known tricks and hurdles that patterns often leave out.

If you’re just knitting on your own, without a community, you might wonder why the heck your armholes always end up holier than they should be. Maybe it’s just you. It takes communication with other people – people willing to show the mistakes and oopsies, even – to learn that hey, actually, lots of people have that issue with armholes, and here’s an easy trick to fix it.

Or, until you knit more than one sweater or talk to other people, you might not consider all the ways you can customize a sweater. Neck, sleeves, shaping, length … top down or bottom up … seamed or in one piece … you can adapt the things you like about a pattern and swap out the things you don’t like.

Patterns also use shorthand like “take time to check gauge” for things that actually take a lot of work. The sweater I’m knitting right now, for example: I’m not knitting the size of my actual measurements. I’ve got another sweater using the same yarn and needles (which, for the record, is very important when you’re using it to do the math) and I measured that, plus a couple other shirts I own that are similar in construction to the pattern I’m knitting (and which I like to wear), and I did a lot of math. Like … a lot. That’s before I even started knitting. But a normal knitting problem doesn’t tell you all that. It assumes you either know about checking gauge and substituting yarn, or you’ll google it on your own.

Non-knitters, you still with me?

Thinking how much gets left out of knitting patterns – how much knowledge you’re assumed to already have at the ready – started me thinking about writing advice. What do writers leave out when we’re talking about writing because it just seems so essential to us, so much like habit, that we forget we once had to learn it? Is there advice out there like “take time to check gauge” that tells you plenty if you already know what it means, but is confusing and overlookable if you don’t?

So much of writing is invisible to the reader, if the writing’s good. All of the stuff that goes behind “take time to check gauge” – measuring the already knit and washed garment in multiple places to calculate stitches and rows per inch, and then measuring clothes of a similar style that give me a good fit, and doing the math to figure out circumference, and then making sure things like armhole depth aren’t going to be completely out of whack, and remembering that my own gauge changes when I knit flat versus knitting in the round …

Do we always share all the stuff that we, personally, had to learn the hard way? (Pro tip: make the sweater that looks like the sweaters you’ve already got in your closet. You know you’ll wear it. And you won’t put in 50+ hours of work on something that looks different and you won’t actually wear.) Or do we just internalize it and think everyone else already knows it, too?

I’ve had some good conversations lately with my writing buddy and a friend of mine who asked me things about my writing, both the nonfiction and the fiction, and I’m compiling a list of those questions to answer in blog posts moving forward. Things that other people want to know, and not just the things I think other people want to know.

If you have any questions about the writing process, or things you’d like to hear me muse about, please share them! I love talking about my research, and I love talking about writing, so if there’s something you’ve always wondered or wanted to ask … now’s the time. Let’s de-mystify the writing shorthand.

(Oh, and the part about how you can change up a sweater pattern to add your favorite sleeves or preferred shaping? That also goes for writing advice. It’s not one size fits all. You pick what works for you, and maybe set some pieces aside to look at more later, and move on from the stuff that doesn’t. The more you read or talk about writing, the more options you’ll have.)

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Dr. Russell

You may recall that Holmes’ first alleged victim, Robert Leacock, was also a doctor. Leacock was “a friend and former schoolmate” whom Holmes killed in for his life insurance. (If you’re at all familiar with serial killers, you know that choosing a victim who’s actually connected to you is just a bad idea if you want to stay out of jail.) Holmes’ second confessed victim, Dr. Russell, was a tenant in Holmes’ so-called Murder Castle.

It seems that, while Holmes plotted and intended to kill Leacock, Russell was in fact a mistake. He had been behind in his rent and, when the two men argued about payments, Holmes “struck him to the floor with a heavy chair.” This single blow was enough to make Russell stop breathing.

Since the men had been in Holmes’ office, he locked the door and then thought quickly. He had a second body on his hands and no planned means of disposal, and his first thought – handing the body over to a Chicago medical college to be used for dissections – was apparently foiled, although he doesn’t say how. Instead Holmes sold Russell’s body to a man he refuses to name, although he hints that he’s told other people the man’s name in the past.

Holmes spends more time talking around this anonymous buyer than he does about Russell’s murder. He informs his readers that this man paid between $25 and $45 for each body and that, when Holmes doesn’t explain how he disposed of his 27 victims, he sold their remains to this man. Even though Holmes is writing and publishing this confession mere weeks before his own execution, he refuses to name this man.

There is also nothing in Holmes’ confession about how he covered up this supposed murder in other ways: cleaning out Russell’s apartment, or fending off concerned friends and relatives, for example. He only writes about – or rather, around – getting rid of Russell’s body before moving on to the murders of Julia and Pearl Connor.

Unlike Julia and Pearl, whose mysterious disappearances had been noticed and connected to Holmes prior to his newspaper confession, Dr. Russell does not seem to have been a true victim. His name and the scant details of his death, very much mimicking the fictional death scene of Nannie Williams in Holmes’ Own Story, seem to have been added to boost Holmes’ supposed body count.

The speed of Russell’s supposed death after the single blow with the heavy chair is suspicious, although there wasn’t enough time left for anyone to question Holmes about it. He simply presents Russell’s murder as part of his argument about how, now that he’s taken a human life, it’s so much easier to do it again. Leacock was killed for money, but Russell was murdered accidentally in a moment of high emotion. It was a mistake, yes, but Holmes was able to respond in such a way as to remain free – and free of suspicion – in order to enact 25 more murders.

The main argument about Dr. Russell’s death seems to be that killing is a slippery slope, and that Holmes had found his preferred means of body disposal early on in his career. Nothing exists of Russell but his last name and he’s quickly bypassed as Holmes moves on to two better-known victims his readers will have already heard about.

Writing and waiting

As of yesterday, I can finally – finally! – announce that my debut novel, the psychological thriller Not Your Mary Sue, will be published in June 2022 by Aesthetic Press. *throws glitter confetti everywhere* I’ve been sitting on this news since this spring, and really, the entire backstory to the book story is one of waiting.

I drafted the novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2017, which means I was vaguely plotting the novel since the beginning of that year. I had the idea based off of one of my favorite Stephen King novels, Misery, where the two characters are stuck together in a house. The author character is held prisoner and forced to write. I substituted Ted Bundy for King’s captor and the novel just flowed.

(Fun fact: you can look back at any of your NaNoWriMo stats if you’ve entered the project into the site. I finished the draft on November 27 that year.)

So I’ve known this story and my characters, especially my main two, since 2017. In fact, the part where they’re stuck together – on an island instead of a house in Colorado – hasn’t changed all that much since 2017. I’ve known this story and these characters for years, but only a few other people had any idea about them.

So first there was waiting while I let the story settle so I didn’t still think it was already absolutely perfect in every way. Time to gain some distance before tackling the revisions on my own. And then more waiting when I started sending out queries.

Lots of waiting.

Do you get the waiting part yet?

I was seriously querying for over a year when I got the request for the full novel. (Queries generally ask for the query letter, a synopsis, and the first three chapters or so – check before submitting, but keep those documents on hands for when a rejection comes in and you need to send them out again. Getting a request for a full is A Big Deal. It’s not a guarantee, not yet, but incredibly exciting.) More waiting. Then the offer. Dancing! And more waiting.

I’ve been sitting on the news of the deal for months, because publishing is allllllll about waiting. You still don’t get to see the cover – not yet. You have to wait until mid-September. And the book itself? Wait until next June. (No, this isn’t weird for publishing. Yes, this is how it works. And yes, it’s hard to wait!)

But then – then! – I’ll be able to talk about my story and my characters with more than just my dad and my husband and a few friends. We can have more in-detail conversations about how Misery and Ted Bundy inspired things. Maybe argue about what happens.

I can’t share too much more right now, but I can leave you with this teaser from my publisher.

A not so classic girl meets boy story begins when a televangelist’s adult daughter, Marcy, journeys to a secluded island resort where she awakens a captive of the handsome, charming, notorious Fresh Coast Killer who requests she pen his autobiography explaining all of his intentions and crimes in detail. She finds herself horrified that she is intrigued by him and maybe even…infatuated by him. He has more control than she realizes as he slowly begins to brainwash her just as the autobiography is completed. Once she is rescued and he is arrested, Marcy begins to pull her life back together only for her captor to escape and her brother becomes a new suspect in a cold case that alters what she thought she knew about her family.

Oh yeah. I’m excited. I can’t wait!

1 like = 1 fact about me as a writer

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

1. I wrote my first novel-length original fic at age 15 because I couldn’t get my plot to work as a fan fiction.

2. My favorite of my published books so far is Ripper’s Victims, because that’s the work closest to my heart. (My mom’s favorite is the one about H.H. Holmes.)

3. I keep track of how much I write each day, but not always in the same place. Sometimes it’s on the NaNoWriMo website, sometimes a sheet of graph paper, and sometimes in my daily planner. (I’ve written over 300k so far this year.)

4. My writing schedule varies wildly. Some days I write 0 words. Others I’m up and at the computer immediately and forget to take breaks for real-life things. It all balances out.

5. In 2020 I decided to complete NaNoWriMo (50k words) in two days, simply because I did it in three days in 2019. I hit 50k by 8pm November 2. And had to baby my wrist for months afterward because … people aren’t meant to type 50k in two days.

6. Because of 5, I taught myself how to dictate my writing, both academic and fiction. I didn’t think it was possible for me but really it’s just the learning curve I didn’t want to tackle.

7. I started lighting a candle when I write as a signal to my brain that it’s time for words, and somehow it’s grown up into this entire thing.


8. The proposal for an academic book is the hardest part for me. I love having swirling ideas and hate forcing myself to commit to a very specific outline. I’ll put off writing the outline as long as possible, even when I know what I want to propose next.

9. I got the contract for Ripper’s Victims because my editor saw my published dissertation and emailed to ask if I had anything she might be able to help me with. (Put yourself out there!)

10. When it’s time to edit, I prefer a hard copy to a screen. Considering the usual length of my manuscripts, this generally means going somewhere to have it printed, since our elderly printer isn’t up to the task.

11. Printing things off means I can use my custom stamps. I get tired of writing the same thing over and over on my first drafts so … I had these made. And of course they’re red.


12. When I’m writing fiction, I tend to “cast” actors as my characters. It especially helps when a character is very much not like me – say, when I have someone whose speech patterns are very calm in moments of stress. If I can picture the actor saying it, it helps.

13. I frequently right click to find synonyms for words I’ve used in my own writing that I’m pretty sure mean what they think they mean, just to be positive. Sometimes I realize I’ve used a word that doesn’t mean what I think it means …

14. I used to write all my “novels” by hand, in pencil, and super teeny – two lines of writing per ruled line on college-ruled paper. I did NaNoWriMo by hand in 2013, but otherwise I type the first draft these days.

15. I used to say all my dialogue out loud as I typed it. My brother laughed because he could hear me arguing with myself. I can write out in public now because I don’t have to do that anymore … but some days I still find myself muttering things as I type them, dialogue or not.

16. I don’t like doing book titles, chapter titles, or heading titles. They’re usually last-minute things I put in before I have to deliver something. It’s rare for me to have a title early on in a project.

17. When the words are flowing and the writing is good, I write fast. Really fast. Which makes the slow days feel agonizingly slow.

Share a random fact about yourself below!

“Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product.”

You’ve probably seen that before, maybe in Helvetica with some sort of soothing photo background, but maybe you’ve never really thought about what, exactly, it means. How many steps go between a rough draft and a final product?

Short answer: too many, thanks.

Longer answer: let me walk you through it.

First, I have some sort of nebulous idea. Sometimes it just comes from reading and thinking about a topic. Other times I see a CFP (Call for Papers/Proposals) that gets me thinking in a certain direction. Depending on the deadline, I can remain at this nebulous idea stage for weeks or months.

Sometimes I do a little more research here, too, with my idea in mind. This can help it become less nebulous. This means another few weeks (or months) before I actually start to draft it. I might take notes, scribbling ideas or phrases here and there, but a lot of my pre-planning takes place solely in my head.

Then comes the first written thing: the proposal. I have to have a good enough grasp on the idea to get it boiled down to fit the required word count. This can be around 300 words for a conference paper or a chapter, or longer for a book proposal (which also includes a couple chapters), but it’s me laying out what I’m going to do.

It’s also the first time where my idea – and however much writing I’ve done so far – gets feedback. This is important: I’ve only really started writing the thing, but I’m already getting feedback. Someone else has already seen it and provided a nudge.

It’s also important to note that, at this point, I’ve got a complete outline. I know where things are going, and the people judging whether it’s an idea worth pursuing know it, too. If things get approved, I’m locked in.

Then, if I get the go-ahead, we get to the actual writing itself. Which usually looks like:

  • the first draft: just get the words on the page. Jump around that outline if I get stuck. Slowly narrow down the parts of the draft that still need to be written until I have to write the stuff I didn’t want to at first.
  • let it sit: put the draft aside after saving it in multiple formats, just in case, and don’t look at it for a while. Do more research if I found any gaps. Let it become as new and strange to myself as I can.
  • read it again: with multiple pens and my stamps at hand, I pick up a hard copy of my rough draft and go to town on it. I go directly for the weak spots. Sorry, Past Me, but this part sucks. So does this one. And this … well, it’s a mess. I color-code the issues and make a ton of notes to myself.
  • attempt to fix it: once the paper copy is covered, I’ll go back to the computer and start implementing the changes. I say “attempt to fix it” because yeah, sometimes new issues get introduced at this point, but … I try.
  • let it rest again: if I have time, I take another break. Try to make it strange and new and exciting again before I come back to it.
  • read through from the beginning, slowly: this is where I have Word read it out loud to me, and man, this part takes time. I’m looking for continuity, to see if the patches I put in totally stand out and need to be smoothed over, and also for any typos. Through, though, thorough … that kind of thing. I’m super nitpicky at this stage because it’s usually the last thing I do, mostly because the thing is due.

And now somebody else sees it. The whole thing and not just the proposal.

At this point the writing gets bounced back and forth multiple times between the editor, peer reviewer(s), and me. I get comments, make changes, and send it back. Get updated comments, make more changes, and send it back. I think the most times I’ve volleyed something is three, but I’m responding to multiple people at this point, in multiple roles. Trying to make them happy because, if they’re not happy, this isn’t going to get published.

Then there’s another break, on their end instead of mine this time. Time to twiddle my thumbs or get more ideas.

Some day, out of the blue, I’ll get proofs. Another chance to go over it line by line and look for typos or other issues that might have snuck in. If it’s a book, I’m also doing the index. And usually I’ve got a couple other people reading through it at this point in case I miss something.

And then – then – it gets published.

Phew.

I mean, I fall into the same trap sometimes – I want that first draft to be perfect. Polished. The absolute best writing I’m capable of producing. Even when I know all the steps that still have to come before it’s actually out there.

But your first draft is just … a draft. Something only you ever have to see. The thing you’re going to massage and tweak before handing it over to other people who will further massage and tweak.

Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s final product, and don’t compare your first draft to your own previous final products, either.

Do you struggle with this, too? Do you have any advice on how to keep from thinking this way?

Ripper suspect: a Jewish slaughterman

One way of getting around naming an actual known person as having been the Ripper is to propose an occupation. In this case, I’m looking at the idea that the Ripper may have been a shochet, or a Jewish slaughterman. It’s a theory Robin Odell covers in the 1965 book Jack the Ripper in Fact and Fiction, but also one that appealed to newspaper readers in 1888.

Why pick “a Jewish slaughterman” as a Ripper suspect? Let us count the ways.

  1. Antisemitism was rife in London in the late 1800s. If you see a Ripper suspect described as a “foreigner,” chances are the person was using the then-common description for “Jew.” Not allowed to settle in other parts of London, Jewish immigrants gathered together to form their own communities and cared for each other with social programs not available to anyone else, because the government didn’t provide them. Rather than respond with frustration against the government, the people turned their anger against the Jews.

    It was also a major concern in the case on the night of the so-called Double Event because of graffiti chalked on a wall along the path the Ripper is thought to have fled after murdering Kate Eddowes. Called “the Goulston Street graffito,” the actual text was washed off before there was enough light for it to be photographed, and variations are all we have left. It said something along the lines of The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing and has been interpreted, variably, as either blaming the Jewish people for the Ripper murders, or having something to do with Freemason legends.

    At the time, Police Commissioner Charles Warren recommended that the message be erased before it could be seen by too many people because he suspected it would be interpreted the first way. The police were already struggling because they had arrested a Jewish man named John Pizer (nickname: Leather Apron) for the crimes but then had to let him go since he was in custody as they continued. This was also a time when mobs would descend on people, claiming they were the Ripper, causing these victims to turn to the police for protection. It was very easy, then, for East Enders to combine their fear of the Ripper with their antisemitism.
  2. It was already suspected that the Ripper had some knowledge of biology. The common image of the Ripper in a top hat and cape also has him carrying a doctor’s bag for this very reason. The killer was reported to have removed specific organs from his victims and worked very quickly in conditions of poor lighting, to the point where physicians commented that they could not have done the same thing in the given amount of time.

    Aside from causing actual physicians to frantically replace their usual bags with ones that didn’t carry the Ripper’s stigma, this also started a debate. Did the Ripper honestly have anatomical knowledge, or was he just lucky? Could he have gained such knowledge somewhere other than medical school?

    There were numerous slaughterhouses in the East End, so the Ripper could have come from any of them and gained whatever anatomical knowledge he might have had from his work there. As a bonus, it was a common sight to see men walking around covered in blood because of their work. A slaughterman could easily have escaped after the murders without necessarily having to clean himself thoroughly because he would have been expected to be in such a state, anyway.
  3. Unless someone was rather famous, it’s difficult to find records and therefore attach a name to a suspect. Rather than accusing someone famous, whose descendants might have something to say about that, it’s easier to look at a group of people who have the same presumed skill set and say “There were thousands of them. We’ll never know which one.”

… and that’s very likely true: we’ll never actually know who the Ripper was. We’ve narrowed it down to “someone who was alive in 1888 and at least near the East End,” but, other than that … we’re left grasping at straws. True, if we think that the Ripper did in fact exhibit some anatomical knowledge, a butcher seems to be a good candidate, but what about the men with proven medical training whose names have also been put forward?

What do you think? Does this theory belong on the books or in the bin?

Ripper suspect: George Chapman

George Chapman – no relation to Annie Chapman; birth name Seweryn Kłosowski – is one of the oldest Ripper suspects. Although he was arrested, tried, and hanged for three poisonings, police at the time thought he may have been the Ripper. Let’s see if we agree.

Chapman was born in Poland in 1865. At age 14, he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and in October 1885 he enrolled in a brief course in practical surgery at the Warsaw Praga Hospital. It’s unclear exactly when he left Poland for England, but he was working as a doctor’s assistant in Warsaw until December 1886, and a receipt from February 1887 still places him in Poland. He settled in the East End as a hairdresser’s assistant in either late 1887 or early 1888.

So far Chapman seems to be a plausible Ripper suspect. The Ripper was thought to have anatomical knowledge that could be attributed to being a butcher or a doctor, and Chapman had medical training. He had also moved to the East End shortly before the murders began and records can prove he was there during the Autumn of Terror. On top of this, he was a known serial killer. So what’s the hesitation?

Jack the Ripper killed women on the street by cutting their throats and then mutilating their bodies with a knife or knives. There is no known connection between these women, although various people have done their best to hook them together in a conspiracy.

George Chapman murdered his mistresses by poisoning them with tartar-emetic. He had a string of relationships with women who presented themselves as his wife, and while some of them left Chapman because he was violent, three of them died because of him. Chapman’s first known murder was of Mary Isabella Spink in 1897; his second, Bessie Taylor in 1901; and his third, Maud Marsh in 1902. Reports at his trial indicate that he was physically abusive to all three, as well as the other women – some mothers of his children – who left him, perhaps before he could murder them, as well.

Suspicions were high enough after Marsh’s death for the bodies of Spink and Taylor to be exhumed, as well, in order to prove poisoning. Chapman was charged with Marsh’s murder, brought to trial, convicted on March 19, 1903, and hanged on April 7 with his motives still unproven. Although he inherited a legacy from Spink, there was no monetary reason for him to have murdered Taylor and March.

No less than Fredrick Abberline himself considered George Chapman to have been Jack the Ripper. When he spoke to the policeman who arrested Chapman, he’s reported to have said “You’ve got Jack the Ripper at last!” During the initial investigation Abberline had interviewed Chapman’s “wife” at the time, who apparently reported that he was out and about at all hours. However, Chapman – who was then still going by Seweryn Kłosowski – was not named as a suspect in 1888. It was only his arrest for serial poisoning that put his name on the short list.

So: we know that Chapman in the East End at the proper time, and that he was violent toward the women in his life. He had medical training. And we also know he was a murderer, but the question remains: would the Ripper have switched from using a knife to using poison? From killing strangers who could not have been connected back to him to murdering his own “wives”?

What do you think? Did they really capture Jack the Ripper at last?

Ripper suspect: James Maybrick

Remember back when we were discussing Montague John Druitt and we learned it’s bad luck to have died shortly after the Ripper murders were “finished”? James Maybrick, a Liverpool cotton merchant, had some of that same luck, except “died” doesn’t quite fit here. His wife was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death.

Florence Chandler was 18 when she met 42-year-old Maybrick on a sea voyage to Liverpool. It lasted six days, which was long enough for the couple to go from strangers to being engaged. They married in 1881 and had two children by 1886. He had multiple mistresses; she had at least one affair. He sickened suddenly in late April 1889 and died 15 days later. The inquest declared it was arsenic poisoning. Florence became the key suspect.

The trial was sensational, especially since this was an American woman, and the judge’s conduct in particular likely led to her death sentence being commuted to life in prison. In 1904 the case was reexamined and Florence was released. She was the more interesting Maybrick until 1992, when “the Ripper diary” hit headlines.

The provenance of the book is confusing, especially since the story has changed a few times. The contents aren’t really any more enlightening, since the author of the diary never gives his own name. He claims responsibility for the murders of the Canonical Five, as well as two others. And apparently this anonymous author is supposed to be James Maybrick.

The “diary” surfaced in 1992 and has been subjected to multiple tests to determine whether the ink could have been used in 1888. The book itself is less controversial, since the binding and the pages are apparently of the correct vintage, but someone could have found the book and then written the story themselves much later. Some of the details “the Ripper” provides about the murders are inaccurate, but align with oft-repeated parts of the story that someone who was not the Ripper might have heard in the decades since. In fact, the owner of the diary made a statement in 1995 that his wife actually wrote the diary while he dictated. (His solicitor submitted a repudiation of this affidavit, and then he withdrew the repudiation. Just to make things even more confusing.)

The idea seems to be that James Maybrick embarked on the murders as a reaction to his wife’s infidelities, even though it seems that she only began her affair after he had continually cheated on her with multiple women. I suppose we can counter these double standards by arguing that she murdered him when she found out he was murdering other people, even though a twenty-first inquiry into the case revealed that Maybrick was taking multiple medications at the time of his death, most of which were poisonous. It’s highly unlikely Florence Maybrick killed her husband, and it’s also highly unlikely that James Maybrick was Jack the Ripper.

But the diary isn’t the only piece of evidence that surfaced naming the previously unsuspected Maybrick. In 1993, a year after the diary was presented to the world, a man named Albert Johnson bought an antique pocket watch with a strange etching inside. Someone had scratched in the initials of the Canonical Five women (not including the two unidentified women from the diary), James Maybrick’s signature, and the words “I am Jack.” Separate examinations determined that the scratches were not recent – say, if someone had come across the diary story in 1992 and decided to fake them on an true antique watch – but the timing is still puzzling. If Maybrick was a Ripper “nobody” until the diary surfaced in 1992 because it reached the hands of a new owner, how coincidental is it that the pocket watch also changed hands and came to light a year later?

The diary made a splash in the 1990s with books arguing both for and against its authenticity, but it – and James Maybrick – has been largely dismissed by those studying the case. If the Ripper had left a diary for us to find, that would have been big news indeed – even bigger if he’d gotten all the details right and actually signed his name. But the diary goes the way of the shawl and the letters: an interesting splash for experts to argue over, but ultimately not the key to unlock the mystery.

Have you heard about the Ripper diary and the pocket watch? What did you think when you first learned about them? (Does Jack the Ripper strike you as the type to keep a diary in the first place?)