Hammett: The Ripper

On the tour I sometimes use the 1929 story “Fly Paper” for a quick introduction to the Continental Op stories, always getting into the Op’s showdown with the gangster Babe McCloor. I always mention the fact of arsenic poisoning being a key element of the story, but don’t always refer to how Hammett brings in Dumas and The Count of Monte Cristo as background for the idea of building up an immunity to poison — but whenever I think of the story, that’s the angle I remember.

Hammett had a lot more going on, of course, and his expertise in the arena of real crime was incredibly impressive — you simply cannot beat all those years he spent on the streets as a Pinkerton’s detective. Man, you want background, he had background.

As my first ever Guest Blogger I am pleased to feature Brian Leno, bringing our attention to some of that background knowledge and the ripple effects further out into the dark waters of murder and mayhem. I first encountered Brian in the pages of The Cimmerian some years ago, a fellow fan of the writings of Robert E. Howard — at this moment, Brian holds down a post as one of the regular bloggers on the Two-Gun Raconteur website devoted to REH. I have linked to his posts on boxing before this, one of his areas of interest. Howard, old school boxers, Lizzie Borden, the Old West — and also Ripperology. Take it away, Brian: 

Into the story “Fly Paper,” Dashiell Hammett drops this bit: “‘Ah, arsenical fly paper,’ the Old Man murmured. ‘The Maybrick-Seddons trick. Mashed in water, four to six grains of arsenic can be soaked out of a sheet — enough to kill two people.'” The Old Man runs the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency, and mentions this crude but very effective way of obtaining poison to the Op.

Frederick Seddon used this “trick” when he murdered Eliza Mary Barrow in 1911, and he would be hanged for it on April 18, 1912, seventeen years before Hammett’s story first saw print in Black Mask for August 1929.

Florence Maybrick, the other half of this act, was accused of poisoning her husband James in 1889.  After James Maybrick became ill and died, his wife quickly became a murder suspect, due in part to an incriminating letter written to Alfred Brierley, her lover, and the discovery of fly paper soaking in a wash basin — Mrs. Maybrick swore she used the arsenic taken from the paper for cosmetic purposes but it was believed she had administered the deadly toxin to her husband. Even though an examination of Maybrick’s body uncovered only a trace of the poison in his system, Florence was jailed and had to stand trial.   

During this trial it was proven that James, believing arsenic to be an aphrodisiac, ate the deadly substance quite often, which would have made it only natural for the poison to have appeared in his autopsy. Maybrick, no saint, was also shown to have been as unfaithful to his wife as she was to him — so all the ingredients were present for a sensational Victorian murder trial. Presiding over this circus-like affair was Justice James Fitzjames Stephen, an uncle to Virginia Woolf, and father to James Kenneth Stephen, author of Lapsus Calami and Other Verses. Interestingly, the son has achieved a small measure of immortality — not only was he an able poet and personal tutor to the Duke of Clarence, but his name has been thrown into the mix as a possible suspect for Jack the Ripper.

Ever since Jack carved up five prostitutes (the usually accepted number) in 1888, scores of books have been written with the various authors contributing their guesses as to who this London serial killer really was, and some interesting names have appeared. However, so many people have been accused of being the Ripper that, while some of these candidates are truly worthwhile and serious, most are just downright silly. An easy example: Lewis Carroll as Jack — I guess he’d be labeled “A Ripper in Wonderland.” Richard Mansfield, famous for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde on the stage, is another name not to be taken too seriously. It’s been written that poor Oscar Wilde, while not the killer himself, knew who Jack was and used him as the basis for his character Dorian Gray. Even the author of My Secret Life, a piece of Victorian pornography, has come under scrutiny and is the subject of a book which now claims he was Jack. Prince Eddy, the Duke of Clarence and heir to the English throne, is prominent on the list — as stated above, he was tutored by James Stephen, yet another contender in a crowded field for the Jack the Ripper crown.

But around 1992 another man’s name appeared on the radar and I think Dashiell Hammett would have been very surprised to learn that the supposed victim of Florence Maybrick’s fly paper trick, her unsuspecting husband, had apparently penned a diary in which he admitted to being the Whitechapel fiend.

This claim, made by Shirley Harrison in her book, The Diary of Jack the Ripper, has actually been taken very seriously by some Ripperologists. Amazingly, at about the same time that the Ripper diary was found, a watch was also discovered with the inside inscription reading “I am Jack,” signed “JMaybrick” — and to top all this off the watch also included the initials of the five ladies who were the Ripper’s victims. 

More than a hundred years after the crimes, suddenly two pieces of information appeared to damn Maybrick as the legendary knife-wielder — it does seem a little too coincidental, doesn’t it? Ripper historian and expert, Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper and the tour-host of a Jack the Ripper walk, does not believe — along with many others — in the authenticity of the diary, and his opinion bears enough weight with me to sway my belief. All a little too perfect — Maybrick would almost seem to have been yelling his criminal identity from the London rooftops. It’s a wonder he didn’t sew a Jack the Ripper monogram on his shirts. 

I think this manuscript will go the way of the Howard Hughes memoirs and the Hitler diaries; time of course will tell, but the Ripper, while he will always remain a shadowy figure, will continue to have volumes written about him and his crimes, and I’m certain new suspects will step forth in the future.

The future, however, of Florence Maybrick appeared to be cut short when she was found guilty of killing her husband and was sentenced to be hanged shortly thereafter. One day before the execution was to be carried out Florence was told to prepare for death. 

However, with less than twelve hours remaining before the hanging, she was informed that the sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment. She spent fourteen years in Woking and Aylesbury prisons before she finally was granted freedom, and tells of this horrible period of confinement in her book, Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years (1905).  Perhaps it’s to be expected that the book has some scenes of self-pity. If wrongly convicted— and I believe she was — Mrs. Maybrick had every right to feel that the world hadn’t given her a fair shake. She died in 1941, pretty much friendless except for a house full of cats, twelve years after first publication of Hammett’s story which drops her name.  

Many books have been written about Florence Maybrick — one boldly proclaims her the wife of Jack the Ripper in the title, The Last Victim: The Extraordinary Life of Florence Maybrick the Wife of Jack the Ripper. Along with My Fifteen Lost Years I personally can recommend The Girl with the Scarlet Brand (1954) by Charles Boswell and Lewis Thompson, which I found to be a very clear narrative of the Maybrick case. In 1952 the radio series The Black Museum, narrated by Orson Welles, retold the story under the title “Meat Juice.” The radio play takes place in 1892, and the Maybrick’s names were changed to Ruth and Robert Hammond — perhaps the names were changed to protect the innocent.

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