Friday, October 19, 2007

Killers and Strongwomen

This story on the beeb today led me off on a bit of a Wiki bender, because it occurred to me that whilst I knew the name Dr Crippen, I didn't actually know anything about him or what he did. His story isn't that interesting until the facts (if they are facts) in that news story are added. I mean, so he didn't kill his wife, but er, it's not like the new evidence makes him look shiny and innocent - what with the skilfully dismembered corpse buried under his floor. It just makes it more interesting, who was the dead body under the floor, if it wasn't his wife - I think the incompetent backstreet abortionist theory sounds plausible, if unpleasant.

I find these sort of figures interesting; not for what they did, killing people isn't that remarkable - anyone with a defective conscience, a half decent swing and a big stick can do that - but for the way that their crimes slip into popular culture after a few decades. Consider, for example, these names: Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, Spring Heeled Jack - how many people would actually be certain which of these famous murderers was real, or at least closely based on a real person?* I was curious about the man's actual crimes because often you find that such shocking events and stories echo through the popular imagination, aspects of the case get regurgitated, intentionally or subconsciously, in narratives all the time and it's interesting to see how they reappear and evolve into something more fiction than fact.

In that regard I have a suspicion that all such stories have some grounding in fact. I don't mean that there really was a demon barber, but there might have been a really inept barber who gave someone with a tendency to exaggerate a clumsy shave, and so the story started. It makes me think of the romantic poets and their theories of the imagination (not something I like to be reminded of) specifically of Keats' theory, mirrored in the work of other good poets like Wallace Stevens, that art and, to an extent, perception, is created through the imaginative mind's interactions with prosaic reality - rather than conjured out of nothing.

Finally, as always with Wikipedia benders, I found myself getting more interested in tangentially related characters in the story, such as the friend of the late Mrs Belle Crippen** who informed the police that her friend had vanished - a Ms Kate Williams, known to the public as Vulcana. Who is a fascinating character, much more interesting than the weird quack who murdered his washed up showgirl wife. I insist that you go read about her instead.


*In case you were unsure it's only the first one - Sweeney Todd and Spring Heeled Jack are urban Legends popularised in Penny Dreadfuls. Although there are those who argue that there is some grain of truth to the stories, nobody knows where that grain lies.

**Even if she wasn't 'late' at that point, I should think she is now.