Jekyll, Hyde, and Jack the Ripper: Richard Mansfield (S1E3)
Updated: Jan 31
In 1887, American actor Richard Mansfield originated the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Boston. His performance as Hyde was so terrifying that audience members fainted. In the late summer of 1888, he took the show to London, presenting it at the metropolis's foremost playhouse. Just weeks after Jekyll and Hyde opened, the Ripper claimed his first canonical victim, and Mansfield aroused suspicion as the culprit. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Promotional photograph of Richard Mansfield as Jekyll and Hyde. Held by Billy Rose Theater Division at New York Public Library.
Oil painting of Richard Mansfield in character as Baron Chevrial in A Parisian Romance. Included in Paul Wilstach's Richard Mansfield, the Man and the Actor. Photo by Ken Symphonies.
Engraving of cabinet maker and burglar William Brodie, said to be the historical inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Taken from the 1788 book, An Account of the Trial of William Brodie, and George Smith, Before the High Court of Justiciary... Curiously, Robert Louis Stevenson also co-wrote a play about Brodie with W.E. Henley, titled Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life.
This image comes from a theatrical poster advertising a production of Jekyll and Hyde and shows the climactic transformation scene. It was printed in Chicago in the late 1880s and is almost certainly tied to the Mansfield dramatization. Taken from the Theatrical Poster Collection of the Library of Congress.
Henry Irving as the terror-stricken Mathias in The Bells. This image adorned a postcard dating from the 1870s. Taken from the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship at Emory University.
As the Ripper claimed more victims, the British capital engaged in constant speculation about the killer's identity. This edition of the American satirical magazine, Puck, riffs on the wide array of suspect profiles, ranging from deranged foreigners to "respectable" English gentlemen. Taken from the short-lived London edition of Puck, printed on September 21, 1889.
This 1885 photograph depicts French actress Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Bernhardt took the stage at London's West End Lyceum Theatre right before Richard Mansfield began his tenancy there, putting him to shame. Taken from the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third
Edition. London: Headline, 1996.
---Brocklehurst, Steven. “The Real Jekyll and Hyde? The Deacon Brodie Story.”
BBC News, published on Jan. 29, 2015. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-31018496, accessed on Aug. 8, 2022.
---Danahay, Martin A. and Alexander Chisholm, eds. Jekyll and Hyde Dramatized:
The 1887 Richard Mansfield Script and the Evolution of the Story Onstage. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2004.
---Gibson, Donald Sibbald. “Brodie, William [known as Deacon Brodie].” Oxford
Dictionary ofNational Biography Online. Published on Sep. 23, 2004, accessed Aug. 8, 2022.
---McArthur, Benjamin. “Mansfield, Richard.” American National Biography Online.
Published in February 2000, accessed Aug. 8, 2022.
---Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror. London: Penguin, 2003.
---Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
---Wilstach, Paul. Richard Mansfield, the Man and the Actor. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1908.
---Winter, Sarah A. “‘Two and the Same’: Jack the Ripper and the Stage Adaptation of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 42, no. 2 (2016): 174-94.
---Winter, William. Life and Art of Richard Mansfield, With Selections from His Letters. New York; Moffat: Yard and Company, 1910.
The gaslight would have made anybody sweat, and it didn’t help that singer, musician, dancer, and actor Richard Mansfield was trying to stay calm during the most important performance of his career thus far. The year was 1877, and he was twenty-three. Mansfield had gotten off to an inauspicious start in London show business, but his fortunes had changed suddenly when he secured a position at The Royal Gallery of Illustration, managed by Thomas German Reed and home to one of the capital’s most prestigious entertainment troupes. Each evening, the company presented a blend of comic sketches, often accompanied by piano and other instruments, along with musical interludes to a genteel audience. As Mansfield would have known, several of London’s most distinguished theater professionals had graduated from this establishment. Taking the stage here could mean the break he was waiting for. In preparation for his debut on April 20, Mansfield scraped together what money he could to buy a new outfit, dead-set on making an indelible impression. Stepping onto the boards, he looked very much the gentleman with a fresh set of linens, a new pair of boots, a fetching cravat, and a boutonnière to go with it. He made his first appearance in a light comedy titled Charity Begins at Home, noticeably nervous to his friends in the crowd. Later that evening, he would play the piano. With the lights beating down on him, Mansfield took a seat at the keyboard, cracked his knuckles, struck the first chord … and fainted on the spot. When he came to, German Reed informed him of his immediate dismissal. How was he supposed to put on a show if his actors were literally fainting from stage fright? Just like that, Richard Mansfield was out of a job.
In retrospect, the German Reed debacle would look ironic for at least two reasons. First, despite this humiliating mishap, Mansfield went on to achieve wild success, rising to fame not in London but in New York City as well as other theatrical hubs across the United States. At the time of his death in 1907, The New York Times hailed him as “the greatest actor of his hour, and the greatest of all times.” Still, he never lost hope of dominating London theater. In 1888, he seemed about to realize his dreams after he received a rare opportunity to perform what became one of his signature roles in the British capital. Herein lies the second irony. The man who had fainted at German Reed’s establishment would originate the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and his spitfire portrayal of Hyde in particular struck such terror into spectators and even fellow performers, it was they instead of he who were swooning in the playhouse. Less than a month after Jekyll and Hyde opened in the British capital, the Whitechapel slayings started making headlines, and today we’ll hear about why the lead actor raised suspicion as a possible culprit. The theory emerged largely because the public began thinking of the Ripper as a real-life version of Jekyll and Hyde. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 3 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
Jekyll, Hyde, and Jack the Ripper – Richard Mansfield
The Road to German Reed
Probably born in 1854, Mansfield had covered a lot of terrain in the years leading up to the German Reed fiasco. The son of a wine merchant, Maurice, as well as an accomplished opera singer, Erminia Rudersdorff, Mansfield drew first breath in Berlin. His father died when he was only a boy, leaving him in the care of his domineering mother. The two would always have a tempestuous relationship. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Mansfield divided his years between England and Germany until 1872, when he relocated to Boston with his mother. After celebrating his twenty-third birthday, he left the United States for London, briefly pursuing a career as a painter before setting his sights on the stage instead.
Down and Out in London
After his firing at German Reed’s, Mansfield entered perhaps the darkest chapter of his professional life. Every now and then, he pocketed a few coins doing song-and-dance numbers at private gatherings in middle-class households, his acts as sweet and insubstantial as cotton candy. In the long run, however, these gigs would cost far more than they paid. Since moving to London, Mansfield had subsisted thanks in large part to a modest allowance he received from his mother. For a time, she appears not to have known how her son was feeding himself, and when it came to her attention, she was displeased to say the very least. Was she, Madame Rudersdorff, acclaimed prima donna, to understand that her money was supporting some nobody doing two-bit variety acts in strangers’ drawing rooms? She was to understand precisely that, and no less severe than she was a snob, she cut her son off.
Stripped of this lifeline, Mansfield sank into poverty. According to Paul Wilstach, his early biographer, he made his home in hovels, often without recourse to basic amenities. When his luck was most rotten, his budget wouldn’t permit lodgings of any kind, forcing him to spend his nights beneath the stars. He wandered the streets, footsore, for hours on end, buying a baked potato for dinner if he could afford it. Otherwise, he said later, he “dined on sights and smells,” his stomach rumbling as he gazed through plate-glass at the offerings of fruit shops, bakeries, and restaurants.
His misery came to an end in autumn 1878, when Mansfield auditioned for a role in the runaway hit, H.M.S. Pinafore, a comic opera lampooning the British navy with a book by W.S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan. (Gilbert, incidentally, had written for German Reed.) Having belted a passage from Don Giovanni, Mansfield got the part and joined one of several touring companies attached to the name of Richard D’Oyly Carte, a kingmaker in London’s entertainment industry. The outfit journeyed throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, with Mansfield portraying Sir Joseph Porter, one of H.M.S. Pinafore’s principals.
As much as he might have welcomed a steady paycheck and a chance to showcase his sundry talents, life on the road left much to be desired. The hours were long and the working conditions poor. No town was too small, no venue too ramshackle, for the company to stop and give a performance. A couple dozen wooden planks laid out across barrels might have served as a stage, while in the words of Paul Wilstach, “metallic pianos and asthmatic harmoniums” clanked and wheezed as musical accompaniment. Don’t even ask what passed for dressing rooms. To make matters worse, Mansfield was living off a paltry income of three pounds a week, and if you asked him, his time and talent merited more. Still, he sttck it out for about a year until his boss finally sacked him, partly because Mansfield wouldn’t shut up about a raise. With little other choice, he packed his bags and traipsed back to London.
Despite this acrimonious split, Mansfield was back in the provinces a few months later—this time in a different D’Oyly Carte company. He replaced another actor cast as Sir Joseph Porter, agreeing to take the job partly because this troupe was a cut above the first one he joined.
Its members enjoyed longer engagements at larger venues, not to mention more handsome salaries.
All the same, he wanted more. He wrote to a friend: “I am making a living but I am not making progress.” As he would demonstrate time and again, Mansfield was nothing if not ambitious. Later in life, he pointed to an orchestra and confessed to an acquaintance that he would never be able to think his way into the mind of a fiddler content with second chair when he could be first. To Mansfield’s mind, he was second to none or no one at all. He wasn’t merely striving to be the best, however. Mansfield craved fame. If Mansfield wanted to become one of England’s greatest artistes, he couldn’t stay out in the provinces forever. London beckoned—that was where the gilded Hall of Fame stood. Life in the metropolis hadn’t been kind—it had thrown him out on the street and subjected him to hunger—but that mattered little to a man more inclined to set his eye on the future and hope for good fortune rather than dwell on the hardships of the past. After the holidays, Mansfield resigned from the D’Oyly Carte company and headed for the metropolis.
Back in London, he fared better than before, though not by much. By the spring of 1882, he’d joined the cast of a well-received play entitled Masconte at the Comedy Theatre, but all they’d given him was a walk-on part. According to Wilstach, he stood in front of the mirror putting on makeup for an hour and a half only to appear for a five-minute bit in the last act. After curtain one evening, Mansfield slunk back to his dressing room and threw himself into a chair, too dejected to pull off his costume. Quite unexpectedly, an old pal from the U.S. came calling.
The two went for dinner, and after talking long into the night, Mansfield’s buddy proposed he strike out in a new direction. He did. Mansfield resigned from the Comedy Theatre and soon thereafter boarded a steamer destined for the U.S. No less bold and determined than he had been when leaving the provinces, Mansfield cast what he had to the wind in pursuit of more promising opportunities.
The Terrible Baron
Finally, he found them. Against all odds, Mansfield booked the lead role in a play called A Parisian Romance. The show would run at New York City’s Union Square Theatre Company, managed by the eminent A.M. Palmer. He was to embody Baron Chevrial, a repellent old rake. The play follows his drunken escapades and womanizing, which ultimately end in his death—as well they should, the moralizing script intimates.
A handsome devil on the cusp of thirty, Mansfield underwent an incredible transformation to become this nasty reprobate. While preparing for the role, he borrowed mannerisms from elderly dandies he observed in clubs or out on the boulevards. He also wanted Baron Chevrial to look different in every scene. This was no mean feat, but after years of doing his own makeup, Mansfield knew how to use a rabbit’s foot—that was the name given to a powder brush. Thanks to these efforts, the terrible baron was grotesque to behold. An oil painting of Mansfield in character as Cheviral, featured on the Art of Crime website, shows him seated at a table, a wine glass in hand, leaning back in his chair as if ready to lurch out of it, a cartoony smirk on his wrinkled face, almost splotchy with layers of greasepaint.
On January 11, 1883, he introduced New York to the besotted old baron. Like so many anti-heroes, Chevrial was the kind of guy most audience members would hate to meet in real life but loved to watch onstage, and Mansfield had won them over by the end of Act Two. Energized by the enthusiasm he was hearing in the crowd, A.M. Palmer is said to have come to Mansfield’s dressing room and exclaimed, “Do you know, you’re making a hit!” Without missing a beat, the star replied, “That’s what I’m paid for.” Mansfield had an ego the size of a skyscraper, and in moments like these, he does come across as rather sure of himself. He delivered the goods for the rest of the performance, in any case, and when the show was over, the audience was roaring, ready for him to come forward and take his bow. But as he would when presenting A Parisian Romance later in his career, Mansfield kept them waiting in their seats. Only after he had gone backstage and taken off his makeup did he appear before his public. This revealed the remarkable extent to which he transformed himself to become the lecherous old drunk, all the more reason to shower him with praise. When he woke up the next morning, anybody who followed theater in New York knew Mansfield’s name.
The Strange Case of William Brodie
Three years later, in 1887, he conceived a play that would showcase his greatest metamorphosis to date. He was living and performing in Boston at the time, and one day he cracked open Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The premise is familiar even to those who have never read the book. The kind-hearted chemist, Dr. Henry Jekyll, harbors a fascination with the duality of human nature, the warring inclinations toward good, on the one hand, and evil, on the other, housed within each and every individual. Jekyll sets out to control these tendencies by scientific means. Amid the glowing burners and graduated cylinders inside his home laboratory, he concocts a wondrous potion which transforms the good doctor into Edward Hyde, wickedness made flesh. Over time, however, Jekyll’s transformations become involuntary. As Hyde, he commits atrocious acts and eventually perishes.
Fantastical, yes, but Stevenson is said to have founded his title characters on a real-life criminal, William Brodie, who’d hanged in Scotland 100 years earlier. Brodie is transfixing in his own right, but his story deserves attention primarily because it helps to illuminate why a later miscreant, Jack the Ripper, captivated the public to the extent that he did. As many would come to believe of the Ripper, William Brodie lived a double life.
On the face of it, Brodie was a model citizen. Born in 1746, he was the eldest son of Francis, an Edinburgh cabinetmaker. Brodie senior served as deacon—or president—of Wrights, the largest incorporated guild in town. This position granted him a seat on Edinburgh’s unelected town council, and with it came both a goodly salary and considerable influence on civic life. No less skilled with hammer and saw than his father was, William Brodie entered the family business in 1756. Twenty-five years later, Francis fell ill, and Brodie succeeded him as deacon of Wrights. He did business with men and women of quality, fashioning cabinets, cupboards, and other furnishings for them. His well-heeled clientele, coupled with his leadership position in the guild and the corresponding nickname, “Deacon Brodie,” endowed him with an aura of respectability.
In actuality, Brodie was anything but a model citizen. To begin with, he split his nights between two mistresses, Jean Watt and Anne Grant, fathering five illegitimate children by them. As deacon, Brodie may have brought home plenty of money but he was also a gamester, gambling away his earnings at cock-fights and cards. Partly to defray the costs of his habit (and partly because he relished the thrill of it), he resorted to burglary. Brodie’s customers unbolted their doors and invited them into their homes or businesses on a regular basis, permitting him to survey what valuables were to be had. A crack locksmith, Brodie made copies of their keys and returned while they were out to rob them. After letting himself into the Royal Exchange, a bank, in 1768, he made off with £800, enough to finance a household for several years. By 1787, Brodie had enlisted three partners in crime, and that year the gang essayed their most daring theft yet. Attired in black, armed with a flint-lock pistol, and singing lyrics from his favorite play, The Beggars’ Opera, Brodie was having a ball as he and his confederates broke into the Edinburgh Excise Office at 8:00 p.m. Half an hour later, things went south when an employee came back unexpectedly, sending the marauders running in all directions. One of Brodie’s accomplices betrayed the others, disclosing their names to police in exchange for immunity, and Brodie fled from Edinburgh to London and from there to Amsterdam. Despite the hundreds of miles Brodie had traveled, authorities hunted him down to the Netherlands and discovered the ace cabinetmaker hiding—where else?—but in a cupboard.
He must have awaited trial with at least some trepidation. After all, he’d committed capital offenses according to the draconian laws of the late eighteenth century. The jury handed down a guilty verdict, and when he mounted the scaffold, an estimated 40,000 spectators gathered, cheek-by-jowl, to watch him swing in the Edinburgh Lawnmarket—the largest turnout for a public execution in recent memory. Brodie’s fate captured the popular imagination partly because it exposed respectability, a quality freighted with class connotations, as supremely superficial. Any lowdown crook could look the part, so long as wore hose and a powdered wig.
Needless to say, Stevenson took up the strange case of William Brodie and transfigured it beyond the point of recognition. Most notably for our purposes, Jekyll commits a crime more severe than anything the Scottish robber ever did: he murders a well-liked Member of Parliament, Danvers Carew, clubbing him to death with a walking stick.
Redesigning Jekyll and Hyde
Mansfield immediately perceived the theatrical potential in Stevenson’s story. He, a single actor, could play the double-role of Jekyll and Hyde, giving each a distinctive voice and physicality. He dashed off a letter to Stevenson himself and obtained exclusive rights to dramatize the novella in the U.S. and England. Next, he approached aspiring novelist and playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan, asking him to collaborate on the adaptation. Mansfield may have been gung-ho about the project, but Sullivan had his doubts—and not without good reason. If they wanted a workable script, they would need to redesign the structure of Stevenson’s tale from the ground up.
To begin with, Mansfield envisaged a star vehicle in which he held the stage as Jekyll or Hyde for more or less the entire performance. However, putting these characters at the center of the action would require a radical reworking of the source material. It may come as a surprise to listeners who haven’t read the book or revisited it recently, but the split figure of the title simply is not the novella’s protagonist. In truth, Stevenson’s third-person narrator stays closest to the perspective of Jekyll’s lawyer, Gabriel Utterson, and it’s with him that readers spend most of their time. In theatrical terms, the man of science and his evil alter ego are often “offstage” in the novella.
Then there was the conundrum of how to reveal that Jekyll and Hyde were two and the same. Today, it’s common knowledge that the chemist is a shapeshifter, but unless someone had spoiled it for them, Stevenson’s readers had no idea what to expect going in, and he withholds the mystery’s resolution until late in the narrative. As much as the big reveal may have thrilled the reading public, it would have put theatrical audiences to sleep if Mansfield and Sullivan had transplanted it to the stage. In the book, Utterson—and, by extension, the reader—discovers the truth about Jekyll’s otherworldly transmogrifications as well as the invention of his marvelous serum over the course of two back-to-back letters. Together, they make up twenty-three pages in the edition I consulted. What were Mansfield and Sullivan going to do—have Utterson stand around reading twenty or more pages of text out loud for the audience to hear, gasping over and over again with each disclosure? Nobody would pay to watch that play—they might as well stay home and read the novella. A fresh way of unveiling Hyde as Jekyll was therefore imperative—the more spectacular, the better.
Finally, the novella lacked romance, with Jekyll unmarried and effectively unaware of the existence of women. Playgoers could handle only so much horror, the dramatists reasoned, and breaking up the mayhem with a love scene now and then seemed considerate of their welfare if nothing else.
The adaptors set to work solving these problems. Mansfield furnished a scene-by-scene outline of how he desired the narrative to unfold while Sullivan supplied dialogue.
After a frenzied writing process, they came up with a four-act play, engineered so Mansfield would never spend more than a few minutes in the wings. Furthermore, they introduced the character of Agnes Carew, the scientist’s charming fiancée and daughter of Sir Danvers, now a retired general, killed by Hyde at the end of Act I. With the script written, Mansfield went into rehearsals at the Boston Museum, where the play was slated to premiere on May 9.
Master of Horror
Before Hannibal Lector all but licked his lips at the memory of devouring a man’s liver with fava beans and a Chianti in The Silence of the Lambs, before Jack Torrance took an axe to a door and snarled “Here’s Johnny!” in The Shining, before Norman Bates tore back the shower curtain and raised the knife in Psycho, Richard Mansfield brought Edward Hyde to life. If audiences had found Baron Chevrial revolting, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
The scoundrel enters at the end of Act I, in what begins as a picture of domestic harmony and quickly turns into a waking nightmare. Agnes Carew is seated at the piano in her father’s morning room, playing an “Indian air” while the general dozes off. Then, without warning, Hyde leaps into view, his moonlit face twisted into an inhuman grimace and visible to the audience through an open window at the back of the stage—a late Victorian jump scare if ever there was one. Agnes recoils and wakes Sir Danvers before rushing offstage. Hyde proceeds to clamber through the casement and orders the war hero to summon his daughter back to the chamber. When the veteran rebuffs him, Hyde strangles him with his bare hands.
Judging from contemporary eyewitness accounts, Mansfield played Hyde as half-beast and half-madman. He bounded about the stage, low to the ground and growling intermittently like a rabid dog. To one critic, his dialogue sounded like the jabbering and moaning of a raving lunatic. Once it came time for Hyde to fell Carew, Mansfield leapt toward his scene partner and hurled him to the floor. In his biography of the actor, William Winter relates how Mansfield went overboard at one performance in Boston. Mansfield set upon the poor soul playing Carew with such savagery that he fainted out of terror in the middle of the scene. Putnam wasn’t alone in losing consciousness during the murder. According to an interview given by Mansfield, male and female audience members swooned when Hyde launched his attack.
As the home invader, Mansfield had made one hell of an entrance, but he saved the real tour-de-force for the end of Act II. At this juncture, he would transform from Hyde into Jekyll right before the audience—the grand revelation that Stevenson had reserved for much later in his novella. From the beginning, Mansfield approached this challenge with a sense of foreboding. Night after night, he’d performed a remarkable metamorphosis for A Parisian Romance. After all, he’d gone into his dressing room and come out as Baron Chevrial. But that he’d accomplished in front of his mirror with only one set of eyes—his own—looking back at him. Now there’d be hundreds, even thousands watching as he underwent his transfiguration. Pressure was high, and so were the stakes. Hyde’s transformation would be over in seconds, but as the play’s centerpiece it would make or break the entire production. He long remembered the nervousness he felt on opening night when it came time for the transmutation. Seemingly everything had gone to plan. One moment, he was crouching near the floor as Hyde, his hair disheveled and a hideous scowl on his face. The next, he stood erect, wearing a solemn expression and with his bangs parted neatly to one side. Then, the curtain fell to conclude the second act. Mansfield thought that metamorphosis had gone off without a hitch, but all he could hear was the sound of utter silence—of indecipherable nothingness. What did it mean? Now was the time for the audience to clap, preferably in a state of uncontrollable rapture. Were they speechless with amazement? Or were they underwhelmed, maybe even embarrassed by what they perceived as an epic fail? After a moment of indescribable agony, a great din erupted from the other side of the curtain as the playhouse filled with worshipful thunder. This audience loved him, and others would, too. After he went from Hyde to Jekyll, spectators routinely called Mansfield back onstage to take a bow.
More than a century later, we can never know what exactly his public saw, lost as these performances are to history, but a famous promotional photograph, featured on the website, gives a good sense of what Mansfield looked like immediately before and after the transfiguration.
This coup-de-théâtre was so dramatic precisely because it was instantaneous. It played like a magic trick, and newspapers printed crackpot theories as to how Mansfield cast his eldritch spell. One reported that he employed a rubber mask along with some kind of spring-loaded wig mechanism. The actor himself insisted that technology played no part in the illusion. It all came down to altering his posture, voice, and facial expression. These did much to create the effect, no doubt about it, but there may have been more to it than Mansfield let on. One Victorian commentator claims to have visited his dressing room and verified that Mansfield was able to change his coiffure in an instant thanks to an otherwise ordinary wig that was slicked with gel. Modern historians Martin A. Danahay and Alex Chisholm have also suggested that a change in lighting may have enhanced the transformation’s impact.
After the production closed in Boston, it transferred to Madison Square Theatre on Broadway, taking the city by storm. It was during this run that Mansfield gained the attention of an English actor who chanced to be in New York. This was none other than Henry Irving, unrivaled emperor of London theater and head of the Lyceum, the metropolis’s foremost playhouse. In the previous episode, we talked about how Irving made history in 1895 when Queen Victoria knighted him, a distinction never before granted to an actor.
You might assume that a British thespian of Irving’s stature had proven his mettle in the plays of Shakespeare—much as Laurence Oliver, Ian McKellen, and Kenneth Branagh would later. Make no mistake: Irving was one of the finest Shakespeareans of his age, but it wasn’t as Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo that he cemented his status as one of the greatest ever to tread the stage—it was Matthias, the hero of The Bells by Leopold Lewis, which today we would think of as a psychological horror play. An Alsatian burgomaster, Mathias commits an axe murder years before The Bells opens and is plagued by visions of his foul deed throughout. The play premiered at the Lyceum on November 15, 1871, and Irving poleaxed the modest crowd with his embodiment of agonized remorse. Within twenty-four hours, word had spread that a star was on the rise. Simply put, Irving knew another master of horror when he saw one, and after attending Jekyll and Hyde he contacted Mansfield with an offer he would have been lunatic to refuse. Irving had plans to leave the Lyceum and go on tour in the autumn of 1888. He proposed that Mansfield lease the playhouse and perform Jekyll and Hyde there, among other works in his repertoire. Mansfield accepted.
Six years earlier, he had left London in defeat, unable to win the glory he craved. Now, armed with Jekyll and Hyde and backed by the metropolis’s most powerful actor-manager, Mansfield must have hoped this time would be different. If he gave as strong a showing as he had in New York, he might return having conquered London.
Horror Stories on Either Side of the City
Within two months of Mansfield’s arrival on British soil, two separate horror stories were running their course, each on either side of the city. Mansfield left New York on July 11, and Jekyll and Hyde opened on August 4. On August 31, just under three weeks after the premiere, a Whitechapel carman spotted Polly Nichols’s body in Buck’s Row. Apart from Jack the Ripper, Mansfield was just about the scariest guy in London. More than that, as the killing spree continued, the theatrical terrors at the West End Lyceum and the Whitechapel murderer’s real-life atrocities in the East End gradually became part of the same conversation. Indeed, a sizable portion of the general public grew convinced these occurrences were somehow related. To understand why, we have to take a look at leading theories about the killer’s identity and how they evolved as the body count climbed. Not unlike Jekyll, it turns out, Jack was undergoing rapid transformations in the public’s imagination.
From Many to One
It wasn’t taken for granted that a single malefactor had committed the Ripper crimes. One early theory held a band of thieves responsible. This idea caught hold on account of a story circulated by the Central News Agency. According to this article, on Saturday, September 1, one day after Polly Nichols’s murder in Buck’s Row, a woman was leaving the Foresters’ Music Hall in Cambridge Heath Road when a well-dressed stranger called out to her. Joining her company, he walked with her until they came to a street near Buck’s Row. Then, of a sudden, the woman’s companion seized her by the throat and dragged her into an alleyway, where a cluster of male and female accomplices lay in wait. They fell upon their prey, stealing her purse, her necklace, her earrings, and her brooch as well. Fearing for her life, she opened her mouth and tried to scream, but with a flash of bright white, one of the assailants pulled out a knife and pressed it to her throat. “We will serve you as we did the others,” he growled, presumably in reference to Polly Nichols and perhaps other victims who dared resist. This story is harrowing, to be sure, but it would have been more so if a word of it had been true. After its publication, it was revealed that the reporter had fabricated the account. It just goes to show that fake news spread as quickly in Victorian London as it does today.
Before long, most people believed that a lone perpetrator—not a group of thugs—was responsible for the killings. Around the beginning of September, authorities learned of a promising suspect. Whitechapel prostitutes lived in fear of a shadowy figure called “Leather Apron,” nicknamed for the garment he wore around the neighborhood. According to rumor, he extorted money from women in the sex trade, pummeling any who refused to cooperate. Maybe he was also capable of murder and mutilation. The press picked up the tattle and put it in print with screaming headlines. The Star published an article on the fifth and sixth of September, which reported that the dastard was armed with a knife and wore soft-soled slippers, enabling him to stalk his quarry without a sound. Nobody could say the suspect’s real name, but they could provide a physical description. Part of it reads: “His expression was sinister, and seems to be full of terror for the women who describe it.”
There are two things to note about this version of the Ripper. First, he dresses in the garb of a tradesman, marking him as a member of the working-classes. Second, he looks “sinister.” Anyone can tell as much just by catching a glimpse of his face.
Police soon identified this “Leather Apron.” He was John Pizer, a Whitechapel bootmaker by profession, and he belonged to the district’s Jewish community. Pizer had a criminal record, and one police officer, William Thicke, believed he may have attacked prostitutes in the past. When Pizer heard that the authorities wanted to question him in connection with murder, he went into hiding. On September 10, some forty-eight hours after Annie Chapman’s homicide, police caught up with him at his relatives’ residence and took him into custody, despite a dearth of evidence against him. Not surprisingly, they soon eliminated him as a suspect, able as he was to provide iron-clad alibis for both Polly Nichols’s and Annie Chapman’s slayings. Anti-Semitism infected much of British society, and law enforcement was by no means immune to such bigotry. This kind of prejudice more than anything else may have made Pizer look like a good suspect.
To recap, the culprit has already morphed from as a pack of violent hoodlums into a creep with an apron. Soon, he’d assume another guise entirely, that of a gentleman—perhaps even a doctor.
This image coalesced not long after the Leather Apron scare had flared up and flickered out. Writing a few years later in Sala’s journal, Edward John Goodman characterizes the Whitechapel murderer as “no vulgar ruffian, repulsive in appearance, and destitute of education, but ‘a most respectable’ person, mild and suave, or cheerful and plausible, in manner, of superior culture and intelligence, possibly a very popular man in his own circle—what is commonly called ‘a good fellow’—in short, the very last person whom ordinary folks would have suspected of such deeds as his.” This Jack the Ripper sounds nothing like Leather Apron. Cultured, educated, and “most respectable,” he bears all the hallmarks of good bourgeois breeding. Whereas Leather Apron could have scared you witless just by looking at you with his “sinister” expression, this “good fellow” was more likely to greet you with a winsome smile. After all, he was “suave,” “mild,” and even “cheerful.”
It’s hard to account for why the Ripper assumed this shape in the popular consciousness. Theater historian Sarah Winter offers one explanation. In her excellent article, “‘Two and the Same’: Jack the Ripper and the Melodramatic Stage Adaptation of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” she points out that the notion of a refined Ripper took root as various observers were beginning to wonder whether the miscreant had medical training, in which case he could have belonged to the middle classes. They’d raised this question because of how the Ripper mutilated his victims, especially in the wake of Annie Chapman’s murder. The knifeman had not only disemboweled her but removed her uterus with a single, clean cut. He’d done all of this with limited lighting, in a matter of minutes. To some, the murderer seemed versed in human anatomy and perhaps even capable of performing surgery. Catherine Eddowes’ homicide on September 30, the night of the “double event,” also bolstered this theory. Much like the case of Annie Chapman, the killer extracted Eddowes’ kidney along with her womb in the dead of night, with only the light of two lanterns to work by.
It has to be said that Ripper investigators past and present have questioned how much medical knowledge the malefactor possessed and whether he could lay claim to any at all. On one end of the spectrum, some have maintained that he wielded his blade with the sure and steady hand of a surgeon. Others on the opposite side have regarded his handiwork as little more than frenzied hacking and slashing. Many have taken a position somewhere in between. To add yet another layer of complexity to the debate, some observers give credence to the idea of a “most respectable” Ripper even as they reject the proposition that he knew even the basics of human anatomy. Victorian police surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond falls into this latter category.
Life Imitates Stevenson’s Art
Once people started to think the Ripper was the type of guy to wear top hats, delight in the poetry of Virgil or Ovid, puff cigars at the Cavendish Club, and maybe even carry a scalpel along with other medical instruments in a Gladstone bag, they began drawing parallels between the Whitechapel slasher and the divided man of science in Stevenson’s novella. By day, many imagined, the Ripper played the part of a gentlemanly Jekyll. By night, he unleashed his inner Hyde in the byways of Whitechapel. You could also call him the Victorian era’s William Brodie.
As the autumn of terror wore on, members of the public desperate to aid in catching the killer inundated the press and Scotland Yard with tips, and several letter writers invoke Stevenson’s horrible two-faced creation. On September 11, The Star published a missive from an author evidently flabbergasted that the Jekyll-and-Hyde parallel had evaded journalists: “MEANWHILE,” the sender pontificates, “you and every one of the papers, have missed the obvious solution to the Whitechapel mystery. The murderer is a Mr Hyde, who seeks in the repose and comparative respectability of Dr Jekyll security from the crimes he commits in his baser shape. Of course, the lively imaginations of your readers will at once supply certain means of identification for the Dr Jekyll whose Mr Hyde seems daily growing in ferocious intensity. If he should turn out to be a statesman engaged in the harmless pursuit of golf at North Berwick—well, you, sir, at least, will be able gratefully to remember that you have prepared your readers for the shock of that inevitable discovery.”
As we saw in the previous episode, moreover, the media frenzy encircling the Ripper extended to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and U.S. newsmen also took up the Jekyll-and-Hyde analogy. About a week-and-a-half after the “double event,” a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer describes the slayings as “the result of a case in real life of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’”
Simply put, Victorians were reading Jekyll and Hyde like a textbook on criminal profiling long before psychologists had formalized that practice. Thus, a work of fiction offered perhaps the most persuasive model in making sense of the Whitechapel murderer’s behavior.
Life Imitates Mansfield’s Art
It was only a matter of time before Mansfield’s production got roped into this discussion.
On September 29, a letter to the St. Stephen’s Review asserted that the actor was fueling Ripper-induced panic. The author of the missive was walking along the Strand in Central London when he saw a crowd gathering. They were clustering around a well-dressed fellow who had fallen into a fainting fit. Asking what was the matter, the letter writer learned that the afflicted individual had just come from a showing of Jekyll and Hyde and boarded an omnibus, an inexpensive, horse-drawn form of public transportation. He was already on edge because of Mansfield’s performance, and his anxiety mounted after he sat down. Seated right beside him was a “repulsive-looking man,” and as the horses gathered momentum, his heartbeat quickened. He became convinced this passenger was the Whitechapel fiend in the flesh. Terror overmastered him after the omnibus approached its top speed, and he leapt from the vehicle while it was in motion, collapsing into a heap on the pavement.
Other commentators considered Mansfield’s adaptation partly responsible for the Ripper’s bloodshed. On October 3, the Daily Telegraph printed a letter signed with the initials G.C., suggesting that “the perpetrator is a being whose diseased brain has been inflamed by witnessing the performance of the drama of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’” G.C. continues, “If there is anything in it, let the detectives consider how Mr Hyde would have acted—for there may be a system in the demonic actions of a madman in following the pattern set before him.” Put another way, the Ripper might have modeled his behavior on that of Hyde as portrayed by Mansfield. The very next day, October 4, the Pall Mall Gazette ran another letter intimating the Lyceum’s latest shocker had influenced the murderer. For this writer, the culprit was “an army doctor suffering from sunstroke. He has been to the horrible play, lives in Baywater or North London, in perhaps a decent square or terrace, dressed well.” These concerns about life imitating violent art should sound familiar. In recent decades, politicians, pundits, op-ed columnists, and countless others have drawn lines of influence between various forms of popular entertainment—from video games to movies to rap and rock music—and real-life crimes such as mass shootings, especially those perpetrated by American youth. Whether or not you place much stock in these arguments, the reception of Mansfield’s Jekyll and Hyde illustrates that Victorians were voicing similar fears near the end of the 1800s.
Mansfield’s Your Man
In the eyes of at least one commentator, the star of the show was not inspiring the murders—he was the murderer. On October 5, the City of London Police received a letter naming Mansfield as their man. Part of the epistle reads as follows: “Dear Sir, Now That these Horrible Murders are being Continued I think it the duty of Every one to let the Police know if they Suspect anyone. What I am going to Say Seems Allmost imposable but Still Strange things have Happened at times. I have A great Likeing for Actors So that I Should be the Last to think because A man take A dredful Part he is therefore Bad but when I went to See Mr Mansfield Take the Prat of Dr. Jekel & Mr Hyde I felt at once that he was the Man Wanted & I have not been able to get this Feeling out of my Head. I have no Rest of A night or day I thought the dridful mannor he Works himself up in his Part that It might be Posable to work himself up So that he would do it in Reality I do not think there is A man living So well able to disguise Himself in A moment as he does in front of the Public.”
Two crucial aspects of Mansfield’s performance render him suspect. First, its stupefying ferocity—what this author refers to as “the dridful mannor he Works himself up in his Part.” Hyde is most dreadful when he invades the Carew residence and throttles Sir Danvers, and the sender probably had this scene uppermost in mind while making this comment. Yet Mansfield’s accuser proceeds with caution. After all, this author has “a great Likeing for Actors” and would never believe one capable of villainy simply because he’d played a villain. Henry Irving never went around chopping people up with an axe the way Mathias does in The Bells, after all. Nevertheless, Mansfield is so persuasively vicious as Edward Hyde, this letter writer cannot help but suspect him capable of comparable cruelty offstage, of “work[ing] himself up” and committing acts of violence in real life.
Second, Mansfield has fallen under suspicion because he’s “able to disguise Himself in A moment.” We all know what part of the show prompted this remark—Hyde’s split-second transfiguration into Jekyll, the spectacle which elicited incredulous ovations night after night. We also know why this skill should raise red flags. Like several commentators we heard from last episode, this letter writer subscribes to the disguise hypothesis. Remember, this theory holds that the Ripper was able to outfox law enforcement because he altered his appearance while committing his crimes. Reading between the lines a bit, I’d offer this take on this letter writer’s allegation. As far as I can tell, Hyde’s metamorphosis has ignited the imagination and sent it into overdrive. To the sender’s mind, transformation scenes were happening in Whitechapel—just without anybody present to witness them. Hyde one second and Jekyll the next, Mansfield committed murder only to “disguise Himself in A moment,” taking on the shape of what Edward John Goodman would later describe as “the very last person whom ordinary folks would have suspected of such deeds as his.”
Thus transformed, Mansfield could slip past patrolmen without arousing suspicion. If this indeed is what the letter writer was thinking, then Jack the Ripper had evaded detection because Jack the Ripper was a transformative actor.
Did the City of London police ever take this advice seriously? I haven’t found evidence from the period to suggest as much. All the same, I’ve come across several modern writers who maintain that they did check out Mansfield as a suspect, presumably on the basis of this letter. Unfortunately, these commentators make this claim without citing proof. Whether true or not, dramatists have liked the sound of the idea. Mansfield is treated as a major suspect in a 1988 TV miniseries titled Jack the Ripper, directed by David Wickes and starring Michael Caine as police inspector Aberline. It takes just one trip to the Lyceum for the seasoned lawman to start hounding the star about where he was the night of the murders.
So that about it does it for the case against Mansfield, such as it is. But what about his season at the Lyceum? What about his dreams to rule over the city that had once laid him low? As his New York Times obituary makes plain, Mansfield’s fame would increase with time. Nevertheless, he went home from London defeated again. His guest appearance ended in financial losses, and there’s some indication that the timing of the Whitechapel homicides was partly to blame.
There were other factors, without question. For starters, Mansfield kicked off his stint on the heels of two acts nobody wanted to follow. As per usual, Irving played there until early summer before hitting the road. Between Irving and Mansfield had come another lease, Frenchwoman Sarah Bernhardt, a goddess who walked among undeserving mortals. To give you some sense of her celebrity, Londoners lined up to watch her play Hamlet in drag—a privilege usually reserved for the most talented actresses then and now. There’s a picture of her as the Danish prince on the Art of Crime website, in case you’re interested. At any rate, coming after Bernhardt, not to mention Irving, Mansfield was something of a nonentity by comparison. Under the best of circumstances, his was not a name that would fill seats in London. That he’d brought plays of questionable craftsmanship only hurt his chances. Less enthusiastic than their American counterparts, London critics could tell that Jekyll and Hyde had been fashioned for no reason other than to keep the star onstage for as long as humanly possible, which might have been more agreeable if his performance were more even. He was dynamite as Hyde, but his Jekyll was a dud, too lugubrious for critics’ liking and devoid of passion in the scenes with Agnes. Mansfield’s other material left reviewers likewise unimpressed.
In addition, more than one journalist intimated that Ripper panic compromised ticket sales for Jekyll and Hyde. In response to public outrage over poverty in Whitechapel, Mansfield organized a benefit performance, the proceeds of which would go to a charity in the East End. Given the cause, it would have been distasteful to serve up murder and havoc that night, so Mansfield acted a comedy instead. Referring to this choice and hinting at why Jekyll and Hyde had taken a hit at the box office, a writer for the Daily Telegraph opined, “Experience has taught this clever young actor that there is no taste in London just now for horrors on the stage. There is quite sufficient to make us shudder out of doors.” On October 13, a writer for the Star declared, “The real horrors of Whitechapel have just now put the sham horrors of the stage to shame.” Underlying this remark is a perhaps more cynical explanation as to why Mansfield was failing to pack the Lyceum with Jekyll and Hyde. He was just an actor; the Ripper was for real.
Next episode, we leave London for Oxford, where a math professor named Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll, met a girl called Alice and spirited her away to Wonderland.