Positioned behind a fence at the north gate of the Mt. Hope Cemetery – method acting – I prepared for my entre, feeling like John Wilkes Booth preparing to jump onto the stage at Ford’s Theater.
It was London. Whitechapel to be exact. 1888. Fondling my knife, itching to use it, now dormant a fortnight (purchased at the Dollar Tree, plastic, supposedly glow in the dark, but did not). Touching and caressing my moustache (homemade, black fuzz taken from a Dollar Tree gift card purse, teased together with glue).
The slow glide from behind the fence. Dressed in black from head to toe. Dark as the night before Halloween. Standing, not lurking for fear of attention, behind an innocent bystander. The sign from the tour guide. He describing the rituals I use before each and every encounter. The caress of the knife upon the white milk chocolate neck, soon to glisten like maraschino cherry juice dripping on vanilla ice cream.
The leap through the rabble. Once more into the breach. “Espisito, it is I. Jack the Ripper!” The gasp of the crowd, seeing me, glancing around only to see their own terror, eyes seeing their own death, their own soon to be corpses.
“Espisito, that is not how I, Jack the Ripper, embrace my women! It is not the forehead that is touched but one stroke on the chin. Then gently on the lip, soothingly. The blade does not go left to right, but tenderly, right to left. And the penetration is not all at once. But slow and deep. And the shriek is not a shriek but a sigh.”
The act complete. I bound into the shadows. Never to be seen again. Never to be known. Never to be caught.
Last Friday I was invited to play Jack the Ripper on the Rochester Candlelight Ghost Walk by co-founders Ralph Espisito and Jenni Lynn.
For those who have never been, at Candle Light Ghost Walk — now in its 12th year — history and local ghost stories come alive in this cemetery-side walk. You hear unique true tales of encounters with some of Mt. Hope Cemetery’s ghostly residents. And you might just have one your own.
The walk begins at the Warner Castle on Reservoir Avenue. Warner himself was an uncharitable man, to put it charitably. Much to Warner’s dismay, from the top of his castle could be seen the home of Frederick Douglass — which Warner considered an objectionable affront to his sensibilities. The Castle is presumed to be quite haunted, perhaps by Warner’s guilty spirit.
Next is the 19th century yellow Canary House, once home to smugglers who concealed their ill-gotten gains in below ground tunnels. At least two ghosts of former maids inhabit the residence, perhaps like canary birds able to detect investigating authorities.
The Warner Castle’s now dilapidated Gate House — spookily inscribed in fading letters, Property of the City of Rochester — is a popular photo-op (see at end).
The tour ends at Mount Hope’s North Gate where you learn of the ghosts who “live” in the Cemetery Chapel within view, as well as the saga of other lost souls who wander the gravestones. And, behind one gate, you might encounter me, I mean, Jack the Ripper who is widely believed to be buried in Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery on Lake Avenue. Creepy!
(Barely curbing my enthusiasm, this very evening I met James Caffery who lives in the Claude Bragdon House attached to the Warner Castle. A self-described “Echist” (soul traveler), James provided me with stories of cemetery vandals, satanic practices and enough lore (he told me about Warner and Douglass) for multiple posts to come. And more–stay still my beating heart-much more on Adelaide Crapsey who lies restlessly in the cemetery.) In Mount Hope Cemetery remembering the tragic vision of Adelaide Crapsey/
To research my role, I waded into the expansive and tangled field of Ripperology (the study and analysis of the Ripper cases). Entire cottage industries seem to thrive on the mystery of Whitechapel: video games, board games, card games, photos, books and facsimile artifacts abound. But the same themes, the same fascination run throughout. Jack the Ripper is inevitable about a morbid mixture of evil, perverse sexuality (all his victims were prostitutes), sudden death, the unseen murderer behind any unknown door.
One recent chapter caught my attention. Recently, based on supposedly new (and dubious) DNA analysis, a then 23 year old Polish-Jewish immigrant is claimed as the true Ripper.
Looking into the historical record, I learned, especially in the initial phases of the serial murders, the Ripper was widely believed to be a Jewish immigrant, probably from Eastern Europe. In the late 1880s, the area around Whitechapel in the East End of London where the murders took place was largely a Jewish slum or ghetto, populated by recent immigrants from Russia and Poland, many of whom had fled from pograms. The fear of a Jewish Ripper magnified and gave expression to anti-Semitic sentiment.
To learn more, I turned to Sandar Gilman’s The Jew’s Body (Routledge, 1991), especially the chapter, “The Jewish Murderer.” Gilman explains how the idea that the Ripper was Jewish conjured multiple negative stereotypes attributed in the popular imagination to the Jewish “other.”
For example, as Jew were refuges from Eastern Europe — an area “infected” by socialist impulses — Jack was imagined as part of the “International Jewish conspiracy” — intent of inciting revolution amongst the masses.
On Saturday the crowds who assembled in the streets began to assume a very threatening attitude towards the Hebrew population of the District. It was repeatedly asserted that no Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime as that of Hanbury Street, and that it must have been done by a JEW–and forthwith the crowds began to threaten and such of the unfortunate Hebrews as they found in the streets.
To which, Gilman concludes; “the powerful association between the working class, revolutionaries, and the Jews combined to create the visualization of Jack the Ripper as a Jewish worker, marked by the stigmata of degeneration as a killer of prospects.”
Even more grimly, Jack the Jew might be conducting ritual murders of Christian woman. Or the image of Jack was the schochet, the ritualistic kosher butcher. Or the “dirtiness” of the prostitute was equated with the “dirtiness” of Jack the Jew.
The image of Jack the schochet rested on a long association in the Western imagination between the Jews and mutilated, diseased, different-looking genitalia. The Jewish mark of sexual difference–circumcision–was closely associated with the popular notion of Jack as syphilitic so that Jack the Ripper evoked in the minds of many the image of a foreign, syphilitic, mutilated, butcher-Jew.
Although Gilman’s language veers into the overblown, its rhetorical force is powerful and chilling.
Ultimately, as the Ripper was never proved to be Jewish, the hysteria subsided. In one of the rhyming missives, Jack apparently sent to Sir Melville MacNaghten, the chief of the Criminal Investigation Division at Scotland Yard in 1889, Jack set the record straight:
I’m not a butcher, I’m not a Yid
Nor yet a foreign skipper,
But I’m your own light-hearted friend,
Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.
Nonetheless, learning about the ugly origins of Jack the Ripper — today represented as a generalized emblem of depravity in the human psyche — only made that leap from behind the North Gate feel even more like a leap into the dark side.
I hope I am not ruining the fun. The Rochester Candlelight Ghost Walk is a delicious Halloween treat. But I think everyone in the audience felt that same horror and fascination — whatever it is to each — by Jack’s leap, not — nor expected to be — simply laughed off. Like whistling past a cemetery.
Note: For preliminary research, I went on a match.com Ghost Walk. In On Match.com and niche dating sites, I mournfully wrote that Rochester is a “dating graveyard.” Whether or not cupid’s arrow hit, we had fun.
Only the spirits in the dating divining rods know where . . .
To find true love