If you've just recently seen the new 20th Century Fox production, From Hell, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, you may be wondering: was the film historically accurate? The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no. In many ways it was very true to life, particularly in its recreation of Whitechapel and its portrayal of the everyday lives of its inhabitants. In others, however, the storyline swerved dramatically from the facts. These inaccuracies are important to note, particularly for those who have no previous knowledge of the Ripper case and would like to know the "real story" behind the murders. We present the following as guide for those who have already seen the film. For those who have not yet seen it and may intend to do so, please beware that there may be spoilers in this article.
From Hell is based on a graphic novel of the same title, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. That, in turn, is based largely on the royal conspiracy theory detailed in Stephen Knight's, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. Its a good story, but unfortunately it is not an historically accurate one. Knight's book is riddled with errors and fabrications, and so, by default, is From Hell.
Many people were surprised to learn that the roles of Frederick Abberline and Mary Kelly were filled by American actors, Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. While people's opinions may vary on how well they executed their roles, there are several slight inconsistencies between the actors and the real-life people they were portraying.
First let's start with the role of Inspector Abberline. Although no photograph has yet been discovered of the real-life inspector, contemporaries described him as somewhat "portly" with the general appearance of a banker. He was forty-five years old in 1888. While Depp himself in real-life is just shy of forty, he certainly has a much more youthful and slimmer appearance than Abberline probably did at the time of the Ripper murders. His more "boyish" looks also make him appear to be somewhat subordinate to Godley, played by Robbie Coltrane (51 years old at the time of filming). In reality, Sergeant Godley was thirty-two at the time of the murders, thirteen years younger than Inspector Abberline, and very much his subordinate.
Heather Graham's casting as Mary Kelly is more realistic in terms of age. Mary Kelly was indeed markedly younger than the other victims of the Ripper, who ranged in age between 39 and 46. Mary herself was in her twenties in 1888 and even at the time was said to have been more attractive than the average Whitechapel prostitute. Contemporary reports described her as much more "stout" than Graham, however. Her hair color is also a bit of a mystery to Ripper scholars. Although one of her nicknames was "Fair Ginger," supposedly because of the color of her hair, descriptions vary as to her actual hair color. Some describe her as blonde, others brunette, and a few as a redhead.
In general, the casting for the other Ripper victims was less inaccurate. They were cast as middle-aged women, perhaps only slightly younger than in real-life, and certainly more attractive. Annie Chapman and Martha Tabram, for instance, were decidedly overweight, while Polly Nichols had several teeth missing and her hair had begun to turn gray.
The remaining casting was fairly accurate, Ian Holm in particular standing in as an excellent Sir William Gull - recently partially paralyzed down one side due to a stroke incurred the previous year.
The Hughes brothers spent a great deal of time and effort towards recreating Whitechapel and the various murder scenes. The work certainly paid off, as From Hell can certainly claim to have the most authentic sets ever designed for a Ripper movie. From the recreation of Christ Church, to the Ten Bells to the depiction of everyday life in Whitechapel, most everything was spot-on. One scene in particular was hauntingly accurate, where Mary and several fellow Whitechaplians are asleep, held up by a single rope threaded beneath their arms. Doss-houses in Whitechapel were often so overcrowded that there really was no room for beds - the poor would pay a slight fee for the privilege of sleeping leaning over a common rope.
The murder scenes were generally quite accurate, apart from Mary Kelly's room which was a bit larger and had the bed facing the wrong wall. Apart from such trifles, however, the scenery as a whole was very true-to-life.
There is no evidence whatsoever pointing to Abberline having used opium or any other drug, much less being addicted to "chasing the dragon," as the film portrays. This is simply a ploy used to help explain his "psychic visions," which again have no basis in historical fact. It appears as though the character of Abberline in From Hell is a mix between the real Abberline and a self-proclaimed psychic named Robert James Lees. Lees did in fact exist and made his services available to Scotland Yard during the investigation, though they never took him up on his offer. Later stories described Lees as having dreamt of the murderer as an upper-class doctor, whom he ran into on an omnibus while in London. According to the story, Lees chased the doctor down to a fashionable West-End residence, where the doctor's wife admitted he had been out at all hours of the night, often without explanation, and sometimes returned with blood on his clothing. This story forms the basis of the general "Royal Conspiracy" theory, but research has shown this to be a complete fiction, apparently penned by a so-called "Whitechapel Club" in Chicago in the 1890s.
Although From Hell shows all the Ripper victims as being close-knit friends (or at least well-known acquaintances), there is no evidence to support this. Such insinuations have been made in the past by various theorists, based largely on the fact that four of the victims lived within a short distance of each other at one time in the Flower-and-Dean section of Spitalfields. At first this may seem to indicate a link between the victims, until one realizes that nearly one-third of the entire population of that district was housed in that one overcrowded street - made up largely of nothing but lodging houses. Other theorists claim that Catherine Eddowes must have known Mary Kelly, since she had at one time used the aliases "Kate Kelly" and "Mary Kelly." Again, prima facie, this may seem important - but prostitutes at the time often held a half dozen or more aliases, which they used at various times during encounters with unsavory characters or policemen. The name "Mary Kelly" was just one of several names used by Catherine Eddowes, and was most likely just a coincidence. There is no supporting evidence to link any one Ripper victim to another.
Mary is accosted twice by "The Nichols' Gang," a band of ruffians who extorted money from local prostitutes in return for claims of protection. This gang did indeed exist, though it was often referred to as "The Old Nichol Gang." When the murders first began, gangs such as this and another called the "High Rips" were suspected as having been involved. Some have suggested that the name "High Rips" may have led to the later creation of the nom de plume, "Jack the Ripper."
Although it appears as though an "Annie Crook" did in fact exist, there is no evidence that she ever knew any of the Ripper victims, nor that she had an affair with Prince Albert Victor and had his child. There is also no evidence of any lobotomy. All of this first appeared in Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, and no other researcher has ever been able to corroborate his findings.
Again, a cabman named John Netley did exist, though he was never found to be associated with Sir William Gull or any members of the royal family. This tale again originated with Stephen Knight's royal conspiracy theory.
Prince Albert Victor was indeed the heir presumptive to the throne of England in 1888, though he was not named the Duke of Clarence (as indicated on the painting Abberline shows to Mary Kelly) until two years later. There is no basis for his ever being involved with East End prostitutes, much less siring a child with one of them. In all likelihood he was an avowed homosexual, and never seemed to show much interest for women. It is not known for sure that he had syphilis, though rumors have persisted. He died in 1892 from a bout of influenza, according to royal records.
Although the murder sites were recreated with exquisite detail, their depiction is almost certainly inaccurate. First, witnesses never reported seeing the Ripper in a top hat and cape. Most witnesses described him as wearing generally common clothes indicative of the lower-middle class. Although there was a sighting of a man with a "Gladstone bag," this man was later proven not to have been involved in the murders. Most true sightings of the killer show nothing in his hands, though one did indicate a parcel of paper in one hand that may have well concealed his knife.
The method of killing was portrayed in From Hell as something very different from the known facts of the case. There is no evidence that there was ever more than one person involved in the murders (with the possible exception of the Stride murder), and certainly no evidence that any of the bodies were killed anywhere other than where they were found. This latter myth arises from a newspaper report that mentioned only a slight amount of blood was found near the body of Polly Nichols. Some initially took this to mean that her body had been killed elsewhere and placed at Bucks Row, but further investigation revealed that her ample clothing had soaked up most of the "missing" blood. There is also little chance that the killer had used a carriage, as they would have been quite loud on the cobble-stoned streets and witnesses would have noticed it.
In real-life, the murderer almost certainly did not know the identity of his victim. He was seen on several occasions conversing with his victim, so it would appear as though he spent at least some time in each case pretending as if he were a normal client. This would lead the woman to lead him to a dark and secluded place for the purposes of sex, where he likely first strangled then cut the throat of his victim. In most cases there was no scream heard on the part of the victim (as opposed to how it was portrayed in the movie).
In the film, Martha Tabram was described as having had her throat cut and "livelihood" (one assumes "vagina") removed. In reality her throat was left unsevered - she died from a series of 39 stab wounds to the chest, abdomen, groin and thighs. Polly Nichols was shown to have had one of her organs removed, though in reality no organs were missing. No grape stalks were found at any of the crime scenes, except for that of Elizabeth Stride in Dutfields Yard. The stalk was discovered days after the original investigation by a private investigator near to the yard, and there was no strong evidence to link it to the crime scene.
It was suggested that the killer would need more than "one type of knife" to carry out his murders. This is not historically accurate, and is probably derived from a surgeon's report on the body of Martha Tabram. He reported that all but one of her stab wounds could have been made with a small knife like a pen-knife, though one could only have been made with a longer one like a bayonet. No other victims showed any evidence of two different knives being used upon them.
The film depicts Elizabeth Stride as a lesbian, though there's no evidence whatsoever to support this. Some have suggested that Mary Kelly may have been a bisexual, but evidence for that is flimsy at best.
Elizabeth Stride's murder is portrayed with many of the original facts intact. A witness, a Jew named Israel Schwartz, testified to having seen two men assaulting Stride on the night of her murder. One of them looked at him and shouted "Lipski!" (an anti-Semitic slur) at which point Schwartz ran away. Most believe these two men were either customers or were extorting money from Liz, and that the Ripper killed her after this incident. Others believe that these men did kill her, and that she was not a real Ripper victim. The film uses Schwartz's testimony to good effect in supporting their two-man theory, and even got the "Lipski!" slur correct.
In reality, Liz's throat was cut but there were no abdominal mutilations. Most believe that the man who discovered Liz's body, Louis Diemshutz, interrupted the murderer just before he was about to begin the mutilation, when he pulled his horse and cart into the yard. The film depicts this as well as the explanation for the absence of mutilation, and for the Ripper's immediate move to murder Catherine Eddowes.
Sergeant Godley comments that "the throat's cut the same way," but in reality Liz's wound was less deep than the neck wounds of other Ripper victims. This may have been because a different knife was used, and may indicate that she was not a true Ripper victim.
Mary and Inspector Abberline never met before her murder. The idea of another girl being murdered in Mary's bed and being mistaken for her has been raised by some authors, as the victim of Miller's Court was mutilated almost beyond recognition. Nevertheless, Joseph Barnett, Mary Kelly's live-in lover (recently estranged) did identify the body "by the eyes and hair." This theory is based largely on a possible sighting of Mary Kelly on the morning of November 9th, hours after she was supposedly killed. This witness may very well have been mistaken, or indeed Mary's time of death may have been incorrectly reported by the police surgeon. There is nothing to suggest Mary survived, let alone moved to Ireland.
Fred Abberline did not die, let alone commit suicide, immediately after the Ripper murders. The very next year he was involved in the notorious Cleveland Street Scandal investigation. He retired in 1892 and lived until 1929. In later years he did some private detective work with the American Pinkerton Agency.
Abberline's views on the Ripper varied - at one time he stated that he believed George Chapman to have been the killer, and at another he admitted that Scotland Yard had no clue whatsoever as to his true identity.
The Freemasons did (and still do) exist as a secretive cult-like establishment. Many prominent historical figures have been Freemasons, including George Washington. Masonry achieved its height of popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but by the 1820s many in America and England blamed them for conspiratorial cover-ups and other secretive dealings. Although some such claims may have had a basis in reality, the anti-Mason movement reached a near feverish pitch in the 1820s and 1830s, and the Masons were never the same afterwards. They remained in existence, but they no longer had the same political power they once enjoyed and devolved into little more than a gentleman's club.
There is no evidence to link Freemasons to the Ripper slayings. The word "Juwes" found chalked on the wall in Goulston street almost certainly does not refer to the three "traitors" of Freemasonry. This part of their ritual beliefs was strong in the early 19th century but by late Victorian times few if any Freemasons knew anything about Jubela, Jubelo and Jubelum. The Ripper murders also do not conform to any standardized rites chanted by Masons (though some of their rituals are admittedly violent in their symbolism). All links between the Ripper and the Freemasons again trace back to Stephen Knight's Final Solution.
Although hundreds of letters were indeed sent to the press and police claiming to be from Jack the Ripper, historians today believe that few if any of them actually came from the killer. One in particular that may have been real is the "From Hell" letter, which enclosed a piece of human kidney. In the film, Abberline is given this letter and kidney before the double murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes - but its Eddowes' kidney that the killer is allegedly sending through the post! So unless live-kidney-extraction was a particularly-enjoyed pastime of poor Kate's, the timing was a bit off in the film.
The Goulston Street Graffito did indeed exist, and it was indeed ordered to be washed away by Sir Charles Warren. The film makes it appear as though Warren was motivated to do this as a means of covering up a Freemasonic conspiracy, but in reality his reasoning was quite sound - anti-Semitic feeling was already rampant in the area, and any indication that the Ripper may be linked with a "Juwe" could very well have caused a riot. Either way, there is no way to be sure that the Ripper actually wrote this message - it may have been scribbled days if not weeks before. Researchers today still can find no consensus to whether or not it was the Ripper's writing.
In the end, From Hell straddles that fine line between fact and fiction so often found in Hollywood's "historical epics." While the Hughes brothers are to be commended in capturing much of the authenticity of the times, location and the case, the film should certainly not be viewed as an authentic representation of the Ripper crimes as a whole. Those interested in the real facts of the case are urged to pick up Sugden's Complete History of Jack the Ripper or Rumbelow's The Complete Jack the Ripper. Either book serves as a good introduction to the case.