When I began drafting my debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, I had recently been studying in London on scholarship. One of the most striking experiences during my time there was taking a Jack the Ripper walking tour. Walking those literal haunts created the entire sub-plot of my book, which will soon be reissuing from Tor Books as Strangely Beautiful in a new, revised, author’s preferred two-book omnibus edition with new scenes and content.
It was so important to me in setting the stage for a series featuring a secretive group of Victorian “ghost-busters” that I take all the ghosts in the Strangely Beautiful from real London haunts and favorite spectres. So, I made sure to incorporate the Ripper’s victims as they factor into the ghost lore of the city and further my heroes’ quests. My source material was primarily the wonderful and kind Richard Jones’s work, founder of London’s Haunted Walks and his books and blogs on haunted London. For me, the most important factor of writing ghost stories is in the mere telling of them, to honor the people who then became the haunt.
Jack’s victims and their lingering ghost stories
Hanbury Street, E1 – Annie Chapman
At 6 in the morning on September 8th, 1888, Annie Chapman was discovered dead in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street. She was Jack the Ripper’s second victim.
The Truman Brewery was later built over the site, and when the brewery was in operation, it was said a mysterious chill would creep through the boardroom at the exact time and anniversary of Ms. Chapman’s death. Her spirit was sometimes seen standing by the storeroom. The storeroom happened to be atop the very spot where she had died such a horrid death.
How I set the scene in Strangely Beautiful (excerpt):
Blood was everywhere, drenching the dirty stones of Hanbury Street, flooding the gutter below a wooden gate. A bleary-eyed crowd, growing despite the ungodly hour of the morning, gazed down in horror at the mangled corpse. Constables and a haggard investigator crawled the scene like insects; real flies buzzed alongside. Rumours and shrieks filled the air, and the word “Ripper” was on everyone’s lips.
A lean, severe woman stood just beyond the horrified East End crowd. Her brown hair was pinned tightly beneath a simple touring hat, save for one renegade lock, and Rebecca Thompson folded her arms and gazed down at the scene from the steps of an adjacent tenement. At her elbow was the usual tall, formidable man in a long black greatcoat, and he tipped his top hat and squinted upward, his mop of dark hair rustling in the breeze.
“My God, Alexi,” Rebecca murmured, brushing her gloved hand across his forearm before resting it again upon the buttons of her sleeve. “Darkly Luminous work this must have been, to have produced such an effect.” She shuddered. “Is this a sign of something new?”
A distracted hum was his only reply.
“Alexi, are you listening?”
“There are gargoyles atop this shabby roof. How odd,” Alexi mused. “Yet they neglected their sole duty—to deter whatever demon struck here. Poor girl. Poor dead girl.”
“You’re not listening to me.”
“I always listen, Rebecca.” He turned dark eyes to hers, and his sculpted lips softened into a slight smile; a rare occurrence. “It indeed may be a sign. But we cannot know for sure until this”—he gestured grimly toward the body—”is added to something more substantial. Until we see all that was foretold.”
Catherine Eddowes and Mitre Square, EC3:
The original Victorian square of Mitre Square no longer exists, save for the cobblestones. But those stones have a tale to tell, as witness to one of the most infamous and terrible sprees of crime ever reported.
At 1:45 in the morning on September 30th, 1888, Catherine Eddowes became the fourth canonical victim of Jack the Ripper. Even though the square is today surrounded my modern buildings and a school, local folklore insists that on the anniversary of her murder, Catherine’s ghostly corpse is seen lying on the very spot where she came to such an ignoble death.
Here is how Mitre Square and Ms. Eddowes grim demise factor into Strangely Beautiful, when the hero, the brooding and enigmatic Professor Rychman tries to fight what he soon learns is hardly human at all:
“Alexi loosed a string of curses and spurred his horse down another dark street.
As he rounded the corner of Mitre Square, an incantation died on his lips at the same moment the beast’s next victim did. Surrounded by brick, the small square was now her open, bloody mausoleum. A wispy ghost, a weary young woman confused and wide-eyed peeled upward and into the night sky. There was no sign of her killer.
Alexi murmured a benediction in the spirit’s direction, watching her ascend. He prayed that she would continue upward into what was now a calm haze of silver moonlight, rather than return and be tethered to the unspeakable reality of her mortal remains below. Ruffled skirts and pooling blood from a torn abdomen and something that was now hardly a face remained turned toward him on the ground, and Alexi wondered if the sight would ever leave his mind. He choked back a wail and darted back out the walled block, well aware that there were officers on patrol who would soon find her. Everyone was vigilant these nights, but no one was of any use. Not even him.
But Alexi no longer doubted that he had found the source of Whitechapel’s recent woe.”
The Ten Bells – 84 Commercial Street, E1 “Jack the Ripper’s Local”
In the early hours of November 9th 1888, Mary Kelly left The Ten Bells pub. Later, across the street from the pub, in Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street, a body nearly unrecognizable as a human female was found mutilated. It was thought, perhaps, the killer followed her from The Ten Bells and into Miller’s Court.
Numerous live-in staff in the upper stories of the Ten Bells told fearsome tales of being awoken by dread in the middle of the night, only to find a spectre of an old man dressed in 19th Century clothing lying beside them! Many people saw him, no one was quite sure who he was until in the year 2000, an antique metal box was found hidden in a corner of the cellar. Inside were the effects of George Roberts, along with a press cutting that spoke of his being murdered (with an axe) at a Welsh cinema. A man named George Roberts had kept The Ten Bells in the transition between the 19th and 20th centuries and it was assumed the ghost was the former pub owner.
While Mary Kelly doesn’t get the time and full homage she deserves in my book, as her death comes right near the climax of the novel, her death is referenced as such:
“The air was sick. A virulent force was tearing through the streets toward a specific destination, ready for a reckoning. It growled and roiled and cut a path like a whirl of ancient blades. Its casualty would be an unspeakable shame. Neither Alexi nor his cohorts had any inkling that there would be another mutilated corpse in the morning, nor that this would be the worst.
There would be nothing, when all was said and done, to ever suggest that this woman, torn utterly to pieces, had once been a human being. The Ripper had struck again, swiping ferocious, merciless, unthinkable paws down Dorset Street, en route to the evening festivities.”
There are countless ghosts across London who make cameo appearances in the book—some playful, some more gruesome and malevolent, some animals and portents, all lending their spectral hand to the scene. All add rich flavor and history to a tale that remains the book of my heart. I hope to honor each and every spectre with my work, as their stories are as important to me as the ones I create solely from my own imagination.
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Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, artist, and the author of the new Eterna Files trilogy of Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy/Supernatural Suspense novels for Tor Books, the Magic Most Foul saga, a Gothic Victorian YA trilogy, and the acclaimed, bestselling Strangely Beautiful saga releasing in new, revised, author preferred editions 4/26 from Tor Books. A classically trained actress and proud member of Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City and works in film and television, is a tour guide for Boroughs of the Dead, and crafts Steampunk, Gothic, and Neo-Victorian jewelry and art. Visit her website, follower her on Twitter, and check out her Facebook.