Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

by David Schmid


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Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Over the past thirty years, serial killers have become iconic figures in America, the subject of made-for-TV movies and mass-market paperbacks alike. But why do we find such luridly transgressive and horrific individuals so fascinating? What compels us to look more closely at these figures when we really want to look away? Natural Born Celebrities considers how serial killers have become lionized in American culture and explores the consequences of their fame.

David Schmid provides a historical account of how serial killers became famous and how that fame has been used in popular media and the corridors of the FBI alike. Ranging from H. H. Holmes, whose killing spree during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair inspired The Devil in the White City, right up to Aileen Wuornos, the lesbian prostitute whose vicious murder of seven men would serve as the basis for the hit film Monster, Schmid unveils a new understanding of serial killers by emphasizing both the social dimensions of their crimes and their susceptibility to multiple interpretations and uses. He also explores why serial killers have become endemic in popular culture, from their depiction in The Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files to their becoming the stuff of trading cards and even Web sites where you can buy their hair and nail clippings.

Bringing his fascinating history right up to the present, Schmid ultimately argues that America needs the perversely familiar figure of the serial killer now more than ever to manage the fear posed by Osama bin Laden since September 11.

"This is a persuasively argued, meticulously researched, and compelling examination of the media phenomenon of the 'celebrity criminal' in American culture. It is highly readable as well."—Joyce Carol Oates

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226738673
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/01/2005
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

David Schmid is assistant professor of English at the University at Buffalo.

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Natural Born Celebrities
Serial Killers in American Culture

Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73867-3

Chapter One The Victorian Killer as Media Star: Jack the Ripper and H. H. Holmes

From Hell and Back

On October 18, 2001, the film From Hell premiered in Los Angeles. Attending the glamorous event were its American stars, Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, the "shock rocker" Marilyn Manson, who wrote the music for the film, and its directors, Albert and Allen Hughes, the twenty-nine-year-old African American twin brothers previously responsible for the violent urban movies Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Despite mixed reviews, the film had a good opening weekend, taking in $11.6 million and beating out Denzel Washington's Training Day for the coveted position of number-one film in the country. Bruce Snyder, president of distribution for Twentieth Century Fox, commented that "it is well positioned to capture moviegoers looking for Halloween thrills in the coming weeks," adding that the film "looked hip" and pointing out that 53 percent of the weekend's audience were aged under twenty-five ("Depp takes").

From Hell, featuring the work of some of the hottest people in the American film and music industries and attracting millions of the most sought-after demographic group in entertainment, centers on the British Victorian serial killer known as "Jack the Ripper." Based on the famous graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell of the same name, From Hell features Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline, the man in charge of the investigation into the Ripper murders. Heather Graham plays prostitute Mary Kelly, the last of the Ripper's five victims. One of the most controversial aspects of the film had been the choice of director. The Hughes brothers, best known for their gritty portrayals of contemporary African American urban life, were not the obvious choice to make a film about a British Victorian serial killer. The problem, it seemed, was not that the Hughes brothers were American but that they were black. Their blackness apparently disqualified them from having anything relevant to say about the putatively white space of late-nineteenth-century Britain. According to Albert Hughes, however, he and his brother were perfect for the job because "this is a ghetto story. It concerns poverty, violence and corruption, which are themes we deal with in our movies" (I. Sinclair).

It comes as no surprise that it was the Hughes brothers' blackness, rather than their Americanness, that was considered problematic because there is a long tradition, beginning during the murders themselves, of associating Americans with Jack the Ripper, in the form of both speculation that the Ripper himself might be American and contemporaneous American fascination with the case. Although most of the theories about an American Ripper were British in origin, few commentators in the United States rejected such theories outright. Indeed, many took a perverse pride in the idea that Jack the Ripper might be an American, perhaps feeling that the United States should lead the world in all things, including crime. From Hell is just the latest example of an American interest in Jack the Ripper that has proved to be just as intense and enduring as the British interest. Although the Hughes brothers used Martin Childs, the British Oscar-winning production designer for Shakespeare in Love, to recreate an authentic Victorian London, in every other respect From Hell is an American production. Although the directors considered casting British actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Jude Law, and Sean Connery as Abberline, they eventually chose Depp partly because, according to Allen Hughes, "he has, like, 70 books on Jack the Ripper" (Salisbury).

From Hell, however, differs in one important way from earlier examples of American engagement with Jack the Ripper. Whereas nineteenth-century Americans were often willing to consider the possibility that the Ripper might be American, From Hell, like the vast majority of recent Ripper-related popular culture, firmly locates the Ripper as British. Perhaps because Americanness and serial murder are now widely viewed as synonymous, twenty-first-century Americans are apparently much less willing to claim Jack the Ripper as one of their own than were their nineteenth-century counterparts. By examining the nineteenth-century popular cultural response to the Ripper murders in both Britain and the United States, as well as the American reaction to the case of H. H. Holmes, the first high-profile American serial killer, in Chicago in the 1890s, I will emphasize the overdetermined connections between murder and national identity. In particular, I want to highlight the extent to which contemporaneous speculation about the Ripper's identity concentrated just as much on nationality, race, and ethnicity as it did on particular social groups (such as doctors or butchers) and on individual suspects.

Thanks in part to this emphasis on nationality, American commentators could not avoid discussing the delicate subject of H. H. Holmes's Americanness, a discussion that in turn necessitated an uncomfortable consideration of the relationship between violence and American identity. By reconstructing these debates, I will demonstrate how the contemporaneous response to Jack the Ripper and H. H. Holmes, a response torn between ejecting these figures from the public sphere altogether and turning them into forms of lurid entertainment, inaugurates the ongoing debate about whether famous serial killers are the consummate insiders or outsiders of American culture.

Fear, Enjoyment, and the Ripper Industry

There is no denying the fact that a large part of the British public's reaction to the Whitechapel murders was abject fear and panic. Newspaper reports of the murders are filled with descriptions of anxious crowds at each of the murder scenes. After the murder of Annie Chapman, the Ripper's second victim, on September 8, 1888, Reynolds Newspaper reported that "the streets were ... swarmed with people, who stood about in groups and excitedly discussed the details of the murder ... Great anxiety is felt for the future. While the murderer is at large, they cannot feel safe" (quoted in Paley 72-73). Part of the reason the public reacted so strongly to the murders is that they were so unusual. Although the East End of London in general, and Whitechapel in particular, had a well-deserved reputation for violence, murder was quite a rare event. In fact, out of the sixty-eight murders committed in London in 1886, and of the eighty committed in 1887, not a single one was committed in Whitechapel (Paley 70, 71). Part of the reason, therefore, that the press and the public resorted to the language of gothic melodrama in describing the Ripper as a "fiend" and a "monster" is that they had very few other cases to compare with the Whitechapel murders.

And yet, alongside the frequent reports of fearful crowds can be found other reports of how people quickly capitalized upon the murders and found those same crowds eager to consume the murders as a media event. One of the most egregious attempts to cash in on the Ripper is described by Samuel Hudson in a pamphlet entitled "Leather Apron"; or, The Horrors of Whitechapel, London, 1888 published in Philadelphia in 1888. Hudson acknowledges that the "public uproar occasioned by these monstrous crimes naturally was widespread and intense" and gives the following example of how some profited from the uproar: "At 29 Harbury Street people were charged a penny to enter the yard in which the Chapman woman was murdered" (14). Business, apparently, was brisk. Charging people to view murder scenes was just one of the entrepreneurial possibilities opened up by Jack the Ripper. The crowds of sightseers who thronged Whitechapel were eagerly fed by local costermongers. A pavement artist thrilled onlookers with graphic representations of the murders, while a local woman did a lively trade selling swordsticks to members of the crowd.

The Ripper even inspired entertainments in other parts of England. At the hiring fairs in the Midlands in October 1888, "a penny at one bought three shies at a door with the object of bringing out Jack the Ripper or 'one of them from Whitechapel'" (Sugden 281). L. Perry Curtis has observed of the Victorians that "however upset they might be by the actual event [of murder], readers seemed to relish both the gruesome details of the crime and 'the moment of truth' when the jury returned the verdict of guilty and the judge imposed the familiar sentence of death by hanging" (83). In the Ripper case, the public was denied the catharsis represented by the trial and sentence, and so they had all the more reason to seek that catharsis by turning to popular culture.

Apart from the examples already mentioned, proprietors of waxwork museums were quick to see the possibilities offered by the Ripper murders. Some contented themselves with adding a few daubs of red paint to existing exhibits and offering the result as a tableau of the Ripper's victims, but others went to much greater lengths, as described by Montagu Williams, a local magistrate at the time of the murders:

In the body of the room was a waxwork exhibition, and some of its features were revolting in the extreme. The first of the Whitechapel murders were fresh in the memory of the public, and the proprietor of the exhibition was turning the circumstance to some commercial account. There lay a horrible presentment in wax of Matilda Turner, the first victim, as well as one of Mary Ann Nichols, whose body was found in Buck's Row. The heads were represented as being nearly severed from the bodies, and in each case there were shown, in red paint, three terrible gashes reaching from the abdomen to the ribs. (6)

Williams describes how the building that housed the waxworks museum had gone through a number of incarnations in recent years (including, ironically, being used as a funeral parlor) but none of the businesses that had used the premises had enjoyed as much success as this "East End showman." The success of this establishment was duplicated by that of several similar entertainments in the area, Williams explains, and he regarded them as a sufficiently serious social problem that he led a successful campaign to have them closed down. He summarizes the testimony of a local trader concerned about the morally corrupting influence of these establishments on young men and women: "He said it was terrible to hear the jesting remarks that fell from the lips of young girls concerning the murders and other horrors that were illustrated inside and outside the shows" (10).

The presence of women at these shows suggests that they may have used these exhibits to distance themselves from the Ripper's victims, making themselves feel a little less vulnerable by underlining the fact that the Ripper killed other ("fallen") women and not them. These examples of the popular cultural appropriation of murder did not begin with the Ripper case, as Williams's description of another one of these shows illustrates:

The Whitechapel murders were favorite subjects for representation; and while several showmen merely dabbled in these crimes, so to speak, one enterprising member of the fraternity dealt exhaustively with the whole series by means of illuminated coloured views, which his patrons inspected through peep-holes. Jack Sheppard, Charles Peace, and a host of other similar celebrities lived again on the canvas screens, and there repeated, before an audience of awe-stricken and admiring East End youths, some of the more daring acts of their graceless lives. (8-9)

These shows, popularly known as "penny gaffs," drew on a celebrity culture based on criminals that was clearly well established before the Whitechapel murders began. John Springhall has traced the origins of penny gaff theaters back to the early years of the nineteenth century, when they arose to satisfy a working-class desire for theater in the newly expanded towns and cities. From the beginning, well-known crimes provided theater owners with the opportunity for full houses and full wallets: "the famous 'Edgware murder' of 1836 whereby Hannah Brown, who took in washing, was killed then dismembered by her intended husband, James Greenacre, a much-married bankrupt, proved quite a windfall when dramatized for London gaffs and played to capacity houses for at least 10 months after the crime had taken place" (23). Like the swiftness of the theatrical response to the murder of Hannah Brown, the speed with which the Whitechapel murders were turned into forms of visual entertainment is testament to the rich history of popular culture's use of crime for pecuniary benefit. The Whitechapel murders may have taken such opportunities to new heights, but they did not start them.

Unlike most other murder cases, which have a relatively short shelf life, that of Jack the Ripper continues to be a major presence in both British and American popular culture nearly 120 years after the murders, and it shows no signs of waning (see Colville and Lucanio). In particular, the Ripper plays a bigger role in London's tourist industry today than ever before. Not only can one go on walking tours and buy maps of "Jack's London," but one can also visit various Jack the Ripper exhibits, including (and here the connection with late-Victorian entertainments is particularly evident) Madame Tussaud's famous Waxworks Museum. In 1980, Madame Tussaud's redesigned their Chamber of Horrors exhibit around the theme of the Ripper murders. Although the Ripper himself is not represented, there are several bloody recreations of his mutilated victims, and the exhibit as a whole is now arranged to resemble a "typical" late-Victorian East End street; dirty, fog shrouded, gloomy, and mysterious. Madame Tussaud's had resisted including the Ripper in the Chamber of Horrors for so long because of their policy of never inventing faces, which of course they would have had to do in the Ripper's case. Eventually, according to Judith Walkowitz, Madame Tussaud's was virtually forced into changing their mind: "By 1980 ... Madame Tussaud's faced a dilemma: visitors (particularly children)were complaining that the Chamber of Horrors was not 'horrible' enough. 'People were just not finding it bloody enough.' By installing the 'Ripper street,' Madame Tussaud 'bowed' to demands for 'more gore'" (2). As Deborah Cameron has pointed out, the consequence of the Ripper's seamless integration into England's tourist culture is that "Jack the Ripper has been thoroughly sanitised, turned into a folk hero like Robin Hood. His story is packaged as a bit of harmless fun: only a spoilsport would be tactless enough to point out that it is a story of misogyny and sadism" ("That's Entertainment" 17). Bearing Cameron's point in mind, it would be easy but misleading to dismiss those who offer and those who consume popular cultural representations of the Ripper murders, whether now or in the Victorian era, as tasteless ghouls, bent upon ignoring "the actual significance of what Jack the Ripper did, and what sexual killers still do a hundred years later" (Cameron, "That's Entertainment" 17). While it is undoubtedly true that the version of the Ripper murders propagated by popular culture usually ignores, or makes light of, the possibility that the Ripper may have been motivated by misogyny, we cannot dismiss out of hand the waxwork museums, the walking tours, the films, the books, and the plethora of other objects inspired by the Ripper. Instead, we must confront the meaning of the Ripper's fame and ask why he has been such an object of fascination for so many and for so long.

At the time of the murders themselves, public fascination with the Ripper went far beyond viewing the murder scenes or attending a penny gaff performance. During the murders, and for many months after the murders had ceased, the police and press were inundated with thousands of letters claiming to be from Jack the Ripper, letters that gloated about previous crimes and predicted further crimes to come. A significant portion of these letters announced that the Ripper had moved to another location, as in this letter received by the editor of the Belfast Evening Telegraph: "Dear Boss-I have arrived in your city, as London is too warm for me just now; so that Belfast had better look out ... I have spotted some nice fat ones, that will work up well. I am longing to begin, for I love my work. Yours, jack the ripper" (quoted in Hudson 19). Although historians usually assume that all such letters were written by men, there is evidence that women also claimed to be Jack the Ripper: "At least one woman emulated the copycat activities of men and gained some notoriety from the case: at Bradford Police Court on 10 October 1888, a 'respectable young woman, named Maria Coroner, aged twenty-one, was charged with having certain letters tending to cause a breach of the peace; they were signed "Jack the Ripper"'" (Walkowitz 224). What motivated Maria Coroner and thousands of other letter writers to declare themselves publicly to be Jack the Ripper? Clearly, there was something about the Ripper (and the type of murderer he quickly came to represent) that appealed to thousands of otherwise ordinary people. One of the preconditions for that fascination is the fact that the Ripper was never identified. If Jack the Ripper had ever been apprehended and convicted, it is extremely doubtful that the case would have become as influential as it has. The mystery of the Ripper's identity is the sine qua non of the Ripper industry, now as then, and as contemporaneous speculation about the Ripper's identity constituted a major part of that industry, it is to that subject that I now turn.


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Table of Contents

Introduction - Idols of Destruction: Celebrity, Consumerism, and the Serial Killer
Part One: A History of Serial Murder
1. The Victorian Killer as Media Star: Jack the Ripper and H. H. Holmes
2. Defining the Enemy Within: The FBI and Serial Murder
Part Two: Serial Murder in American Popular Culture
3. Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers and the Hollywood Star System
4. Out of This World: Aliens, Devils, and Serial Killers in Television Crime Drama
5. Next Door Monsters: The Dialectic of Normality and Monstrosity in True-Crime Narratives
6. The Unbearable Straightness of Violence: Queering Serial Murder in True Crime
Epilogue - Serial Killing in America after 9/11
Works Cited

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