Previously in this blog, we commented on the prevalence of delusions concerning Jack the Ripper expressed by late nineteenth century Bethlem patients. Here, we continue the story of Louis Box, admitted in 1891.
On examination by the medical officers the day after admission, Box “says that he does not think he is ‘Jack the Ripper’ now and that he was mistaken last night. The fact of it is, it is evident that everybody thinks he is Jack the Ripper, people sniff as he passes them in the street in a meaning manner, they also make sarcastic remarks about him saying ‘he appears pretty happy this morning’, ‘there he goes’ etc. Worse than this, detectives are on his back and conspire to annoy him into confessing. Lately he went to what he thought was a boarding house but what turned out to be some house in the pay of the police. The house was in the care of a Frenchman who turned out to be Charcot [the French neurologist well known for his experimental research into hysteria through hypnosis]. He knows he was Charcot as he heard him remark as he was going upstairs that he (Box) had found out who he was. In this house he was subjected to every kind of machination with a view of making him confess. Wires were in his bed and he received shocks; there were telephones in the room and a false back to the cupboard. He heard them discussing all his previous life. They used to imitate the falling of drops of blood and then watch the effect on him. They used to flash lights before him and shew him indecent pictures at all times discerning the effect on him. It is not improbable that Charcot hypnotised him to see if he had homicidal tendencies.”
It was not just the mass media and the public who expounded on the Ripper case: psychiatrists, including Bethlem’s George Savage, published in national and specialist papers. Box’s words incorporate many of these medical interests: research into the “criminal personality” and the “born criminal”, homicidal tendencies, and psychopathia sexualis; the use of hypnosis; the wide fame of Charcot, and physiological and psychological investigation and experimentation. It is hard not to feel sympathy for Box’s declaration that: “He gets so annoyed by these contrivances and by public opinion in the case that although he knows he has not performed any murders consciously, he thinks he may have unconsciously.” The unconscious mind was, after all, just what many of these investigative methods aimed to uncover.
“These are the times of Jack the Ripper.”
Elizabeth Bishop (admitted to Bethlem June 1895)
The Whitechapel murders of 1888 are of particular interest in relation to what responses tell us about late Victorian society. Popularly considered the first “modern” serial killer, mass media coverage of the Ripper case ensured that discussions of poverty, crime and “sexual danger” permeated Victorian society; from autumn 1888, the delusions of many Bethlem patients centred around the “Whitechapel murders.” What is particularly clear in the Bethlem casebooks is the way in which the Ripper “sensation” affected men and women differently. Male patients worried that they were suspected of being involved in the crimes, or even that they were accused of being “Jack the Ripper” himself, while female patients feared mutilation, regularly identifying themselves with the prostitute victims.
This divide reflects that indicated in histories like Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight. The Bethlem casebooks also validate Walkowitz’s claims that the sexual fears raised by the murders continued well after the case itself: 1888 and 1889 may see a proliferation of Ripper delusions at Bethlem, but they continued at least until the end of the century, and possibly beyond. The articulate story of one patient in particular deserves further attention. Louis Box, a London writer, was 25 when he was admitted to Bethlem suffering from mania. Although Box, like other male patients, identified with the murderer rather than the victims, he also claimed that he had “dressed as a woman and so committed the murders in Whitechapel,” an interesting subversion of gender roles.
Admission Register, showing Louis Box’s admission to Bethlem. To view more nineteenth century admission registers, visit our online archive.
Many delusions can be regarded as an attempt by patients to explain the odd sensations and hallucinations caused by their illness. From the industrial revolution on, rapid technological change seemed to many to account for the symptoms of their illness. Modern psychiatrists might be very familiar with the idea of the control of the body by a machine, but Mike Jay has suggested this was unusual prior to the “Air Loom” of James Tilly Matthews, admitted to Bethlem in 1797. In late nineteenth century Bethlem, the most common apparatuses of control suggested were wires and telephones.
While electrical wires had been used for experimental purposes by eighteenth century scientists, it was only in the late nineteenth century that they came into more common use, as indicated by the introduction of regulations for the installation of electrical wiring in England and Wales in 1881. Widespread use of the electric telegraph for the transmission of messages meant that the presence of wires might seem a likely explanation for hallucinations of hearing. Wiring in institutions might serve a practical purpose – in 1884, George Savage reported the trial of electric lighting to the Medico-Psychological Association. It might also be therapeutic: Galvanism, the application of electrical currents, was still in common use as one treatment for a variety of illnesses, including insanity and “nervous” illnesses, such as neuralgia. When John Jacoby declared in 1886 that the Doctor had put telephones and telegraphs on his bed, his delusions may in fact have had born reference to previous treatments he had undergone.
Following its invention in 1876, many patients connected the disembodied voices of the telephone with both their hallucinations, and the electrical control of the telegraph. Joseph Haskill was “annoyed at night by telephones and electronic arrangements,” while Annie Payne thought that her doctor “attendend her professionally through the telephone.” Moreover, the adoption of such explanations by patients indicates the intense interest provoked by such progressive seeming inventions; many patients, like Annie, adopted their ideas despite the fact that “there is no telephone in the house.”
Further Reading: The Air Loom Gang Mike Jay, 2003.