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Famous British Murder Cases

(Redirected from Jack the Ripper)

In numerous interviews, Hitchcock talked about famous British murder cases. Although some commentators have claimed this showed an unhealthy obsession on the part of the director, it simply reflected a typically British interest in famous cases. This phenomenon was examined recently by Dr Lucy Worsley in the television series A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley (2013), which featured an interview with Hitchcock's biographer John Russell Taylor.

Although it is highly doubtful he was aware of the fact, Hitchcock's great grandmother Sarah Pike was very likely living on Ratcliff Highway at the time of the first Ratcliff Highway murder of Timothy Marr and his family in December 1811.[1]

In May 1972, Hitchcock mentioned several famous murder cases in an interview about Frenzy (1972) broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:

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Jack the Ripper

In the autumn of 1888, the East End of London was terrorised by a series of brutal murders which were committed by an unknown person who was called The Whitechapel Murderer, Leather Apron and, most infamously, Jack the Ripper.

The police investigation, which included the murders of eleven women between April 1888 and February 1891, specifically linked five of them as between committed by the Ripper: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. The final victim included in the "Whitechapel Murders" police file was Frances Coles, who was killed a short distance from Hooper Square, where Alfred Hitchcock's sister, Ellen Kathleen Hitchcock, lived two decades later.

Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the "canonical five" victims, was buried at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone, where several of Alfred Hitchcock close relatives — including his parents and siblings — were also later buried.

The Lodger

Shortly after the murders, psychiatrist Dr Lyttleton Forbes Winslow claimed publicly that he knew the identity of the killer and named him as G. Wentworth Smith, a Canadian who worked in London for the Toronto Trust Society. According to Winslow's story, Smith had lodged with Mr and Mrs Callaghan at 27 Sun Street, Finsbury Square, and his unusual behaviour had apparently convinced the Callaghan's that he was the Ripper. The police investigated Winslow's claims and found them to be without basis. However, Winslow continued promote his theory and even claimed that his "outing" of Smith had saved the lives of other women.[2]

The story of the Ripper being a suspicious lodger had taken hold during the killings and, in October 1888, several newspapers ran stories about a lodger at a house in Batty Street who had allegedly given his landlady a bloodstained shirt to clean and was now wanted by the police.[3]

In January 1911, McClure's Magazine published a short story by novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes entitled "The Lodger", in which a family believes their lodger to be a killer known as "The Avenger". Lowndes expanded the story and published as a novel in 1913. The novel was then adapted into a stage play, "Who Is He?", by H.A. Vachell, which opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 9th December 1915 and ran until April 1916.[4]

In conversation with John Russell Taylor, Hitchcock claimed to have seen the stage play and later directed his own version of the novel as The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), starring Ivor Novello. Novello reprised the role in 1933 and further screen adaptations have included The Lodger (1944), Man in the Attic (1953) and The Lodger (2009).

Shortly after moving to America, Hitchcock was linked to a radio adaptation of The Lodger which starred Herbert Marshall, Edmund Gwenn and Lurene Tuttle.[5]


Hawley Harvey Crippen

Better known as Dr. Crippen, he was executed on 23rd November 1910 for the murder of his wife, Cora Henrietta Crippen. His attempted escape to America with his mistress, Ethel Le Neve, aboard the Montrose was widely covered by the English press.

In the film The 39 Steps (1935), the character of Mr. Memory is asked the question "When was Crippen hanged?" The character was based on the real life stage performer William James Maurice Bottle (1875–1956), whose stage name was "Datas: The Memory Man". Bottle had known Cora Crippen, who performed as "Belle Elmore" and had gone drinking with her husband. Bottle later became acquainted with Crippen's executioner, John Ellis, who also executed Edith Thompson.


The Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters Case

Whilst researching his biography of Hitchcock, Taylor discovered the unusual fact that the director was taught to dance by William Graydon, who had two daughters, one of whom worked in the same office at Hitchcock. The other daughter was Edith Jessie Graydon, who later achieved notoriety after she was executed for her alleged role in the murder of her husband, Percy Thompson.[6]

Out of respect for Edith's surviving sister, Avis Graydon, Hitchcock initially asked Taylor to remove the reference to the case from the biography:[7]

More mysterious was a request to take out the tale of how the teenage Hitch had been taught to dance by the father of his favourite murderess, Edith Thompson. Whyever? It was such a bizarrely appropriate story, I would be loath to lose it. Well, said Hitch, when he first knew Edith, née Graydon, he also knew, much better, her sister. The Graydons were Catholics, family friends of the Hitchcocks. Years later Hitch’s sister Nellie by chance ran into the sister, still unmarried, still a Miss Graydon in a world that knew nothing of Edith Thompson’s early history. Their friendship renewed, Nellie brought her friend from church back into Hitch’s life. She sent him birthday and Christmas cards, and when in London he had tea with the two of them. "Now, her big secret must be the connection with a notorious murderess. I see her looking at me and wondering 'Does he or doesn't he know?' She is bound to read your book, and then she'll know for sure. John, do you want to break an old lady's heart?"

Avis Graydon died in 1977 and was buried in St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery — the same cemetery where Hitchcock's parents and siblings were laid to rest.

In 1937, Hitchcock stated:[8]

Sometimes I have been asked what films I should make if I were free to do exactly as I liked without having to think about the box-office. There are several examples I can give very easily. For one thing, I should like to make travel films with a personal element in them. Or I should like to do a verbatim of a celebrated trial. The Thompson-Bywaters case, for instance. The cinema could reconstruct the whole story. Or there is the fire at sea possibility — that has never been tackled seriously on the screen. It might be too terrifying for some audiences, but it would make a great subject worthwhile.

As Stephane Duckett noted in Hitchcock in Context (2014):

As a consequence [of the Edith Thompson case] a number of Hitchcock’s films feature innocent, or more importantly partly innocent women who nevertheless face the full penalty of the law where public opinion in the form of a disapproval of their lifestyle — particularly sexual — plays a significant part in the determination of their culpability.


Neville Heath

Neville George Clevely Heath (1917–1946) was a killer responsible for the murders of two young women and who was executed in London in 1946. Heath's crimes were particularly shocking at the time due to the sadism involved and the mutilation inflicted on the victims.

In the 1960s, Hitchcock incorporated aspects of the case into his Kaleidoscope project and author-journalist Arthur La Bern used Heath as a model for the serial killer in his 1966 novel "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square", which Hitchcock later adapted in Frenzy (1972). To help Barry Foster prepare for the role of the killer Bob Rusk in Frenzy, Hitchcock gave the actor books about Heath.[9]


John George Haigh

Commonly known as the "Acid Bath Murderer", Haigh was an English serial killer during the 1940s. He was convicted of the murders of six people, although he claimed to have killed nine. He used acid not to kill his victims, but in what he believed to be a foolproof method of body disposal.

After the killer's arrest in February 1949, director Alfred Hitchcock apparently followed the case with interest. Haigh's trial and execution took place whilst Hitchcock was filming Stage Fright in London.

In a later interview with Roger Ebert, Hitchcock talked about the murders:[10]

[They were] committed by a man named Haigh, I believe his name was. Did his jobs in a little garage halfway between London and the coast. He was tripped up when the under-manageress of the Hounslow Court Hotel, Kensington, noticed him going out with women and not coming back in with them, or something of the sort. Of course once the police had a look into that garage, they'd solved their case. They found everything: the bills for the acid, the tub where he did his work, and even some plastic dentures that hadn't been eaten up by the acid...

[...] The touch that fascinated me didn't take place until years afterward. Mr. Justice Humphries finally retired, and then his wife died, and so he closed up his big house and moved into... the Hounslow Court Hotel! I read his biography. It tells us that when he was informed of the coincidence, Mr. Justice Humphries laughed sardonically.


John Reginald Halliday Christie

John Reginald Halliday Christie (1899–1953) was a serial killer active during the 1940s and early 1950s. He murdered at least eight women — including his wife Ethel — by strangling them in his apartment at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, London.

Shortly after he moved out of the property, the bodies of three of his victims were discovered hidden in an alcove in the kitchen. His wife's body was found beneath the floorboards of the front room. Christie was arrested and convicted of his wife's murder, for which he was hanged in July 1953.

It is now accepted that Christie was responsible for the murders of Beryl Evans and her daughter Geraldine, whose bodies were found in a wash-house in the garden of 10 Rillington Place during a search by police in December 1949. Beryl's husband, Timothy Evans, had initially claimed responsibility for the death of his wife but then withdrew his confession and accused Christie after being told that the body of Geraldine had also been discovered.

At his trial — now considered a serious miscarriage of justice — the jury refused to believe Evans' accusations and found him guilty of the murder of Geraldine. Evans was executed in 1950 but eventually received a royal pardon . He was exhumed from Pentonville Prison in 1965 and reburied in St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone.

Speaking about the film Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock told journalist Rebecca Morehouse:

The woman is the natural target in sexual-psychotic murders, especially when the man is impotent. John R. F. Christie was a man inspired by his impotence to murder eight women.[11]

Notes & References

  1. Wikipedia: Ratcliff Highway murders
  2. See Wikipedia: L. Forbes Winslow and Casebook: Dr. Lyttleton Forbes Winslow
  3. See Casebook: Mrs. Kuer’s Lodger by Gavin Bromley and Casebook: The Lodger
  4. See English Hitchcock (2000) by Charles Barr, page 218.
  5. According to The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion (2001) by Martin Grams Jnr & Patrik Wikstrom, Hitchcock only lent his name to the production and he was voiced by actor Joseph Kearns.
  6. Wikipedia: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters
  7. See the new introduction to Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (2013) and also The Times (05/Apr/2005) - The truth about Hitchcock and those cool blondes
  8. Sight and Sound (1937) - My Own Methods
  9. See The Times (03/Aug/1971) - Murder with comedy at Covent Garden Market and The Times (11/Jan/1971) - Hitchcock to make film in London.
  10. Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Ebert (14/Dec/1969)
  11. Lima News (16/Jul/1972) - Alfred Hitchcock Not a Male Chauvinist