Posted 14 February 2013 by Andrew Gardner
Well I never, the latest Jack the Ripper theory centres on East Sussex again. Actually this isn't such a surprise: theories about the identity of the notorious serial killer have already centred on the cosmopolitan melting-pot of Brighton, but this time it's Hastings in the frame, which does seem to come from left field.
Let's just step back a bit: Ripper theorists have long been citing Brighton and one of the favourite suspects is a surgeon called Robert Donston Stephenson who around the time of the notorious Whitechapel murders had been living above The Cricketers pub in Black Lion Street, then a notorious a prostitute hangout. It's not so far fetched, if you think about it - this was the age of the steam train and while Londoners could flock to sample the seaside delights at Brighton, of course traffic went the other way too. Stephenson moved to Whitechapel at just the right time; his surgeon's skills would have been handy if he felt like dismembering victims and to spice it up even more, some conspiracy theorists point to an occult connection. Apparently he was arrested at least twice in connection with the murders, but was never charged.
Another Brighton connection points - rather tenuously, I think - to author Lewis Carroll, whose sister lived or stayed in the town. Curiouser and curiouser. The above-mentioned Cricketers, incidentally, featured in Graham Greene's classic novel Brighton Rock, and if you're thinking of visiting Brighton and you haven't read it, I urge you to do so. Perhaps a Brighton ghost walk should be on your agenda, too: there seems to be plenty of material.
So back to the latest Ripper suspect - Hastings barber George Chapman, who was hanged in 1903 after poisoning several women. One of these was his partner Mary Spink, who shaved men in his barbershop until her drinking made wielding a cut-throat razor too dangerous so thereafter she played the piano instead. Clearly her barbering left something to be desired, but it makes me wonder how bad her piano-playing must have been.
It's the whole barber bit that bothers me, though - shades of Sweeney Todd creeping in. Was there a Little Shop of Horrors involved as well? I think we should be told...