Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster

BOOK: Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster
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In memoriam:

Elaine Stratton and Samuel Shaw Street,
my mother and father.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are
at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where
the one ends, and where the other begins?

(Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”)

* * *

It is of a Monster I mean for to write,
Who in stabbing of ladies took great delight;
If he caught them alone in the street after dark,
In their hips or their thighs, he'd be sure cut a mark.

(
The Monster Represented
, a collection
of verse published July 1790)

The frightened Ladies tremble, run and shriek,
But Ah! in vain they fly! in vain protection seek!
For He can run so swift, such diff'rent forms assume;
In vain to take him, must the Men presume.
This Monster then, who treats you so uncivil,
This Cutting Monster, Ladies, is the Devil!

(The Monster Detected
, a satirical print, 29 May 1790)

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster
is based in part on true events. “The Monster” did indeed terrorize the ladies of London from 1788–1790, slicing the derrières of over fifty victims, many of whom were quick to make public the indignities they suffered as the villain had a reputation for targeting attractive, well-dressed females. When the Monster's attacks escalated in 1790, Londoners were gripped by mass sexual hysteria. Men formed “No Monster” vigilantes to patrol the streets at night; rhymes and plays were written about the Monster; and caricaturists produced saucy prints of women using copper pots to protect their bottoms from a fearsome half-human creature. Descriptions of the Monster varied so much that some journalists of the time conjectured that more than one culprit was responsible and an actor with a gift for disguise might be involved. The one hundred pound reward offered by John Julius Angerstein for the capture and conviction of the Monster resulted in the arrest of an unemployed Welshman. The accused was initially tried on 8 July 1790 for the felony of assaulting “any person in the public streets with intent to tear, spoil, cut, burn, or deface the garments or clothes of such person,” a crime punishable by death or transportation. He was convicted but secured a second trial, and
although he was convicted again on 13 December 1790, it was for the lesser crime of “brutal and wanton assault” for which he was imprisoned in Newgate for six years rather than hanged. This was almost certainly a miscarriage of justice, given there was little or no hard evidence to prove that the accused had committed any of the attacks.

I first came across an account of the Monster in John Ashton's
Old Times: A Picture of Social Life at the End of the Eighteenth Century
(1885), while researching an idea that will now form the core of the sequel to this novel. I cannot recall what inspired me to connect Edgar Allan Poe and the Monster—perhaps it was the peculiar nature of the crimes along with the memory that Poe's maternal grandparents had been actors on the London stage during the late eighteenth century. As little information is available regarding Poe's grandparents, it seemed at least plausible that they might have played the clandestine role of the Monster. I settled on revenge as the motive for these unusual crimes and from that evolved the stormy (imagined) relationship of Poe's grandparents, with each fictitious letter exchanged between them referencing an actual crime committed by the Monster.

When writing a mystery in which Edgar Allan Poe is the main character, it is difficult to ignore C. Auguste Dupin, the “ur-detective” created by Poe. I decided to make Dupin an old friend of Poe's, suggesting that Poe is the anonymous narrator in his Dupin detective stories, and that the tales are based on “true crimes.” Further, I've alluded to over thirty Poe stories, poems and essays in the novel, thus creating another puzzle for the reader to solve.

PROLOGUE

PHILADELPHIA, DECEMBER 1840

The jittering candlelight brought it back from the dead with a flutter and a blink. It was violet in color, luminous, and might have been a thing of beauty if its stare were not so very persistent.
I will keep you and those you love safe. I am your amulet, your charm against the past, your talisman for the future
. Its promises were as hypnotic as its gaze.

I levered up one plank, then two, and worked feverishly to dislodge a third, thus fashioning a crypt beneath the floor. There it would not haunt me so, the mahogany box that held the antique letters and that glowing orb of amethyst.
I will keep you safe. Listen closely and do what I bid
.

Its relentless whispers set me on edge, sharpened my senses to an unnatural degree, but truly madness had not overtaken me. I was lucid, utterly so. And yet, my fingers crept toward the box like a spider, as dread pattered over me. One final time! Then I would close the lid, turn the lock, hide away my legacy.
I will keep you and those you love safe
.

And there it was upon my palm, its gaze conquering mine, my amulet, my talisman—that malevolent, all-seeing eye of
violet,
her
eye. If it could speak of all the things it had witnessed, all those very cruel things, how calmly it would tell the whole story.

27 Bury Street, London
Four o'clock, 5 March 1788

Dear Husband,

Have you had news of the extraordinary performance near the Royalty Theatre today involving your dear friend Miss Cole? The tattlers and wags are consumed with it, and I feel compelled to put pen to paper while the delicious escapade is still fresh within my mind.

It was noon and our morning rehearsals at the Royalty were not long finished, when Miss Cole was making her way down Knock Fergus, which was lively with beggars, gin-soaked trollops and washer-women occupied with more honest work. Your Miss Cole, who was born to the Rope Walk and its surrounds, looked uncharacteristically out of place there, for she was wearing a green-and-white striped taffeta caraco and a dress of olive-green silk adorned with two rows of flounces at the hem. The dress was not enviably fashionable, but was adapted by a deft hand to seem so. There were stains upon the fabric that could not be removed, and the age of the garment was apparent upon close inspection. (Indeed, one might say the same for Miss Cole.) But the rogues on the street were well enough impressed with the effect and loudly admired her costume, failing to recognise that it had been worn by Miss Kate Hardcastle in our recent performance of
She Stoops to Conquer
. How amusing of Miss Cole to reverse the role and elevate herself to
the semblance of a lady with a borrowed dress from the theatre.

But let me not digress from my tale. As Miss Cole turned from Knock Fergus onto Cannon Street, she took note of a cocky young gentleman striding several paces behind her. He was an elegant fellow, handsomely suited with a pale-blue coat, neckcloth, striped waistcoat, neatly fitted breeches and white silk stockings. He wore a black surtout that added bulk to his frame and buckled shoes with heels that greatly increased his height. His lightly powdered hair was frizzed at the sides and plaited at the back in a fashionable manner. What a fine manly specimen he was. And yet—the brim of his beaver round hat was tilted down low to obscure his features. This observation alone might have sent a shiver of unease through a more astute female, but alas, that was not the case with your friend. She seemed gratified by the gentleman's presumed interest and obligingly slowed her pace as she neared her shabby boarding house. It was only when he was at her side that she noticed the vicious blade clutched in his hand.

The fiend flew at her, dagger held aloft. Once, twice! He slashed across her flank and back again. The knife slit through the green silk like a thorn tearing through flower petals, and the flesh underneath gave way like a peach. Her attacker was gripped with fascination as crimson stained the verdant fabric until his victim's yelps of fear broke the spell, and the young man took to his heels as Miss Cole collapsed gracelessly to the road.

What an extraordinary performance from the scoundrel! She was fortunate to escape with her life,
if not her dignity. Her assailant's intentions must remain a mystery, but I confess to feeling gratified by his actions—indeed, one might say
avenged
—for Miss Cole insulted me unpardonably when she directed her intentions towards you so keenly after the curtain fell on last night's performance. She compounded her insults this morning when she arrived for morning rehearsals very late and made a point of asking me, in front of all assembled, whether you were recovered. I was forced to explain your absence with an improvised account of the ill-advised meat pie that had confined you to bed since last night, the deleterious effects of which had completely incapacitated both your mind and body. (A masterly allusion I think we might both agree.) How your friend smirked, knowing full well that you had failed to spend the night at home, but Mr. Lewis seemed satisfied with my necessary fabrication and your position at the theatre is secure.

Now let us see if the intrepid Miss Cole struggles to Goodman's Fields with her damaged buttock for tonight's performance, or if today's trauma makes her sacrifice her one unforgettable line to her understudy, as she likes to call my dresser. If she does undertake the hazardous journey to the Royalty, no doubt she will tell you of the crazed monster who attacked her, and will show you her damaged wares as proof. In what shadowy corner will she manage this, I wonder? Women of virtue can only hope that the slashing of Miss Cole's hindquarters will put that ambitious harlot back in her place.

But enough of these matters—I hear our daughter crying, and Lord knows she sees more of Mrs. Bartlett
than she does her own mother. After I attend to her, I shall make my way to the theatre and trust that you will be there, fully sober, with another fine tale to explain where you spent the long hours of last night.

Your ever-devoted wife,

Elizabeth

27 Bury Street, London
Eight o'clock, 6 March 1788

My dearest Wife,

I cannot deny that the letter I discovered in my nightgown pocket this morning astonished me, but you looked so content in sleep—well-deserved after your triumph on the stage last night—that I did not wish to wake you. I thought it better to leave this response upon my pillow to greet you when you rise as I have an appointment with Charles Dibden about his new opera at the Lyceum. This could present an improvement in circumstances for us, and I am certain you will not begrudge me leaving you before discussing the matters detailed in your missive.

First, I must defend myself. You misunderstand me most completely! My friendship with Miss Cole is nothing more than that. Why do you presume that I would find another woman more appealing than you? The London masses applaud your capacity on the stage—your voice, your ability to make any role come to life. Why would your husband think less of you than your public? You continue to doubt me, but as Mr. Belleville said to Captain Belleville, “The man who
wishes to become virtuous is already become so.” It is true that Miss Cole calls upon my experience at times. She has ambitions to make her name on the stage and believes I can assist her. I do, after all, know by rote the most performed plays and have been admired well enough for my voice. It is no great sacrifice to teach her a song or two, and there is nothing more to it than that.

But I am curious to know how you learned of the assault on the lady—you transcribed it so accurately! Of course, as you are aware, Miss Cole did get herself to the theatre for last night's performance for she greatly feared reprisals for borrowing the dress. She had stitched up the tear and removed the bloodstain from the fabric, but could not remove the stain of her ordeal from her heart. The scoundrel was at least six foot tall, with the frame of a navvy—“his dagger was fearsome” were her precise words, and she thought herself ruined when she saw his blade. It was only to clear up any misunderstanding about her meaning that she revealed the wound upon her flank. Her attacker had been ferocious! The cut is at least eight inches long, and Miss Cole was so inflamed that a judicious application of apothecary's balm was insufficient as a calming agent. She is perpetually reminded of the fiend whenever she seeks repose.

BOOK: Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster
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