The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Actor Richard Mansfied as Mr Jekyll
1880s Publicity photo of Actor Richard Mansfield as Dr Jekyll

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The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

In 1888, when the Jack the Ripper murders gripped the East End of London in its web of fear, a theatrical production at the Lyceum Theatre found itself the focus of a great deal of unwanted attention. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, an adaptation of the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and featuring the celebrated actor Richard Mansfield in the title role, was quickly identified as a potential inspiration behind the string of murders.

Most are familiar with Stevenson’s story. Henry Jekyll, an otherwise respectable scientist, recognizes the duality of the nature of man and develops a potion which allows him to release a physical manifestation of the evil side of his nature. But as he explores this evil side, it grips him in an addiction as strong as that of alcoholism and he spends more and more time in the form of the creature he names Edward Hyde.

Original Boston Museum advertisement for the stage run of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Original Boston Museum advertisement for the 1887 play

When Hyde, in the grip of a rage, bludgeons to death an MP, Sir Danvers Carew, he becomes the subject of a police manhunt and Jekyll vows to bury his alter-ego forever; however, Hyde has now become the stronger side of his personality and one he can no longer control. In the end, however, Dr. Jekyll takes his own life while still in the form of his alter-ego Mr. Hyde.

From a modern point of view, it may not be easy to see the parallels between the Jekyll and Hyde story and that of a homicidal maniac murdering women in the East End; however, to the middle and upper classes of London society, such horrors were not a part of their daily lives nor were they typical fare for their theater outings.

In early 1887, the actor and theater manager Richard Mansfield commissioned Thomas Russell Sullivan to create a stage version of the novel specially for him. Mansfield had already enjoyed enormous success on two continents in a career which spanned much of the late Victorian period.

The play debuted at the Boston Museum on May 9, 1887 to an audience of local dignitaries. The production caused an immediate sensation. With the aid of a gauze screen and lighting effects, Mansfield writhed and contorted his way through the trans-formation from Jekyll into Hyde on stage in front of their very eyes. The production was successful enough to earn itself a transfer to the Broadway stage, enjoying its New York premiere on September 12, 1887 at the Madison Square Theater. The play was well received and ran constantly over the following year.

Penny Illustration of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
A Penny Illustrated poster promoting Mansfield’s production of the play

Mansfield opened the London version of the play on August 4, 1888 at the Lyceum Theatre to generally favorable reviews. However, despite the success enjoyed by Mansfield in the first month of the run, matters took a nasty turn on August 31, 1888. From the first of the Whitechapel murders, the links between the Ripper crimes and the evil Mr. Hyde began to be made.

The following excerpt is from the Freeman’s Journal of three days later:

“When the devilish nature of Hyde was pictured in the novel nobody could believe that his prototype could be found in real life. These atrocities and apparently cause-less murders show that there is abroad at the present time in the East End a human monster even more terrible than Hyde.”

The September 11, 1888 issue of The Star printed a suggestion from one of its readers:

“MEANWHILE,” writes an eccentric correspondent, “you, and every one of the papers, have missed the obvious solution of the Whitechapel mystery. The murderer is a Mr Hyde, who seeks in the repose and comparative respectability of Dr Jekyll security from the crimes he commits in his baser shape. Of course, the lively imaginations of your readers will at once supply certain means of identification for the Dr Jekyll whose Mr Hyde seems daily growing in ferocious intensity. If he should turn out to be a statesman engaged in the harmless pursuit of golf at North Berwick – well, you, sir, at least, will be able gratefully to remember that you have prepared your readers for the shock of the inevitable discovery.”

An early edition of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
An early printing of the Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic

However, some went further than simply comparing the murders to the story. Rather, a section of the public began to state, the story for may have been itself the inspiration behind the murders.

The Pall Mall Gazette of October 4, 1888 printed:

“Possibly the culprit is an army doctor suffering from sunstroke. He has seen the horrible play, lives in Bayswater or North London, in perhaps a decent square or terrace, dressed well. Goes out about 10 PM straight to Whitechapel. Commits deed. Home again to breakfast. Wash, brush-up, sleep. Himself again – Dr Hyde. Meantime, everybody scouring the scene of the tragedy for the usual type of a murderer.”

It has been written several times that the Ripper crimes forced Mansfield to cancel the run of Jekyll and Hyde at the Lyceum with consequent financial loss to himself. However, this does not seem to have been the case. Certainly the run closed on the night of September 29, the night before the double event, but this had been announced two weeks in advance and does not seem to have had anything to do with public pressure. Quite the contrary in fact, after just one week off the stage, Mansfield brought the production back by “popular demand” to run in repertory three nights a week alongside it’s replacement, his production of A Parisian Romance.

However, it is also notable that the murder of Martha Tabram occurred just two days after Mansfield’s production opened at the Lyceum, and it is equally true that this kind of Gothic horror was something of a new phenomenon to the sensibilities of the late Victorians. If life truly does imitate art then just maybe one deranged member of the audience was inspired by the horrors he saw on the stage to try his hand at the real-life thrill.

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