Tuesday, 19 June 2012

George Lusk: The Quiet Revolutionary

1888: A Jack the Ripper Novel is available to buy from Amazon now

George Lusk in 1888
When the radical suffragette, Emily Davison, launched herself in front of the King's horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, she could have had no idea that almost a hundred years later, she would be remembered as a tragic icon in the fight for the suffrage of women, a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice one could make for their cause, and the extraordinary lengths one must sometimes resort to in the pursuit of justice.

At the time, however, it could be argued that Davison may have harmed the very cause she would die for. While historians have argued whether her actions were intended to end in her suicide, (she had a "Votes for Women" banner on her at the time and may have intended to mount the horse and unfurl it) she must have been aware of the grave danger she was putting herself in. Many more have suggested that her act of self sacrifice did very little to dispel the opinion of much of the public; that the suffragettes were hysterical women, prone to fits of mental abandon.

It would take another five years, after almost fifty years of fighting for women to secure the right to vote, (and even then, under circumstances that prohibited many from being allowed to do so.)

We do, and should remember the revolutionaries, from Emily Pankhurst to Malcolm X, to the men and women of the Stone Wall riots who kicked (with a literal kick line) the contemporary gay rights movement into life. But we should also spare a moment to reflect upon the subtler types whom history may overlook. The people for whom revolution was not a shout, but a whisper.

George Lusk's credentials as a revolutionary among his peers may at first look suspect but in his own, small way, he helped the people of Whitechapel stand up to menace of Jack the Ripper.

Lusk was by all accounts, a gentleman. Always well dressed for a man of the East End and soft spoken to a fault. Eternally trapped between the strata of class, (managing to become a Freemason but not for long, once he could no longer afford the membership fees) he nevertheless, helped form a crusade of people of all classes to protect the women of the street during the autumn of 1888.

The first time we meet Lusk in my novel, he is preparing himself to address an audience of local businessmen who have gathered outside St. Mary Matfelon Church, (a church which now no longer exists, thanks to the Luftwaffe, but from which the pale exterior of the building would give name to the district of Whitechapel.) He was a well respected member of the community and at the time, may have been regarded with higher esteem than the police investigating the case.

He proposed the establishing of the "Whitechapel Vigilance Committee" - a band of men who would roam the streets and pubs of the East End in hopes of keeping them safe. He was ultimately elected to head this committee and he was to spearhead it long after the canonical five murders (after all, the people at the time had no idea if the killer was still out there.)

A newspaper illustration of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee

Lusk's group may have proven fruitless in their pursuit, but the mere idea of circumventing the authority of the police was in itself, a quiet revolution in the minds of the people. The general opinion of the public in the area was that the police simply did not care about Whitechapel, that it was seen as nothing more than an abysmal slum which would be better forgotten.

For a long time, Whitechapel had been the haunt of many a temperance society; groups of Christians who had sought to eradicate poverty by closing all establishments that sold alchohol (while providing a heavy doses of guilt and religion in exchange.) Lusk appears to have held no such notions. While he was religious, he was known to drink and seemed to have had an easy alliance with the publicans of the time.

The "From Hell" letter
Lusk's involvement in the Committee, must have brought a great deal of attention to himself, as it was sometime after he was elected its head, he began reporting a belief that his house was being watched. Later on, he would become the recipient of the "From Hell" letter, (and its accompanying kidney) although, it should be confessed that this was sent through the post, rather than delivered by the sender, as occurs in the book.

If I am on the subject of fabrications for the sake of fiction, I have been pleased to note that readers of my book have picked up on the unspoken depiction of Lusk's alcohol dependency. There was no reason for me to suspect that he drank too much, but there was something irresistible about contrasting the plight of the poor and their addiction to gin, with his middle class friends who drink ale fall day long without a second thought.

For alcoholism - like all things of the Victorian era, to fit neatly on a sliding scale of social privilege, allowed Lusk to give voice to some of his more revolutionary ideas. He hints at an understanding that drink is not the social evil, desperation and poverty are. I wrote him as somebody who understood that his drinking was out of hand and were it not for the sake of his wealth, he too would be filling his gut with glasses of gin at the Frying Pan Public House. After all, the only thing that separates the addict who is quaffing champagne at a dinner party from the junky who is shooting up heroin, is the girth of their wallets; they both end the night with their heads down the toilet.

Lusk as portrayed in the 1988 BBC Miniseries "Jack the Ripper"
While it may have been unfair to portray Lusk as an alcoholic, I feel I have better serviced the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee than the 1988 TV adaptation of the crimes. The BBC miniseries "Jack the Ripper" promoted itself as being a thoroughly accurate portrayal of the crimes, yet poor Mr. Lusk is depicted as a bestial, vicious hooligan and his group is renamed "The Whitechapel Vigilante Committee" - the pamphlets in their hands, literally replaced with torches and pitchforks.

So Lusk may not have had the impact of an Emily Davison, but his tireless work in the district ensured that the following year, Whitechapel would be fully gas lit on every street and a constant police presence would be visible. This quiet man caused a quiet revolution, not just because he tried to keep the streets safe, but because he taught the people of the East End that if the police would not protect them, they could always stand up for themselves.

Yours truly,
Charlie Revelle-Smith