When Lewis Carroll Was Suspected of Being Jack the Ripper

Oscar Gustav Rejlander/Getty Images
Oscar Gustav Rejlander/Getty Images

Letting venerated children’s author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson rest in peace would appear to be a foregone conclusion. The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and several ancillary titles, Dodgson—who was better known for his work under the pen name Lewis Carroll—projected a quiet presence, toiling away as a lifelong bachelor and Oxford math teacher until his death in 1898.

Perhaps it was Carroll’s genteel persona that invited some scandalous theories about his life. Beginning in the 1930s, Carroll biographers wondered about the subversive pro-drug messages of Alice. In 1996, author Richard Wallace went a step further: The clinical social worker and part-time Carroll scholar wrote a book in which he offered the theory that something truly sinister lurked in Carroll’s mind, and that he had a second alter ego—that of Jack the Ripper.

An illustration from 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'
Rischgitz/Getty Images

The Ripper murders took place in 1888 in London’s Whitechapel district, although some believe the killer was active as late as 1891. The mystery assailant murdered and mutilated at least five women, pulling out intestines and generally behaving as a vivisectionist who was being timed. A sensational story of its era, the attacks have remained some of the most infamous crimes in history.

With relatively little evidence to pursue, the list of suspects was substantial. William Gull, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, had knowledge of human anatomy; a scrap metal merchant named James Maybrick allegedly left a diary confessing to the murders. Some connections were incredibly tenuous; a man named Charles Cross was suspected in part because the murders took place between his house and workplace. Some reasoned that a casual stroll home could have apparently been livened up with a brutal killing.

Of the names discussed, few would be more surprising than Carroll's. Born in 1832, he was sent to a boarding school at the age of 12 and sometimes wrote home expressing despondence over the nighttime racket. In Wallace’s book, Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend, he seizes this declaration to be a hint that Carroll was being physically abused by the older boys at the school, suffering a psychotic break that would plague him for the rest of his life.

Wallace’s theory requires a large and ambitious leap to a conclusion: that Carroll, famously fond of wordplay and anagrams, kept sneaking hidden messages into his correspondences and his published works that provided insight into his state of mind. Rearranging letters from a missive to his brother Skeffington, Wallace finds a plea for help:

“My Dear Skeff: Roar not lest thou be abolished.”

Becomes:

“Ask mother about the red lion: safer boys fled.”

The "red lion" was a game played at Carroll's boarding school, one that Wallace suspects was sexual in nature and left Carroll burning with fury toward his mother and father, who had sent him to the school, and toward society at large.

After publishing Alice in 1865, Carroll continued to teach at Oxford—simmering, Wallace believes, with violent intent, and possibly confiding his bloodthirst to his lifelong friend, Thomas Bayne.

At the time of the Ripper murders in 1888, Carroll published The Nursery Alice, a version of the Wonderland story meant for younger children. In it, Wallace says, Carroll confesses to the gruesome murders being perpetuated. Setting about deciphering a suspected anagram from one passage, Wallace pulled the following:

“If I find one street whore, you know what will happen! ‘Twill be off with her head!”

In the same book, Carroll offers what appears to be a throwaway passage about a dog declining a dinner:

So we went to the cook, and we got her to make a saucer-ful of nice oatmeal porridge. And then we called Dash into the house, and we said, “Now, Dash, you’re going to have your birthday treat!” We expected Dash would jump for joy; but it didn’t, one bit!

Blending the letters, Wallace retrieves the following:

Oh, we, Thomas Bayne, Charles Dodgson, coited into the slain, nude body, expected to taste, devour, enjoy a nice meal of a dead whore’s uterus. We made do, found it awful—wan and tough like a worn, dirty, goat hog. We both threw it out. – Jack the Ripper

Wallace, in his mind, had his signed confession—albeit one extracted from a pile of letters. But there was more: Carroll’s mother was said to have a large, protuberant nose, which Carroll must have envisioned when the Ripper mutilated the noses of two of his victims. His personal library contained more than 120 books on medicine, anatomy, and health, providing him with the education one would need to vivisect his victims.

Geographically, Carroll was within public transport’s distance from his home to the murder sites. The fact that the Ripper’s letters to newspapers didn’t appear to be a handwriting match when compared to Carroll’s diary entries didn’t dissuade Wallace—someone, perhaps his close friend Bayne, could have written them on his behalf.

An illustration from 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Perhaps 1996 wasn’t quite the year for far-reaching theories, as Wallace’s failed to gain much traction. When Carroll appears as one of a laundry list of Ripper suspects, authors wanly refer to him as “unlikely.”

There was one notable response. After a brief explanation of Wallace’s research in a 1996 issue of Harper’s magazine, two readers wrote in to respond with a compelling counter-argument. Wallace’s own words in the piece:

This is my story of Jack the Ripper, the man behind Britain’s worst unsolved murders. It is a story that points to the unlikeliest of suspects: a man who wrote children’s stories. That man is Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of such beloved books as Alice in Wonderland.

Could be rearranged to read:

The truth is this: I, Richard Wallace, stabbed and killed a muted Nicole Brown in cold blood, severing her throat with my trusty shiv’s strokes. I set up Orenthal James Simpson, who is utterly innocent of this murder. P.S. I also wrote Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a lot of Francis Bacon’s works too.

Wallace never commented on the matter.

Driving With Ice or Snow on Your Car Could Get You Fined Up to $1000 in Some States

Guasor/iStock via Getty Images
Guasor/iStock via Getty Images

Ranking up there with high heating bills and 4 p.m. sunsets, scraping ice off your car is one of the most annoying parts of winter. But the alternative to clearing your roof, windows, and windshield before hitting the road is worse. According to Good Housekeeping, some states will fine you up to $1000 for driving with any snow or ice on your car.

There are 11 states that penalize drivers for operating a vehicle without properly cleaning it of snow and ice first. That means if you drive with a sheet of snow on the roof of your car—or a few patches of ice around the edges of your windshield—you're liable for an expensive ticket.

Even if you've scraped enough of the frost off the glass to see the road, driving with an ice-encrusted car is still dangerous. That ice will melt as your engine heats up and potentially fly off your car, creating hazards for the drivers around you. Motorists who are pulled over for having an icy car are often charged with distracted driving or for making the roads dangerous for others. Here are the states where you can be fined for driving with ice or snow on your vehicle:

  • Alaska
  • Connecticut
  • Georgia
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Wisconsin

Letting your car warm up to melt any snow on the outside may seem like a safe shortcut to cleaning your vehicle, but this can also get you into legal trouble. In New Jersey, idling your car for an extended period of time—even if it's on private property—can earn you a fine up to $1000.

Fortunately, you don't have to choose between driving under dangerous and illegal conditions or getting frostbite scraping every inch of your car. To melt the ice off your car quickly, spray it with a solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. Alcohol won't freeze in normal winter temperatures, so you won't have to worry about adding more ice to your car in your attempts to clean it off.

[h/t Good Housekeeping]

A Forged Deed and a Bloody Trunk: Mary Farmer’s Plot to Steal Her Landlord’s Home

kordovsky/iStock via Getty Images
kordovsky/iStock via Getty Images

There was something in the trunk that Mary Farmer and her husband didn’t want the authorities in Hounsfield, New York, to see. When the officers asked whom the trunk belonged to that spring day of 1908, the couple started bickering. At first, Mary insisted it belonged to her husband, James.

“It’s a damn lie!” James retorted. Begrudgingly, Mary admitted that the trunk was actually hers. But when the authorities asked her for the key to open the iron lock, it was nowhere to be found.

When the officers finally broke open the trunk, they made a horrible discovery. The newspapers would go on to call Mary Farmer's case “one of the most fiendish in the criminal annals of northern New York”—and Mary Farmer would go on to become the second woman executed by electric chair in New York state.

Driven by Envy

Like many Irish immigrants in early 20th century America, Mary Farmer struggled. She and James lived in a predominantly Irish community in Jefferson County, New York, just south of the Canadian border. The house they leased, a story-and-a-half building across the river from the village of Brownville, was described as a “hovel” by one publication.

In the fall of 1907, when Mary was in her late twenties, two events happened that put even more pressure on the Farmers: James lost his job at a local paper mill and Mary gave birth to their son Peter—their first child since their daughter had died roughly seven years earlier.

Rural cottage.
Shawn Williams/iStock via Getty Images

If Mary desired something better for her family, she only needed to look outside to be reminded of it. Her landlord, Sarah Brennan, lived next door in a house she owned with her husband, Patrick “Patsy” Brennan. Their house was a full story taller, and unlike the Farmers, the Brennans didn’t have to worry about rent. In addition to the income they received from the Farmers renting out their second property, the couple also lived on Patsy's paychecks from the paper mill where he had worked as James Farmer's immediate supervisor before James lost his job.

Mary Farmer wanted that house, and in October 1907, she decided to take it [PDF]. She went down to the office of the county clerk in nearby Watertown seeking to transfer possession of the Brennan home, as well as her own residence, to her name. Posing as Sarah Brennan, she told the clerk that the Farmers had purchased the properties from her for $2100. She said that all she needed was a document declaring the Farmers the rightful owners.

If the clerk had any suspicions, he didn’t act on them. He notarized the deed and Mary made it official by forging Sarah’s signature. Now, the only thing stopping her from moving into the home were its current residents.

A Body in the Trunk

Sarah Brennan was last seen by a neighbor walking into the Farmers’ yard the morning of Thursday, April 23, 1908. When Patsy returned home from work that day, his wife was missing. What’s more, the spot behind the shutter where Sarah normally left a house key when she went out was empty.

Before Patsy had a chance to worry, James Farmer came over to inform him that the Brennan house and all the property in it now belonged to the Farmers. Sarah had sold it to them the previous October and she had been paying the Farmers $2 a week to continue living there, James claimed. But they were tired of collecting rent and intended to move onto the property as soon as possible.

Patsy didn’t take his neighbor too seriously. Rumors that Sarah had sold their home to the Farmers had been circulating around the community for a while, and when Patsy had brought them up with his wife, she'd dismissed them as fictitious gossip.

Patsy's doubts did little to stop the Farmers from enacting their plot. The next day, they served him an eviction notice along with the fraudulent documents detailing the sale of his home and possessions. He was forced to stay with friends while his former tenants moved into the space. Sarah, meanwhile, still hadn’t returned. According to the Farmers, she was visiting a friend in Watertown.

Not buying into the couple's story, Patsy consulted an attorney, who called Sheriff Bellinger and his team to investigate the old Brennan home that Monday. When they arrived, the already-suspicious situation started to look even shadier. In the house, they found a coat stained with what appeared to be blood hidden between a bed and a wall. An ax was discovered in the yard and collected for future analysis. And in the summer kitchen at the back of the main house, they were confronted with a locked, tied-up trunk emanating a stench that was unsettlingly close to spoiled meat.

Trunk in empty room.
BrAt_PiKaChU/iStock via Getty Images

After the sheriff broke open the lock and drew back the lid, it was impossible to immediately identify the body stuffed inside the trunk. A black skirt had been draped over it, but the stockinged feet poking out from the edges of the covering suggested it was a woman. The removal of the cloth dispelled any doubt of the victim’s fate. Already in the first stages of decay, the body was “mutilated until recognition was almost impossible,” according to one newspaper [PDF]. It lay contorted with the feet pointing upward and the face pressed down against the gore-smeared trunk floor. The head appeared to be the source of the blood; the back was caved in and an ear was missing.

Patsy Brennan told the officers the corpse belonged to his wife. The Farmers denied involvement at first, claiming they had never seen the body before and had no idea how it got in the trunk, but it didn’t take long for Mary to confess. She confirmed that she had murdered Sarah Brennan in a plot to seize her neighbor's property. But her motives weren't entirely self-serving: Before committing the crime, she deeded the Brennan home to her infant son, Peter, hoping to set him up financially should the worst happen to her.

The details of her story kept changing: According to one version, Mary struck the first blow to Sarah’s head and her husband finished the job. She later changed her account to transfer all the blame to James. Despite the inconsistencies, both Farmers were charged with murder.

A Last-Minute Confession

By the end of 1908, both Mary and James Farmer were found guilty of the murder of Sarah Brennan in the first degree. Mary was sentenced to death by electric chair at Auburn State Prison, making her just the second woman from New York to be executed that way. James was also sentenced to capital punishment. Their son was sent to live with an uncle in Watertown as his parents awaited their fate.

Mary Farmer was scheduled to be executed first. The complete facts surrounding Sarah Brennan’s murder didn’t come out until she was on death row. In the days leading up to her electrocution, Mary spoke with a priest who told her that if she had any information that could prove her husband’s innocence, now was the time to share it. She sent a written statement to her spiritual adviser the day before her death. It read: "My husband, James D. Farmer, never had any hand in Sarah Brennan's death nor never knew anything about it till the trunk was opened [...] I wish to say as strongly as I can that my husband, James D. Farmer, is entirely innocent." Indeed, while James was involved in the property transactions, it seems possible that Mary duped him by claiming to have saved up the money for the Brennan house from his paychecks.

On March 29, 1909, Mary Farmer was sent to the electric chair at Auburn State Prison. She accepted death “bravely, murmuring a prayer for her soul,” according to The New York Times. Thanks to Mary’s last-minute confession, her husband was spared the same end. After he was acquitted in a second trial in 1910, he lived out the remainder of his days in Jefferson County—the same place where his wife took Sarah Brennan's life and nearly cost him his own.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER