Undiluted Hocus-Pocus Newsletter - March 2023
“Before the enormity of the Sphinx, they would discuss the desert heat.”
I've frequently written about Jack the Ripper, everything from Ripperology numerology to Jack the Lad baseball teams. I'm really more interested in the heightened interest around the phenom. Also, the Whitechapel murders appear to be a flashpoint in true crime reporting – there never was anything quite like that journalistic hysteria that occurred in the late nineteenth century. Or was there?
Before newsprint, I imagine a lot of daily information was conveyed not in newspapers but by town criers. In the HBO series Rome, there's this wonderful device of the newsreader, a robust orator who stands in the capital bellowing out the daily events in the Roman senate. The newsreader even has a sponsor, the Brotherhood of Millers - "true Roman bread!" It's a great plot-moving device; whether it's historically accurate or not is another matter – besides, ancient cultures must have used verbal devices to communicate information to the masses. Why else do we have theatre?
If you want the example of primal, ancient blood lust, look no further than the Greeks. The whole of Greek Tragedy constitutes under 40 plays by three guys: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. And these are nasty plays; there's regicide, infanticide, dismemberments, and the daily eating of a guy's liver by a bird.
Jump ahead 2000 years, and you'll see all of England compelled by the same gruesome indulgences. We tend to focus on Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. But it's through the Jacobeans - who came directly after the reign of Elizabeth I - that theatre fully realized its grim spectacle. Some of Shakespeare's cruelest plays were written in the Jacobean age: Macbeth, Othello, Measure for Measure, King Lear. Here we see themes of incest (Measure) and the use of torture (the defenestration of Gloucester's eyes - Lear's "Out, vile jelly"). Such macabre indulgences were painstakingly explored in the plays of Thomas Middleton and John Webster. The Revenger's Tragedy, perhaps Middleton's greatest achievement, has mothers whoring out daughters, sons raping their mothers, castration, and a bloodbath of executions, including a severed head on a spike.
This bleak world outlook was largely dismissed by 18th and 19th-century scholars, only to be reignited by the Paris Grand Guignol in the 1880s, almost in perfect confluence with the emergence of Ripper lore. The Grand Guignol's "Theatre of Fear and Terror" offered even more extreme themes of vivisection, mutilation, insanity, and sexual depravity. When G.G. fell out of fashion in the 1950s, England's Hammer Horror films seized the torch, and you can see the continuum influence in everything from The Woman in Black to Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year). This, of course, is a perfect segue to mention again that my friend Lauren Barnett's Death Lines: Walking London's Horror History was finally released in paperback.
A few notes this week. First, I am going to have to ghost you for a while. I have to get back to editing That Case Is Not Here - I am six months out from submission date and I’m feeling the pressure. I’ve also had some side projects spring up that you’ll hear more about soon.
A word about paid subscriptions. If you feel you should be comped for premium content just email me and make your case. It is probable with some of you we have worked together in the past on this project and I’m simply not aware that you follow this Substack. 20 years is a long time, I don’t remember everything. Just give me a nudge, and apologies for the oversight.
In other news (the good stuff is here)
If you missed the interview with Ben O'Hara-Byrne on Little More Conversation you can find the link here. I told Brian from the outset that if his line of questioning was to go down the Who Killed Theresa path he’d probably find me a bored guest. He didn’t take my warning, and that’s exactly what he did, but nevertheless, I liked him a lot, and you can judge for yourselves if I appear disengaged.
But if you just can’t get enough of my sister’s case, here’s Crime Junkie’s full-court press on the matter from last week.
Finally - and this is what I really want give some oxygen to - early last month Quebec’s La Presse did an article on law enforcement’s use of genetic genealogy to assist in capturing criminals (if you don’t speak French, run it through a translator). It’s almost a daily occurence now that cold cases in the United States are solved using this technique. And these are old cases - 30 years, 40 years, 50 years. People are begin to question why Quebec has had a cold case unit for almost 20 years now and has yet to solve a crime (Guylaine Potvin does not count, that case hasn’t survived the acid test of a trial).
In the article I noted that Quebec police forces have “"thrown away, misplaced or destroyed" a number of objects containing DNA linked to crime scenes over the years, including murders, which could limit the scope of this technique for many files.”
La Presse continued:
“For example, the Sûreté du Québec in Sherbrooke told me that my sister's underwear had been destroyed five years after the murder,” he says.
And his case is not isolated, adds Mr. Allore. "I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've spoken to so many families of victims who have been told the same thing. The DNA is no longer there to be analyzed,” says Allore, who also hosts the podcast Who Killed Theresa? which focuses on the unsolved murders in Quebec.
"I'm happy if it can help solve crimes, but I'm not holding my breath," he said.”
This is nothing new, I’ve been saying it for years. Quebec police are playing poker in the game of genetic genealogy but not holding any cards.
A second article in La Presse quoted the Laboratory of Judicial Sciences and Legal Medicine of Quebec (LSJML) as being “hopeful” of new techniques, but then they hedged their response with an acknowledgement that the science was “quite complex.” The piece then went on to catalogue a host of techniques available in Quebec -genetic genealogy, phenotyping, DNA networks, PatronYme, Rapid DNA - but then failed to mention whether any of them were currently being deployed in the province. By this point, practically everyone is aware of these remedies, what’s important is are you using them! And of course, the elephant in the room, what was missing from this article is any mention of Quebec law enforcement endorsement of these techniques in conjunction with the LSJML. It’s a maddening game of three-card Monte where Quebec law enforcement continues to stall in their shirking accountability dance. But sooner or later the music will stop. And we’re going to know they’re not holding any cards.
To borrow a phrase from a scientist from another discipline who felt like he was chasing windmills, No one’s minding the store. They're all asleep at the switch.
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Was it a coincidence that the Québec police destroyed the crucial evidence? As you mentioned earlier in your brilliant season Quebexico, the Québec police destroyed the crucial evidence in many of those unsolved homicides just when the DNA technique came out.
The timing of destroying the evidence in many cases is crucial.
Had they preserved all the evidence, many cases could have been solved and they knew it. When once evidence is destroyed by accident or by so called there was no room to spare, we’d understand, a second time as well, third time, too. But destroying so many evidence materials systematically means it was intentional and purposeful.