On the morning of November 9, 1888 a rent collector knocked at the door of one of his regular tenants at Number 13 Miller’s Court, Whitechapel. When he received no reply, he peered into the front room through a broken window pane. It took him several seconds, however, to make sense of what he saw. The room was so drenched in blood it was hard to make out that what was lying on the bed was the body of a woman. She was so badly mutilated that she was unrecognizable. Only later was she identified by her former lover from her eyes. She was, according to Joseph Barnett, Mary Jane Kelly – the most famous victim of the so-called Jack the Ripper. Or was she?
This is the question which forms the basis of my latest novel in my Constance Piper series and it’s one that’s led me to uncover a web of mystery and intrigue I had no idea existed in late Victorian Britain which went to the very heart of the British Establishment.
It’s often said that historical fiction holds up a mirror to contemporary society. In my view, it’s also invaluable in putting momentous events into context. Many readers will remember the terrible bombing atrocities perpetrated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in mainland Britain in the 1970s and 80s. What most people do not know, however, is that these outrages, carried out in the name of Irish republicanism, were nothing new.
In 1867, in what became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, an organization that called itself the Fenian Brotherhood tried to free one of its members being remanded at the prison. Instead, they killed 12 people and injured 120.
Fourteen years later the bombers returned, this time with a sustained campaign of violence. Between 1881 and 1885 the Fenians exploded bombs in Lancashire, Cheshire, Glasgow and London. The English capital was particularly badly hit. There were explosions on the London Underground, in railway stations, in the Tower of London and even in the Houses of Parliament.
One of the biggest consequences of the campaign was the establishment of a secret police group called Special Branch (originally known as the Special Irish Branch) and with it came a network of spies and intelligence operatives spanning Europe and America that would surely have been more at home in a James Bond novel than on the streets of Victorian Britain.
Into this almost unbelievable mix of subterfuge and international terrorism stepped the renowned author and academic Christy Campbell with an even more explosive (if you’ll excuse the pun) revelation. In his ground-breaking book Fenian Fire, published in 2002, Campbell produced evidence that the British government actually plotted with the Fenians to plant a bomb in Westminster Abbey when Queen Victoria and most of her cabinet were attending a service celebrating her Golden Jubilee. As far-fetched as it sounds, Campbell provided documentary proof that the plot existed and, what’s more, details of it were sanctioned by none other than the prime minister of the time.
The Irish plotters were arrested and imprisoned and only a handful of bureaucrats at the top of Whitehall knew the truth. Less than a year later, however, Jack the Ripper’s reign began in Whitechapel. Of course there are dozens of theories about the killer and his motives but one that intrigued me centered around the most brutal murder of all, that of Mary Jane Kelly.
Kelly was Irish – there were many Irish women living in Whitechapel at the time – but why was she singled out for such brutal treatment? After her murder some very high profile officials visited the crime scene. (Remember she was the only one to be murdered at home.) But why were they so interested in her and not in the previous “Ripper” cases? The more I looked into it, the more I found myself being pulled in to the quagmire of intrigue, deceit and murder in both London and America, during this period, when at least one secret agent died in mysterious circumstances. Could it really have been, as some police and politicians believed at the time, that the Irish Fenians were behind the Jack the Ripper murders? The theory forms the basis of my novel and you can see for yourself if you agree.
A Deadly Deception, published by Kensington, is out in hardback and online on August 27. Visit Tessa Harris Author on Facebook for more information. Since leaving Oxford University with a History degree, Tessa has been a journalist and editor, contributing to many national newspapers and magazines in the United Kingdom over the past 30 years. She has also acted as a literary publicist for several well-known authors.
A Deadly Deception by Tessa Harris ~~ The streets of Victorian London are clothed in shadows and secrets in Tessa Harris’s gripping new mystery featuring flower seller Constance Piper.
London, July 1889. Eight months have passed since the horrific murder of Mary Jane Kelly. The residents of Whitechapel have begun breathing easy again—daring to leave windows open and walk about at twilight. But when old Alice McKenzie is found dead, throat slashed from ear to ear, the whispers begin once more: Jack the Ripper is back.
Constance Piper, a flower seller with a psychic gift, was a friend to both women. With the supernatural help of her late mentor, Miss Emily Tindall, and her more grounded ally, police detective Thaddeus Hawkins, she uncovers links between the murders and a Fenian gang. The Fenians, committed to violence to further their goal of an independent Ireland, are also implicated in a vicious attack in which the Countess of Kildane’s uncle was killed. Could the Whitechapel murders be a ruse to make the British police look helpless?
Soon, Constance is called upon for help. But there are spies everywhere in the city, and a bomb plot intended to incur devastating carnage. And as Constance is fast discovering, the greatest evil may not lurk in the grimy alleys of the East End, but in a conspiracy that runs from Whitechapel to the highest office in the land …
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.