On the early evening of the 30th of August, 1888, a huge fire broke out in the South Quay warehouses of East London’s Whitechapel docks, more than likely from the interaction of an oil lamp and a drunk docker or sailor. The lower floors were filled with rum, gin and brandy from the colonies, and within the dank late summer air, the flames rose up red, yellow and green, as if the roof of hell below had opened. The glare and smoke could be seen and tasted as far away as bucolic Essex.
On the same night Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols was murdered, her body found just after three-thirty in the morning on the pavement in Buck’s Row, Whitechapel. Mary Ann Nichols was a 43 year old itinerant alcoholic, identified by a Lambeth workhouse laundry mark on her worn petticoat.
The police, The Illustrated London News and other publications of the time heavily inferred she was a prostitute, but there was no real evidence she ever was. Her throat had been cut back almost to the vertebrae, along with a half-dozen wounds on her abdomen seemingly pointing down towards her vagina. While she’s now seen as the first of the five canonical Jack the Ripper victims, the first prime suspect was Leather Apron.
Leather Apron was named by several women as being the likely murderer of Mary Ann Nichols. Leather Apron, real name John Pizer, ran a protection gig for the working girls of Whitechapel, and beat those who wouldn’t join. He was said to be around five-foot eight, muscular with a large black moustache and a dark shaven scalp. It was said he always carried a sharp leather knife, a short blade for cutting leather. He was in his late thirties or early forties, and could usually be found at the Princess Alice public house on the corner of Wentworth Street and Commercial Street.
John Pizer liked to beat women when he was gin-high, and he ran his patch and his girls hard - he was the big dog pimp in Whitechapel and Stepney. After the murder of Annie Chapman, who he knew as Dark Annie, Pizer was named by The Star newspaper as being a suspect for the Whitechapel murders. Pizer was a Jew, and the East London Observer described him inaccurately and with wild antisemitic overtones as being ‘not altogether pleasant to look upon by reason of the grizzly black strips of hair, nearly an inch in length, which almost covered his face, the thin lips too had a cruel sardonic kind of look, which was increased if anything by the drooping dark moustache and side whiskers. His hair was short, smooth and dark. His head was large and was fixed to the body by a thick, heavy looking neck.’
Anxious and fearful of the mob, whose wild justice he’d seen first hand as a child, Pizer went into hiding amongst his disparate relatives, moving regularly, until he was finally arrested in the early morning of the tenth of September, 1888, at 22 Mulberry Street, Whitechapel.
But Leather Apron wasn’t Jack. He had solid alibis for both crimes, including a witness statement from a Metropolitan police officer for the Mary Ann Nichols murder, as the cop said he was with Pizer watching the London dock fire from the Holloway Road. The police later stated there was no evidence against John Pizer and so he was released a few days later.
He celebrated his release from the stygian cages below Leman Street Police Station by visiting several public houses, and after eight hours of drinking dry gin, finishing at The Grapes in Limehouse, witnesses said he was drinking with a Chinese sailor from a ship moored at the East India dock.
Pizer was then seen four hours later, in a confused state, crawling from the cold black water of the river as the sun began to rise in the yellow sulphur smog. A few weeks later he left, and no one saw him around Whitechapel or Limehouse again. The rumour was he’d taken a ship to America.
Some of the above was true.
John Pizer wasn’t the Whitechapel Murderer and had no idea who was. He had his doubts there ever was a lone Whitechapel Jack. He never wore a leather apron, but did carry a curved trim leather knife, with an inch-long sharp stub of blade for slashing, but there was more to Pizer than just whores and pimping - he was a pornographer, an artist.
In cleaned and dressed East London rooms he took photographs of his girls with an early dry plate mechanical shutter camera. It was expensive and paid for by the success of Gay London Dildoe Girls, his first big hit.
He specialised in girl on girl: an experienced older woman seducing an innocent young girl, a group of girls, threesomes. Pizer was an innovator, pushing further than his competitors with tougher content, while experimenting with hand-colouring. He used the same girls to play singular characters, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated, even including facial close-ups, so his players would be recognisable. He shot from angles rather than a single, static viewpoint, building a wood frame on wheels for the heavy rigid camera. His work was attributed to John P, and a John P photoplay had a certain look, as well as rare for the era, a recognisably singular brand.
His photoplays were bound and published by a printer known only as Cameron, and sold mainly in the narrow and dimly-lit bookshops of Holywell Street, the centre for the sale of pornography in London. His books would also ship on railways in the travelling Post Office carriages, eventually arriving in the eager hands of Cameron’s wealthy customers outside the capital. Pizer had never met Cameron, but he was honest and recognised John P as an artist, paying a modest royalty via some of the smaller London banks to John Pizer for each book he sold. Soon, Pizer thought, he wouldn’t have to pimp at all.
The Chinese sailor he met in The Grapes said he had pure brown opium and they should smoke it on his ship, but he woke at dawn, washed up and gulping for air by the wall of the dock basin. He couldn’t even recall leaving the pub, not even the cold night air. Later he realised he was turned on the ship, and thrown over the side unconscious but alive, as jetsam.
John Pizer supposedly died of gastroenteritis at the London Hospital in the summer of 1897, but whoever it was, it wasn’t him. Pizer went to America, just as the rumours said. He fed on his first woman, completely by instinct, when the boat was less than a day out of port.
He worked as a pimp on the East Coast of the United States, in Baltimore, Chicago and Boston. For many years he was Jack Pizer, John Pizer and then Jack Marks, and he moved nimbly around the rising tide of proto-organised crime from Sicily, Italy and Ireland.
He made pornography just as he did in London, but his sensibilities and the occasional fetishistic content were less attuned to a more prudish America. He had a regular and enthusiastic audience, but nothing really broke out and sold big. The printers used cheap paper made of coniferous wood and foliage which was then bleached white, and hopeless for showing any of the real soul and detail in Jack’s work.
He spent a few months here and there in various prisons, but nothing painful or of any real consequence, and under at least two different names. Jail time, even then, wasn’t so bad if it was short and you had money.
Jack first met another vampire while he was doing a year’s stretch at Sing Sing prison, New York, in 1903. The prisoners all wore rough blue and white striped denims, and the silence rule, overturned in law years before, was still being enforced by the more enthusiastic shit can guards. Jack had two wardens on his payroll, which meant he eat well and was safe from most of the everyday brutalism. He didn’t have to work, nor share his cell. He had fresh water, a toothbrush and books, tobacco, marijuana and sleeping pills.
He met Skinny Pete in the yard, while on exercise. Skinny Pete was far from thin, being large at six foot four, muscular and heavily tattooed. Skinny was Guatemalan, born in Ciudad de Guatemala, Guate. Spanish was his first language, but his english was good, albeit without much in the way of contractions. A sailor by trade, he was also openly gay. Being queer made him a target for the guards, and he’d been beaten twice half to death. In theory he was never leaving the prison, but Skinny was a vampire.
Skinny’s real name was Caleb Leon Gil, and he was inside for a violent assault during an altercation with the police at the North River pier. His original sentence was for seven years. When Jack first saw Skinny, they recognised what the other was almost instantly.
Jack had Caleb moved to a single cell on a less noisy block, and made sure he had decent, protein-heavy food. The deal was he had eggs, and pork or steak once a week. When Jack walked after nine months, he paid for Skinny to be watched over and made whole. In all their time in Sing Sing, they barely spoke for more than a few minutes.