King Cholera is back in town and the citizens of London are in a panic. That is, everyone thinks cholera has returned when people start becoming violently ill and dying. But, if the diagnosis was that easy, there wouldn’t be a mystery for the detectives of Ripper Street to unravel.
The first victim is an obese man from the better side of town, who dies in the middle of the street in Whitechapel. Inspector Reid has the body brought to Captain Jackson’s autopsy room for analysis and is adamant that his police officers will not show fear of the disease in public. Jackson is not convinced that cholera is the cause of the man’s death. Which is a good thing. Cholera had already hit this area of London in 1866, largely because part of Whitechapel had not yet been connected to the new sewage system. People in this poorer area were left with no choice but to consume contaminated water and suffered the consequences. It’s not a wonder even one dead body in the street would start a panic.
Jackson takes some samples from the body and examines them under his microscope. He doesn’t see any signs of cholera, but is also not sure what the cause of death is. Our ruffian coroner rolls up his sleeves and begins examining the bodies as they become more numerous. In the meantime, Reid and Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake set out to the posh side of London to learn what they can about the first victim. Reid knows that he is operating out of his jurisdiction. While compared with Whitechapel’s citizenry, Reid looks quite proper and well-off. But, compared with his compatriot police officers from the city, Reid looks shabby. The distinction between the haves and have-nots even rises through the ranks of the police force. Fortunately, while there may be some issues of pride, the police decide that disagreements over jurisdiction are less important than figuring out what is causing the spreading illness.
Jackson eventually comes to the conclusion that the illness is caused by Antimony poisoning in flour. Reid understands quickly the implications this could have. Flour is ubiquitous and it would be nearly impossible to stop its use throughout London. The detectives retrace the steps of the higher class victims and figure out that all had been frequenting a cross-dresser whore house in Whitechapel. From there, they determine that the flour must be in production locally, because the victims would have all eaten in the area after their activities. Jackson is amusingly nonplussed by the idea that these wealthy men were cross-dressers, and some even homosexual. Perhaps it is because he an American, a word that Reid later uses to instill fear in the captured suspect.
Reid figures out that the man running the Gable Mill, Mr. Claxton, is the one poisoning the flour. At this moment, Reid shows that he is not one who plays by the book all of the time. Reid’s wife, Emily, is ill and Reid is desperate to learn where the flour has been sent so he can stop further deaths. When Claxton threatens to poison Mrs. Gable with a syringe full of the Antimony-mixture, Bennet steps in and seizes Claxton. It is in this moment that we get an idea about what Inspector Reid is really about. He knows that torture alone will not get Claxton to give up the information, so he grabs the syringe and shoots the mixture down Claxton’s throat. This was a pretty hardcore move on Reid’s part. He presents himself in such a buttoned up, by the book way, but will evidently go to any lengths to help protect “the greater good.” This begs the question, which is especially relevant to modern times, as highlighted in movies like Zero Dark Thirty, is torture acceptable in order to protect the greater good?
It also raises the issue of why it can be satisfying to see characters like Claxton get what’s coming to them. In an earlier scene, Jackson visits a dying man in jail. The man tells Jackson that he has committed horrible sins and describes the pleasure he got from terrorizing women. When that man gasps his last breath after suffering from the poisoning, there is the feeling that he got what was coming to him. Similarly, when Claxton is brought in, he brags about his body count exceeding Jack the Ripper’s and how he will never be forgotten. He also needles Reid about Reid’s sick wife. When Jackson and Bennet start torturing him for information about where the flour is, is it also satisfying because he gets what’s coming to him? Certainly, it doesn’t seem all that bad since he gives up the shipping routes for the flour and countless people are saved. But, it’s still an interesting question as to when and if torture is acceptable.
Ripper Street is turning out to be a fascinating look into a long gone era. It also shows that even more than a hundred years later, many of the issues present during that time still exist. While Jack the Ripper may be the show’s namesake, there is a lot more to Ripper Street.
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