Who now remembers the story of the Limehouse Golem, or cares to be reminded of the history of that mythical creature? ‘Golem’ is the medieval Jewish word for an artificial being, created by the magician or the rabbi; it literally means ‘thing without form’, and perhaps sprang from the same fears which surrounded the fifteenth-century concept of the ‘homunculus’ which was supposed to have been given material shape in the laboratories of Hamburg and Moscow. It was an object of horror, sometimes said to be made of red clay or sand, and in the mid-eighteenth century it was associated with spectres and succubi who have a taste for blood. The secret of how it came to be revived in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and how it aroused the same anxieties and horrors as its medieval counterpart, is to be found within the annals of London’s past.

Of course the popular opinion, inflamed by gruesome reports, declared that a ‘fiend in human form’ was at work.”

The first killing occurred on the 10th September, 1880, along Limehouse Reach: this, as its name implies, was an ancient lane which led from a small thoroughfare of mean houses to a flight of stone steps just above the bank of the Thames. It had been used by porters over many centuries for convenient if somewhat cramped access to the cargo of smaller boats which anchored here, but the dock redevelopments of the 1830s had left it marooned on the edge of the mud banks. It reeked of dampness and old stone, but it also possessed a stranger and more fugitive odour which was aptly described by one of the residents of the neighbourhood as that of ‘dead feet’. It was here, at first light on a September morning, that the body of Jane Quig was discovered. She had been left upon the old steps in three separate parts; her head was upon the upper step, with her torso arranged beneath it in some parody of the human form, while certain of her internal organs had been impaled upon a wooden post by the riverside. She had been a prostitute who had found her custom among the sailors of the area and, although she was only in her early twenties, had been known to her neighbours as ‘Old Salty’. Of course the popular opinion, inflamed by gruesome reports in the Daily News and Morning Advertiser, declared that a ‘fiend in human form’ was at work – a supposition which was strengthened when, six nights later, another killing took place in the same area.

The Jewish quarter of Limehouse comprised three streets beyond the Highway; it was known as ‘Old Jerusalem’ both by those who inhabited it and those who lived beside it. There was a lodging house here, in Scofield Street, where an old scholar by the name of Solomon Weil resided; he had two rooms upon the top floor, filled with old volumes and manuscripts of Hasidic lore, from which he journeyed every weekday morning to the Reading Room of the British Museum; he always travelled there on foot, leaving his house at eight in the morning, and arriving at Great Russell Street by nine. On the morning of September the 17th, however, he did not leave his rooms. His downstairs neighbour, a clerk with the Commission on Sanitation and Metropolitan Improvements, was sufficiently alarmed to knock gently upon his door. There was no reply and, believing that Solomon Weil might have been taken ill, he boldly entered the room. ‘Well, this is a pretty business!’ he exclaimed when he came upon a scene of indescribable confusion. But, as he soon discovered, it was not pretty at all…

from The Limehouse Golem © Peter Ackroyd. Now an unmissable film directed by Juan Carlos Medina and starring Bill Nighy, Douglas Booth and Olivia Cooke. Released by Lionsgate

 

 

Peter Ackroyd is an award-winning historian, biographer, novelist, poet and broadcaster Awarded a CBE for services to literature in 2003, he is the author of the acclaimed non-fiction bestsellers London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River as well as biographies of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake, Wilkie Collins, Thomas More, Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. The Limestone Golem tie-in edition is out now from Vintage.
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