How do classical music’s most murderous characters compare to Jack the Ripper?
The identity of the infamous mass-murderer Jack the Ripper was allegedly confirmed this week, using the latest DNA testing, as Polish barber Aaron Kosminski. The Ripper terrorised Whitechapel in London’s East End during the Autumn of 1888, gruesomely murdering five women.
The history of opera, ballet and music for the stage is similarly filled with gory scenes of murder most foul. Here is Limelight’s top 10 deadliest classical serial killers (and Jack the Ripper makes the cut). Squeamish or not, can you afford not to read on?
1: Mr Punch
Musical Provenance: Harrison Birtwistle’s opera Punch and Judy
This cunning cad might on first impression seem a little on the dim-witted side. But don’t be fooled, this is Mr Punch’s favourite ruse. He is fast, clever and above all ruthlessly mean – qualities that are etched vissibly on his crooked features. And he’s also not good with children either!
No of Victims: Six
Modus Operandi: Various but including throwing babies into fires, wife-murder, lethal injection of a medical practitioner, stabbing of a legal professional, sawing a victim in half inside a musical instrument case and hanging the hangman
Extenuating circumstances: None frankly, but perpetrator cites pressure of parental duties and loveless marriage
Comeuppance: None – in fact, gets the girl!
2: Sweeney Todd (aka Benjamin Barker, aka The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)
Musical Provenance: A musical by Stephen Sondheim and a ballet by Malcolm Arnold
It could have all be so different for poor Mr Barker. Known as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd is a victim of circumstance: the source of his rage against humanity comes from unfair transportation to the penal colonies (making him at least a little bit Aussie) and the loss of his beloved wife and daughter at the hands of the corrupt Judge Turpin. Slaughtering the customers at his barbershop so they can be turned into pies by the despicable Mrs Lovett might be overkill however (pun intended).
No of Victims: Considerable. One fellow barber, a beadle, a judge, his insane wife, his mistress and numerous customers in need of a haircut
Modus Operandi: Aided and abetted by one Mrs Lovett, victims carotid arteries were severed before dismembering and disposing of remains in baked goods
Extenuating circumstances: “It was the judge who raped my wife that lead me to kill countless others…”
Comeuppance: Murdered in turn by traumatised juvenile and former employee
3: Macheath (aka Mackie Messer, aka Mack the Knife)
Musical Provenance: Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Not to be confused with The Beggar’s Opera where said Macheath kills absolutely no-one
On the surface of things Macheath seems like a loveable rouge. Mischievous, charismatic, resourceful (and an army veteran), it’s hard not to root for Mackers as his father-in-law attempts to have him executed! But as is often said, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Macheath is London’s most notorious criminal, with a rap sheet that more than earns him a place in our most wanted list.
No of Victims: Allegedly considerable, though surprisingly no bodies are ever produced and no victims are actually named
Modus Operandi: Knife and razor work, also alleged drownings in bags of cement
Extenuating circumstances: Capitalist society made him do it? Otherwise, a career criminal and likely psychopath
Comeuppance: None, in fact gets a Royal Pardon!
4: Lucrezia Borgia
Musical Provenance: Donizetti’s opera of the same name
Lucrezia holds the dubious honour of being the only femme fatale in our rogues gallery. She is as beautiful as she is deadly: when she isn’t personally murdering her victims, she kills by proxy by incurring the murderous wrath of her jealous husband, the Duke of Ferrara, against those poor souls who fall in love with her.
No of Victims: A string of previous victims (unproven) plus six noblemen
Modus Operandi: Poison, invariably administered in wine whilst singing bel canto
Extenuating circumstances: Forced into loveless political marriage, didn’t know final victim was own son (yeah, yeah, get in the car…)
Comeuppance: Continued loveless marriage and a life of remorse for killing her only child
5: Jack (aka the Ripper)
Musical Provenance: Alban Berg’s opera Lulu
Jack needs no more introduction – his bloody deeds in Whitechapel more than speak for themselves. Whether or not the recent DNA results take into account Jack’s sojourn to Paris is unclear, but this is where (according to Berg at least) he dispatches Lulu and her aristocratic lover. Mon Dieu!
No of Victims: Five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London plus the eponymous heroine of Berg’s opera and her lesbian lover the devoted Countess Geschwitz (and just when she’d decided to become a lawyer and work for women’s rights)
Modus Operandi: Knife and surgical instruments (very nasty details available online should you need convincing)
Extenuating circumstances: None. Notorious serial killer and sexual abuser
Comeuppance: Never caught so pretty much got away with it
6: Duke Bluebeard (aka 15th-century Breton nobleman and serial killer Gilles de Rais)
Musical Provenance: Operas by Béla Bartók, Paul Dukas and Jacques Offenbach
The story of Bluebeard’s Castle is cautionary tale: don’t look for skeletons in your lover’s closet, as you might literally find some. In the case of Judith, Bluebeard’s ill-fated lover in Bartók’s version, being over curious not only showed her some gruesome sights, but also dragged her into a five-way, polygamous marriage! Awkward…
No of Victims: Zero to seven depending on your opera (in the Offenbach they are squirreled away still alive by a squeamish henchman)
Modus Operandi: Incarceration leading to probable demise of victims
Extenuating circumstances: Shunned because of his ugly, blue beard (which, let’s face it, would make anyone a serial killer…)
Comeuppance: None – in fact gets to marry a Princess in the Offenbach. He does get the chop in the original folktale, mind
7: Billy (aka the Kid)
Musical Provenance: A ballet by Aaron Copland
Billy’s downfall was that he was a real mama’s boy, beginning his gun-toting kill spree after the murder of his mother. Perhaps it was the lack of any maternal guidance, or maybe it was having to live in a desert hide out that turned ‘The Kid’ bad, but in his bid to escape the long arm of the law a good ol’ wild west gun battle was inevitable. Ye Haw!
No of Victims: One confirmed, plus an unconfirmed number of others during a shoot out (although the real Billy the Kid was far more prolific in his killing)
Modus Operandi: One revolver
Extenuating circumstances: He was avenging his mother’s death. Also some historians blame his lawlessness on his love of ‘dime novels’, so cheap literature could also be to blame
Comeuppance: Shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett in his desert hide out.
8: The Mikado of Japan
Musical Provenance: An operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan
No of Victims: Numerous
It’s hard to be a despotic, tyrannical autocrat without being a little murderous, but even by the standards of most totalitarian regimes the Mikado is pretty cruel. It’s worth noting that in addition to the Mikado’s delusions that his legal philosophies on the modes of execution required for numerous infractions (which include dying ones hair and flirting) are perfectly appropriate, he is also (at least in the original libretto) a little bit racist!
Modus Operandi: Various forms of arbitrary ‘judicial’ execution including being boiled in oil and covered in molten lead – as long as the punishment fits the crime
Extenuating circumstances: He has to rule over towns with ridiculous names such as Titipu, and who else is going to deal with the inevitable anarchy caused by serial flirters?
Comeuppance: None whatsoever, in fact the Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world
9: Lord Ruthven (aka the Vampire)
Musical Provenance: Heinrich Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr
It’s tough being a vampire. Not only are you a cursed, undead, hell-spawn doomed never to walk in the light of the sun, driven by an unceasing craving for blood, but sometimes the Vampire Master orders you to go on a killing spree or face an eternity in hell. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t…. literally! And what does Lord Ruthven get if he manages to kill three virgins in 24 hours as instructed by the chief blood sucker? One more measly year of life before he has to do it again. Hardly seems worth it, but a vamps gotta to do what a vamps gotta do…
No of Victims: Two virgins and the attempted murder of a third.
Modus Operandi: Exsanguination by means of fang punctured jugular.
Extenuating circumstances: The Vampire Master told him to do it, and an overwhelming blood lust for poor virgin maidens probably didn’t help either.
Comeuppance: Upon failing to reach his quota of virgins he is struck by lightning and dragged down to hell (as you are…)
Musical Provenance: Strauss’s opera Elektra
Sibling squabbles and family fights are familiar to most of us – the Greeks just knew how to take them to extremes. Avenging the death of his father by killing his mother and her lover might seem severe, but that’s just how those classical villains roll.
No of Victims: Two – his mother and her lover Aegisthius (who incidentally was also the abandoned son of Oreste’s grandfather through the incestuous rape of his own daughter – oh and suckled by a goat, hence the name…)
Modus Operandi: Unclear but probably a borrowed sword, axe or strangulation
Extenuating circumstances: “My mother killed my father for sacrificing my sister in exchange for a breeze” – and if you’ll believe that…
Comeuppance: Pursuit by the furies