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‘CSI: Whitechapel’: Ripper Street and the evidential body

2013 January 28

By Jessica Hindes (Royal Holloway)

Though I understand the desire to dissect a period drama on the basis of its historical authenticity, I’ve never thought it a particularly profitable approach. Guy Woolnough may be right to criticise Ripper Street for condemning a 14 year old to an implausibly expedited hanging; but cataloguing this kind of historical inaccuracy contributes little to a critical understanding of the show. In this article, therefore, I set such questions aside in order to think more positively about the programme and its construction, exploring the widely-made comparison between Ripper Street and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.[1] Reading this series through the lens of the forensic franchise provides insight not only into Ripper Street’s treatment of technology, but into the bodies (living and dead) with which the programme is populated; whose divergence from the ‘evidential bodies’ of CSI and its imitators offer a key to the epistemology of the show.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the first in what would become a three-show franchise, began broadcasting in October 2000.[2] Installed ever since in the US ratings top ten, Anthony Zuiker’s show set the tone for twenty-first century forensic crime drama; a variant on the police procedural centred on the criminologist’s lab. In CSI and its spinoffs, teams of forensic investigators conduct minute examinations of crime scenes and corpses in order to build the ’story’ of a case, identifying the guilty through a combination of trace and DNA evidence, aided by the latest scientific technology. This preoccupation with bodies and the technologies by which they are measured, recorded and identified takes the show, on occasion, to the limits of plausibility; with its ‘increasingly fetished… instruments of scientific detection’[3] often ‘more reminiscent of science fiction than true investigative practice’.[4]

The association between forensic drama and contemporary science makes Ripper Street, set in 1889, an interesting thought experiment. This obvious disjunction is sometimes played for laughs: surgeon Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), inspecting the high-tech ‘deadroom’ which Matthew Macfadyen’s Inspector Reid has installed for him, admiringly comments ‘hot water, too?’ (1.2).[5] However, the ‘hand-lenses’ and microscopes with which the deadroom is also equipped betray a more serious engagement with the theme (1.3); as does the decision to focus the show’s first episode around the merits and dangers of photography. As the popularity of sensation and detective fiction show, questions around identity, surveillance and the police were as central to the Victorians as they are to our own society.

This parallel is further evinced in the two programmes’ similar treatment of the visual technologies they explore. Sofia Bull, in a recent PhD, suggests that CSI provides an important cultural forum for exploration of ‘post-genomic’ sciences: to ‘worry at’ their implications, but ultimately to reassure (15).[6] Rogue ‘criminal doctors’ demonstrate the danger of these identity sciences (89), but this displacement onto individual practitioners conceals wider questions about state authority and disciplining sight. ‘The cultural anxieties tied to the notion of biopower are essentially deflected from forensic science as an institution of policing and reduced to a specific bioethical question about individual misuses of scientific power’ (119).

Ripper Street offers a similar treatment of its own ‘new’ technologies. With the exception of ‘In My Protection’s’ gang leader Carmichael, the series’ villains all exhibit considerable scientific expertise. Creighton dazzles Reid with his moving-picture machine (1.1); Claxton distils his deadly powders in a secret chemical laboratory (1.3); and Bone, the chilly councillor of episode 1.4, waxes lyrical on the marvels of the new electric railway. But as in CSI, Ripper Street’s technological advances ultimately act in the interests of justice. All three antagonists meet their retribution through the very technologies they exploit. Creighton meets his end in a blaze of film; Claxton is forced to ingest his own fatal concoction; and Bone fries on the just-connected track. Like the conscientiously up-to-the-minute Inspector Reid, we learn that we can feel good about these scientific developments; and the increasingly all-seeing police they underpin.

Maude Thwaites' hairThough its investigators are restricted to telegraphs and directories where CSI’s criminologists use emails and databases, Ripper Street’s treatment of science is in many ways applicable to our time; reassuring us about our own surveillance society through analogy with the more primitive technologies it depicts. Maude Thwaites' clavicleThe show takes greater advantage of its historical setting – albeit in the service of the same ideology – in its treatment of that other generic marker, the body.

Maude Thwaites' fingertips

Maude Thwaites' hair, clavicle, & fingertips become clues to her identity (1.1 'I Need Light')

CSI is associated with the ‘evidential body’; the victim’s corpse, ‘photographed from multiple angles and then closely examined for trace and biological evidence’, loses its humanity and becomes instead ‘an object of knowledge for the forensic scientists’.[7] There are certainly instances in which Ripper Street deploys this trope. Manby, the toymaker bearing marks of the belt which killed him (1.2); and Roach, the rent-collector whose stab wounds betray his attacker (1.4), both play a role recognisable from CSI. Like Maude Thwaites (1.1), visually dissected into a series of clues [above], or the numbered poisoning victims laid out in the lab (1.3) [below], their bodies become simply so much physical evidence, of a piece with the fibres, footprints and other traces at the scene.

Poisoning victims laid out in the deadroom (1.3 'The King Came Calling')

Poisoning victims laid out in the deadroom (1.3 'The King Came Calling')

For CSI, with its absolute faith in physical clues, making the body into evidence is a means of making it more reliable. ‘People lie,’ Grissom tells a witness in season one. ‘The evidence doesn’t lie.’[8] This is true of the living, as well as the dead: but where CSI turns its suspects into so many DNA samples, Ripper Street’s pre-genomic world demands a more creative approach. Thomas Gower, a child gang member (1.2), and Lucy Eames, a prostitute (1.4), are both betrayed by their own physicality: Gower’s circumcised penis provides a clue to his origins, and Lucy’s pregnant belly to the story of her woes.[9]

Although these bodily signs can be substituted for the blood groups and DNA markers of modern-day forensics, Ripper Street is much more conscious than CSI of the limits of physical evidence. CSI’s most notorious cultural legacy is the ‘CSI effect’. Supposedly, juries familiar with the show have higher expectations for the standard of forensic proof, which makes it more difficult for prosecutors to convict. Although a series of studies have disputed the effect’s existence,[10] the notion’s popularity reflects the absolute quality of the scientific conclusions reached within the show. Investigators are rarely satisfied with circumstantial proof: the emphasis is on finding conclusive evidence that leaves no uncertainty as to what has taken place. This desire illuminates a key omission from the show: ‘CSI skirts the complications of achieving [narrative closure] by only rarely bringing cases to trial.’[11] Criminals are delivered to justice and their conviction assumed: the programme leaves no place for the courtroom’s conflicting legal narratives.

Jackson twists Claxton's broken arm (1.3 'The King Came Calling')

Jackson twists Claxton's broken arm (1.3 'The King Came Calling')

Ripper Street has also stayed largely out of court: even the trial scene which irritated Woolnough in 1.2 is undermined, as Reid later helps the convicted Gower to escape. Elsewhere, however, the show goes further than CSI: rather than leaving cases at the brink of conviction, most of its criminals don’t survive to be tried. Whether at the hands of the police or of a kind of relentless poetic justice, all of the major antagonist figures in the show so far have been dead by the ends of their respective episodes. The circumstance suggests not only a scepticism about the authority of the nineteenth-century law (exhibited in that trial scene as both brutish and unfair), but an association between truth and violence which reflects the bloody pre-history of the show.

CSI regularly turns its bodies into evidence; but Ripper Street tortures its suspects for the truth, exhibiting a preoccupation with the body in pain that works against the anatomist’s dispassionate gaze. Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn), Reid’s hard-hitting right-hand man, routinely beats up suspects (as well as his more unsavoury witnesses) to extract confessions and information. Jackson, too, is not above a little torture; Reid watches implacably while Claxton squirms as the surgeon manipulates his recently-broken arm (1.3).

Smeaton takes a beating from Sergeant Drake (1.1 'I Need Light')

Smeaton takes a beating from Sergeant Drake (1.1 'I Need Light')

Without full access to the technologies that facilitate CSI’s narrative of clean, scientific certainty, Ripper Street’s nineteenth-century detectives are shown struggling with truths that are often messy and dangerous. Surveillance technologies which are limited, and incomplete, leave a shortfall in knowledge which can be made up only in violence, suffering and pain. Where CSI’s technicians would readily reconstruct the papers Claxton has vindictively burnt (1.3), or conduct a property search to locate Arthur Donaldson’s lair (1.1), for Ripper Street’s less well-equipped investigators the only path to the truth runs through the nervous system of the culprit’s agonised body. As Reid found to his cost in the case of the Ripper himself, the evidence of corpses can only take you so far.

Although Ripper Street’s cases reach the resolution which viewers of TV forensic shows expect, they’re predicated on a failure (the Ripper’s escape) which importantly informs the programme’s worldview. However, the historical distance at which the show is set means that the result is complementary, rather than challenging, to CSI’s approach. The contrast between CSI’s comfortable, clinical investigations and the writhing, screaming bodies of Ripper Street’s co-opted witnesses represents the contrast between primitive and superior surveillance technologies: though justice is ultimately served in both cases, in Ripper Street there’s a great deal more suffering along the way. Whether or not we’re comfortable with this pro-surveillance message, Ripper Street’s transposition of the notion to its nineteenth-century context demonstrates a confident sense of genre and provides the viewer with a useful interpretative lens of her own.


[1] Matthew Macfadyen, quoted in an interview. Philiana Ng, ‘”Ripper Street”: Matthew Macfadyen previews BBC America’s mystery drama’, Hollywood Reporter (19 Jan 2013) <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/ripper-street-matthew-macfadyen-bbc-413935> [accessed 22 Jan 2013]. See for example Morgan Jeffrey, “Ripper Street” episode three “The King Came Calling” review’, Digital Spy, (13 Jan 2013) <http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/tv/s213/ripper-street/recaps/a449704/ripper-street-episode-three-the-king-came-calling-review.html> [accessed 22 Jan 2013]; and Sam Wollaston, ‘Ripper Street; Neil Armstrong – First Man on the Moon; The Hotel’, The Guardian (30 Dec 2012) <http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/dec/30/ripper-street-tv-review> [accessed 22 Jan 2013].

[2] The original (conventionally shortened to CSI) is set in Las Vegas; the two spinoffs are CSI: Miami (September 2002 – April 2012) and CSI:NY (September 2004 -).

[3] Joyce Palmer, ‘Tracing Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Forensic Detective Fiction’, South Central Review 18.3 (2001), p.55.

[4] Tom R. Tyler, ‘Viewing CSI and the Threshold of Guilt: Managing Truth and Justice in Reality and Fiction’, The Yale Law Journal 115.5 (2006), p.1052. The show’s excesses are exemplified in the notorious Enhance Button, which allows technicians to capture pin-sharp images from grainy CCTV reflections in windows, car doors and even victims’ eyeballs <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uoM5kfZIQ0>.

[5] At the time of writing, four episodes of Ripper Street have been shown in the UK: ‘I Need Light’ (1.1); ‘In My Protection’ (1.2); ‘The King Came Calling’ (1.3); and ‘The Good of this City’ (1.4). I refer to the shows by title and episode number interchangeably.

[6] Sofia Bull, A Post-genomic Forensic Crime Drama: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as Cultural Forum on Science (doctoral thesis, Stockholm University, 2012) <http://www.academia.edu/2178446/PhD_thesis_A_Post-genomic_Forensic_Crime_Drama_CSI_Crime_Scene_Investigation_as_Cultural_Forum_on_Science> [accessed 22 Jan 2013] (page references given in the text). Bull distinguishes between CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the other programmes in the franchise, suggesting that they present different scientific views; my comments, likewise, refer to the original show.

[7] David P. Pierson, ‘Evidential Bodies: The Forensic and Abject Gazes in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation‘, Journal of Communication Inquiry 34.2 (2010), p.187.

[8] ‘Crate’n'Burial’, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode 1.3.

[9] Going further still, ‘In My Protection’ shows Jackson ‘forensic-ing’ himself, analysing his clothes for clues about the misadventures of a half-forgotten night. CSI provides a direct parallel to this scene in the episode ‘Built to Kill (part two)’ [7.2], which sees criminologist Catherine Willows conduct a rape test on her own body after awaking in a hotel room with no memory of arriving there.

[10] For example, Tyler (2006), cited above.

[11] Ibid., p.1074.


Jessica Hindes is currently in the third year of her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, working on G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London sequence (1844-56). When she’s not reading sensational penny serials, she guides at Highgate Cemetery and spends much too much time watching procedural crime drama.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. January 31, 2013

    Jessica Hindes has written a very interesting, well-argued and fascinating review of Ripper Street. I do like her focus upon the physicality of the series, which uses the body as a powerful and thought-provoking component. I have not seen any of the CSI programmes, but I do understand the interesting point Hindes makes about the contemporary ‘narrative of clean scientific certainty’ contrasted with the messy and dangerous uncertainty of the investigations in Ripper Street.
    As Hindes has suggested, the physicality in Ripper Street goes beyond the anatomisation of cadavers. Filth, physical exploitation and casual brutality are a constant presence and seem to inure the viewer to the passive and calm evidence provided by the dead. Moreover, the commonplace violence of every episode serves to highlight the very precise, formal and even stylised English used by the characters. However, filth, violence and ‘proper’ language are what the viewer expects of Victorian London, and Ripper Street has certainly worked hard to meet this demand.
    Hindes is quite correct to describe the programme as a thought experiment, as is so much of literature and of the cultural media, but as she observes the elements are sometimes ‘played for laughs.’ This thought experiment has been situated quite clearly in London’s East End in 1889. Leo Hollis has done a very good job in presenting a credible, evidence based view of the scene. For example, although we may never know how police inspectors actually spoke, Reid’s language replicates the style which is to be found in many Victorian police records, notably police Occurrence Books, written orders and other reports.
    The historical precision aimed at in this series belies Hindes’ opinion that historical authenticity is not a particularly profitable approach; I do notice that she herself is impressed by the ‘treatment of its own “new” technologies [and] considerable scientific expertise,’ which are themselves historical phenomena.
    Every programme has been laden with detail that locates the story precisely in time and place. We are frequently shown that the station is in Leman Street, as it was, and the Commissioner was correctly identified as James Munro (in office for just two years.) We are given details such as Gordon at Khartoum, the first electrified underground, Muybridge, the Scuttlers, all of which are precise reminders of context and date. One might contrast this with the famous Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes, who was placed at a fictitious address and at a time somewhere between the coming of the railways and the motor car.
    This is why episode two jarred with me. Rather than a desire to dissect a period drama as a historian, I was aiming to appraise the programme on its own terms. The makers have endeavoured to situate their stories precisely in time and place. Every detail in the series is (almost preternaturally) historically located, every detail has been generally correct, so that the sentence of death on a fourteen year old is a glaring error. (The rapid execution of sentence is a minor error in comparison.) If the boy had been sentenced to training at an Industrial School, the plot would have collapsed. As Simon Mercer pointed out in his comment, the viewers watch programmes in order to understand and interpret their history; they enjoy and absorb the detail. Downton Abbey could not ignore the Great War, and Ripper Street, having set its target as historical accuracy, should not ignore the reality of the Victorian penal system. Every other episode has achieved the appropriate standard and has been highly enjoyable.
    I am sure that Hindes would agree that every thought experiment should stick to its own rules. In episode two, Ripper Street seriously broke its own rules.

  2. February 5, 2013

    Hello! I’m glad you replied! Sorry if I was too flippant in dismissing what you said. I think it’s partly a question of genre (i.e. the genres we were each wanting to write in) but also a bigger issue of critical approach.

    So: I didn’t mean that ‘historical authenticity is not a profitable approach’. I love to see a series set in a credible Victorian London and I would find it annoying and a bit pointless if all TV programmes (books, films, etc) took a completely cavalier attitude to historical period (although sometimes of course it can be fun to do that). If you’re setting a show in the nineteenth century you shouldn’t have your police officers using mobile phones, to use a particularly glaring and unlikely example. There are pleasures to be taken in the details which are correct (even if most or many viewers wouldn’t recognise them).

    But I do think you have to allow a certain amount of leeway. As you say, Downton Abbey didn’t ignore the Great War, but it didn’t deal with it in the most plausible way: I’m thinking specifically of Matthew Crawley conveniently commuting to and from the Front in order to be back in time to wring Mary’s heart every episode. I found that frustrating but less at the level of historical realism (Downton is of course a melodrama and implausible things happen every week) than at the level of plot (there would have been a lot more satisfying angst and jeopardy if Matthew had been away for a good long while and we’d felt truly uncertain as to whether he’d be back; as elsewhere in the second series, Julian Fellowes seemed to have a serious problem with pacing, wanting to have an emotional climax in every single episode).

    I agree that the second episode of Ripper Street was the least convincing of the series so far (for a bunch of reasons) but what I was trying to get at is that (for me) it feels a bit limited just to conclude that the show ‘broke its own rules’ (which I think is a really useful way of putting it) in the service of ‘entertainment’, attracting American audiences etc. I think the question of how far a period drama should stick to the facts is an interesting one and a debate worth having – and of course, on a general scale, market forces are an important factor. But I don’t feel like it says very much about Ripper Street specifically to come to that conclusion. That’s what I was trying to get at. Of course you weren’t necessarily wanting to do that and that’s fair enough, I was just trying to articulate my own (contrasting) approach at the outset of my piece. Maybe I put it uncharitably (sorry!) but I do think it’s an important difference.

    I think part of the issue might be that you were maybe wanting to write more of a review (is Ripper Street good or bad, worth watching or not – does it reach ‘the appropriate standard’) and I was thinking in terms of a critical essay (how does Ripper Street work). In a review of course there’s an important place for value judgements and there’s at least an argument for making historical accuracy one of the foundations for these. Fair enough. But for the purposes of a critical essay about Ripper Street in particular, rather than period drama in general, I find that kind of observation less useful. I would find it more interesting to think about why the writer might have chosen to sacrifice historical accuracy in the context of this particular show – which, as you point out, is otherwise fairly scrupulous in its authenticity – at this particular moment. Why is it so important that Thomas be condemned to death? Yes it’s important for the plot as written (although of course the plot didn’t have to be written that way) – but I think it’s interesting in the context of a series which otherwise has kept out of court that the only trial scene should be one at this level of brutality and severity: it’s an important part of the series’ model of justice (which is itself a fertile topic given the apparently relentless operation of ‘poetic justice’ on the villains throughout). I don’t know if I can answer the question in full in this comment but I would certainly enjoy the process of trying to answer it elsewhere. That was the point I was trying to make – that’s the kind of question which I, personally, find it more fruitful to ask of a text.

    Inevitably, my viewpoint is informed (as yours is) by my own work: I study popular texts of the 1840s which are all too frequently dismissed by critics on the basis of being market-driven and therefore somehow compromised. I’ve spent the last two and a half years trying to move beyond that question and give a text credit for what it does rather than what it doesn’t do; to try and think about other ways we might read and interpret what might otherwise be read as omissions or flaws. I’ve ended up with something that looks a bit like Eve Sedgwick’s notion of reparative reading; but rather than trying to avoid paranoia about a text’s hidden homosexuality (misogyny, etc), you’re trying to avoid paranoia about its profit motivation. For me, it’s been a really useful and fruitful approach.

    So: in summary: of course it’s legitimate to point out inaccuracies in a piece which is intended primarily as a review, particularly if you feel that they impinge on the viewer’s enjoyment (as the point of a review is to assess whether something is worth watching or not). It’s legitimate, also, to raise the question of how accurate we should expect our period drama to be (I didn’t feel you made much of a counter-argument for inaccuracy though; maybe just for the sake of fun I would have been interested to see that as well). But I think when it comes down to critical investigation of a particular televisual ‘text’ (or any other kind of text for that matter), there’s more to be gained from questions that engage with the programme (book, etc) on its own terms than which seek to dismantle or challenge it from the outside. What do you think? As I say, I think it’s largely an issue of critical genre.

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