The Strange Case of Thomas Mair

By Henry King

Malmö, where I currently live in the south of Sweden, is on almost the same latitude as Glasgow, and has the same kind of long, wet winters I’m used to from the west coast of Scotland. In December of last year I was getting ready to go back for the Christmas holidays, and while I was out shopping for presents I did what all compulsive bibliophiles do: I came home with a book for myself instead. A copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde caught my eye and reproved me for having lived in Scotland for so long without reading any of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction; this was as good a time as any to fix that.

Even without having read it, I could probably have given a summary of the novel, which is so ubiquitous that it’s become proverbial: anyone with two strongly contrasting sides to their personality, or who leads a double life, is described as ‘a Jekyll-and-Hyde character’, after the scientist who creates a drug that turns him into an alter ego in whose person he can commit offences he’s too ashamed to carry out as himself. I’ve probably used the expression myself, without direct knowledge of its source. But after cycling home in the four o’clock dark, I curled up on the sofa to find out what I had been bluffing about.

One of pleasures of reading a book when you already know, or think you know, what happens in it, is that the details stand out more vividly against the background of expectation. In this case, one such detail is the crime Hyde commits that brings Jekyll’s double life into crisis: the murder of an old gentleman late at night in a quiet London street, witnessed by a maidservant sitting at a window. This eruption of violence, in a novella that otherwise relies on suggestion, is one of the few of his acts described in any detail: “Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway.” The gentleman turns out to have been a Member of Parliament, Sir Danvers Carew, and his death “was resented as a public injury”.

Reading this in the last days of 2016, it was impossible not to think of the murder of Jo Cox MP by Thomas Mair. On the 16 June, one week before the Brexit referendum, Mair shot and stabbed Cox in Birstall, West Yorkshire, where he lived in her Batley and Spen constituency. As he attacked her in broad daylight, Mair shouted what was variously reported as “Britain First” or “This is for Britain”; at his trial, the only statement he made to the court was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” For many years, Mair had been a follower of fascist and white supremacist movements, reading about Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, and South African pro-Apartheid groups online, and occasionally meeting far-right groups in the UK. Mair targeted Cox because his MP supported the campaign to remain in the European Union, as well as a number of causes related to the Middle East, including British intervention in Syria to protect civilians and the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

As so often in the wake of hate crimes, neighbours and family expressed shock, and described the completely different person they had known. Mair was withdrawn, but “quiet and polite, volunteering to do their gardens and offering horticultural tips”[i]; his half-brother, himself of mixed race, claimed Mair had never expressed racist opinions. No one, it seems, knew about his private library of far-right literature, his Nazi paraphernalia, or his plans to commit an act of terrorism. If not the shape-shifting doctor who divides his good and evil impulses between separate identities, Mair was a Jekyll-and-Hyde character in the proverbial sense: a harmless public persona masking a secret self consumed by hatred.

The correspondence between fact and fiction is incomplete, though, and it’s worth considering the differences between Mair and Jekyll. For one thing, Mair had a history of mental illness, although when he came to trial this was not entered as grounds for a plea of diminished responsibility; Dr Jekyll, on the other hand, doesn’t diagnose himself with a medical condition, but asserts his metamorphoses represent “the thorough and primitive duality of man”, divided between good and evil. Moreover, Stevenson is not concerned with politics: Sir Danvers is murdered for sport, not because of his position on (say) Irish Home Rule. Jekyll knows that what Hyde does is evil, and recognises that these are his own impulses manifested; he indulges them out of weakness. Mair, so far as we can imagine, did not see murdering Cox as an evil act, but something good, brave, patriotic.

Perhaps these objections mean Stevenson has nothing to say to us about the strange case of Thomas Mair. But the moral of the story has more point when we look at what else happened around the referendum, and elsewhere. Following the Brexit vote, Arkadiusz Jozwik was beaten to death by a group of teenagers in Harlow, Essex, after they heard him speaking Polish. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency was preceded and followed by hate crimes and unprovoked attacks; Trump supporters have also been assaulted. These attacks may have been politically inflected, but Stevenson’s fable argues that politics isn’t a sufficient explanation on its own; the potential for shocking cruelty lies dormant in everyone, and can easily be roused.

The end of the story is a further warning. As Jekyll spends more time as Hyde and further indulges that side of his self, Hyde grows stronger, and Jekyll begins transforming into him spontaneously. As his supply of the drug runs out, Hyde takes over completely and cannot be changed back into Jekyll. The more houseroom is given to hatred, the harder it becomes to oppose. This goes for society as a whole, as well as for individuals like Mair: Nigel Farage’s comment the day after the vote, that the referendum had been won “without a shot being fired”, was an irresponsible refusal to acknowledge what his rhetoric helped bring about, and went some way to condoning the crime.

Malmö University, where I teach, sits on an artificial island at the edge of the city centre, called Universitetsholmen; on its eastern side, where the bus drops me off if I don’t fancy cycling through snow, is Anna Lindhs Plats. Anna Lindh was a Social Democratic MP who was murdered in 2003. She was stabbed while shopping in Stockholm by Mijailo Mijailović, who was initially sentenced to life imprisonment, was then transferred to a secure psychiatric ward after an appeal on grounds of mental illness, then had his original sentence reinstated. Lindh’s murder took place days before the Swedish referendum on joining the Euro, and Lindh had been a pro-Euro campaigner; however, Mijailović denied that this was a factor in killing her. Campaigning in the 2003 referendum was paused in the immediate aftermath of her death, but the vote went ahead, and Sweden still uses the krona. (Stockholm and Skåne, the county of which Malmö is the capital, were the only ones to vote Yes to the Euro.) This year, in the British general election, politicians suspended campaigning for an hour (at a time of their choosing) in memory of Jo Cox; and community events are to take place on the anniversary of her death. It would be fitting to have a more permanent memorial to Cox; but while it would probably be inscribed with the signature line from her maiden speech in the House of Commons – “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us” – one might also add, as a warning, Henry Jekyll’s words from the final chapter: “I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.”


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/16/suspect-in-mp-killing-described-as-quiet-polite-and-reserved

Photograph by: Philafrenzy.

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