It was a human transformation.
I was that human. And I was transformed for the better.
Transformed – and shamed.
It was a few years ago. I came across the wedding photograph of one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, Annie Chapman. And a later photograph of her 12-year-old daughter, Emily Ruth.
Emily Ruth would be dead in a matter of months. Of meningitis. That horror of horrors – the death of a child – set her parents to drinking. It paved the way for everything that followed.
For my part, I was stopped in my tracks by those two photographs. Sufficiently so that I wrote, at some length – short magazine article length – about the photograph of Emily Ruth.
What was so jarring about the photographs was their “normality” – middle class (well probably lower middle class or upper working class) Victorian normality. These people weren’t down-and-outs. They had the means – and the pride and aspiration and self-respect – to dress themselves and their child well for the photograph. (Notice the shoes the little girl is wearing – the children of the poorest of the poor went shoeless.) And they could afford – even though it was probably a stretch – a session in a Windsor photographer’s studio.
To take that on board and then to think how Annie Chapman ended up – mutilated in that back yard in Hanbury Street – well, it was jarring. Shocking.
And deeply shaming. Because I immediately recognised that it had been easy for me to make my peace with what happened to those poor (how appropriate the adjective is) women because “they were just riff-raff, down-and-out, drink-sodden prostitutes – the lowest of the low.”
They weren’t of course. They were fellow human beings.
And there are wheels within wheels of that transformation of my sensibility and response. Because I realised that the initial shock the photographs engendered stemmed from some sort of fatuity on my part that “Jack the Ripper victimhood” doesn’t happen to “respectable, aspirational, at least modestly well-off” people. Victorian versions of people like ourselves.
There was the shock of realising that it did. And then the further shock – and shame – of realising that at some deep and unexamined level I hadn’t been particularly bothered that the people it happened to – my fellow human beings – were right down on the bottom rung of Victorian London East End existence (if you could call it “existence”, another crass, shaming “evaluation”). That it was somehow more acceptable – nothing to get especially fussed about – because the victims of Jack were our equivalent of ‘untouchables.’
Deeply shaming. I hang my head to think that that kind of sensibility – so shaming – was a significant part of the breeze that filled the sails that took me through the waters of the “Jack the Ripper phenomenon.” Stripped down it’s the idea that some lives, some human beings, are worthless, count for nothing. That it’s “more acceptable” for hideous things to happen to them. There is of course a lower rung in that hell – I suppose I took a crumb of comfort from the thought that at least I hadn’t got right down into that lowest, vilest depravity: namely thinking, “they deserved what they got.”
There are, I think, two conclusions and questions that this throws up. One: we have to – in the interests of our own humanity – see Jack the Ripper’s victims, see their lives in their entirety, in the fullness and wonder of being a living, sentient being; and that their eventually being down-and-out didn’t make them “less” than the rest of us. And Two: it’s important to ask – and if possible get answers to – the questions: how could that have happened, what brought it about? They didn’t in some sense “fail” as human beings and thereby bring it on themselves; the “failure” was elsewhere. I would say it was our doing, our failure, collectively – assuming, that is, that one can “feel a part” of events that took place 130 years ago. If we can see – or at least begin to see – what the “drivers” were to the Jack the Ripper episode in our history that’s an important step forward. One small step for mankind. It’ll make better people of us.
Toward that end, perhaps consider some of the following figures. These have to do with Dorset Street, where, in Miller’s Court, down a passageway off Dorset Street, Mary Jane Kelly, the last victim, the most horribly mutilated victim, was killed.
Dorset Street – it’s no longer there (in Spitafields) – was a short street, not even the length of a football field. The houses – approximately 30 of them – were ramshackle, jerry-built, crammed together three- and four-storey affairs. Three of them were “Common Lodging Houses.” Let’s visit them 23 years after the event. In 1911 No. 9-10 had 97 lodgers in 12 rooms. Its near-neighbour – No. 15 -20 – had 138 lodgers in 17 rooms. No. 28-30 – right next door to Mary Jane Kelly’s closet-sized single room – had 59 lodgers in 13 rooms.
No. 28-30 housed couples. In 75 “cubicles” – the census return’s phrase, not mine. The other two were for single men.
Mary Jane Kelly was young, blonde, pretty…
Think about that for a minute. Think about it when we’re on the walk, standing in what was Dorset Street. Put it together with what you’ll be hearing from Molly or Steve or Adam or Shaughan or Andy (our Ripperologists).
Things are going to come very sharply into focus for you…
Here we introduce you to the five canonical victims.
POLLY Small, dark-haired, brown-eyed. Born Mary Ann Nichols in 1845. Barely seven years old when her mother died (tuberculosis). Blacksmith’s daughter. Printer’s wife (married at St. Bride’s in Fleet Street). Gave her husband, Frederick, five children. May have suffered from post-natal depression. Home environment – they lived in a three-room Peabody estate near Waterloo – turned toxic. Rows. Left Frederick and the children in 1880. Her husband “turned nasty” said her father. Frederick blamed Polly. “She turned to drink.” X-factor: their near* neighbour and Polly’s helpmate with the children – Rosetta Walls. Ten years younger, Rosetta was not exhausted with looking after four children and a new-born. Husband Frederick believed to have taken a shine to the comely young neighbour. Polly’s appointment with Jack the Ripper was eight years in the future on Bucks Row.
*adjoining walls, shared water-closet facilities
Born 1841. Illegitimate daughter of a servant girl and a Life Guards trooper. Parents subsequently married. Seven siblings, four of whom died of typhus in three weeks when Annie was 12. “Growing up the child of a soldier in a socially prestigious regiment meant her life was an awkward balance between two disparate worlds…she knew, even from afar, an existence of status, wealth and privilege beyond the daily experience of most working-class children.” A childhood in Knightsbridge and Windsor…. Result: even as an adult she gave the impression she had come from a good family. Became a housemaid for a successful architect in Duke Street, Westminster. Married a gentleman’s coachman at All Saint’s Church on Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge. All well and good. Except that Annie was an alcoholic – and that her first child died of meningitis, her second was institutionalised and her third was in a home for cripples. She fought her addiction. She lost. Became “a drunken madwoman.” Turned her back on her husband and her family, such as it was. Ended up in “the worst street in the City of London, a cesspit of thieves, prostitutes, bullies, all common lodging houses,” bound for an appointment with Jack the Ripper.
“Long Liz Stride.” The girl from Torslanda (Norway). On the mortuary slab “traces of prettiness remained in her face…there must have been a time when she was exceedingly proud of her curly black hair.” Born 1843. Farmer’s daughter. Becomes a servant. A male living under her master’s roof (the master or his son? His brother, cousin, friend or father?) impregnates her and gives her syphilis. Baby is still-born. Moves to the east end of London. Works as a servant for a gentleman living near Hyde Park. Marries John Stride at St. Giles in the Fields Church. Marriage breaks up. Convictions for drunkenness. Lives in a common lodging-house in Flower & Dean Street in Whitechapel. Shortly before 1 am on September 30 – the opening act of “the double event” – the Jack the Ripper murders* her in Dutfield’s Yard off Berners Street (now Henriques Street). He’s nearly caught in the act. Louis Diemschutz, driving his horse and cart into the yard, finds her body. The horse shies – nervousness at passing the body and perhaps sensing a tense man hiding in the shadows. Buried in pauper’s grave 15509 in East London Cemetery. *Bizarre coincidence: she may have been attacked twice in the same place in the space of about ten minutes by two different men, only the latter of whom was the Ripper.
Liveliest and the oldest of the Ripper’s murder victims. 5 feet tall, dark auburn hair, hazel eyes. Born Wolverhampton, 1842. Daughter of a tinplate worker. Grows up in London. Catherine’s mother dies when Catherine is 13. Time in the workhouse. Takes up with a soldier, Thomas Conway. His initials are tattooed on her arm. They have three children. Live by making and selling chapbooks. They separate. Cause: her “habitual drunkenness” and/or “his occasional drinking and violence.” Joins an Irish porter in his lodgings in Flower & Dean Street. September 1888 the couple go hop-picking in Kent. Make very little. Gets a bed in the casual ward at the Shoe Lane Workhouse. Tells the superintendent, “I have come back to earn the reward for the apprehension of the Whitechapel murderer. I think I know him.” 8.30pm she impersonates a fire engine and lies down in the street to sleep. Arrested, she’s taken to Bishopsgate Metropolitan Police Station. Released in the early hours, at 1am. Says, “I shall get a damn fine hiding when I get home.” Her last recorded words: “Good night, old cock.” Murdered, September 30, in Mitre Square – the second half of “the double event.” A piece of her apron, the one physical clue left by the Ripper, charts the Ripper’s escape route.
She was the last of the canonical five and the most savagely mutilated victim. She was frightened by the Ripper murders and contemplated leaving London. The youngest, she was 25, and 5’ 7” tall. Pretty, long blonde hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion.
Born in Ireland. Moved to Wales. Married a collier. He was killed in a pit explosion. Moved to Cardiff. Became a prostitute. Moved to London. Worked in a high-class West End brothel. Met a Billingsgate porter. They lodged in various places in “the wicked quarter.” Lastly in a single, cramped (12’ x 15’) room in Miller’s Court. They were seven weeks behind on the rent. He left her. Several people saw her with different men, at various locations in the neighbourhood, during the last 24 hours of her life. Shortly after midnight on November 8, 1888, several Miller’s Court residents heard her singing “Only a violet I plucked from my mother’s grave.” Three and a half hours later the three women living in the room directly above Mary Kelly heard the scream, “Murder!”
There are also other murder victims who could have had met their grisly end at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Namely, Martha Tabram, Emma Smith and Frances Coles – these ladies all feature in The Whitechapel Murders File of that time. Martha and Emma were both murdered in 1888 and Frances in 1891.
Firstly, remember the crimes took place in 1888. This wasn’t a time of DNA, CCTV or CSI style forensic science. A 19th century crime scene in the east end of London would not be treated as it would now, and as you’re used to seeing in the endless true crime shows you find on tv, in books, on podcasts and so on.
Murder wasn’t a regular occurrence, so the metropolitan police weren’t really equipped to investigate it successfully. Add to that a dose of Victorian prejudice, a splattering of hoaxes to throw them off the scent and it’s not totally surprising that the man who we know as Jack the Ripper remains a mystery.
We explore this in greater, grisly detail in this Jack the Ripper blog.
These brutal murders have never been solved. We know information about his murder victims, but we still don’t know who he was for definite.
There are theories on Jack the Ripper suspects. A man called Kosminski, a Polish barber who wound up in an asylum, was one name cited years later. He remains the prime suspect of the east end murder spree.
That Whitechapel murders file remains closed, but that doesn’t stop people from theorising and speculating to this day.