Archive for October 5th, 2010

I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. –  From a letter to the Central News Agency of London,  postmarked September 27th, 1888 and signed “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper”

There has been enough written about the notorious serial killer known as “Jack the Ripper” to fill a small library, but as one might expect 99.99% of it dwells lovingly on the gruesome details of the murders or speculates (either methodically or wildly) on the identity of the killer; few of these (invariably male) “Ripperologists” seem remotely concerned with the women who were so brutally butchered.  Since October is a month for all things dark and creepy, and since this week marks the 122nd anniversary of the height of the Ripper hysteria in London, I have decided to give short (because so little is known of them) biographies of the five women whom most experts consider to be truly the work of the Ripper himself rather than a copycat or unrelated murderer.

Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (née Walker; August 26th, 1845 – August 31st, 1888) was the daughter of Edward and Caroline Walker of Dean Street, London.  Her father was a locksmith and she married a printer’s machinist named William Nichols on January 16th, 1864, bearing him three sons and two daughters between 1866 and 1879.  Their marriage broke up in 1881 due to William’s infidelity and Polly’s drinking, and though he was required to pay her alimony of five shillings a week he cut it off in 1882 (as was allowed in those days) upon discovering that she was supplementing her meager income by working as a prostitute.

The “Dear Boss” letter, quoted at the top of this column

For the next six years Polly drifted as such women often do; she drank most of what she earned as a streetwalker and so could rarely maintain a residence for long.  She lived with her father for a year or so but left after arguing with him; she also lived with a blacksmith named Drew for a while, and spent the rest of the time in cheap boarding houses.  By the beginning of 1888 she was homeless, and after being caught sleeping in Trafalgar Square she was placed in the Lambeth workhouse.  She left the workhouse for a job as servant to Mr. and Mrs. Cowdry of Wandsworth, but that only lasted two months because her employers were teetotalers; when she left, she stole three pounds ten worth of Mrs. Cowdry’s clothing.  She returned to streetwalking, sharing a room at 18 Thrawl Street, Spitalfields with another hooker named Nelly Holland.

Polly was 5’2” tall, with brown eyes and dark brown hair beginning to grey; she was good-looking for a 43-year-old Victorian alcoholic streetwalker and had no trouble making money, but unfortunately tended to drink it all away.  On the night of her death she was turned out of the rooming house for the lack of her fourpence bed charge, though she had already earned three times that earlier in the evening.  So she returned to the street to earn another fee and was last seen alive by her roommate at 2:30 AM at the corner of Osborn Street and Whitechapel Road.  She was found dead just over an hour later in front of a stable on what is now Durward Street, just 150 yards from London Hospital.  She had been dead for only a few minutes; her throat had been slit twice and her abdomen mutilated with several jagged wounds from a sharp knife.

Annie Chapman (née Ann Eliza Smith, c. 1841 – September 8th, 1888) was the daughter of George and Ruth Smith of Paddington and married her maternal cousin John Chapman on May 1st, 1869.  John was a coachman and she bore him two daughters and a son between 1870 and 1880, but after the son was born crippled and their eldest daughter died of meningitis both John and Annie started drinking and they separated in 1884.  Her husband paid her alimony of 10 shillings a week, but this ended with his death from alcoholism at the end of 1886.  She subsequently became very depressed and started living in boarding houses, supporting herself by crochet work, flower selling and occasional prostitution.

Annie was 5’0” tall, with blue eyes and wavy dark brown hair.  At the time of her death she was living in Crossingham’s lodging house at 35 Dorset Street, Spitalfields; after a week of illness she ran out of money for her bed, so like Polly Nichols the week before returned to the streets to earn some.  She was last seen alive talking to a short, dark man behind 29 Hanbury Street about 5:30 AM by a Mrs. Elizabeth Long; half an hour later her body was discovered in the back yard by a resident of the house.  Her throat had been slit and abdomen mutilated by the same sort of blade which killed Polly Nichols.

Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride (née Gustafsdotter, November 27th, 1843 –September 30th, 1888) was the daughter of a Swedish farmer, Gustaf Ericsson, and his wife Beata Carlsdotter, and was born near Gothenburg, Sweden.  After a few years in service she became a prostitute, then in 1866 moved to London and re-entered service.  On March 7th, 1869 she married a ship’s carpenter named John Thomas Stride and they opened a coffee room in Poplar, east London.  The two had a stormy relationship which ended permanently by the end of 1881, and Liz moved into a boarding house in Whitechapel.  By 1885 she was living at least part-time with a dockhand named Michael Kidney, earning some income from sewing, housecleaning and occasional prostitution.  Her relationship with Kidney was much like that with her husband, and a few days before her death she left him and moved into a boarding house at 32 Flower and Dean Street.

Liz was 5’2” tall, with grey eyes, curly dark brown hair and a pale complexion.  She was last seen alive with a man outside of a socialist club at 40 Berner Street about 12:30 AM and her body was discovered by the club’s steward about half an hour later; her throat was freshly slit and she had apparently been dead for just a few minutes, suggesting that the Ripper had been disturbed by the steward and fled without butchering Liz’s abdomen as he had those of his previous victims.

Catherine “Kate” Eddowes (April 14th, 1842 –September 30th, 1888) was one of eleven children of George and Catherine Eddowes of Graisley Green, Wolverhampton.  Her family moved to London when she was small, and when Kate was grown she became the common-law wife of Thomas Conway and by him had a girl and two boys.  By 1880 she started drinking heavily and abandoned her family; a year later she moved in with a man named John Kelly at Cooney’s boarding house, 55 Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields.  It was at this time that she began occasionally prostituting herself to pay the rent.  Kate was 5’0” tall, with hazel eyes and dark auburn hair; she was an intelligent and even scholarly woman, but of highly variable mood and poor work habits even when she wasn’t drinking.

At 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 29th, Kate was arrested after being found lying drunk in Aldgate High Street, but by 1 AM had sobered up enough to be released.  She was last seen alive at 1:35 AM by three men who had just left a club on Duke Street; they said she was standing and talking with a man at the entrance to Church Passage.  Her body was discovered by a policeman ten minutes later in the corner of nearby Mitre Square; her throat had been cut, her face mutilated and her abdomen literally disemboweled.  Note that Kate Eddowes was killed less than an hour after Liz Stride; it seems likely that since he was disturbed before he could mutilate Stride, his bloodlust was unsated and he was therefore forced by his mania to seek another victim.

Odd personal note: From the very first time I saw her name in my early teens until the present day, I cannot read or hear the name of Catherine Eddowes without experiencing goose flesh and a pronounced chill up my spine; it is happening again now as I write these words.  I have no idea why this should be, nor why I experience the reaction only for Eddowes and not the other four.

Cartoon by John Tenniel by the September 22, 1888 issue of “Punch”, criticizing police incompetence in the Ripper case.

Mary Jane Kelly (c. 1863 –November 9th, 1888), the Ripper’s final victim, was much younger than his others and her origins are much more obscure.  She was a tall (5’7”), buxom, unusually pretty girl who apparently dyed her hair often or else wore wigs, and was fluent in Welsh.  She claimed to come from a large family and was married when she was about 16 to a coal miner named Davies, who was killed about 1881 in a mine explosion.  About a year later she started working as a prostitute in Cardiff, then went to London in 1884 and found work in a West End brothel.  Unfortunately, her pathological dishonesty and tendency to become belligerent when drunk soon resulted in the loss of that job and a subsequent descent into alternate periods of streetwalking and living with various men.

She was last seen alive and talking to a well-dressed man about 2:45 AM by a laborer named George Hutchinson; two of the other residents of Mary’s boarding house reported hearing a faint cry of “Murder!” about 4:00 AM, but neither reacted because such cries were common in the East End.  Then about 10:45 AM Mary’s landlord sent his assistant to collect her overdue rent, and when there was no response to his knock he let himself in and discovered the young woman’s mutilated remains on her bed.  Her throat had been slit and her body almost entirely dissected afterward, a process which the coroner estimated must have taken over two hours.

It should be obvious that none of these women were well-adjusted; all but Liz Stride were heavy drinkers, and none had the means to raise themselves from the squalid conditions into which they had fallen.  Few people cared about them when they were alive, and the only reason anyone even remembers them today is because of the gruesome way they died.  But they were real women, with families and friends and dreams and needs and fears like anyone else, and I think they deserve to be remembered as such rather than merely as incidents in the short, bloody career of a monster who has for over a century been granted the constant public attention he so obviously craved.

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