In the late nineteenth century the streets of London were no stranger to crime, however petty it may now seem. The best depiction of such crimes is most deeply embedded through Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) in Dickens’ representation of the lower-working class, and their way of survival. “‘Bill, Bill –’ grasped the girl, wrestling with the strength of mortal fear, ‘– I – I won’t scream, or cry – not once, – hear me – speak to me – tell me what I have done!’” (396); the way in which the character of Nancy, a prostitute, was so willing to degrade herself under the power of her lover, Sikes; is what influenced me to research into the topic of Jack the Ripper, and the strength of women in the late 1800's.
On the 26th of November I decided to embark on the ‘Jack the Ripper Walk Tour’ around the city of Whitechapel, and so we began with the inevitable questioning of who is ‘Jack the Ripper’? In Curtis’ novel: Jack the Ripper and the London Press (1894); “To play the game of ‘hunt the Ripper’ all one needs is a lively imagination” (27); in reading this concept, after going on the tour, the atmosphere of London of the cold November night and the enthusiasm of our tour guide truly brought the story to life. While standing on the former Buck’s Row (image left), where the first murder was taken place, we were warned of the harsh times of work in 1888 and the common filth that was London inhabited – both in a literal and metaphorical sense of the word. The 31st August, 1888, saw the first of Ripper’s murders: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, a prostitute; to which her throat had been slit, not once, but twice, from ear to ear, her abdomen had been stabbed and torn open, and she was left in the streets, killed and shamed, with her dress raised.
From the Frying Pan Pub (image right), and the now Sheraz Indian restaurant, that Nichols was reported leaving, to the stairs of Hanbury Street, the ambiance was still thick with idea that Jack the Ripper could have been watching these women from any street, any corner, even in plain sight. The second murder followed various themes of the first, in the way in which the woman was killed. Annie Chapman was found on the 8th September, 1888; lay across the steps of a home of number 29 Hanbury Street (see image left).
Alike Nichols, her throat has been slit twice, from ear to ear, but this time her abdomen was ripped out and her smaller intestines and placed over her shoulder. Her womb and the majority of her bladder and vagina had been removed, yet Curtis reports that “the mainstream morning press avoided any explicit allusion to sexual intercourse, and hardly any pelvic, not to say genital injuries ever appeared in the newsprint” (25). Now we have two prostitutes murdered in a week, both bodies to have been left exposed with their dresses raised, yet the possibility of a sexual encounter, in any form, was denied any publication.
On 25th September, 1888; what is known as the ‘Dear Boss Letter’ was received at the Central News agency, it read:
I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they wont fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whore and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope ha. ha. The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldnt you. Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight. My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck.
Jack the Ripper
Dont mind me giving the trade name
PS Wasnt good enough to post this before I got all the red ink off my hands curse it No luck yet. They say I’m a doctor now. Ha ha.”
The letter received lead to the night of ‘The Double Event’, 30th September, 1888; where Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride and Catherine Eddowes were taken as the third and fourth confirmed victims of Jack the Ripper. The body of Stride was found in the courtyard of Lewis Deimshutz’s property with her throat slit only once, still warm. Was Jack in the courtyard simply interrupted from his so called ‘job’? The mocking tone of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the letter, combined with the two killings in one night, present the power of the murderer, the determination, and perhaps more importantly, the carelessness of prostitutes in the 1800's. The fourth murder of Eddowes, found in Mitre’s Square, (image above of tour guide in Mitre’s Square) had her face deformed and beaten in, her eyelids had been cut out and her ear had been removed. Mitre’s
Square now gives a beautiful view of the St Mary Axe (The Gherkin), but going on the tour, and seeing two rats run through the Square, the reality of London in the late 1800s, of the vermin and evil became a plausible thought.
On the 9th November 1888, the final of Jack the Ripper’s murders took place. Mary Jane Kelly was the worst of the five murders: the cutting of the neck remained, but her head was hanging my skin alone, the skin on her thighs, forehead, her nose and breasts were placed on a table; her hand inserted to her stomach. In Fishman’s East End 1888, he writes that “the ‘crime of being born female meant that women were at the bottom of the pecking order” (115). After the gruesome murder of Kelly, could it be reasoned that these five prostitutes were killed simply because they were women alone? Were they targeted? Were they merely ‘fallen women’? Take the Jack the Ripper tour and find conclude your own Jack the Ripper.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin Classics: England, 1838. Print.
Curtis, L. Perry. Jack the Ripper and the London Press. Yale University Press, 1894.
Jack the Ripper’s Gruesome Tales. Web. 27. Nov. 2013.
Fishman, William. J. East End 1888. London: Duckworth and Co. Ltd, 1988.