- Gavin Whitehead
The Whitechapel Murders (S1E1)
Updated: Jan 31
In 1888, the malefactor known as Jack the Ripper killed at least five women—Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly—in the poverty-stricken district of Whitechapel, East London. In the first episode of this season, we’ll discuss the victims’ lives and times as well as their deaths. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Taken from the October 6, 1888 edition of the Illustrated Police News, this engraving shows the discovery of Catherine Eddowes' body in Mitre Square.
Map of Whitechapel. Taken from Charles Booth's 1889 Descriptive Map of London Poverty. This image has been cropped and was digitized by the Charles Booth's London Project, hosted by London School of Economics.
Married on May 1, 1869, John and Annie Chapman had themselves photographed to commemorate the occasion.
Taken from the October 13, 1888 edition of the Illustrated London News, this engraving depicts the Ripper about to prey on one of his victims (left) as well as members of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee (right), scouting the streets in pursuit of the killer. We'll talk about the Vigilance Committee in a later episode.
Taken from the October 20, 1888 edition of the Illustrated Police News, this series of images depicts the "double event," including the discovery of Elisabeth Stride's body. Copyright held by The British Library Board.
Photograph of 13 Miller's Court, the scene of Mary Jane Kelly's murder. Presumably taken on or about November 9, 1888, the date of her killing.
---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third Edition. London: Headline, 1996.
---Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.
---Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2011.
---London, Jack. People of the Abyss. New York: Macmillan Company; London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1903.
---Rubenhold, Hallie. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
---Rumbelow, Donald. The Complete Jack the Ripper. London: Virgin Books, 2013.
---Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
Before we get started, brace yourself for some pretty extreme content. This episode deals exclusively with the lives and deaths of the Ripper’s victims. These murders are some of the most horrendous in criminal history, and I will address the grisly details. I’m doing so not to sensationalize these crimes but rather because this information is necessary to understand how and why the artists profiled throughout this season have fallen under suspicion. Finally, this episode also touches on the topics of suicide and sexual assault.
It looked like a tarpaulin at first. The hour was about 3:40 a.m. on August 31, 1888, and Whitechapel carman Charles Cross was headed into work. Bleary-eyed, he plodded along Buck’s Row, a cobbled footway, coming to a stop when he saw an unmoving shape on the opposite side of the street, stretched out on the ground before the gateway to a stable yard. Unable to see clearly in the early morning gloom, he took it for a tarpaulin until drawing closer. Much to his surprise, he found that he was standing over a motionless woman, flat on her back with her eyes wide open, her skirt hiked all the way up to her stomach. A few moments later, another cart driver, Robert Paul, came trudging along, and Cross inquired what he made of the scene. After the two had examined her body, Cross conjectured the woman was dead, whoever she was, while it seemed to Paul like she may have taken one pint too many and was sleeping it off. They lowered her skirt as best they could for decency’s sake and continued on their way, notifying a patrolman of their discovery.
The woman in Buck’s Row was pronounced dead within the hour. Dr. Rees Llewelyn declared her so as soon as he saw the wounds. Cross and Paul had overlooked them in the darkness, but there was no missing them in the light of police lanterns: two ferocious gashes in the poor woman’s throat has nearly removed her head from her shoulders. These were just the beginning. Later, inside the mortuary at Old Montague Street, an inspector became aware of further injuries while undressing the deceased. Her abdomen had been ripped open with a series of incisions, exposing her intestines, her genitals stabbed twice by the killer before he fled.
Who was this woman, and where had she come from? Dressed from head to toe in mourning black, the man supposed to have been the victim’s estranged husband, William Nichols, met police inspector Frederick Aberline inside the mortuary the following day. After warning William that he may have trouble providing a positive identification on account of the injuries, Aberline showed him through a rear door and out into a yard where a brick shed stood. Inside, Aberline pulled off the lid of a plain pine coffin and waited for a response. William went pale when he saw what lay inside. The broken body before him belonged without question to the woman he had married more than two decades earlier, the woman who had borne him six children and lived alongside him for sixteen years. The broken body before him belonged to the woman named Mary Ann Nichols, “Polly” to her loved ones. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 1 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
The Whitechapel Murders
The Canonical Five
From the beginning of September to early November 1888, this scenario would more or less repeat itself four times, each new homicide no less heartrending than it was horrific. In addition to Polly Nichols, an unidentified knifeman cut short the lives of Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Collectively, these women are known as the Ripper’s “canonical” victims, those whom most commentators believe to have died by that murderer’s hand. Researchers have attributed earlier as well as later murders to the same killer, some of which we’ll talk about later this season. For now, however, we’re going to focus on the canonical five. Since we’re spending this entire season in Victorian London, I’m going to use this episode not only to discuss who these women were and how they died, but also the world they inhabited. We’ll talk about each victim for 10-15 minutes. Just so you know, this episode is longer than others this season. Given the subject matter, it’s also more somber. Rest assured, however, things will lighten up a bit starting in episode 2. If you consider yourself familiar with the lives and deaths of the canonical five and want to skip ahead to the suspects, feel free to do so.
Finally, for any who’re interested, I’ve relied heavily on four sources while putting together this episode. For the victims’ biographies, I’ve drawn most heavily from The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. For information about the murders, I’ve consulted The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rmnbelow, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden, and The Jack the Ripper A-Z by Paul Begg, Marin Fido, and Keith Skinner.
Welcome to Whitechapel
The canonical victims met their ends in the district of Whitechapel, East London, and it’s as much a part of this narrative as they are. In some cases, crimes receive heightened attention because they throw broader social, economic, or political ills into relief. This was certainly so in the case of the Ripper’s barbarous killing spree. As journalists and policemen investigated the victims’ activities leading up to their murders, they garnered new understanding of the appalling conditions under which the poor of London lived. Pockets of grinding poverty, crime, and despair existed throughout the British capital, to be sure, and a number of well-to-do families did reside in Whitechapel. Still, this square-mile district was home to perhaps the highest concentration of socio-economic distress in the metropolis. An estimated 78,000 men, women, and children made their homes in whatever meager accommodations were available to them—when they weren’t bedding down on the cobblestones, that is. In this slum of all slums, it was not uncommon for a family to reside in a single furnished room, eight feet by eight, with broken windows, crumbling walls, and floorboards crawling with disease-ridden vermin. Health inspectors once discovered five children crammed into the same bed, the body of their dead sibling laid out beside them awaiting burial. An entire building might have made do with a single stinking lavatory in a yard out back. Whitechapel was saturated with disease, starvation, alcoholism, and violence, domestic or otherwise. Gainful employment was hard to come by and often paid little. When they could, denizens may have washed and wrung out textiles in laundries, unloaded cargo at the dockyards, peddled fruit and vegetables in the street, or pounded the pavement wearing sandwich-board advertisements, to name a few examples. Absent better options, girls resorted to prostitution having barely reached puberty while boys roamed the alleys and byways as cutpurses.
For newspapermen, missionaries, and social reformers who visited Whitechapel, one type of establishment epitomized the privation and vice of life in the district: the common lodging house. With 233 located in Whitechapel alone and accommodating some 18,530 individuals, these places catered to those who could not afford even a furnished room. Many who frequented communal lodging houses belonged to the metropolis’s itinerant homeless population, opening their eyes in the morning without always knowing where they’d close them after sundown. Each night, lodgers were required to pay what was called their “doss money,” and if they couldn’t scrape it together, they would have to sleep rough or perhaps in a workhouse casual ward, which offered overnight shelter and was known uninvitingly as "the spike." Alternatively, they could try to cut a deal with the deputy in charge to stay in the lodging house on credit, but this courtesy was never guaranteed and was usually reserved for regular residents. Four pence covered the cost of a single flyblown bed in a noisome dormitory, while twice that sum was good for a double bed divided by a partition. Filthy kitchens were open to lodgers, where they could cook meals, swallow down beer, and socialize with neighbors or other visitors. Some common lodging houses were single-sex while others sheltered men as well as women. Crime was rife in both varieties, but the co-ed buildings were especially notorious for sexual promiscuity—immoral conduct in the eyes of some observers, especially members of the middle-classes.
All five canonical Ripper victims slept in one or multiple common lodging houses throughout their time in Whitechapel, and four of them were staying in one at the time of their murders. Yet none of these women were born in Whitechapel, nor did they shelter in these sordid pits until later in life. Taken together, their tragic stories demonstrate just how easily working-class women could plunge into poverty without any hope of climbing their way out in Victorian London.
The biography of the Ripper’s first canonical victim certainly shows as much. Born Mary Ann Walker on August 26, 1845, Polly took her first steps in a neighborhood dominated by typeface and ink. The Walkers lived in the vicinity of Fleet Street, a whirring hive of publishing activity where all manner of scribblers—from journalists to novelists—plied their trade. A firm believer in education, Polly’s blacksmith-father, Edward, permitted her to attend school until the age of fifteen, by which time she had mastered the skills of reading and writing—an uncommon achievement for a working-class girl at this point in history. Polly lost her mother, Caroline, to tuberculosis before she had reached her seventh birthday, requiring her to take on the duties of a matriarch. These entailed housekeeping and cooking as well as providing emotional support for her bereft father, as was expected of motherless girls. In consequence, father and daughter forged a powerful bond. In 1864, another man strode into the Walkers’ life. That year, a dark-haired, hazel-eyed, eighteen-year-old Polly married the handsome William Nichols, aged nineteen, an Oxford-born warehouseman apparently employed in the printing industry—a fitting match for a young woman who had come of age on the so-called "street of ink.” The newlyweds moved in with Polly’s father, and over the years, the Walker-Nichols clan increased in number, periodically relocating.
On July 31, 1876, Polly and William took up residence in a coveted spot at 6 D-Block, Peabody Buildings, an affordable-housing complex on Stanford Street. This transition would have stirred up mixed emotions in Polly. No doubt proud that she and her husband had cleared the rigorous application process, which required proof of steady employment as well as a letter of recommendation from William’s boss, she still may have had something of a heavy heart. She and her father would be living apart for the first time in her life. Unfortunately, strife consumed the Nichols’s marriage shortly after they moved to the Peabody buildings. Polly had developed a newfound affinity for the bottle, and at her inquest, William insisted that it lay at the heart of their heated disputes, audible through the walls to their next-door neighbors. There was no question about his daughter’s drinking problem, but Edward Walker pointed to a different source of the marital disharmony. As he had likely heard from Polly’s mouth, William was having an affair with Rosetta Walls. Indeed, Polly may have reached for the bottle to numb the feelings of anger and jealousy she felt on account of William’s betrayal.
Unwilling to countenance her husband’s infidelity any longer, Polly walked out on him and their five children on March 29, 1880. This course of action flew in the face of contemporary gender conventions. A profoundly patriarchal society, Victorian London envisioned married women as little more than obedient wives and loving mothers. No matter how justified Polly’s indignation might have been, she would have abandoned her spouse and offspring in the knowledge that doing so would brand her with a permanent stigma.
Rather than seeking refuge with her father and brother, who were living together, Polly took a deep breath and crossed the threshold of the Lambeth Union Workhouse. Generally speaking, the workhouse cast long and dreadful shadows in the minds of working-class people like Polly, and it’s no surprise many of them would have sooner slept under the stars than fling themselves at the mercy of this degrading institution. Families were separated and stripped of their belongings on entry. Nothing came for free under this roof, and able-bodied residents earned their stiff beds and stomach-turning vittles through mind-numbing chores such as breaking stones or washing laundry. Meals consisted of watered-down porridge nicknamed “skilly,” stale bread, potatoes, cheese, and the occasional helping of meat. Despite improvements in workhouse diet over the course of the nineteenth century, inmates were still lodging complaints about skilly being served with rat droppings inside as late as 1890. Residents could discharge themselves at will if they found employment or another place to live, and more likely than not, Polly would have wished to minimize her time there by whatever means possible.
Fortunately, this stint would not last long. After an inquiry into the Nichols’s separation, Polly was deemed eligible for a weekly allowance of five shillings, paid by William and picked up at the workhouse. Modest though it was, this maintenance would allow her to pay rent for a furnished room or some other dwelling. After about a year, however, this vital stream of income ran dry. In late spring of 1882, William received permission to stop making these payments partly by claiming that his wife was living in sin with another man, disqualifying her for spousal support.
This turn of events left Polly destitute and soon revealed the almost-bottomless depths to which working-class women could sink in this period if they could not count on the financial aid of a male guardian, especially a husband. For a time, she took up with her father, but he looked askance at her frequenting pubs, and the two often quarreled. The sturdy relationship they had built years earlier eventually gave out, and Polly split. With one or two exceptions, she spent the following years washing laundry and choking down skilly inside the workhouse or scrounging together doss money for a common lodging house. When all else failed, she slept in the open air, curling up in a doorway or perhaps a dark yard out of sight of policemen. As early as May 1887, Polly was tramping on a regular basis—a life of endless instability and potential danger, including but not limited to sexual violence.
Polly was not alone. By the late 1880s, London’s widespread homelessness had grown especially dire due to a recent economic downturn. At the same time, the wind was picking up and the clouds darkening, as if to foretoken a coming storm. The homeless and their allies would not stand for this much longer. Hoped for by some and terrifying to others, the possibility of full-blown social revolution was hanging in the air by autumn 1887. According to Hallie Rubenhold, at this time, Polly had started sleeping rough at the epicenter of a populist movement: Trafalgar Square in central London. Hundreds without a home gathered there nightly. An elderly married couple without any savings were forced to begin slumbering side by side on a stone bench after the husband had had an accident, costing him his job as a music director in a theater. Men, women, and children bathed in the fountain at the base of Nelson’s Column, a towering monument. Along with several other mendicants, Polly camped out on the terrace dividing Trafalgar Square from the National Gallery nearby. According to an October 26 article in the Daily News, this group would watch for moneyed passersby and, seeing them approach, “take off their shawls and shake themselves as if they were cold, in order to invite sympathy.” In response to this crisis, Christian charities handed out coffee, Bibles, and tickets to common lodging houses while socialist activists stood atop a thrown-together dais in the shadow of Nelson’s Column, condemning the manifest injustice of it all. Tensions mounted as thousands of protestors descended on the square, cheering on speakers who threatened to set parts of the city ablaze and even storm the estate of London’s Lord Mayor, Mansion House. Law enforcement watched on high alert, and the end of October saw warlike rhetoric turn to bloodshed, with stones hurled at constables and demonstrators trampled. Police clamped down following the outbreak of violence, and Rubenhold claims that one Inspector Bullock even took Polly into custody. Likely inebriated, she had gone kicking and screaming to her cell. This arrest would eventually bring her back to the workhouse.
Polly’s exact movements from then until early 1888 are not easily traced, but by late spring, she had obtained a placement as a domestic servant, a job lined up with the assistance of the workhouse. On May 12, she arrived at the home of Samuel and Sarah Cowdry, a middle-class married couple in their sixties who lived with their niece. After falling asleep on the cold, hard flagstones in Trafalgar Square and who-knows-where-else in her time as a vagrant, Polly’s new situation must have felt luxurious beyond compare. When she went to bed each evening, she rested her head on a pillow in an attic room all to herself. Furthermore, she would have received new clothes, including shoes, pinafores, caps, and shawls. Perhaps at Mrs. Cowdry’s behest, Polly sat down and plucked up the courage to write to her father, the man she had stood beside in his bereavement and from whom she had grown so distant in the wake of her marriage’s disintegration. Presented at her inquest, the letter reads: “I just write to say you will be glad to know that I am settled in my new place and going alright up to now. My people went out yesterday and have not returned so I am left in charge. It is a grand place with tress and gardens back and front. All has been newly done up. They are teetotalers and very religious so I ought to get on. They are very nice people and I have not much to do. I do hope you are all right and the boy [her son] has work. So goodbye for the present. Yours Truly, Polly.” For reasons unknown, Polly’s contentment was not to last. On July 12, Sarah Cowdry notified the Renfrew Road Workhouse that her servant had run off with three pounds, ten shillings’ worth of clothing and other items. Pawning these stolen goods would have put doss money in Polly’s pockets as well as covered the cost of alcohol—a commodity unavailable in the devoutly Baptist Cowdry household—at least for a while.
Nevertheless, on August 31, the last day of her life, Polly was unable to afford a bed. After emptying a few glasses at the Frying Pan public house, she stumbled back to a lodging house on Thrawl Street at 1:20 a.m. When she admitted to the deputy that she was without the four pence she needed, he showed her the door. “I’ll soon get my ‘doss’ money,” she is said to have assured him. “See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now!” The overwhelming majority of researchers have taken this comment to mean that Polly was planning to earn the money by soliciting. Whatever she had in mind when she set foot outside, about an hour later, she bumped into her friend and sometime bedfellow at another common lodging house, Ellen Holland. They spoke for a few minutes at the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street. Worried about Poll’s glaring state of intoxication, Ellen implored her to stay with her for the night. Shaking her head, Polly declined. “I have had my lodging money three times today, and I have spent it,” she chided herself. “It won’t be long before I’ll be back.” With that, they parted, and Ellen watched Polly stagger into the night. It’s little wonder the ensuing atrocity looked so ineffably sad to some observers. Wishing nothing more than to put a roof over her head, Polly had gone to Buck’s Row and then to her death searching for the paltry sum of four pence.
Like Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman underwent a precipitous decline into poverty before crossing paths with her killer. By comparison, however, Annie had arguably fallen even further.
Servants kept middle- and upper-class households standing throughout the Victorian era, and Annie was the daughter of a servant who enjoyed higher status than most others. Born Ann Eliza Smith on September 25, 1840, she joined the home of a soldier, George Smith. His career took a decidedly less martial turn when, in 1861, Captain Thomas Naylor Leyland hired him as his personal valet, a “gentleman’s gentleman” in a phrase of the day. This brought George out of the barracks and into the midst of the landed gentry. Virtually every sphere of Victorian society was rigidly hierarchized, and that held true for the household staff, too. Vis-à-vis other servants, with the exception of the chef and the butler, perhaps, the valet was perched near the top of the pecking order. His duties required a greater degree of physical intimacy with his employer than those of other servants and therefore afforded uncommon insight into his potentially flawed moral character. Among a host of responsibilities, valets carried bathwater upstairs, shaved their masters, and packed and unpacked his luggage while abroad. In this role, George would have earned a comfortable salary, supplemented by his military pension. By about the end of 1861, he, his wife, Ruth, along with his family had taken up residence in the fashionable neighborhood of Knightsbridge near Leyland’s palatial estate, Hyde Park House.
The Smiths were golden in terms of finances. Nevertheless, unbeknownst to those around him, George’s thoughts had turned in ever darker directions. To the shock and horror of his loved ones, including his master, he was found dead on the floor of his sleeping quarters on June 13, 1863, having cut his own throat with a razor. His motives for suicide were never explained.
Within six years, Annie’s mother and sisters had regained their footing. Having become a housemaid, Annie was preparing to take the hand of a servant who, like her father, would attain a relatively high level of comfort for a man of his class. On May 1, 1869, she walked down the aisle with John Chapman, a coachman who hailed from a family of “horse-keepers” in Suffolk. John would serve as head coachman to a landowning gentleman, and in this capacity he would have represented his master’s wealth and elegance to all who caught sight of him seated atop his polished carriage, sporting a top hat and a pair of spotless boots.
Like many couples who had recently tied the knot, Mr. and Mrs. Chapman had themselves photographed to commemorate the occasion. In the picture, featured on the Art of Crime website, husband and wife are wearing their Sunday best, positioned in the corner of a photographic studio. Hanging behind them and to the viewer’s left, a canvas depicts a stairway leading through a garden to a church in the background. John is standing on the right-hand side of the frame, leaning with a sense of cool self-confidence against a plinth of wood and marble. Annie is seated in the center of the image, a Bible in her lap. She has selected her finest jewelry and accessories for the sitting, including a pair of gold earrings and an ornate brooch. Very much in keeping with contemporary fashion, she’s slipped into a checkered gown, her dress billowing over a hoop skirt shaped like a bell. As Hallie Rubenhold suggests, this picture hints at how Annie imagined married life. She would embody the virtues of wifehood and motherhood held sacred by the Victorian age, her fertility, compassion, and devotion to John anchoring the Chapmans’ holy union. Her neat attire may further intimate that she envisioned—or perhaps just desired—a middle-class lifestyle.
By the beginning of 1879, she and her husband had taken a step in that direction. At that time, John secured a position at St. Leonard’s Hill, the lavish estate of Francis Tress Barry, who had made a fortune in the Portuguese copper mining industry. 230 of the property’s 627 acres consisted of parks and woodland, and the eastern lawn commanded a view of Windsor Castle, one of Queen Victoria’s residences. The bottom floor of Barry’s home boasted a grand reception room, a dining room, two drawing rooms, as well as other chambers perfect for entertaining guests such as a card room, a billiard room, and a smoking room. In addition to driving Barry’s carriage, John oversaw his stables, keeping the books, ordering feed, and supervising a small staff. Mr. Chapman was entitled to live with Annie and the children inside the coachman’s house on Barry’s land, which featured a parlor and living room. Being able to afford a servant was itself a class marker, and John’s earnings would have permitted Annie to employ a charwoman, or day maid, to tidy up and assist with other tasks. Annie prided herself on her family’s upward trajectory and was said to have gloated about it in public.
Annie may have kept climbing the social ladder had it not been for one impassable obstacle: she was an alcoholic. According to one of her siblings, she had swallowed her first drop at an early age and developed a taste for it then. Mrs. Chapman had struggled to resist her cravings before she and John had made their home on Barry’s estate and continued to fight that battle there. As Rubenhold speculates, several factors likely contributed to her dependency. To begin with, Annie spent much of her time in isolation, her husband away while serving his master, and a bottle of cordial or some other liquor would have tempered her feelings of loneliness and boredom. It’s also more than probable that Annie turned to spirits as a way of coping with a profound sense of loss. She gave birth to a total of eight children, four of whom died in under a year. Her first daughter, Emily, started suffering from epileptic seizures at the age of eight and finally succumbed to meningitis four years later. Annie’s final child, John, was born with partial paralysis, and the Chapmans eventually placed him in an institution for children with physical disabilities. By this time, scientists had linked infant mortality along with a plethora of other disorders to maternal drinking, and one of Annie’s sisters publicly ascribed these misfortunes to her addiction. Annie may have also laid the blame at her own feet, and suspecting that she had authored these tragedies would have made each of them more unbearable. While living on Barry’s estate, she took to wandering nearby villages under the influence, sad and withdrawn.
Acute as the problem was, Annie was not without a support network. Committed Presbyterians, her siblings had given up the demon drink, and in a bid to right their sister’s course, they staged a series of what today we would think of as interventions. They prayed with Annie, offering encouragement as she made renewed pledges to abstain from alcohol. She even enrolled in a yearlong program at Spellthorn sanatorium, a rehabilitation clinic catering to primarily middle-class women. Despite her best efforts, she completed treatment only to relapse. It was only a matter of time before Barry became aware of his head coachman's wayward wife. Annie’s losing fight with alcoholism reflected poorly on Barry’s reputation, and when he grew convinced that she would never reform, he ordered John to split with her. If he valued his job, and he did, John had little choice but to comply, and so he asked Annie to leave the estate and live elsewhere. Still, he remained devoted to his wife, voluntarily paying a maintenance of ten shillings per week to ensure that she could feed, clothe, and shelter herself.
Exiled from home, Annie made for London, and—much like Polly—began a downward spiral. By the latter half of 1884, she had relocated from Notting Hill in West London to Whitechapel in the East End, where she stayed in common lodging houses. Signs of former splendor had faded away before long. Nobody would have guessed that “Dark Annie,” a nickname she’d gotten on account of her brown hair, had once worn gold earrings for a wedding photograph or entertained company with her head-coachman-husband inside their very own parlor. For several years, Annie’s weekly allowance helped keep her out of the workhouse as well as quench her thirst for alcohol. In December 1886, however, it came to a sudden stop. Annie soon learned that John had taken ill, making it necessary to resign his post and quit Barry’s estate. Annie had doubts as to whether this had truly caused the payments to cease. So, in the freezing cold, she set out on a two-day trek of twenty-five miles from London to Windsor, to track down her husband at his new address. There, she discovered that what she had heard was the unvarnished truth, and John passed away on Christmas Day. Annie had visited John’s deathbed for financial reasons, to be sure, but he was far more than a cash box to her. His death shattered her, and according to her friend, Amelia Palmer, who testified at Annie’s inquest, she wept openly when recounting her sojourn to Windsor. Left to her own devices without a weekly allowance, Annie earned money by doing crochet work along with selling flowers and matchers. Her family also provided assistance. At the same time, what appears to have been tuberculosis was ravaging Annie. Her body ached, and her breathing grew labored. Sapping her energy, the malady made it all but impossible for her to hit the streets and seek out her doss money. If the Ripper hadn’t killed her when he did, the disease likely would have within a year or two.
Through it all, she drank. In fact, in the hours before her murder on September 8, Annie had squandered her doss money on booze. By this time, she had become a regular at a common lodging house called Crossingham’s, which stood at 35 Dorset Street. At approximately 12:10 a.m, she asked another lodger to fetch her a pint from a nearby pub. After putting back a beer in the kitchen, Annie went to the Britannia, a public house located on the corner of Dorset and Commercial Street. Later, she came back to Crossingham’s and ate some potatoes in the kitchen. It was now about 1:45 a.m., time for the deputy to collect everyone’s doss money. Empty-pocketed, Annie appealed to deputy keeper Timothy Donnovan, imploring him to let her stay on credit. Donnovan was not having it. “You can find money for your beer, and you can’t find money for your bed,” he claimed to have told her. “Keep my bed for me. I shan’t be long,” she replied. As in the case of Polly Nichols, most researchers have taken this response to mean that Annie was planning to raise the requisite funds through prostitution. Whatever course she intended to take, she headed outdoors, winding up at 29 Hanbury Street. There, a Mrs. Elizabeth Long saw her talking to a man at 5:30 a.m., moments after a clock had struck the hour. According to Long's testimony, this “shabby-genteel” fellow, maybe in his forties, asked Annie, “Will you?” to which she had replied, “Yes.”
At approximately 6 a.m., John Davis, an elderly resident at 29 Hanbury Street stepped outside to discover Annie’s body, her head about six inches from the stairs leading up to the back door. As he had done with Polly Nichols, the killer had cut her throat to the back of her spinal column. This time, however, the victim had suffered more extensive injuries. Slicing open her abdomen, the Ripper had removed her intestines and thrown them over her right shoulder. If it hadn’t been clear in the case of Polly Nichols, it certainly was now: the murderer killed because he drew pleasure from mutilating his victims. Yet the Hanbury Street atrocity hadn’t ended at mutilation. The killer had made off with two macabre keepsakes, having extracted part of her bladder as well as her womb.
Elisabeth Stride drew her first breath in a bucolic Swedish village, farther from Whitechapel than Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman put together. Born Elisabeth Gustafsdotter on November 27, 1843, she joined a relatively prosperous family of farmers living in the parish of Torslanda. At the time of her birth, she would have been sharing a four-room clapboard house with her mother, father, and older sister. Apart from them, chickens, cows, pigs, and a horse populated the farm. Growing up, Elisabeth would have chipped in with chores such as gathering eggs, churning butter, and milking the cows, among others.
Elisabeth’s family lived as much by the Bible as they did by the almanac. Thanks to a strict Lutheran upbringing, she had learned to read at an early age largely for the purpose of studying scripture. At church, Elisabeth would have been quizzed on the Ten Commandments along with other religious precepts. Part of her schooling would have instructed her to strive for sexual purity and resist carnal temptations. She was confirmed at fifteen inside the Church of Torslanda, and within two years, she had set out for Gothenburg, a half-day’s journey away on foot, ready to gain experience outside the bounds of the family farm and perhaps with a view toward settling down with a husband.
Life in the city left scars on Elisabeth. She was taken on as a servant and more than likely had a sexual liaison with a male member of the household—her master, his brother, his son, or someone else. It will never be known whether this coupling was consensual or forced, and whoever he was, Elisabeth took the name of her partner to the grave. By March 1865, however, she was unmarried and visibly with child, which brought her to the attention of the local authorities. At this point in time, the state was cracking down on the sex trade to slow the transmission of venereal disease. An undeniable double standard underlay its efforts. Women who sold sex were required to register with the police and undergo regular gynecological examinations while men who paid for sex were exempt from any such regulation. Elisabeth isn’t believed to have walked the streets prior to her pregnancy, but that made no difference in the eyes of the law. Women suspected of “lecherous living,” including premarital sex, were treated the same as full-time prostitutes. Tipped off by her swelling midsection, police detained Elisabeth, at which time her name was added to what was known around town as “the register of shame.” It was further mandated that she undergo twice-weekly medical testing to check for signs of venereal disease. On April 4, an inspector noticed warts on her genitals—a symptom of syphilis. Elisabeth was transferred to Gothenburg’s venereal disease hospital, the kurhuset, where on April 21, she gave birth to a stillborn girl. As Rubenhold notes with characteristic insight and compassion, the humiliation of having her name dragged through the mud, the diagnosis of a stigmatizing and potentially fatal illness, and the grief of losing her baby would have combined to deal a devastating blow. Despair might have mingled with guilt or self-loathing as Elisabeth’s stringent Lutheran education had taught her to condemn precisely the kind of “sexual impurity” that had brought about these misfortunes. With her name listed on “the register of shame,” it was all but impossible for Elisabeth to line up respectable work by nineteenth-century standards, leaving little option other than prostitution. After checking out of the kurhuset, she took up this profession. In her new job, Elisabeth may have worked out of the coffee houses or brothels on Pilgatan, Gothenburg’s so-called “street of many nymphs.”
Given the traumatic year or so she’d passed in Gothenburg, it’s perhaps no surprise she decided to get out when the opportunity presented itself. On February 7, 1866, she set sail for London, hoping to find work as a housemaid.
Back in Gothenburg, Elisabeth may have made herself available to customers in coffee houses along the infamous Pilgatan; in London, she would play a much different role in the same sort of establishment. After arriving in the British capital, Elisabeth served as a domestic in two households before catching the eye of the man who became her husband and business partner, a forty-seven-year-old carpenter named John Stride. By 1869, the two had gotten engaged and sanctified their union. Pushing fifty, John must have intuited that he couldn’t meet the physical demands of carpentry forever, and perhaps such an awareness lay behind his decision to pursue a quieter, less toilsome line of work with Mrs. Stride. Together, the couple opened a cafe in Poplar New Town’s Upper North Street. The coffee house had risen to prominence during the eighteenth century, reputed especially as a gathering place for intellectuals, and by the mid-nineteenth century its popularity had expanded, notably among the working-class. From well before sunup to well after sundown, these businesses sold coffee with sugar as well as simple meals such as bread and butter or pickles and eggs. Not unlike present-day commuters, locals stopped by on the way to work for a jolt of caffeine or a quick bite to eat. The workflow relaxed after the morning rush. As the day wore on, patrons might settle down for an hour or more in one of the café’s wooden stalls, sipping coffee as they perused one of the assorted periodicals available to customers. Elisabeth and John’s humble shop would have run much like this, outfitted with plain wooden booths, varnished partitions, and drop-leaf tables. Elisabeth would have taken orders, delivered food and beverages, and scrubbed down dirty surfaces, hurrying to and fro to keep pace with the ebb and flow of patrons.
Unfortunately, business proved slower than expected, perhaps because there were too many pubs and too few coffee drinkers in the neighborhood. By 1871, the Strides’ shop had failed, forcing them to open another café at a new location. The second fared little better than the first, and John eventually sold it off. Their marriage dissolved as money evaporated, and by the end of 1881, they had separated.
From this time forward, Elisabeth often slept in a Whitechapel communal lodging house, pocketing her doss money however she could. Employment often came in the form of domestic labor such as charring for Whitechapel’s sizable Jewish community, especially on the Sabbath, when adherents of that faith were forbidden to work. Charity served as another source of income, and Elisabeth relied on her wiles to bring in donations. She even took advantage of a boating disaster that had traumatized the metropolis. On September 3, 1878, the London-bound pleasure cruiser, the Princess Alice, was floating down the Thames when the sharp point of another ship, the Bywell Castle, an iron-clad coal freighter, pierced the Princess Alice’s hull, cleaving the vessel right in two. Within minutes, both pieces had vanished beneath the surface of the sewage-riddled Thames, with more than eight hundred passengers fighting for their lives against the inexorable tide. In the end, the death toll numbered more than 650, and bodies were drawn daily from the watery mass grave. The catastrophe prompted an outpouring of charitable aid to survivors, and some laid claim to a piece of the pie even as they had never set foot on the Princess Alice. Elisabeth was one of them, and she showed herself to be a confidence woman of exceptional talents, spinning a yarn that moved sympathetic listeners to open up their pocketbooks and spare a few coins. Elisabeth claimed that she and John had been traveling with two of their nine children that fateful day. After the collision, husband and wife had been separated, with John trying to rescue the children in vain. All three sank to the bottom of the river. Left to fend for herself, Elisabeth had grabbed hold of a rope cast down by a crewmember on the Bywell Castle and climbed to safety, though not without injury. A passenger scaling the cord above her had kicked her by accident, damaging her palate. Not a word of this was true, but needing to come up with money for a bed every night, Elisabeth was perhaps understandably prepared to tell a fib for her four pence.
Nicknamed “Long Liz,” she scraped by like this until the early morning of Sunday, September 30, 1888. At about 1:00 a.m., a man named Louis Diemschutz steered his horse-drawn, two-wheeled barrow into Dutfield’s Yard on Berner Street, Whitechapel. Dutfield’s Yard stood adjacent to the Working Men’s International Educational Club, a socialist organization where Diemschutz made his living as a steward. He noticed nothing out of the ordinary as he entered the dark yard, but his horse almost immediately shied to the left. Spotting some shadowy object in his path, he dismounted and struck a match to investigate. The night was windy, and his flame went out after only a moment, but Diemschutz knew what he had seen—the contours of a dress. A woman lay prostrate on the ground, maybe in need of medical attention. He raced back into the club to check on his wife, also employed there, and finding her safe, alerted others to what he’d discovered out back. It was Elisabeth Stride's dead body. He killer had cut her throat with a single incision, and a rivulet of blood ran toward her feet, passing along a gutter and into the drain.
Elisabeth is the one and only canonical victim whose body was not subject to mutilation after death. For this reason and at least one other discussed in a later episode, commentators have questioned whether she truly died at the hands of the Ripper. Those who do believe him responsible—and many do—usually assert that he left her body comparatively intact because somebody had interrupted him. It’s even possible that Elisabeth’s killer withdrew into the shadows of Dutfield’s Yard as Diemschutz entered, making his getaway when the steward rushed back inside. Assuming this happened, the Ripper would have fled with his desires ungratified, and those who credit this version of events maintain that he refused to go home unfulfilled. About forty-five minutes after Diemschutz stumbled across Elisabeth’s body and a twelve-minute walk away from the scene of her murder, a City of London police officer came upon a woman who had been eviscerated and disfigured. To the horror of the metropolis, the killer struck twice in a single night in what became known as “the double event.”
Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, the second victim to fall on September 30, 1888, had crisscrossed the nation several times over before making it to Whitechapel.
She came into the world in Graiseley Green, Wolverhampton in the English West Midlands on April 14, 1842. As an infant, she moved with her family to the working-class neighborhood of Bermondsey in London. By December 1857, both her mother and father had succumbed to tuberculosis, at which point a fifteen-year-old Kate returned to Wolverhampton to reside with her aunt. In this soot-bedecked industrial town, she started a job as a template stamper in the Old Hall Works. This stately sixteenth-century manor house had formerly belonged to a wealthy family of wool sellers and had since been converted into a modern factory buzzing with machinery. Kate was dismissed after being caught stealing, much to the disapprobation of her aunt, who had had a hand in getting her the position. Without many prospects in the area, Kate left Wolverhampton for Birmingham, where an uncle of hers lived.
It was from this city that Kate would embark on her nationwide wanderings. Sometime around 1861 or ’62, she became acquainted with Thomas Conway, an Irish soldier who had served in India and been discharged on medical grounds. Subsisting in part on a modest pension, Thomas led the peripatetic existence of a chapman, a traveling merchant who journeyed among England’s provincial towns, telling tales, spreading gossip, and hawking goods from door to door or in the marketplace. Among the chapman’s wares were chapbooks, a crudely bound and beloved form of street literature priced for sale to the working classes. In general, these volumes consisted of no more than a few dozen pages. Content varied widely, including ostensibly educational (and often inaccurate) material such as history as well as various kinds of popular culture like ballads and fairy tales. Much to her relatives’ chagrin, Kate fell head-over-heels in love with the footloose ex-serviceman, joining him in his itinerate, low-paying profession. The couple appear not to have solemnized their union in a house of God, but they did introduce themselves as husband and wife—a brand of nominal matrimony that was not uncommon among people of their station. While Kate seems not to have worn a ring around her finger, she did have Thomas’s initials tattooed on her arm in blue ink in an expression of her unfading devotion.
Life on the road came with upsides and downsides. For many chapmen and –women, their career carried a romantic lure of freedom from ties to any one place, and Thomas and Kate may have savored the never-ending change of scenery. As the salesman’s business partner, Kate acted as what was called a chanter in town squares or taverns, singing songs to well-known tunes, the lyrics of which could be purchased from Thomas. Kate had learned to sing in school, and it’s not unlikely this lively role appealed to her more than the drudgery of factory labor. For all its allures, however, men and women in this line of work were forced to make do with sleeping, say, in a ditch when no other means of shelter was available and sometimes found themselves in dangerous situations, running at top speed with a farmer’s dog at their heels, to give an example. Living on the highways was no sure way to riches, either. Nomadic laborers like Thomas and Kate often woke up with empty stomachs and pocketbooks, with a long way to travel to their next destination and without any promise of finding business when they arrived.
Through all their days of hoofing it, Kate and Thomas scored perhaps their most substantial success on January 9, 1866. That morning, throngs of onlookers bundled up for winter temperatures had assembled outside Stafford Gaol in Staffordshire to watch the hanging of a convicted murderer. Morbid as it sounds, public executions had long drawn crowds as a kind of entertainment in England, albeit the popularity of this diversion had waned significantly by the 1860s. As it happens, the prisoner who would dangle at the gallows that day was a distant kinsman of Kate’s called Charles Christopher Robinson, a mercurial young man who had cut his fiancé’s throat with a razor before attempting to take his own life—to no avail, obviously. Hence, the execution. The multi-media genre known today as true crime is not a product of the twenty-first century or even the twentieth. It catered to intense fascination with real-life homicides throughout the Victorian period as well as before. In nineteenth-century England, puppet plays, wax museums, broadsides, as well as biographies about celebrated murderers fed the public’s insatiable appetite for tales of true crime. Even back then, the genre encompassed multiple media. Determined to cash in on Robinson’s crimson crime, Kate and Thomas are thought to have authored a ballad about it and sold copies at his hanging. One choice stanza, in which the killer gives vent both to his remorse and his dread of the scaffold, reads as follows: “Charles Robinson is my name / With sorrow was oppressed, / The very thought of what I’ve done / Deprived me of my rest; / Within the walls of Stafford Gaol, / In bitter grief did cry / And every moment seemed to say / ‘Poor soul prepare to die!’” Kate and Thomas made a killing according to the Black Country Bugle, and were even in a position to “return from Stafford in style, booking inside seats on Ward’s coach with the proceeds.”
Unfortunately, Kate and Tom’s partnership wouldn’t bear fruit forever. In 1868, Tom and Kate relocated to London, where she, like Polly and Annie as well, developed a serious drinking problem. Tom abstained from alcohol and came to held her in contempt for her habit, giving rise to violence by the late 1870s. Over the years, Kate walked out on Tom battered and bruised on more than one occasion only to come back to him, caught in a cycle of domestic abuse. In 1880, she finally broke it, turning her back on the man she’d called her husband as well as two of their children living with them at the time. Within a year, she was cohabitating with a new mate, a fruit vendor who went by the name of John Kelly. She had befriended him as a lodger at Cooney’s common lodging house at 55 Flower and Dean Street. Over the next seven years or so, Kate eked out a living through a combination of charring for Whitechapel’s Jewish community as well as borrowing from her sister and daughter, who lent a helping hand despite their disapproval of Kate drinking. When August 1888 rolled around, she and John hit the road to pick hops in the picturesque Kentish countryside, seasonal employment that must have felt something like a summer vacation.
The afternoon of her murder, Kate and John had not a penny between them and parted ways in Houndsditch, London. The former claimed that she would head to Bermondsey and borrow her doss money from her daughter, Annie. Kate seems not to have made it much farther than a few blocks before somehow managing to get her hands on a beer. Things could only go downhill from there. At about 8:30 p.m., PC Louis Frederick Robinson saw a cluster of pedestrians gawking at something outside 29 Aldgate High Street. Approaching the crowd, he soon became aware that the something was a someone, and that someone was Kate, slumped against a wall and unable to stand, the smell of alcohol on her breath. Wearing a black bonnet on her sagging head, she by turns sang to herself and cursed at passersby. With the assistance of his colleague, PC George Simmons, Robinson lifted the besotted woman to her feet and walked her to the nearby Bishopsgate Police Station, where she would remain under lock and key until sobering up. Protocol dictated that her name be entered in a ledger after she swayed her way onto the premises, and when Robinson asked this information, Kate replied “Nothing,” perhaps not having comprehended the question. They escorted her to a cell where she promptly passed out, coming to hours later at approximately 12:15 a.m. After insisting that she was now with-it enough to take care of herself, Kate was let go at about 1:00. The jailor on duty, George Henry Hutt, pointed her to the exit and instructed her to shut the door behind her. “Alright,” she answered. “Good night, Old Cock.” Vexingly for Hutt, she left it ajar, and when he went to close it, he watched her head off in the direction of Houndsditch, likely in hope of tracking down John.
The pair would never reunite. Roughly three-quarters of an hour after Kate’s release, at 1:44, PC Edward Watkins was patrolling his beat when he entered Mitre Square. The area was dark, with only two lamps to provide illumination, and perfectly deserted at this time of night. He remembered hearing nothing other than the sound of his own footsteps as he strode into the square and turned right toward its southern corner. At this moment, the beam of a lantern fastened to his belt fell on what he later characterized as the most horrifying sight he’d ever set eyes on in seventeen years as an officer of the law. Kate lay lifeless on the ground, her throat cut open like the other Ripper victims’. As in the case of Annie Chapman, the killer had disemboweled her and deposited her intestines above her right shoulder. Yet Kate had suffered further mutilations—the most severe yet. The killer had hideously disfigured her face, carving shapes resembling an upside-down “V” in each cheek, permitting him to peel back a triangular flap of skin. Moreover, he had sliced through the lobe and auricle of her right ear. Further examination of the corpse revealed that Kate’s left kidney as well as her uterus were nowhere to be found. Six weeks passed before London woke up to news of another Whitechapel homicide.
Mary Jane Kelly
Compared to the others, least is known about the fifth and final canonical victim. It’s not even possible to say with certainty whether Mary Jane Kelly was her given name, nor do we know for sure where she came from. In the late Victorian era, it was no great challenge for a woman like Mary Jane to refashion her identity and start afresh if she chose to. Two simple steps would have sufficed. First, she could move to a different city or town. If she lived in a sprawling metropolis like London, another district might have done the trick. Then, she could assume a new name. Mary Jane appears to have done something of this sort, arriving in London from parts unknown sometime between 1883 and’84. One version of her origin story holds that she was born in Limerick, Ireland circa 1863. After crossing the Irish Sea with her family to resettle in Wales, she had departed from the Welsh capital, Cardiff, destined for London. This account has raised eyebrows partly because Mary Jane’s acquaintances never heard a note of either an Irish or a Welsh accent in her speech. But then she had been schooled, and elocution lessons may have helped her conceal unwanted linguistic hints about a life before London.
What is known for certain is that Mary Jane worked as an upscale prostitute in the West End. In Whitechapel as well as other impoverished parts of London, sex work was speedy and to the point. It need not have entailed penetrative intercourse and may have gone no farther than furtive masturbation in a secluded alleyway. That was not always how things were done in the mid-to-upper strata of the Victorian sex trade. For Mary Jane and women like her, a procuress might arrange a meeting with a gentleman at a specified location for an evening of entertainment—maybe at a café, a restaurant, a music hall, a theater, or a racetrack. Afterward, the lady and her customer would repair to a hotel or some other discreet setting for sex. The man might never lay eye on her again after this initial assignation or alternatively he may continue to enjoy her company. In this case, he would have been expected to treat her to meals and gift her trinkets or articles of clothing—diamonds or gloves, for example.
By all accounts, Mary Jane was gorgeous in her early 20s—pleasantly stout, five foot seven, and blue-eyed. A stranger might have taken her for the mother of a “respectable,” middle-class family. She called herself Marie Janette, assuming an air of French refinement, rode about town in a horse-drawn carriage, and filled her wardrobe with an array of fine dresses.
Mary Jane may have cut a dignified figure, but her profession introduced her to some unsavory individuals. At one point, she went to France with an unidentified gentleman, and Hallie Rubenhold speculates in The Five that he may have been involved in international sex-trafficking. This business whisked up unsuspecting young women—from London and elsewhere—and set them down in Belgian or French bordellos, where they were sometimes kept against their will. If indeed Mary Jane had been headed toward such a trap, she managed to dodge the snares awaiting her and travel back to London less than two weeks after her departure. Though continuing to labor as a prostitute, she would do so in the East End, never to be pampered the way she had been on the other side of the city.
That being said, she did find deep—if fleeting—love. In the spring of 1887, Mary Jane came into contact with a customer who remained in her life until her dying day. Answering to the name of Joseph Barnett, he was a well-built, blue-eyed, fair-haired Whitechapel man of twenty-nine years. At Mary Jane’s inquest, Barnett testified before a coroner’s jury that he had “picked up with” her on Commercial Street, Whitechapel, after which the two of them had downed a few drinks. For the sake of propriety, Barnett eschewed any mention of paying for sex, but he did make clear that a romance blossomed. After their first date, he arranged to meet up with her the very next day and before he knew it, Barnett was smitten, proposing that he and Mary Jane move in together, which they did. Joseph insisted that so long as she was living under his roof, she would no longer work the streets. This development may well have come as a relief. She wouldn’t have to worry about screening clients for signs of syphilis any longer, nor would she need to fret about how to move forward if she wound up pregnant with a stranger’s baby.
This relationship would not bring about the stability they desired. Steady work was hard to procure, and Mary Jane and Joseph were compelled to relocate no fewer than four times in the ensuing year-and-a-half. Finally, they moved into 13 Miller’s Court, a shoebox of an apartment located off Dorset Street, infamous for its wretchedness. Their new abode measured only ten feet by twelve. For furniture, they got by with a bed, a table, a chair, a cupboard, along with a grimy washstand. At some point in time, somebody had added what color they could by hanging up a print titled “The Fisherman’s Widow.”
It was in this hovel that their partnership deteriorated. Money was at the root of it. Joseph couldn’t find anything but odd jobs, and the weekly rent of four shillings, six pence proved out of their reach. Mary Jane had no choice but to resume soliciting. Joseph may have grown jealous of her clients, not to mention frustrated with himself for having failed to provide for her. At the same time, Mary Jane may have resented his shortcomings since she appears not to have wanted to return to her risky trade. The two began arguing with intensifying bitterness, and it didn’t help matters that both possessed a taste for alcohol and fast became feisty when they had it in their system. During one of their more heated rows, a window looking onto the squalid Miller’s Court was smashed. Mary Jane stuffed the broken glass with rags, but this feeble repair hardly sufficed to keep out the cold.
These disputes played out amid the Ripper’s killing spree. In October, Mary Jane and Joseph scanned the headlines every day for news of the murderer’s capture, no less terrified than the rest of the capital. At the pinnacle of the panic, Mary Jane allowed a fellow prostitute as well as an unmarried laundress to stay the night at 13 Miller’s Court rather than fend for themselves on the streets with a killer at large. There seemed less and less room for Joseph in their home, and before long, the hint was taken. Packing his bags, he found himself a bed at Buller’s Boarding House while Mary Jane stayed put. Despite the hard feelings between them, Joseph continued to show genuine care for Mary Jane’s welfare, paying regular visits to 13 Miller’s Court and leaving money whenever he could. He even stopped by on the day of her murder.
It’s not so much what was seen as what was heard in the hours before Mary Jane’s death that has left behind a haunting imprint. A neighbor at number 5 Miller’s Court, Mary Ann Cox, claims to have spotted her coming home from Dorset Street at about 11:45 p.m., visibly inebriated and accompanied by a man, presumably a customer. Mary Ann and Mary Jane wished each other goodnight before the latter added that she was “going to have a song” and disappeared into her room. Shortly after, a faint light flickered on the other side of the broken window, and Mary Ann could make out the strains of a song called “A Violet Plucked from My Mother’s Grave When a Boy.” Its first stanza goes like this: “Scenes of my childhood arise before my gaze, / Bringing recollections of bygone happy days. / When down in the meadow in childhood I would roam, / No one’s left to cheer me now within the good old home. / Father and Mother, they have pass’d away; / Sister and brother, now lay beneath the clay, / But while life does remain to cheer me, I’ll retain / This small violet I pluck’d from mother’s grave.” It’s uncertain what became of Mary Jane’s companion. However, two residents at Miller’s Court heard what many regard as her final utterance later that night. A woman by the name of Elizabeth Prater was one of them, and she occupied the room directly above Mary Jane’s. Sometime between 3 and 4 in the morning, she awoke with a start as her cat crawled on top of her. Lying in bed, she heard a woman’s voice cry a single word, “Murder!” In more affluent parts of London, a scream like this would have caused alarm. In the immediate vicinity of crime-laden Dorset Street, it was just another part of the day-to-day soundscape. Prater shrugged it off and went back to sleep.
Someone came knocking at Mary Jane’s door that morning, but not because anybody was concerned for her safety. Mary Jane owed six weeks’ rent, prompting her landlord, John McCarthy, to send his assistant, Thomas Bowyer, to the room. Bowyer made it there at about 10:45, getting no response when he rapped his knuckles on the door. He couldn’t see anything peering through the keyhole, so he went around the corner to the smashed-up window, removed the clothing plugging up the hole, and drew aside the muslin curtains. What he witnessed inside was the Ripper’s most gruesome murder scene yet.
Mary Jane is the only canonical victim to have perished indoors, and without any fear of interruption by civilians or policemen on the street, the Whitechapel murderer had all the time he wanted to indulge his perverse impulses. He spent an estimated two hours mutilating his victim, with Mary Jane sustaining injuries more severe than even those of Kate Eddowes. When law enforcement entered the room, they found Mary Jane in bed, wearing only a chemise. The killer had torn open her thighs and abdomen, removed her viscera, and slashed her throat. In addition, the Ripper cut off her breasts with circular incisions and carved up her face almost beyond recognition. He scattered her entrails around the bed, some of them piled underneath her head and others heaped beside her on the mattress. Flaps of skin from her abdomen and thighs lay atop a nightstand. A pool of blood had accumulated on the floor, and a streak of crimson cut across the wall near her neck been. Perhaps most disturbingly, the Ripper had extracted Mary Jane’s heart and may have taken it with him when he left.
The Miller’s Court killing unleashed fresh waves of shock, horror, sadness, and—as we’ll discuss in the following episode—outrage at law enforcement for allowing the perpetrator to remain at large. As 1888 drew to a close, however, this surge of emotion died down and another such upwelling would never come. Sensation-peddling journalists may have attributed later homicides to the malefactor known as Jack the Ripper, but many—perhaps most—modern investigators maintain that he never struck again—at least in London. At any rate, police never captured him. It was as if the knifeman had melted into the air.
The subsequent 130+ years have seen scores of theories as to who may have authored these crimes, some of them pretty out there. It is to these—or at least a small selection of these—that we now turn. In episode 2, we’ll become acquainted with the first of six artists profiled this season, London’s most celebrated theatrical wigmaker and costume designer. We’ll also hear about why this master of disguise has landed himself on the ever-lengthening list of Ripper candidates. Get ready to meet the unusual suspects.