The Whitechapel Murders (S1E1)
Updated: May 6
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.
A few quick things before we get started: This episode deals exclusively with the lives and deaths of the Ripper’s victims. It’s intended as an overview for listeners who are unfamiliar with the Whitechapel murders and the biographies of the victims. If you’re acquainted with this material, you’re good to skip ahead to episode 2, where we meet the first unusual suspect. If you’re sticking around for this introduction, please be aware that 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 why the artists profiled this season have fallen under suspicion. With that, let’s get to it.
It looked like a tarpaulin at first. It 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. He stopped when he saw an unmoving shape on the other 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 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.
Paul, meanwhile, suspected that she had taken one pint too many and was sleeping it off. They lowered her skirt as best they could and continued on their way, notifying a patrolman of their discovery.
Dr. Rees Llewelyn pronounced the woman dead 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 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? One day later, dressed from head to toe in mourning black, the victim’s estranged husband, William Nichols, met police inspector Frederick Aberline inside the mortuary to identify the body. Aberline showed him through a rear door and into a yard where a brick shed stood. Inside, the policeman 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
Welcome to Whitechapel
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, we’re going to focus on the canonical five. If you want a more in-depth portrait of these women, I highly recommend Hallie Rubenhold’s book, The Five.
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 underscore broader social, economic, or political ills. This was certainly so in the case of the Ripper’s killing spree. As journalists and policemen investigated the murders, they gained new insight into the appalling living conditions in the East End. Pockets of grinding poverty existed throughout the city, and 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 live in a single furnished room, eight feet by eight, with broken windows, crumbling walls, and floorboards crawling with 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. 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. Absent better options, girls resorted to sex work having barely reached puberty while boys roamed the alleys and byways as cutpurses.
To many observers, one type of establishment epitomized the privation and vice of 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.” If they couldn’t scrape it together, they would have to sleep rough or perhaps in a workhouse casual ward. Alternatively, they could try to cut a deal with the deputy in charge to stay in the lodging house on credit. However, 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, gulp down beer, and socialize with others. 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 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 plummet into poverty without any hope of climbing their way out in Victorian London.
The biography of the Ripper’s first canonical victim certainly illustrates this point. 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. In 1864, 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 this young woman who had come of age on “the street of ink.”
After sixteen years, however, their marriage deteriorated, partly due to William’s infidelity and partly due to Polly’s increasingly intractable drinking habit. On March 29, 1880, Polly walked out on her husband and children. Rather than moving in with her father or brother, she took a deep breath and crossed the threshold of the Lambeth Union Workhouse. The workhouse cast long and dreadful shadows in the minds of working-class people like Polly, and it’s no wonder many would have sooner slept on the street than spend their nights in 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.
For the next seven years, Polly lived a life of almost endless instability. When she wasn’t washing laundry and choking down skilly in a workhouse, she was scrounging together doss money for a bed in a common lodging house. When she couldn’t manage either, she slept in the open air, curling up in a doorway or perhaps a dark yard out of sight of policemen.
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. Hoped for by some and feared by others, the possibility of all-out social revolution was hanging in the air by the autumn of 1887. Hallie Rubenhold claims that, by this time, Polly had started sleeping at the epicenter of a populist movement: Trafalgar Square in central London. Hundreds without a home gathered there nightly. Men, women, and children bathed in the fountain at the base of Nelson’s Column, a towering monument to the vaunted warrior. In response to the housing crisis, Christian charities handed out coffee, Bibles, and tickets to common lodging houses while socialist activists mounted a thrown-together dais in the shadow of Nelson’s Column, condemning the manifest injustice of it all. Tensions escalated as thousands of protestors descended on the square while law enforcement watched on high alert. At the end of October, warlike rhetoric turned to bloodshed, with stones hurled at constables and demonstrators trampled. Police clamped down following the outbreak of violence, and one Inspector Bullock even took Polly into custody. Likely inebriated, she went kicking and screaming to her cell.
Before long, she was residing in common lodging houses. On August 31, the last day of her life, she 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. She lacked the four pence she needed, so the deputy showed her the door. “I’ll soon get my ‘doss’ money,” she assured him. “See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now!” Most researchers take this comment to mean that Polly was planning to sell sex to earn her doss money. Whatever she had in mind, about an hour later, she bumped into her friend, Ellen Holland, outside. They spoke for a few minutes at the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street. Worried about Polly’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. We already know what happened next. Wishing nothing more than to put a roof over her head, Polly went to Buck’s Row and then to her death searching for the paltry sum of four pence.
Like Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman plunged into poverty before meeting her killer. By comparison, however, Annie had fallen 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. Among other responsibilities, George would have carried bathwater upstairs, shaved his master, and packed and unpacked his luggage while abroad. He would have earned a comfortable salary in this role, supplemented by his military pension. 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, he cut his own throat with a razor on June 13, 1863. His motives for suicide were never explained.
Within six years, Annie’s family had regained their footing. Having become a housemaid, she was about 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.
By the beginning of 1879, John had become head coachman 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. 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. Annie took pride in 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. Despite her best efforts to overcome her addiction, she never managed to. Eventually, Barry ordered John to kick her out—it reflected poorly on Barry to keep a head coachman with an errant wife. Not wishing to lose his position, John had little choice but to comply. Nevertheless, he remained devoted to his wife, voluntarily paying a maintenance of ten shillings per week. This would ensure that she could feed, clothe, and shelter herself.
Exiled from home, Annie made for London, and—much like Polly—spiraled downward into penury. By the second 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 faded away. 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 husband inside their very own parlor. For several years, Annie’s weekly allowance helped keep her out of the workhouse. In December 1886, however, it came to an abrupt stop when John passed away. Shattered by his death and no longer able to rely on the maintenance, Annie earned money by selling flowers and matches as well as doing crochet work.
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 about 1:45 a.m., the supervisor collected doss money for the night. Empty-pocketed, Annie appealed to deputy keeper Timothy Donnovan, beseeching 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 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 in the case of Polly Nichols, the killer cut her throat to the back of her spinal column. This time, however, the victim suffered more severe mutilation. Slicing open her abdomen, the Ripper removed her intestines and placed them above her right shoulder. It became clear to investigators: this murderer killed because he drew pleasure from mutilating his victims. Horrifyingly, moreover, he had made off with two macabre keepsakes, having extracted part of Annie’s 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. Growing up, Elisabeth would have chipped in with chores such as gathering eggs, churning butter, and milking the cows. At seventeen, she left the family farm for Gothenburg, a half-day’s journey away on foot.
Life in the city left scars on Elisabeth. After lining up work as a servant, she became pregnant, perhaps by a male member of the household—her master, his brother, his son, or someone else. By March 1865, she was unmarried and visibly with child, which brought her to the attention of local law enforcement. The authorities detained her for “lecherous living,” a broad category of offenses that included premarital sex. According to protocol, an official entered her name on what was known around town as “the register of shame.” It was further mandated that she undergo twice-weekly medical testing to check for venereal disease. On April 4, an inspector noticed warts on her genitals—a symptom of syphilis, a poorly understood and potentially lethal illness. Elisabeth was transferred to Gothenburg’s venereal disease hospital, the kurhuset, where, on April 21, she gave birth to a stillborn girl, devastating her. After checking out of the kurhuset, Elisabeth turned to prostitution—with her name on the so-called “register of shame,” it was next to impossible to procure “respectable” work by nineteenth-century standards. Given the traumatic year that Elisabeth passed in Gothenburg, it should come as no surprise that she got out when she had the chance. On February 7, 1866, she set sail for London, hoping for work as a housemaid. We’ll hear about her colorful life in the British capital after a quick break.
After working as a domestic in London, Elisabeth married a carpenter named John Stride in 1869. The two opened a café in Poplar New Town’s Upper North Street together. Unfortunately, this business venture ended in disaster, as did their marriage. The Strides had separated by the end of 1881.
From this time forward, Elisabeth frequented common lodging houses in Whitechapel, 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 800 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. A skillful confidence women, she spun a yarn that moved sympathetic listeners to open their pocketbooks and spare a few coins. Elisabeth claimed that she and John had been traveling together with two of their nine children that fateful day. After the collision, husband and wife were separated, with John trying to rescue the children, in vain. All three sank to the bottom of the river. Left to her own devices, Elisabeth grabbed hold of a rope cast down by a crewmember on the Bywell Castle and climbed to safety. 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 a 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. It was Elisabeth. Her 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 only canonical victim whose body was not subject to mutilation after death. Partly for this reason, commentators have questioned whether she truly died at the hands of the Ripper. Those who do believe him responsible—and most do—usually assert that he left her body comparatively intact because someone interrupted him. Elisabeth’s murderer may have withdrawn into the shadows of Dutfield’s Yard as Diemschutz entered, making his getaway when the steward went for help. Assuming this happened, the Ripper refused to head home with his desires ungratified. About forty-five minutes after Diemschutz made his gruesome discovery and a twelve-minute walk away from the crime scene, a City of London police officer stumbled across a woman who had been eviscerated. 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 on April 14, 1842. By 1861 or ’62, her mother and father had succumbed to tuberculosis, and she had moved in with an uncle in Birmingham. There, Kate became acquainted with Thomas Conway, an Irish soldier who had served in India and been discharged on medical grounds. Thomas was a chapman, an itinerate merchant who taveled England’s provinces, telling tales, spreading gossip, and hawking goods from door to door. Much to her relatives’ chagrin, Kate fell head-over-heels in love with the footloose veteran, joining him in his low-paying profession.
Life on the road came with upsides and downsides. To many, the career of a chapman 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. For all its allures, men and women in this profession were forced to make do with sleeping in a ditch when no other means of shelter was available. They also encountered danger, running at top speed with a farm dog at their heels, to give an example. What was more, life on the road was no sure way to riches. 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 and 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. This mercurial young man cut his fiancé’s throat with a razor before attempting to take his own life. 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. Determined to cash in on Robinson’s transgression, Kate and Thomas are thought to have authored a ballad about it and sold copies at his hanging.
By 1888, Kate and Tom had relocated to London and then separated, partly because he had grown abusive over the years. Kate took up with a Whitechapel man by the name of John Kelly, a fruit vendor she met in a common lodging house at 55 Flower and Dean Street.
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 getting 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 discovered Kate, slumped against a wall and unable to stand, the smell of booze on her breath. 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. When Robinson asked this information, however, Kate replied “Nothing.” They led her to a cell where she promptly passed out, coming to hours later. After insisting that she was now with-it enough to take care of herself, Kate was let go at about 1:00 a.m. The jailor pointed her to the exit and asked her to shut the door behind her. “Alright,” she answered. “Good night, Old Cock.” Vexingly for the officer, she left it ajar. When he went to close it, he watched her walk in the direction of Houndsditch, likely in hope of tracking down John.
Kate and John would never reunite. Roughly three-quarters of an hour after Kate’s release, at 1:44 a.m., 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 but 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 his lantern fell on Kate’s body, lifeless on the ground. As in the case of Annie Chapman, the killer had disemboweled her and placed her intestines above her right shoulder. Yet Kate had suffered further mutilations—the most severe yet. The killer hideously disfigured her face, carving upside-down V’s in each cheek and peeling back the skin. Further examination led to another horrid discovery: the killer had absconded with Kate’s left kidney as well as her uterus. Six weeks passed before London woke up to news of another Whitechapel murder.
Mary Jane Kelly
Compared to the others, least is known about the fifth and final canonical victim. We don’t know where Mary Jane Kelly came from. We don’t even know if Mary Kelly was her given name. 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 moved to London via the Welsh capital, Cardiff.
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 back alley. 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 madame 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, 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 eyes on her again or he may continue to enjoy her company. In this case, he would be expected to treat her to meals and give her gifts—diamonds or gloves, to name two examples.
By all accounts, Mary Jane was gorgeous in her early 20s—pleasantly stout, five foot seven, and blue-eyed. 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. Yet her fortunes worsened. For unknown reasons, she moved to the East End, where she worked as a prostitute, never to be pampered the way she was in the West.
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. After their first date, he arranged to meet up with her the following day. Before he knew it, Barnett was smitten, proposing that he and Mary Jane move in together. He insisted that Mary Jane no longer walk the streets while she was living under his roof, a development she appears to have welcomed.
After a rocky year-and-a-half, they moved into 13 Miller’s Court, a ten-by-twelve-foot shoebox apartment off Dorset Street, notorious for its wretchedness. It was in this hovel that their partnership dissolved. Money was at the root of it. Joseph could only find odd jobs, and the weekly rent of four shillings, six pence proved out of reach. Mary Jane had no choice but to resume soliciting. During a heated argument, a window looking onto Miller’s Court was smashed. Mary Jane stuffed the broken glass with rags, but this feeble repair hardly sufficed to keep out the cold. In the end, Joseph packed his bags and found a bed at Buller’s Boarding House while Mary Jane stayed put. Despite his broken heart, Joseph showed genuine care for her welfare, paying regular visits to 13 Miller’s Court. 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 client. 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. Soon thereafter, a faint light flickered on the other side of the broken window, and Mary Ann could make out the haunting strains of a ballad entitled “A Violet Plucked from My Mother’s Grave When a Boy.” 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.
Sometime between 3 and 4 in the morning, Elizabeth Prater, who lived on the floor above Mary Jane, 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.
When someone came knocking at Mary Jane’s door the next morning, it was not because anybody was concerned for her safety. She owed six weeks’ rent, prompting her landlord to send his assistant, Thomas Bowyer, to fetch it. Bowyer arrived at 10:45, getting no response when he rapped 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 it up, and drew aside the muslin curtains. What he saw inside was the Ripper’s most hellish murder scene yet.
Mary Jane is the only canonical victim to have perished indoors. Without any fear of interruption, the Whitechapel murderer had all the time he wanted to indulge his perverse impulses. He spent two hours mutilating his victim. When police entered the room, they found Mary Jane in bed, wearing only a chemise. The killer tore open her thighs and abdomen, removed her viscera, and slashed her throat. He cut off her breasts with circular incisions and carved up her face almost beyond recognition. A pool of blood had accumulated on the floor, and a streak of crimson cut across the wall near her neck. Finally, the Ripper extracted his victim’s heart and may have taken it with him when he left.
The Miller’s Court killing marked the end of the autumn of terror. Sensation-hawking journalists may have attributed later crimes to the Ripper, but many—probably most—modern investigators maintain that he never struck again, at least not in London. The killer was never caught. The past 130+ years have spawned countless theories as to who may have authored these crimes, some of them pretty out there. It is to these—or at least a sampling of these—that we now turn. Next episode, we’ll become acquainted with London’s most celebrated wigmaker and costume designer, a master of disguise. Get ready to meet the unusual suspects.