Murder and Mayhem in London through the Ages – Part 3: Jack the Ripper

123 years ago, a man known as Jack hung around Whitechapel, ridding the world of prostitutes. Five murders have been attributed to him. Grotesque murders, but still “only” five. Judging by the number alone, he seems a bit of an amateur among serial killers. Yet, he is the most famous of them all. Never discovered, Jack the Ripper has been the subject of myths, urban legends, conspiracy theories and plot for a good number of novels.

On this chilly evening, Whitechapel seems sanitized and a bit dull. The only interesting building around is the landmark known as the Gherkin. It takes a pretty big leap of the imagination to picture a man sneaking around here, slashing up prostitutes. In fact, it all looks slightly disappointing. Until Jason begins to elaborate; thus underlining the importance of a good story teller.

Jack the Ripper

Picture if you will, Whitehall in late summer of 1888. A crowded slum with the most abject living conditions. 15 – 20 % of London’s then 4.5 million inhabitants lives in this area. That’s about 900 000 people sharing 1.5 square miles! Though only a mile from the City of London, it’s a different world. A lawless world.

It’s late in the evening of 30th August. Although it’s summer, it’s a cold night. Your name is Mary Ann Nichols, but everyone calls you Polly. You’re 43 years old and the mother of five children. Life’s hard, so you turn to the bottle. Gin’s your tipple; it’s cheaper than beer. You’ve had a jolly good time at the pub and you now want a good night’s sleep. Not so easy, that. Turns out you’re lacking four pence to rent a bed in the lodging house. But no worries. You’ll rake in those measly 4 p in a matter of minutes, using your considerable skills with men. Also, you have a nice, new bonnet. They can’t help falling for you. So off you go. But something happens. You meet a man who’s not impressed by your new bonnet at all. He’s a nasty piece of work. And before you know it, a “jagged wound runs the length of the abdomen”. Thus read the police report.

Only eight days later, Annie Chapman found herself in the same predicament. Needed somewhere to sleep, was out and about trying to earn it and didn’t make it through the night alive. She was 47 and mother of three children.

A Swedish girl was next, Elizabeth Stride, born Elizabeth Gustafsson in Gothenburg, also in her forties. She was more of a veteran; engaged in the business since she was 17. An international prostitute, even; active both in Sweden and in England. Elizabeth was found in the early hours on 30th September. Just an hour later, victim four was discovered.

46-year-old Catherine Eddowes had been brought in to police custody earlier that night for drunk and disorderly behaviour; then released. Three witnesses saw her talking with a man at about half past two in the morning. Ten minutes later she was found murdered and badly cut up. Her kidney had been removed. So had part of her uterus. One wonders how he had the time.

This all happened on Mitre Square where we’re standing. Jason eagerly points to the corner where she was found, and to where she must have walked just minutes before that. By now, it’s quite dark; the nondescript present-day Mitre Square is not that well lit. Suddenly, the imagination kicks in. Is that a dark bundle I see, in the corner over there? And someone standing over it? Spine-tinglingly eerie!

About six weeks later, Mary Jane Kelly – at 25, a mere slip of a girl compared to the other four – became the final victim. She was found in her bed by her landlord who came to collect the rent. Dead and brutally butchered.

Photo of Beer Street and Gin Lane Wikimedia Commons

Mary Jane was fond of drink, too. Gin was the staple of the working class as Madame Geneva was cheaper than beer. The consequences were also much worse, at least according to 18th century artist William Hogarth. In his work Beer Street and Gin Lane, he paints a vivid picture of the benefits of beer to you and to society in general – and the evils of gin.

The painting is said to have been partly inspired by a story of a woman who killed her baby to sell the baby clothes for gin money. Vile stuff indeed. I’ll think of that next time I’m enjoying a GT. Or perhaps not.

This is an excerpt, somewhat reworked, of my Boots’n’All article on Jack the Ripper.

This concludes the series of deliciously dreadful London of the past. In addition to spooky Jack, we’ve covered London’s bridges and some eerie executions. Hope you’ve enjoyed it!



33 Responses to “Murder and Mayhem in London through the Ages – Part 3: Jack the Ripper”

  1. inka 30 October 2011 1352 #

    Yes, yes, yes…I was waiting for this one. My absolute favorite ‘shudder’ walk in London. Great that you also told the stories about good old Jack’s victims. Did you know that rumors persist Jack was actually the Prince of Wales? NOT the present one, of course…

  2. jenjenk 31 October 2011 0708 #

    next time i’m in london, i want to walk this tour. I guess i’m morbid like that…

  3. Anne-Sophie Redisch 31 October 2011 0823 #

    Know what you mean, Jen – I can be a bit morbid myself.

  4. Jim 31 October 2011 0941 #

    Gripping tale Sophie. Don’t wander alone around Whitehall at night.

  5. Tina 31 October 2011 1051 #

    Wow. Loving your way of presenting history with a personal touch!

  6. Italian Notes 31 October 2011 1145 #

    I’ve been wondering when you got round to the Ripper 🙂
    Great to finally meet him here (at a safe distance).

  7. Anne-Sophie Redisch 31 October 2011 1222 #

    Yes, safe distance both in time and space, thank goodness.

  8. Andrea 31 October 2011 1318 #

    Such a intriguing story, this one…I love unsolved mysteries!

  9. Laurel 31 October 2011 1331 #

    I didn’t realize that it was still an unsolved mystery…ooohh. Really enjoyed this series and learning more about a different side of London.

  10. Ana 31 October 2011 1402 #

    I wonder if the murdered could be found should this happen nowadays.
    BTW, I wasn’t too fond of G&Ts before, even less so now 🙂

  11. Abby 31 October 2011 1815 #

    Loved these stories!! Like you said, Jack the Ripper is so famous, but I really knew nothing about him (for better or worse!)

  12. The Travel Chica 31 October 2011 1904 #

    You’re a good storyteller too!

  13. Mike 31 October 2011 1958 #

    Very appropriate being as today is Halloween…I’ll also check this out when I venture to London in a few months. Thanks!

  14. Cathy Sweeney 31 October 2011 2207 #

    You know, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about Jack the Ripper when I’ve walked about Whitechapel. What a well-told and interesting story, Sophie!

  15. Annie - FootTracker 1 November 2011 0607 #

    Eeek! being an unsolved murder making it even more creepy to hear the tales and walk through the sites where things happened….(because you never know if the murderer or its spirit might be lurking around)..

  16. Great story telling! I really enjoyed this – so much that I would love to take a walking tour on this very subject.

  17. Christy @ Technosyncratic 1 November 2011 2209 #

    Wonderful storytelling, Sophie! I never really knew the story behind Jack the Ripper (I promise I haven’t been living under a rock…) so this was as educational as it was entertaining. 🙂

  18. Aline Lacroix 2 November 2011 0423 #

    Woooo! j’ adore ce genre d’ histoires!!!!

  19. Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 November 2011 0622 #

    Merci beaucoup, Aline.

  20. Angela 2 November 2011 0845 #

    I was wondering when we would have met Jack the Ripper in this series, what a story, and how many myths and legends were written about him. Makes me shiver, really…

  21. Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 November 2011 1025 #

    Thanks for all your very kind comments, everyone. So glad you enjoyed this little look back at a piece of London’s horrible, yet so intriguing history.

  22. robin 2 November 2011 1133 #

    Gory – and nothing like an unsolved mystery to fuel the imagination!

  23. Urissa 11 November 2011 1317 #

    Thanks for sharing this. I’d love to learn more from you. Be back here for more!

  24. Jenna 11 November 2011 1704 #

    Yikes, creepy! But so interesting. It’s always fascinating to think about what life was really like in these places we visit and the things (good and bad) that happened there.

  25. Anne-Sophie Redisch 11 November 2011 2311 #

    @Robin – So true!

    @Urissa – thanks.

    @Jenna – It really is, isn’t it… Nothing I’d like better than having a time machine.

  26. Barry 16 November 2011 0511 #

    The history is fascinating. It seems to me that a few years back I read a book about Jack the Ripper authored by Patricia Cornwell. It was meant to solve the crimes but I recall coming away from the read with as many questions as answers. Of course, that could be attributed to my declining memory and attention span. Anyway, ejoyed your prose. It was a good series and a great read. Thanks.

  27. Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 November 2011 0116 #

    Thanks, Barry. I’ve read Patricia Cornwell’s book, too – and she didn’t manage to convince me Sickert was the culprit.

  28. Renee King 1 December 2011 0329 #

    Yes, by today’s standards old Jack was a rookie. I wonder why he was never found out. I know that there was speculation that it was the Queen’s physician. I could see that…, privileged, likely to look down his nose at wanton women, adept with a surgical knife….and more likely than not protected by the powers that be. Great post, Anne-Sophie!

  29. Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2011 0119 #

    @Renee – Yes, I’ve heard that theory as well. Interesting, all the speculation that abound. People have a need to know, of course – yet, at the same time, our not knowing adds to the mystery and the morbid fascination.

  30. Jen Laceda 7 January 2012 0452 #

    I want to read more!!! You are a wonderful storyteller! Hopping over to Boots n All now, to look for your article!

  31. Anne-Sophie Redisch 7 January 2012 2339 #

    @Jen – Many thanks for your kind comment 🙂

  32. Scotland country hotel 27 February 2012 1337 #

    You really have great writing skills 🙂 I loved this post, and all posts related with Jack the ripper or mysterious happenings of any kind

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 27 February 2012 1344 #

      Very kind words. Thank you 🙂

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