Just as disease spread unseen, so the gaslit streets of Victorian cities hid their own dark truths. Crime was commonplace, from pickpocketing (as practised by Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist) and house-breaking to violent affray and calculated murder. Vice was easily available from child prostitution to opium dens. Drunkenness was widespread.In an attempt to tackle prostitution in garrison and dockyard towns, the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864-69) licensed prostitutes, imposing medical examinations. The measures were vigourously opposed by reformers such as Josephine Butler, who argued that they put innocent women’s reputations at risk, and the Acts were repealed in 1886.
Reputation meant a great deal to the average Victorian. Double-standards of morality, though not unique to their age, appeared stark when private promiscuities took place behind a curtain of prim public rectitude. Officially, sex was confined to the marital bed, and until 1857 divorce was obtainable only through a Church court and Act of Parliament. On marriage, a wife’s property became that of her husband until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 at last gave women control of what was their own.
While countrymen waged war on poachers, townspeople bolted doors and windows against urban crime. Sir Robert Peel’s police force, instituted in London in 1829, became a model for other forces in the country. Harsh punishments faced wrongdoers; forced labour, flogging, the treadmill, transportation, hanging for a range of crimes – though seldom, in practice, for any crime but murder after 1837 (the last public hanging took place on 1868). These had little effect on simmering backstreet violence, or, if fiction is to be believed, on criminal activity behind seemingly respectable household doors.
Murder was the ultimate crime. Its means were many and various – poisoning was a favourite method, and thwarted love, or a tempting legacy, two common motives. Victorians invented the detective story, reflecting their interest in criminal creativity and in the new ‘scientific’ methods of forensic investigation, as used by the greatest of all fictional sleuths, Sherlock Holmes, who made his first appearance in 1887 in Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet. They also relished the gory contrivances of such melodramas as Sweeney Todd, the ‘Demon Barber’ who turned his victims into meat pies and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Jack the RipperThe most notorious Victorian murders were bloody slayings in the backstreets of London’s Whitechapel, ascribed to Jack the Ripper. These attacks typically involved female prostitutes who lived and worked in the slums of the East End of London, whose throats were cut prior to abdominal mutilations. The removal of internal organs from at least three of the victims led to proposals that their killer had some anatomical or surgical knowledge. Rumours that the murders were connected intensified in September and October 1888, and letters were received by media outlets and Scotland Yard from a writer or writers purporting to be the murderer. The ‘From Hell’ letter received by George Lusk of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee included half of a preserved human kidney, purportedly taken from one of the victims. The public came increasingly to believe in a single serial killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’, mainly because of the extraordinarily brutal character of the murders, and because of media treatment of the events.
Extensive newspaper coverage bestowed widespread and enduring international notoriety on the Ripper, and his legend solidified. A police investigation into a series of eleven brutal killings in Whitechapel up to 1891 was unable to connect all the killings conclusively to the murders of 1888. Five victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – are known as the ‘canonical five’, and their murders between 31 August and 9 November 1888 are often considered the most likely to be linked. The murders were never solved, and the legends surrounding them became a combination of genuine historical research, folklore, and pseudohistory. The term ‘ripperology’ was coined to describe the study and analysis of the Ripper cases. There are now over one hundred theories about the Ripper’s identity, and the murders have inspired many works of fiction.
Unquestionably the most infamous serial killer of all time, Jack the Ripper holds a special place in British history. His identity has been the subject of endless debate, and his victims have long been profiled in the press and in books. The suspects, the murders and the motives have also long been scrutinised. Was Jack a member of the royal family, a butcher, a Freemason, a Polish emigrant, or someone else entirely?
Initially the term ‘tabloid’ was used to describe a small, easily digestible tablet produced by the London pharmaceutical manufacturer Buroughs Wellcome & Company, who would later become GlaxoSmithKline. The first record of it being attributed to the easily digestible form of journalism was in the early twentieth century.However, before tabloids became commonplace journalism still played a vital role in Victorian society, in particular when it came to dealing with murders and other gruesome crimes. The plethora of newspapers, ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ and other cheaply produced publications meant that each story had to scream at a passer-by in order to be sold. For the first time publications such as The Illustrated Police News were created for the sole purpose of reporting on heinous crimes, ruthless criminals and tragic victims. This lurid period of history is often cited as the true beginning of press sensationalism.
The tabloids would often print horrendous images of mutilated bodies and crime scenes alongside equally graphic accounts of the event that had taken place. Shots of murder victims lying brutally disfigured in a morgue became common place and the stories would regularly grip the nation as they developed. If the perpetrator was caught and sentenced to execution then thousands would often turn out to see the dramatic finale to their favourite story.
Sensational murder reports were not something new to the Victorian age.But with a rise in readership rates, particularly in the late 1800s, these reports became more focussed on entertaining readers rather than just informing them. This interest spread to a global level at the time of the Whitechapel Murders, with the stories being printed around the world in countries such as Jamaica, Australia and the United States.
Crooked journalists would often fake evidence, create witness accounts and mislead the police to create racy and sensational stories. As they did this the panic that was sweeping through the streets heightened; for example, on the 20 October 1888, Mrs Mary Burridge apparently dropped dead after reading a lurid Ripper account. Whether or not this was true adds to the enigmatic nature of truth in tabloid journalism in the Victorian period.
The press played a pivotal role in creating the public image of the Whitechapel murderer. Armed with his horrifying nickname, ‘Jack the Ripper’, journalists quickly fashioned a terrifying figure to cast blame on. Without a clear target, the press were forced to label the killer with haunting titles such as ‘monster’ and ‘fiend’, adding an almost supernatural element to the killer’s reputation. Through these fleeting descriptions racial and social tensions were heightened. The few eyewitness reports to be printed often labelled the man as having a ‘dark complexion, black-beard, black coat and foreign-looking’ – a description of a typical Jewish man living in the East End at the time.
Eleven separate murders, stretching from 3 April 1888 to 13 February 1891, were included in a London Metropolitan Police Service investigation and known collectively as the ‘Whitechapel murders’. Opinions vary as to whether these murders should all be linked to the same culprit, but the five of the eleven listed below, known as the ‘canonical five’, are widely believed to be the work of Jack the Ripper.
Mary Ann NicholsConventionally understood to be the first of Jack the Ripper’s victims, Mary Ann Nichols was a native of London who had spent a good deal of the 1880s on the drift. Her marriage, to a man named William Nichols, had apparently foundered after the birth of their sixth child: William’s head had been irreversibly turned by a neighbour called Rosetta; Mary Ann was laying the roots of an inescapable addiction to alcohol. She embarked on a dismal tour of the capital’s workhouses and infirmaries; she surrendered herself to the elements, sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square; and, finally, when she had squandered her last shot at rehabilitation, she gravitated, as so many unanchored people would, to the East End. Prostitution was her last recourse.
By 31 August 1888, she was homeless and without the money to pay for a bed in a lodging house – indeed, she claimed to have earned and then drunk away the fourpence fee several times over that day. At 2.30a.m., an acquaintance encountered her, drunk and staggering in the darkness at the junction of Osborn Street and Whitechapel Road. This would be the last time that Mary Ann was knowingly seen alive by anyone other than her killer.
At 3:45 am, two men, walking west along Buck’s Row, saw what they thought might have been an abandoned tarpaulin lying on the footpath. Closer inspection showed that it was the body of a woman, her throat cut, pooled in blood. Only when her body was stripped in the primitive local mortuary were the horrible incisions to Mary Ann’s abdomen discovered. Her intestines, uncontained by the abdominal wall, threatened to push through the gaps. This unusual degree of brutality rendered her murder notable, an abstract alternative to the city’s run-of-the-mill domestic homicides. But, in a pattern which would be repeated with unhappy frequency over the following two and a half months, no sign of the killer was to be found.
Annie ChapmanIt was true to say that things had been better for Annie Chapman. Far from the rookeries of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, she had spent part of her adolescence – and, later, part of her married life – in Windsor, in the shadow of the royal castle. This may not have betokened real wealth, but it probably did go hand-in-hand with a certain level of economic comfort. Annie and her husband, John, even had their photograph taken in about 1869 – the image, originally identified by the researcher Neal Stubbings Shelden in 2001, is the only one we have of any of Jack the Ripper’s canonical victims in life. A photograph was not a typically working-class accoutrement; clearly, the Chapmans were destined for better things – or, at least, little luxuries along the way.
Annie, however, soon embarked on a familiar path, becoming estranged from her family and increasingly intimate with drink as the 1880s wore on. By 1888, she was isolated, malnourished, suffering from chronic illnesses. She was also to be found, on 5 September 1888, brawling with another woman, Eliza Cooper, over a disputed piece of soap. Annie’s face was marked in the fight; perhaps this was a sign that her ability to defend herself was diminishing.
And then, on 8 September, in the early dawn, Annie’s body was discovered in the unsecured yard behind 29 Hanbury Street and, as before, no sign of the perpetrator.
Elizabeth StrideThe boat sank rapidly, gurgling into the filthy Thames, and Elizabeth struggled madly for safety; and, in the crush, she stumbled, and fell, and the heel of the person in front of her brought the taste of iron to her mouth.
Or so she said. The Princess Alice disaster, in 1878, was genuine enough; but Elizabeth Stride’s presence on board was a figment of her imagination. Sympathy? Perhaps. She claimed to have lost a husband and an indeterminate number of children to the dark river. The truth was less dramatic, but no more happy.
Elizabeth Stride had graduated from Gothenburg’s streets to their less-regulated equivalents in London, leaving behind a rather unfortunate early background, and exchanging it for an uncertain future. After marriage in the West End, she arrived, inevitably, in the less-salubrious east. Early attempts to prosper in its hostile commercial environment as the proprietor of a coffee shop gradually lapsed, and, following her husband’s death, Elizabeth was thrown back on her resourcefulness, and her untrustworthy recall.
So it was that she found herself in Berner Street in the first minutes of 30 September 1888, spotted here and there by a clutch of generally well-meaning witnesses, dodging the autumn showers. But then she vanished into the shadows of Dutfield’s Yard, later to be detected there by a hawker whose horse had shied away from something lying perfectly still before it, and to the right. He descended from his cart to investigate. By matchlight, the face appeared; by lantern-light, the wound to the throat. Then the familiar hue and cry: the police; the doctor. The madman remained invisible, nowhere to be found.
Elizabeth’s abdomen had not been defiled in the manner of her predecessors, and immediately minds began to turn on the significance of this rapid de-escalation. They turn, too, to this day, and Elizabeth’s position within the canon of Ripper victims is, some feel, an insecure one. But there is one version of the story which says that the implications of the Ripper’s failure to mutilate Elizabeth had very particular consequences; and, in this version, those consequences would become known an hour later, and less than a mile away.
Catherine EddowesIf you had been in Aldgate High Street at half past eight on the evening of 29 September 1888, you would have seen PC Louis Robinson peering down at the figure in the shadows, lying at his feet. A crowd had gathered, but nobody knew her. He took her up, and propped her against the shutters of a shop. She slipped, drunkenly, sideways.
After a few hours in the cells at Bishopsgate police station, Catherine Eddowes was slightly recovered from her binge and ready to be released. She had studiously avoided telling the police her real name; she took the moralisms of the duty officer in good spirit; she pulled the door to the police station almost to; and she turned left, heading away from Whitechapel. It was one in the morning, on 30 September 1888. A short distance away to the east, Dutfield’s Yard had filled with people.
Within forty-five minutes, Catherine too would be found dead. Her injuries were a record of somebody’s brutality – again, there was no sign of the perpetrator.
A cadre of detectives fanned out from Mitre Square – the scene of Catherine’s demise - and, back in the direction of Whitechapel, two clues were found. A piece of Catherine’s apron had been cut, and the missing portion, stained with blood, was discovered in a doorway. Above it, anti-Semitic graffiti had appeared, unseen by the beat policeman on his previous rotation. Had the killer stopped to chalk his prejudices neatly into his bizarre criminal narrative? Did it seem possible, with the police already out in great numbers after Stride’s murder earlier that morning?
Perhaps hubris was taking over – but, if so, there followed an unlikely intermission of more than a month. The trail went cold. Was the killer in retirement? Or would he return?
Mary Jane KellyOf all the Ripper’s victims, Mary Jane Kelly is the most enigmatic. Her death brought her to the notice of posterity, but her backstory remains shadowy and largely out-of-reach. She herself, having fallen into a relationship with a fishmarket porter named Joseph Barnett, provided a detailed history, full of adventure and sadness. Some aspects of her self-described past now appear to check out, but still a comprehensive and verifiable overview of her background continues to elude researchers.
The photograph of Mary Jane’s corpse, on her bed, divested of practically everything which made her human, is the last, hideous memento of Jack the Ripper’s murderous fugue. In a break with his previous habits, the Ripper ventured inside to kill, and apparently satisfied himself that he was unlikely to be interrupted that night. Barnett had, indeed, moved out of the squalid room in Millers Court which he had shared with Mary Jane a few weeks earlier, insulted by her return to regular prostitution, leaving her alone. Living upstairs, Elizabeth Prater heard a cry of murder at about four in the morning of 9 November 1888 – but she did nothing about it. Mary Jane’s lifeless body was discovered shortly before eleven.
One senior policeman, reviewing the case later on, concluded that the abattoir scene in Millers Court had tipped the mind of its creator. Perhaps. It is certainly true to say that nothing on a comparable scale happened again.
Jack the Ripper’s true identity died on the blanched lips of Mary Jane Kelly.