Guest contributor, Tanya Price, reveals what she learned from Hallie Rubenhold's revelatory book about the victims of Jack the Ripper, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.
I have taught the topic 'Jack the Ripper' several times, at my first school in a unit on ‘Conspiracy Theories’, and also at my most recent school, as a standalone unit; both to year 9 students. Students are generally fascinated by the 'Jack the Ripper' murders and the mystery of who Jack could be: Why did he target women? Why did he kill prostitutes? What was his motive? And ‘Was there a conspiracy’ involving Her Majesty the Queen? All of these are popular avenues down which I have ventured in the past. Having recently read The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold, my thinking has altered. Why have I focused on the identity of 'Jack' instead of looking at who the women were that he murdered? I have never once questioned where they came from, what their back stories were, or even whether they were married and had children. I now think that this is just as interesting as who Jack could possibly be, for by learning the stories of the five victims one learns so much more about the attitudes, experiences and social culture of Victorian London. I also began to question how I, as a single parent with a broken marriage, with experience of parental bereavement at a young age, might have fared if I had lived in 1888. Would my life have trodden a similar path to the women in The Five?
Five compelling aspects of the victims' lives that I discovered from reading The Five:
Polly Nichols, also known as Mary Ann Nichols, was the first victim of Jack the Ripper and was killed on the 31st August 1888. What I found fascinating about Polly was that she once lived in the Peabody Apartments with her husband. This was a brand-new complex built at great expense by the American banker, George Peabody, at the cost of £22,000. The apartments had modern conveniences such as a meat safe, several cupboards, picture rails, and even separate bedrooms. However, it was while Polly and her husband William were living in luxury at the Peabody Apartments that life began to unravel for her. Her husband began an affair with another tenant and Polly saw no other option but to abandon her family and home. In March 1880 Polly began an irregular life living on the streets as a tramp or having short stints in the workhouse. I questioned at this point how women in the 21st century, who have been in a similar position, would have fared. I cannot imagine the majority of women would have to leave their family home and children and live life homeless today due to their partner’s indiscretions. Polly began to drink a lot due to her irregular life, and on the night of her murder she had been drinking in the pub The Frying Pan. It is believed that Polly had no money the night of her murder and was asleep drunk in the corner of Buck’s Row. Hallie Rubenhold’s book asserts that Polly was not a prostitute – something that I have previously taught in school.
Annie Chapman was the second victim of 'Jack the Ripper' and was murdered on 8th September 1888. What I enjoyed finding out about Annie was that she grew up as a soldier’s daughter and her family lived in close geographical proximity to the royal family and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Her family suffered tragedy when several of her siblings died from the disease scarlet fever. This impacted her father so badly that he later committed suicide. Annie married a coach driver - John Chapman. Fascinatingly, the couple had a photograph taken of themselves along with her first two children. John and Annie went to live in Berkshire at a country estate when John became the coach driver for a wealthy gentleman. At this point Annie was now an alcoholic and any subsequent children were born with alcohol foetal syndrome. Annie’s sisters were part of the Temperance Movement and decided she needed to go to a sanatorium for a year to dry out. When Annie returned home to her husband he was suffering from a cold and so was drinking a hot whiskey. On kissing his wife, the fumes were apparently enough to reverse the yearlong abstinence. John and Annie separated but he agreed to pay her a maintenance of 10 shillings a month. Unfortunately, when John died this money stopped and, like Polly Nichols, Annie found herself homeless or living in doss houses. On the night of her murder she was drunk and sleeping rough – just like Polly - at 29 Hanbury Street.
Discovered in Dutfield’s Yard, adjacent to Berner Street, Elizabeth Stride was the third victim of Jack the Ripper, having been murdered on the 30th September 1888. What I found interesting about Elizabeth was that she was originally from Sweden and was raised as Lutheran. Unlike Polly and Annie, Elizabeth was a prostitute in the city of Gothenburg and it was during this time that she contracted the sexual disease of syphilis - a disease for which she was treated but that never left her body completely. Moving to London, Elizabeth married John Stride and together they opened a Coffee Shop in the area of Poplar. Due to the pre-existing health conditions that Elizabeth had, the couple never had any children and the marriage broke down. Interestingly, Elizabeth became somewhat of a con artist and used the disaster of the Princess Anne, which sank in the Thames, to illicit money from sympathetic passers by claiming that her husband and four children had drowned in the shipping tragedy. In 1888, Elizabeth began suffering from epileptic fits and dementia due to her syphilis. She was also arrested several times for drunk and disorderly behaviour. On the night of her murder she visited the Queen’s Head pub on Commercial Street and was seen talking to a man on Berner Street by several witnesses close to midnight. This is the night of the ‘double murder’ and it is believed that 'Jack the Ripper' was disturbed on this occasion.
Catherine Eddowes was the fourth victim of 'Jack the Ripper' and was murdered on the 30th September 1888; she was found in Mitre Square. This was the night of the ‘double murder’. What I found out about Catherine – something I had no prior knowledge of – was that she actually originated from Wolverhampton and her family had worked in the tin trade for two generations. Her father, George Eddowes, was a member of the Tin Man Society and was actually prosecuted for taking part in a strike at his employer’s factory, The Old Hall Works. Rather than face two months’ hard labour in prison, George did a ‘moonlight flit’ and took his family on a canal barge to London. I learned that, in London, Catherine went to school and attended the Great Exhibition as part of a school outing, however her scholarly days were cut short when her mother and father both died of TB within two years of each other. Catherine’s older sisters made the decision to send Catherine back to Wolverhampton to stay with her uncle and aunt whereas the six younger Eddowes children had to live in the workhouse. It was at this point that I started to compare my own childhood with Catherine’s – would I have ended up in the workhouse as a child (aged 5) when my father died with my mother and sister? I assume I would have if I had had no other relatives to look after me and my sister. Catherine ended up working in the Old Hall Works like her father before her, until she decided to walk to Birmingham and try her luck there. In Birmingham, Catherine stayed with her uncle – who was a bare-knuckled boxer – until she met Thomas Conway. Conway was a retired army officer who had been relieved of duty due to a weak heart and was living on his pension and the money he earnt being a ‘chapman’. A chapman is someone who travels from place to place selling pamphlets and ballads. Catherine seemed to be attracted to the idea of accompanying Thomas and, pregnant with his child, they began their life as a duo. The life of a travelling chapman must not have been easy for Catherine – sleeping rough whilst pregnant and not having a guaranteed safe place to give birth must have caused her some anxiety. Catherine gave birth in Great Yarmouth Workhouse Infirmary to a daughter called Annie. The couple continued to tramp about the country looking for a breakthrough – which they found in the form of a ballad about one of Catherine’s distant cousins who was being publicly executed. In 1868, the couple decided to settle in London. This is when the relationship soured. Thomas was unable to find employment and had to leave Catherine and the children to find better prospects. She and the children ended up in the Greenwich Union Workhouse. Again, I made a comparison with my own life and that of many other women in the 21st century. Would this have been my fate if I had been alive in the 1800s after the break down of my marriage? Would I have no other option but to go to the workhouse with my child and be supported by the state?
Mary Jane Kelly was murdered on the 9th November 1888 at Miller’s Court, and is the fifth victim of 'Jack the Ripper'. What I found interesting about Mary Jane Kelly was the fact that she was the only victim who was murdered inside and was in a relatively stable relationship; she was also much younger than the other victims. The details of her early life is not very well known but according to her partner, Joseph Barrett, she originated from Ireland and then moved to Wales whereupon she married a coal miner who died in a tragic accident. She headed to London and became a high-end escort or prostitute for a brothel in the West End, which was run by a French woman. Mary Jane Kelly would dine out at fancy restaurants with clients and ride around in carriages. She was also known to have trunk loads of clothes. It all went wrong for Mary when she was offered a trip to Paris which, it transpires, could have been a trap by one of her clients to force her into the French sex trade. Mary Jane Kelly returned to London on the run and had to try and hide out in the East End. It is believed that she may have changed her name at this point to Mary Jane Kelly and made up her backstory to ward off any chance of being found. Prior to the night of her murder, Mary Jane and her partner had an argument over whether Mary should allow other prostitutes to stay in Miller’s Court as a way to protect them for the serial killer 'Jack the Ripper'. This argument led to a windowpane of glass being smashed which, apparently, allowed easy access to 'Jack the Ripper' into 13 Miller’s Court. It was here that, undisturbed, he had more time to spend on his gruesome acts.
In conclusion, reading Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five has made me more aware of the victims as actual people who had a life before they became a name attached to a mortuary photograph. They were loved. They lived and suffered the same heartbreaks and tragedies that many of us face today but, being part of a different time period and social system, ended up on the streets or living in lodging houses, desperately trying to survive without any help from the government of the day. This book made me personally appreciate how my life – which has, in some respects, endured similar experiences to some of the victims in the book – has had a different outcome, perhaps solely because of the time period I live in.