Conventionally 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.
It 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.
The 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.
If 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?
Of 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.