We could be talking about recent history – but this description also applies to the late nineteenth century. It was a time when Britain effectively ruled the globe, economically, politically and culturally. At its heart was London, the symbolic centre of the world. And then in 1888 the capital was shaken by a series of horrific murders unlike anything it had experienced before. In the space of three months Jack the Ripper systematically butchered five women in the notorious East End before vanishing mysteriously into the night. The newspapers called it the ‘Autumn of Terror’ and for once they were not exaggerating. Even in the wealthy West End, people locked their doors for fear that the Ripper could strike anywhere, anytime. It seemed as if this psychotic killer was tearing up the past to make way for a new, darker future.
At the same time, life went on as normal. Men, women and children ate, drank, worked and played. The ‘Year of the Ripper’ saw the births of T.S. Eliot, T.E. Lawrence and John Logie Baird and the deaths of Edward Lear and Matthew Arnold. And tragically there were other homicide victims less famous than Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. By the end of 1888 the Metropolitan Police would count a total of 28 murders and 94 manslaughters, including a 71-year-old retired major shot dead by his son, an unidentified torso found dead in the foundations of New Scotland Yard, a Russian immigrant slaughtered by her husband, a dressmaker stabbed and battered to death in her own home and a 2-year-old boy decapitated by his mentally ill mother.
Time passed and the citizens of London quickly overcame their fear of the Ripper. They even felt able to joke about him as the ultimate bogeyman. Today, over 125 years later, there remains only curiosity about the true identity of the man (or woman) who turned real life into the stuff of nightmares.
By Peter Stubley