If you go to London and you want a dose of the macabre, you won’t be disappointed! We know that Jack the Ripper was a serial Killer that, thanks to his horrible crimes, sadly became a celebrity. His failure to be capture, and the uncertainty about his identity contribute to keep alive, after more than a century from the events, the interest in his criminal life, the places where the murders took place, and the modalities of the crimes. In the district of Whitechapel, where in 1888 Jack the Ripper brutally cut the throats of five prostitutes and removed their organs, guided tours are organized, and few year ago a museum dedicated to the serial killer was opened.
In the intentions of the curators, the museum was intended to tell the “story of the women of the East End, through their eyes”, but in reality presents itself as an attraction dedicated almost exclusively to the murderer, so much so that from many quarters (feminists – academics – protest groups), its closure was requested because it “leads to sexual violence against women”.
It is not surprising that the museum has moved the attention from the victims to the murderer, because the mystery that hovers on its identity, and on the motivations of the crimes, continues to fascinate a large number of people, so that there’s a whole field dedicated to the study of his crimes called “Ripperology”.
The story of Jack the Ripper is in reality imbued with misogyny, as stated by Deborah Cameron, a professor at the University of Oxford: “The figure of Jack the Ripper has been thoroughly sterilized, turning it into a popular hero like Robin Hood. His story is shown as a harmless entertainment, and only a spoilsport would be so indelicate to stress that it is a story of misogyny and sadism.”
The incomprehensibility of his actions, combined with the dynamics of the media market, continues still today to fuel the public’s interest in Jack the Ripper. But already at the time of the crimes, the newspapers understood well how lot of interests came from to the description of the horrendous mutilations perpetrated by the serial killer on the victims.
According to Gregg Jones, in his work “Murder, Media and Mythology”, “reporting of the murders did not show sympathy for the fate of the butchered women” because “they were prostitutes and seen to have ‘chosen their profession’…[which] facilitated the continuation of reporting scandal and creating moral outrage but without the need for public sympathy for the murdered women.”
In conclusion, again with the words of Gregg Jones: “Too often the victims are seen as extras in the story of the Whitechapel murderer, when the true story is that of these unfortunate women in a society in which the lack of opportunities has forced them to a path that led to their murder; in this way, the Victorian society was a little complicit in the murder of these women.”
In a way, this vision has remained unaltered until today: the public is fascinated by the figure of the serial killer, and by the violence exerted on the victims, whose history goes into the background, until it is completely forgotten. The women who died at the hands of Jack the Ripper all led a troubled life, and in many ways reveal the reality of Victorian London much better than any study of the man who committed the murders can do.
Mary Ann Nichols
The life of Mary Ann Walker was always marked by many difficulties. She was born in London in 1845, and she married in 1864 with William Nichols, with whom she had five children. Although the marriage lasted over twenty years, she was not particularly happy, so much so that the couple separated at least five or six times before finally breaking up, in 1881. The woman’s father accused William of betraying Mary Ann with the woman who had taken care of her during the last pregnancy, while the man imputed to his wife the responsibility of the end of the marriage, also due to the problems of alcoholism of the woman. With the separation, Mary Ann had the right to receive five shillings a week from her husband, but they were removed when William discovered that his wife was a prostitute. From that moment on Mary Ann’s life was a progressive descent towards total poverty and the absolute dependence on alcohol. She managed to find a job as a maid for a well-off family, but the absolut non-alcohol obligation led her to abandon it, after stealing also some clothes. In recent years, Mary Ann was often welcomed into public facilities for needy (working houses), when she could not pay for a squalid pension where to sleep.
The night she was murdered, the woman, after spending the evening in a pub, went to the guesthouse where she usually slept, but did not have the money to pay, so she asked the caretaker to keep her a bed while she went out to get the money. Emily Holland, one of her roommates, met her around 2.30 am, and Mary Ann told her that she had earned the money she needed for retirement three times, but then consumed it all in alcohol. So, she told her she would try again to get the few pence needed for the bed, but probably her next meeting was with the killer. The corpse was discovered around 3.45 am on the night of August 31, 1888, probably a few minutes after her death, according to the doctor called at the scene of the crime.
So far, Annie Chapman’s life was normal. She married in 1869, at 29, and she had three children. The problems, for her and her husband, began with the birth of the third child, who was disabled, and with the death of their first child, when he was 12 years old. Both tried to drown these great pains in alcohol, until the situation became unsustainable and the two separated, in 1884.
Annie went to live in Whitechapel with another man, while her husband paid her 10 shillings a week. At the death of her husband, without this thin income, the woman was abandoned by the new partner, and tried to get money by selling crocheting small jobs, flowers, and if necessary prostituting herself. She, too, was part of the line of desperate women who did not have enough money to pay for a bed in a pension, and like Mary Ann Nichols, on the night of her death she wandered around Whitechapel, trying to earn the few needed pence. She was seen alive at about 5:30 am, and her body was found at 5:50 am on 8 September 1888, with her throat cut off, and her body horribly mutilated.
Unlike other victims, Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish by birth, was already a very young prostitute when she was still living in her home country. She arrived in England in 1886, where she was registered as a prostitute, and a carrier of venereal diseases.
She married in 1869, but she separated very early. Elizabeth said that her husband and her nine children, who she had never actually had, had died in the sinking of a ship on the Thames. In reality, her husband died of tuberculosis in 1884.
Left alone and without a source of secure income, Elizabeth lived in care homes, also thanks to the charity of the Church of Sweden, taking care of cleaning and sewing in the shelters where she was housed. Although in the last two years of her life she accompanied with a worker who lived in the neighborhood, she was still alone in the days before her death. On the night she was murdered, some witnesses saw her kissing, or talking, with a “respectable” gentleman, never identified. At one o’clock on the night of September 30, 1888, her body was found in a courtyard, with the throat still bleeding, so killed a few moments before her discovery. Elizabeth has not suffered the horrible mutilations inflicted instead on the two previous victims, probably because the killer was interrupted before being able to perform them, then forced to look for another prostitute…
Catherine Eddowes never married, but joined, at 21, with Thomas Conway, with whom she lived for twenty years, and with whom she had three children. The couple separated, probably due to the excessive use of alcohol by the woman. Shortly thereafter Catherine found a new companion, with whom she remained until her death. She began to prostitute occasionally to pay the rent, but her real problem was alcohol addiction. On the night of her murder, the same night Elizabeth Stride was killed, a policeman found her in the street, completely drunk and fainted. She was taken to the police station, and then released around 1 am; one witness said he had seen her with a man around 1.30.
Catherine never returned home, and the modalities of her murder are even more gruesome than the previous ones: Jack the Ripper had cut her throat, eyelids, lifted flaps of skin from her face, removed the kidneys and opened the intestine. According to the doctor who performed the autopsy, who had done this, in the dark, had to have some knowledge of anatomy. After a couple of weeks since Catherine’s death, the head of a surveillance group received a kidney by post, along with a letter “from hell”, written by a man who claimed to be the killer, and who signed with the name attributed to him by the press, Jack the Ripper.
Mary Jane Kelly
The Irish Mary Jane Kelly was the youngest of Jack the Ripper’s most recognized victims: she was only 25 when she was killed, and she was considered a very beautiful woman with red hair and blue eyes. Mary had been married for three years when her husband died in a mining accident. She had serious health problems for more than a year, and like many other women without alternatives, Mary Jane began to prostitute herself, but in brothels reserved for wealthy people.
When she met Joseph Barnett, she went to live in the East End, changing lodging several times with her partner, or because they did not pay the rent, or because they were often drunk. Barnett, who had recently left Mary Jane, but still continued to see her, told that the fear of Jack the Ripper had pushed the woman to sometimes host in her small room some prostitutes who did not know where to sleep.
During the night between 8 and 9 November, Mary was heard singing while in her room, and she was seen around 2.30, together with a well-dressed man, outside the front door. The next morning, a person in charge of the landlord, who was to collect the rent, found himself in front of a chilling show, too bloody even to describe. This time Jack the Ripper, in addition to the horrendous mutilations, had opened the pericardium and removed the heart, which was not found with the other organs scattered throughout the room.