It's a Guy Thing

Jack the Ripper

Why do we kill for intrigue? 

By Ian Kirke / @ianjkirke 

The cold evening chill against my face only added to my already heightened sense of anticipation. Slayings, subterfuge, and the sinister story of London’s first recorded serial killer was only moments away. How was I so certain? This was at least my fifth walking tour of the killing grounds of Jack the Ripper. 

Standing on the pavement awaiting the guide, Aldgate High Street bustled with activity. I looked across the road, back towards The Hoop and Grapes where I had earlier enjoyed a pint after discovering that this ancient drinking den, built in 1593, had been the only pub to survive the great fire of 1666. The old and the new fused together often effortlessly, yet occasionally awkwardly too, typified no more than by a seemingly modern office block hosting a huge illuminated sign that simply proclaimed, “White Chapel.” The killer had been referred to as the Whitechapel murderer prior to the media frenzy following the publication of the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, received by the Central News Agency of London on 27th September 1888, and latterly the “From Hell” correspondence. Sent to George Lusk, chair of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee on 15th October 1888, this letter was accompanied by half a human liver. 

As I awaited the arrival of my guide I became frustrated. He was late. I called the tour number only to discover that the error was mine and I was an hour early. Was this a lack of attention to detail on my part or further evidence of how this story had gripped me? To kill some time I had another beer in the nearby East India Arms, built next to the once goliath of overseas trading, the East India Company. The intimacy of most of the East End boozers I had previously frequented was elegantly reflected in this example. Cramped, yet with small booths that allowed a degree of privacy, no doubt enabling yesteryear traders to seal the deal, and nowadays, adulterers and fraudsters to fashion their crimes. Or alternatively space for reflection. I decided that following this tour, I would set myself three targets: identify why I had been compelled to tread this route so often; what could I discover about the early lives of the victims – simply labeling them all as prostitutes was a gross injustice; and as an ex-cop, identify my prime suspect. 

As I delved into the scientific descriptors of human curiosity I was surprised by the conclusion of Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Hayden of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Center for Visual Science, University of Rochester, New York, “Curiosity is a basic element of our cognition, but its biological function, mechanisms, and neural underpinning remain poorly understood.” 

Would the answer to my first issue elude me? Nonetheless, and with my criminal justice pedigree supporting my personal quest, I continued my investigation. 

Psychologist Daniel Berlyne is perhaps one of the most important contemporary contributors to a consensus on curiosity, describing it as the driving force behind the human desire to explore. No wonder the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise (Star Trek: The Next Generation) held such personal reverence, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” But this synopsis still left me wanting to know more. I had trodden this particular London terrain on several occasions and had explored every conceivable conspiracy theory. What kept me coming back for more? Then Goldilocks provided a hint. Not the character in the classic fairy tale, created by the English author Robert Southey, but the psychological principle. In essence, we are attracted to situations holding just about the right level of challenge for the moment we are in. Like Goldilocks, who after tasting three bowls of porridge chooses the one that is not too hot, nor too cold, but just about the right temperature. The theory, according to author Laura Grace Weldon, is, “Something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold the player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments.” Laura had nailed it – I was captivated by the story but needed to reach a better understanding. In other words, of the hundred or so suspects mooted by Ripperologists ever since the last murder of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November 1888, it was necessary for me to pronounce my verdict. My final personal objective would, hopefully, provide some assurance on this matter, yet my second goal had primacy. As with many other notorious criminals, the Ripper’s victims routinely remained anonymous. Statistics. Footnotes. Afterthoughts. All five victims were at one time optimistic, spirited, and ambitious. All enjoyed loving relationships, and some had children. Whatever their final circumstances none deserved the brutality inflicted upon them by the cowardly murderers – the plural is deliberate since I believe Jack the Ripper had an accomplice, but more of that later. 

“The Five” by Hallie Rubenhold, a most incredibly written book, is a compassionate and comprehensive account of the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. Furthermore, it paints an uncompromising and chillingly accurate landscape of Victorian Britain that arguably had its most catastrophic epicenter in London’s East End. During the Ripper’s reign of terror, Whitechapel – about the size of two hundred football pitches – was home to a quarter of a million people living in the most appalling and squalid conditions. 

Sanitation didn’t exist and raw human sewage mixed with animal waste on the only playgrounds of the children of the poorest, where it was commonplace for two families to share one cramped room. Only half of the Whitechapel youngsters would reach the age of five. Of those that survived, life expectancy was, at best, mid-forties. The murder rate often peaked to around twenty a night, fuelled by the lucrative trade in body parts facilitated by local unscrupulous pub landlords, including the proprietor of The Ten Bells. Around eighty percent of the women were prostitutes and many of their clients traveled from the more affluent West End. 

Mary Walker was born on 26th August 1845, on a day described as fine and dry. Her home was less so, a decrepit 200-year-old building called Dawes Court, on Gunpowder Ally, Shoe Lane. I didn’t need to close my eyes to imagine her torrid start to life. Yet her loving parents Edward, a blacksmith in nearby Lambeth, and Caroline created a humble but stable life, along with siblings Frederick and Edward junior. Mary, affectionally known as Polly, went to School and unusually for her gender and class was allowed to stay in education until age fifteen, largely due to her father’s supportive influence. During this period, it was usual to teach reading but not writing, although Polly became fluent in both. Never straying far from her dad, she married 19-year-old William Nichols, a warehouseman. They had five children and later resided in the rather splendidly named, and eminently more comfortable, Peabody Buildings on Stamford Street. Her life began a spiral of despair when the marriage failed, and she and William divorced following his affair with a near neighbor and friend of Polly. Turning to drink, her mental health deteriorated rapidly. Constantly arguing with her once adoring father, he kicked her out of his home, and with nowhere to live or means of support she turned to prostitution. She was murdered on 31st August 1888, aged forty-three. 

Eliza Ann Smith was born, it is believed, on 25th September 1840. Having been born outside of wedlock to dad and soldier George and mum Ruth, documentation is sparse. Her mother would have faced a momentous change in fortunes, losing her employment and being dependent upon paltry and erratic handouts from George. Society was even less compassionate, labeling her and those of similar circumstances “dollymops.” Whilst not representing a working prostitute, Ruth was nonetheless considered an amateur courtesan. Fortunately, two years later George was given permission to marry his lover, and mother of four more children. Designated married quarters were not provided until the 1850s and newlyweds had to occupy screened-off areas of the communal barracks. Military service dictated that the family moved between 

London and Berkshire. Eliza, more frequently called Annie, commenced her education, funded by the Army. Regimental schools instilled a sense of discipline and duty to the monarch, and promoted the earnest held belief that this provision would endow children with, “the means of making themselves useful and earning a livelihood.” She latterly became a domestic servant, although her other tag was less endearing. According to her brother Fountain she “first took a drink when she was quite young.” Nonetheless, she matured into a doting mother of three after marrying John James Chapman on 1st May 1869. When her eldest daughter Emily Ruth died of meningitis aged twelve on her brother John’s second birthday the harrowing trauma turned Annie back to alcohol to lessen the enduring pain. Her marriage and home life crumbled. Suffering from tuberculosis she left home and turned to prostitution and flower selling. She was murdered on 8th September 1888, aged forty-seven. 

Elisabeth Gustafsdotter was born on the 27th of November 1843 in Torslanda, about nine miles west of Gothenburg, Sweden to proud parents Gustaf and Beata. The second of four children she enjoyed a comfortable rural upbringing. Each local parish contained a common school with a limited syllabus, essentially writing and arithmetic. Religious study complemented the former, and Lutherans Bible classes were essential alongside learning the tenets of the faith contained within the Book of Concord. A month before her seventeenth birthday she left home for Gothenburg to seek employment in domestic service, a traditional route for many young Swedish provincial women, also providing an opportunity to earn a dowry. According to residency records, in February 1861 she was a maidservant to the family of Lars Fredrick Olsson. Three years later her service with the family came to an abrupt end. Records remain vague save the fact that she relocated to nearby Domkyrko where the local clerk recorded her occupation as a servant but, somewhat surprisingly, omitted her address. This may be evidence of an uncertain future, with speculation existing that she had become subject to the coercive influence of another. Later police records show that she was arrested for prostitution. In February 1866 Elisabeth emigrated to London, telling friends two conflicting stories – to work as a domestic servant for an unnamed gentleman who lived near Hyde Park, or to stay with relatives. It is presumed that she funded this trip with a sixty-five Krona inheritance following the death of her mother in 1864. On 7th March 1869, she married carpenter John Thomas Stride, residing in East India Dock Road and running a coffee shop in Poplar. The couple had no children, and their relationship began to fail in 1874. Documents show that she was admitted to the Poplar workhouse in March 1877, although later census records indicate that the couple reunited in 1881, living in Bow. On 24th October 1884, John died of tuberculosis. Elisabeth then embarked on a 

string of erratic relationships, typified by the turbulent partnership with laborer Michael Kidney. In addition to sporadic domestic work, she returned to prostitution. She was murdered on 29th September 1888, aged forty-four. 

Catherine, Kate or ‘Chick,’ Eddowes was born on 14th April 1842 in Wolverhampton to parents George and Catherine, the sixth of twelve children. Two months after her birth her family boarded an overcrowded canal barge and made the grueling journey to London. George, a tinplate worker, had been forced to relocate due to the mechanization of his trade. Obtaining work with Perkins and Sharpus in Bell Court as a skilled mechanic the family took residence in Baden Place, Bermondsey. Opportunity shone upon Kate who was educated at Dowgate, a charity-funded school that possessed a degree of prestige since, at times, it had a waiting list. The purpose of the school was to support working-class children to become a dignified and obedient labor force by applying the principles of Christianity. A formidable caste system existed within Victorian England and the dutiful workforce would be shaped from cradle to grave. Kate’s mother died on 17th November 1855, two years before the death of her father, resulting in fifteen-year-old Kate and three of her siblings being admitted to the local workhouse. Having subsequently secured work as a tinplate stamper she was made redundant, possibly as a result of stealing from her employer. Kate later entered into a relationship with former soldier Thomas Conway and mothered three children. Although there is no documentary evidence to confirm marriage, she began to refer to herself as Kate Conway and tattooed herself on her left forearm with the initials ‘TC.’ Around 1873, after the birth of her youngest son, the relationship began to falter, and Kate began to drink, something her teetotal husband abhorred. Domestic violence became rife, and she would often be seen with black eyes and bruising. In 1880 Kate left Conway and her two children (the eldest having already left) and started a relationship with John Kelly whom she met when they stayed at the same lodging house. In 1881 she appeared before Thames Magistrates Court on a charge of being drunk and disorderly. She tended to earn money from domestic work and seasonal hop picking in Kent. It is thought she supplemented her often miserable wages with occasional prostitution in order to pay her rent. If that failed, she was often known to sleep rough. She was murdered on 30th September 1888, aged forty-six. 

Mary Jane Kelly was an enigma. Her early life is somewhat hazy, and she was the author of much of her own testimony, yet her obvious verve for life allows me to ignore any potential embellishments. She was a young vivacious, fiery Irish girl who according to her version of events was born in 1863 in Limerick, shortly after which her father John Kelly relocated the family to, perhaps, Carmarthen in Wales where he was employed in the ironworks. She claimed that her well-to-do family had subsequently disowned her. 

From many accounts, she had an artistic flair and was a strikingly beautiful redhead. In 1879, aged about sixteen, she married a coal miner who apparently died three years later in a pit explosion. This period of her life is shrouded in further mystery, only adding to the obvious and radiant charm of Mary, although it is suspected that she may have become a casual prostitute. In 1884 her whereabouts became more certain when she moved to London and worked in a tobacconist in Chelsea before entering domestic service in Spitalfields. Those in top hats seeking high-class pleasures of the flesh, as opposed to a knee-trembler against a wall in the less affluent areas of London, were drawn to the West End. This is where Mary landed, in an elite brothel. Establishing herself as one of the most popular girls she dressed in expensive clothing and hired carriages to transport her across the metropolis. Legend has it that wealthy client Francis Craig persuaded her to live with him in France where she adopted the name, Marie Jeanette. A fortnight later the enigmatic Mary was back in London. Her glitzy lifestyle began to wane, and she began to drink heavily and eventually found herself in the East End where she briefly lived with a man called Morganstone close to the Commercial Gas Works in Stepney. Latterly, and according to her then neighbor Lizzie Albrook, Mary became depressed and yearned to return to Ireland. She was often heard singing Irish songs when drunk. Due to her abuse of those around her she earned the nickname “Dark Mary.” She was murdered on 9th November 1888 whilst inside her lodgings at 13 Millers Court, aged twenty-five. 

On this particular tour, my guide was Paul Mansfield, a former London detective. As we completed the circuit he ushered our tour group into a discrete doorway. He then applied a logic that appealed to my criminal justice background. The victims knew of each other – proximity of residence, frequenting mutual ground, and sharing a common occupation. In addition, they shared intimate and extraordinary liaisons – in this case, sufficient for the need to be silenced. Today sex workers look out for each other and I have no doubt that this important camaraderie also existed then. As an ex-cop, Paul was aware that key evidence had gone missing and that certain aspects of this investigation remained off the public radar. This narrative hit a personal nerve and I knew instinctively that this was unlikely to be completely down to errant administration. It smacked of a potential whitewash. Reflecting the order by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren during the Ripper inquiry to wash away crime scene graffiti, and potentially crucial evidence, that read, “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.” A highly educated and cunning primary offender may have intended to throw the pursuing cops off the scent by deception and confusion. 

The murderer clearly had surgical skills and had in all of the murders, save that of Elisabeth Stride, mutilated the victims with a concentrated focus upon the reproductive organs. To achieve this level of butchery they needed time and an accomplice to act as a lookout. The human density of the killing fields coupled with the heightened police presence once the serial nature of offending had been established, meant that the offenders needed the ironclad immunity to come and go as they pleased. Royal carriages were afforded this unique protection. The striking allure of Mary was captivating. A highly sexual companion, of optimum childbearing age, who could have enchanted the very privileged elite. 

In an article published in November 1970, Doctor Thomas Stowell, an octogenarian surgeon, recounted a discussion in his youth with Caroline Acland, the daughter of a royal physician who had treated a young man riddled with syphilis which had migrated to his brain. As unlikely as it had seemed on previous walks the connections began to forge. Motive and opportunity resonated as never before. Then Paul disclosed the clinching part of the jigsaw. The royal physician’s illiterate coach driver, having been quizzed by police during the Ripper investigation, and choosing to be less than discrete, suddenly became silenced when, allegedly, a vital organ was surgically removed from him. The presumed identity of the syphilis-riddled patient? Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, and Avondale, grandson of Queen Victoria. Since Mary was catholic the succession of a non-protestant offspring to the throne was inconceivable. My prime suspect? Sir William Gull, physician-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria. 

But then, what do I know? This is only my verdict, although I have for the first time fully addressed my own intrigue and have finally laid to rest to my own satisfaction, a decades-long query. Having resolved my own curiosity will I embark on another Jack the Ripper tour? Maybe. But if I do when next in this part of London, I will look at it through a different lens, and not solely through the eyes of a killer. 

© Ian Kirke 2021