A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
On chilly dark evenings, footsteps still echo in the Whitechapel district of London. Sometimes, if there’s a mist, you can hear them making their muffled way in the night. They are ghosts of sounds, travelling through time from their far away shadows. They live in our minds, where the light is dim and uneven. It flutters close to our eyes. The smooth stones at our feet slip away from us, and we step slowly. The streets are slender and the walls are high. They turn and fade with long shadows of shapes of people that move like silence in the night. There are corners and alleys too deep for us to see them…black shades…they are only sounds of voices that have no words. There are faces. We are among them. They move past us without features. Just seen and then gone. We cannot be sure of what we see. Our senses are tricked by the dark and the night.
This is the half-light world of the East End of Victorian London. It’s a world we’re never seen and can only imagine. It’s crowded and dirty and smells like rotten food and unwashed people. It’s a place that’s greasy and old, with narrow walkways and sputtering gaslight, shaded faces and shiny hands. Too many people and not enough money, it has shallow, gasping breath and it coughs dry and alone in the night. It’s a place where nightmares are made, and, in 1888, it made one. It called itself Jack the Ripper.
For a few months in 1888, Jack the Ripper stalked the dim streets of Whitechapel, London. Forever after, he walks in our collective memory. His name is synonymous with evil. He is that thing we look over our shoulders for, on lonely nights. He is the horror we can’t talk our way out of.
Jack the Ripper was not the first serial killer, nor the most prolific, nor even the most hideous (although that is a relative term) but he is the most remembered. People who know nothing about history, crime or violence still recognize his name. Given what we now know about serial killers and their motivation, he would be quite pleased to know that he’s been so famous for so long. He might even laugh.
So what is the fascination? Why do we still fear him? How did Jack the Ripper creep into our subconscious and why is he still hiding there? Even Count Dracula, a Victorian horror in his own right, doesn’t hold that kind of power. Why Jack the Ripper, and what did he do to all of us on those chilly, dark evenings in Whitechapel?
It was on such a night, August 31st, 1888 that Mary Ann Nichols walked down Whitechapel Road. She stopped outside a grocer’s on Osborne Street to talk with Emily Holland, who had once shared rooms with her. The Whitechapel Church bell struck the half hour; it was 2:30 am. At 3:15, Constable John Thain passed the entrance to Buck’s Row and Constable John Neil walked down into the little street. There was nothing unusual. At 3:45, Charles Cross and Robert Paul entered Buck’s Row on their way to work. They found the body of a woman, lying in the street. They thought she might still be alive so they went off to find a policeman. Constable Neil was continuing his rounds, and, within a few seconds of Cross and Paul’s leaving he entered Buck’s Row and also found the woman. She was Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper.
At the inquest, it was revealed that Nichols’ throat had been cut — twice — from left to right, and the mutilation of her body had been done by a left-handed man — a very experienced left-handed man. The wounds were precise and death was immediate. Also, it was revealed that earlier, Nichols had been thrown out of her lodgings, because she had no money. This was not unusual. It was also stated that she had been drinking heavily and had gone “out” with a couple of men to get some money for more drink and to pay for a room for the night. This, also, was not unusual. Mary Ann Nichols was only one of many women, who, for a few pennies, would accompany a strange man into one of the dark corners of WhiteChapel, East End, London.
Eight days later, on Saturday, September 8th, at about 5:30 am, Elizabeth Long was walking down Hanbury Street. She noticed a woman she knew, Annie Chapman, but did not stop and talk to her. At approximately 6:00 am, less than a half hour later, John Davis left his room at #29 Hanbury St., probably to use the outdoor toilet. In a shallow recess by the door he discovered the body of a woman. It was Annie Chapman.
At the inquest, Elizabeth Long testified that she had been on her way to Spitalfields Market — Saturday was Market day – and that the streets were crowded. She also stated, that when she saw Annie Chapman, she was standing in front of #29 Hanbury St., talking to a man. She didn’t see his face, but she described him as about 40, wearing a dark coat and a deerstalker’s cap. She also said he had a shabby-genteel appearance and that he was only slightly taller than Chapman who was about 5 feet tall. John Davis testified that, before he discovered the body, there had been nothing unusual about that morning, and he did not see or hear anything. Each of the other 17 occupants of #29 said exactly the same thing. The yard where the body was found was about 12 feet square and there was only one exit – back onto the street. Annie Chapman’s throat had been cut from left to right, she had been horribly mutilated and part of her uterus had been removed. All of this took place in the dim light of morning — on a crowded London Street — in less than 30 minutes! And nobody saw or heard anything.
Friday: Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell