The murders of Jack the Ripper victims were horrifying, but it was the tragic events throughout their lives that paved the way for their deaths.
We know Jack the Ripper victims for their gruesome murders. We know little else besides the claim that they were prostitutes. But there is a lot more to them.
They were women who led hard lives. Women with families who abandoned them. Women whose society discarded them. Their murders were no coincidence. Their lives were building to those horrific moments.
This post will show you the truth about what really happened to the victims. The truth about their lives makes how they died that much harder to swallow.
If you want to know why Jack the Ripper victims ended up at the end of a knife, keep reading.
If you’re here for gory details of the Whitechapel murders, you will be sorely disappointed.
If you’re looking for theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity, you’re in the wrong place.
If you want to learn more about the suspects, you’re better off elsewhere.
But if you want to find out why Jack the Ripper victims ended up in the dark alleyways of East London, stay right here.
Fact #1: Jack the Ripper Victims Faced Tragedy Long Before Their Murders
Several of the victims experienced death at a young age. They lost brothers, sisters and parents to disease. This was common during the Victorian era. Antibiotics had not yet been invented, and sanitation was abysmal, especially in congested cities. But the death of loved ones is traumatic in any era.
Scarlet Fever Ravaged Annie's Family
Annie Chapman, the second victim of Jack the Ripper, grew up in a military family. Her upbringing, though humble, provided small advantages. She received a better education than most working class children did. In spite of some benefits, the Smith family lived cheek-by-jowl in overcrowded areas with poor sanitation. These conditions eventually exacted their toll.
In the spring of 1854, scarlet fever raged through London, burning through Islington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea. By June, the epidemic overwhelmed the London Fever Hospital with more than 100 patients.
Then, a second epidemic hit: typhus.
The fatality rate of scarlet fever in Great Britian rose from 2% in the 1790s to 15% by 1834 and 30% by the 1850s.
In May, both epidemics landed on Raphael Street, the residence of the Smiths. Annie survived the outbreak, but four of her five siblings died from scarlet fever, including her five-month old brother, William.
Annie’s parents went on to have more children. Her father George secured a new position: valet for one of his regiment’s cavalry officers. His new position greatly improved their lot in life. It appeared that Annie’s parents had managed to move on from tragedy. That was not the case, however.
George slit his own throat with a razor blade, a grotesque precursor to Annie’s murder.
Tuberculosis Claimed Polly’s family
By the start of the 19th century, tuberculosis was responsible for one out of every four deaths in Great Britain.
At just seven years old, Mary Ann Nichols, or “Polly,” the first victim of Jack the Ripper, saw her mother Caroline die from tuberculosis. If that wasn’t enough, her younger brother Frederick suffered the same fate 18 months later.
That wasn’t the last tragedy Polly would endure.
Her prospects improved when she married William Nichols, a printer’s machinist, but it wouldn’t last. Their first-born son died at 1 year and 9 months old. Polly developed a bad drinking habit later. It’s quite possible the death of her infant son contributed to her addiction.
Fact #2: Better Lives Were Within Their Grasp
All Jack the Ripper victims were born to working class families. They all endured hardships. But several of them had opportunities to improve their station in life. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Often, the traumas they endured earlier in their lives returned to haunt them in the forms of depression and addiction.
Annie in the Company of the Queen
Annie Chapman greatly improved her life’s prospects in spite of losing so many loved ones earlier in life. She married John Chapman, who became a private coachman, a respectable occupation.
Eventually, John secured a position in the countryside outside of London tending to the stables and coaches of a landed gentleman. The position came with a country cottage, a substantial upgrade for a working class family. John’s employer went on to become a member of Parliament who occasionally hosted the Queen herself.
The Chapman family had done about as well as a working class family could do. Unfortunately, their good fortune would not hold.
Annie started abusing alcohol. She walked the grounds visibly intoxicated. Before long, John’s employer noticed. He warned John, but Annie maintained her drunken antics. Eventually, John’s employer gave him an ultimatum: Banish his wife, or lose his job.
So he banished her.
Polly in the Peabody Buildings
Polly Nichols and her husband William managed to bounce back after the death of their infant son. They gained entry to the selective Peabody Buildings, which only admitted upstanding citizens that met certain criteria of eligibility.
They must be gainfully employed. They must abstain from alcohol. They must be a married couple with children that didn’t exceed a certain number.
The financier of the Peabody Buildings, George Peabody, donated 150,000 pounds to the city of London with the express purpose of addressing the housing issue in London. Housing was a major challenge, especially in the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Tenements there were filthy and cramped.
The aim of the Peabody Buildings was to give working class families an opportunity for safe, clean and affordable housing. Polly and William were the lucky beneficiaries of the philanthropic project. Unfortunately, their luck would run out.
Polly and William started to quarrel openly. The Peabody Buildings frowned on this kind of behavior. Their marriage became tempestuous. Polly was drinking to excess, and was eventually expelled from the Peabody Buildings.
At face value, it may seem that the Peabody Buildings ousted Polly because of her alcohol abuse, but, as we’ll see later, there was more to the story.
Fact #3: Jack the Ripper Victims Were Betrayed
Some of the victims lost opportunities to improve their lives. Others were betrayed. As working class women in Victorian society, the victims didn’t need any help getting knocked down a peg. But some of them got exactly that.
Elizabeth Stride: Left in the Lurch
Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of Jack the Ripper, entered into domestic service, the profession of her sisters and many young women in Sweden at the time. She secured work as a maid at the Olssons, the household in which her older sister worked.
Elizabeth came from a good family of farmers, and she had her sisters to vouch for her. She had an opportunity to build a life for herself, but it didn’t take long for Elizabeth to get into trouble.
Elizabeth submitted to a mandatory health evaluation, which revealed she had syphilis and genital warts.
One in five Londoners contracted syphilis before the age of 35 at the turn of the 19th century.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, this discovery was a matter of public record. This only added to the stigma. There was no cure for syphilis at the time, as antibiotics didn’t yet exist. That didn’t stop Victorian doctors from administering dangerous treatments.
The hospital treating Elizabeth applied mercury and other noxious metals to her genital area, a common method at the time. It’s quite likely the mercury caused her stillborn birth.
Elizabeth eventually fled Sweden, but her past stigmas and traumas would follow her the rest of her life. That’s true in a practical sense, not just in a symbolic way.
Her venereal diseases stayed with her. Uncured, syphilis in its last stage infects the brain. It’s likely this wreaked havoc on Elizabeth’s psychology and her personality later in life.
Mary Jane Held Captive in Paris
Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the Jack the Ripper victims, was the only victim in her twenties. By all accounts, she was an attractive young woman. Few knew much about her past, but it seems that she spent some time in high-end brothels in the West End of London.
Her lifestyle would have been much more lavish than her time in the East End. Men would have paid handsomely for her company. They would have showered her with gifts and clothes. They would have taken her out to dinner and the theater.
This relative luxury culminated in a trip to Paris. Mary Jane’s madam organized the trip. We don’t know exactly what took place in Paris, but we do know that Mary Jane returned in two weeks. We know that whatever happened there did not agree with Mary Jane.
Some have deduced that Mary Jane was likely sold into the sex trade abroad. If that is the case, her return to England would have been to escape her captors. She would have fled to East London to evade her pursuers.
In East London, Mary Jane’s prospects deteriorated drastically.
William Replaced Polly with Charwoman
Coverture, common law for centuries, mandated that men were given all custody to their wife’s property, earnings and money.
Polly’s husband William claimed that Polly’s drinking was the cause of their marital woes. According to Polly’s inquest, however, Polly’s father stated that William’s infidelity was the reason for their split.
While at the Peabody Buildings, Polly and William hired a charwoman, a part-time domestic servant that poor families paid for piecemeal. Their charwoman was a woman named Rosetta who lived next door.
We don’t know for certain that infidelity brought about their breakup. We do know, however, that after Polly left William, William and Rosetta had a child together.
Following the unofficial end of their marriage, Polly’s life took a sharp turn for the worse.
Fact #4: Last-Minute Kindness Could Have Saved Them
The victims of Jack the Ripper lived on the knife’s edge between temporary housing and homelessness. Every night was a struggle to find or keep a roof over their heads. The difference on any given night could be the kindness of a friend, acquaintance, employer or even a stranger.
Catherine Eddowes: Cast Out by Police
In 1887, the year before the Whitechapel murders, there were 8,773 police officers in London.
The police arrested Catherine Eddowes the afternoon before her murder for being drunk and disorderly. They released her from her holding cell around midnight. She was dead hours later.
It’s curious that the police didn’t let Catherine stay the night in the holding cell. The police said afterward that she was clamoring to be released. She claimed to be sober, but it’s likely, given the degree of her earlier intoxication, that she was still inebriated.
Another factor to consider is the pall of dread that had descended on London after the second murder. Authorities urged women, especially sex workers, to avoid staying out late.
It’s under these circumstances that the police released Catherine in the middle of the night. About the same time Catherine departed the police station, Jack the Ripper was killing his third victim, Elizabeth Stride.
Lodging House Refused Polly A Bed
“I’ll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now.”
– Polly Nichols, hours before her murder
The deputy of Wilmott Lodging House, a public house in East London, kicked Mary Ann Nichols out around 1:20 a.m. She didn’t have her “doss money,” the fee required for a night’s lodging. Polly famously responded with, “I’ll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got.”
Deputies sometimes allowed lodgers to stay the night even if they didn’t have their doss money. The lodgers would then pay down their arrears the next day. It was up to the discretion of the deputy. That particular night, the deputy showed Polly no clemency, and it cost her her life.
Why Jack the Ripper Victims Became Victims
Jack the Ripper brutally murdered five women, maybe more. But if he hadn’t killed them, he would have killed others in a similar situation.
He killed these women not because he carefully chose them. He killed them because they were easy targets. These women had no safety nets. They were housing-insecure. They had no recourse.
Much of that had to do with how Victorian society treated working class women, especially those whose marriages fell apart. Victorian society frowned upon working class women who separated from their husbands.
Their opportunities shrank. They could no longer secure respectable jobs. Sexist laws and customs forced them into the margins of society, where they were vulnerable to predators.
Tell us what you think.
Do you think the police should have let Catherine Eddowes stay the night?
Should the lodging house have deferred Polly’s payment?