‘You are a disgrace to human nature’: the meanness of the Poor Law exposed

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The Police Courts were places where people could bring their grievances on all manner of things in the 1800s. It is easy to get the impression that their main purpose was to deal with crime – petty and serious. However, this view is often reinforced by the newspapers’ selection of cases to bring to the attention of their readers: they often chose the outrageous, amusing, shocking, and heart ringing stories as well as regular examples of cases which reminded the public that working class men were brutal, that theft was common, and fraud to be avoided by the wary.

When Ellen Potts came to the Guildhall Police court to ask for Alderman Moon’s help it gave the court reporter of The Morning Post the perfect opportunity to expose an old chestnut: the misuse of authority by a lowly public servant. It helped that Ellen was pretty (‘a good-looking girl’ of ‘about 18 years of age’) and the public servant had a reputation locally for meanness.  Immediately then there was a melodramatic backstory that readers could relate to with a villain and a young heroine that needed saving.

Miss Potts told the court that she had been thrown out of her home after a row with her mother (‘over a shawl’). With nowhere to go that night Ellen knocked on the door of the West London Union workhouse at St Bride’s on Shoe Lane. The relieving officer, Mr Miller, refused her entry however, on the grounds that her mother took in lodgers at her house on Cloth Lane and so was perfectly capable of supporting her daughter.

Alderman Moon was angry with the officer whose only (and sustained) defense was to say he was only following orders. He quickly established that Mrs Potts was receiving poor relief herself and that Miller knew this.

‘Then how can she support her daughter?’ the magistrate demanded to know.

‘You have discretionary power, and I think it is a most cruel act of a man to refuse shelter to a girl under such circumstances, and your conduct is most disgraceful’.

When Miller tried once more to say it that Ellen was her mothers responsibility Alderman Moon cut him off.

‘Don’t talk to me about the mother. You may be a good badger for the guardians, but at the same time a disgrace to human nature. No wonder, when females  are thus cruelly refused an asylum, so many should become prostitutes for the sake of obtaining that relief for which the ratepayers are rated so heavily. There are constant complaints of your hard-hearted conduct, which is a disgrace to your nature’.

This brought cries of ‘hear, hear’ from all sections of the courtroom and Miller must have looked up miserably from the dock, as he continued to say that he was only doing what he’d been told to do by his employers.

The chief clerk whispered to the alderman that Miller was liable to a hefty fine for his actions. The magistrate told Miller that he was going to levy that penalty, £5, for disobeying the general rule that ‘relief shall be given to all person in urgent distress’. After one more forlorn attempt to shift responsibility from himself to the guardians the relieving officer finally work up to what was required of him.

‘Is it your wish she be taken into the house?’ he asked the alderman. ‘If so I will do it willingly’.

‘It is so’, Alderman Moon told him. ‘There’s an end of the case’.

So Miller avoided a fine and Ellen was admitted to the workhouse so she didn’t have to walk the streets and risk falling into an even worse fate.  Arguably the real villains here were the Poor Law Guardians that set the rules that Miller was expected to enforce, and Mrs Potts who was prepared to let her teenage daughter take her chances on the streets. At least this mini melodrama ended happily.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 10, 1849]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

A desperate life which is no life at all

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Clerkenwell Prison 

Margaret Raymond was someone who needed help. Unfortunately for her she lived in the late Victorian period where support for people like her was extremely limited. As a result she existed on the margins of society, alternating from periods of imprisonment and spells in the parish workhouse.

When she appeared at Clerkenwell Police court in late June 1871 it was about the 50th time she’d been there. Most of her arrests had been alcohol related: drunk and disorderly, drunk and incapable, resisting arrests, assault, abusive langue and so on. She was an alcoholic but there was no effective social care system to help her off her addiction so she continued to spiral between different forms of incarceration.

On this occasion she was charged with bring drunk and disorderly and assaulting the landlord of the White Swan pub in Islington High Street. Margaret had entered the pub in the evening, already drunk, and demanding he serve her. When he refused she became violent and he tried to throw her out. In the process he got hit about the head and body and his coat was torn. Eventually Margaret was frog-marched away to the local police station to sober up.

In the morning before Mr Baker at Clerkenwell Police court she had no memory of the incident, it having been carried out in a drunken haze as always. The magistrate listened as her previous convictions were read out. These included no less than 31 charges at Upper Street Police station and two years imprisonment for criminal damage. That was for breaking the windows of John Webb’s shop at a cost of £8. She pleaded guilty, gave her age as 42 and her occupation as a ‘washer’. That was a casual trade at best so may simply have been her attempt to avoid saying she was unemployed.

The magistrate looked down at the drunken women in his dock and could see little else to do with her but fine her 5s that she almost certainly didn’t have. Instead Margaret would go back to prison – this time the Middlesex House of Correction for a week with hard labour – and continue her cycle of desperate existence. I’ve no doubt she would have continued to appear before the London bench or at the gates of the workhouse until the inevitable happened, and she she succumbed to her addiction and died, probably destitute, homeless, and on the streets.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 1, 1871]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

 

The uninvited guest of the Duke of Westminster

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Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster 

James Clarke may have simply seeking a place to sleep when he clambered over the gates of Grosvenor House on Park Lane. He’d left clear footprints by the gates and it wasn’t difficult for the special constable on duty in the grounds to find and secure him.  When a large iron rod was found near to where he’d been hiding the policeman suspected that Clarke might have had more criminal activities in mind.

Clarke was arrested and brought up before the Marlborough Street magistrate after a night in a police cell. Clarke said he’d been ‘tramping during the day’ and just thought it looked a decent place to get his head down for the night. He’d picked up the bar on route, and there was nothing suspicious about it.

Perhaps he took it for protection as we know that anyone sleeping rough then (or now) was very vulnerable to being abused, robbed or assaulted. But it was as likely (more so maybe) that Clarke was going to use the bar to break a window or even to threaten or attack one of the residents if he’d got in.

I suppose in some circumstances he might have been given the benefit of the doubt but Grosvenor House was the London home of the 1st Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor.  The duke was instrumental in developing both the wealth of the Grosvenors and their stud at Eaton Hall in Cheshire. When he died he was believed to be the richest man in England.

So it is hardly surprising that he had a policeman on special duty in the grounds of his house. His family was close friends with the queen and Victoria not only raised him from marquis to duke, she was godmother to his eldest son. I doubt the wandering labourer knew exactly whose grounds he had broken into but the magistrate did. He sent him to prison for a month at hard labour.

The current Duke of Westminster is also a Hugh. A billionaire he also estimated to be the richest man alive under the age of 30, and he has continued the close connection to the royals, being named godfather to Prince George of Cambridge, who is third in line to the throne. Wealth like the Westminsters is rarely diluted and inheritance means that when this duke marries and has children they will be as rich, if not more so, than their predecessors. Meanwhile people like James Clarke are still sleeping rough on the streets and gardens of the modern capital.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 04, 1888]

‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’: desperation or conspiracy as two old offenders appear at Wandsworth

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John Rogers kept a beer tent at Wandsworth fair. We’ve probably all encountered a beer tent at music festival or county show but this was likely to have been a little smaller and I doubt today that the landlord and his staff would sleep overnight in it! This, however, is exactly what Rogers did in May 1845. Presumably, as the fair went on for a number of days, he was obliged to sleep in his tent to protect his stock and his taking. If this was the case he failed completely, because overnight he was robbed of 17(about £50 today).

The beer seller was taken in by two criminals – Daniel Sullivan and Kesiah Edwards – who presented to be cousins that had just been reunited after an absence of 14 years. There may have been some truth in their separation as Sullivan had only recently returned from transportation to Australia, but I doubt he told that story to John Rogers. Sullivan and been in and out of the tent all-day, eating and drinking but not always paying. He’d returned with Kesiah in the evening and she’d told the tale of them meeting by chance at the fair after so many lost years.

As Rogers was closing up the couple asked if they could sleep overnight in the tent having nowhere else to go. He took pity of them (a mistake) and he and his two staff settled down to rest after their long day. In the morning Rogers woke to find that his pocket had been cut open and all his money stolen. Edwards was still curled up in one corner of the beer tent but Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

Kesiah Edwards now denied knowing Sullivan at all. However, she was certain it was him that had taken the money as she’d seen him using a razor blade to cut up his food. In fact, she declared, wasn’t that the blade over there? –picking up a razor from the ground. The beer seller must have realized that he’d been played and he had her arrested before setting off to see if he could find the other thief.

He had an inkling of Sullivan’s likely haunts and eventually found him in a pub at the Elephant & Castle (the Alfred’s Head) where he was treating all his mates to a drink, at Roger’s expense. The former convict came quietly and Rogers deposited him at the nearest police station. The next day he and his two captives appeared at Wandsworth Police court where the pair were charged with robbery.

Sullivan cut an imposing figure in the dock with the court reporter describing him as having ‘a most forbidding appearance’; Kesiah Edwards was ‘decently attired in black’ and she was the only one to offer a defense to the charge presented, Sullivan said nothing at all.

She claimed that she’d met Sullivan at the fair and he’d ‘treated her’. He then asked her to be his common law wife. None of this was what she wanted but she had nowhere to sleep that night so went along with his suggestion that they shelter in the beer tent. Her instance that there was no conspiracy between was slightly undermined by the evidence of PC Griffiths (126M) who had looked into the tent on his rounds and had noticed Sullivan and Edwards lying together, evidently deep in quite conversation.

Mr Paynter – the magistrate at Wandsworth that day – was in no doubt that the pair were in this together and committed them both for trial. After Sullivan had ben taken back down to the cells a second charge was brought against the female prisoner. Kesiah was now accused of stealing a shawl from an inmate at the Wandsworth workhouse. Her claims of being homeless at the fair seemed accurate now as it was established that she’d spent the previous Saturday night in the poor house. She offered no defense this time, admitting her crime:

‘I do not deny this robbery’, Kesiah told the court, ‘but I had nothing to do with the other’. ‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’.

She was asked where she was from and gave a sad tale of being the widow of a ‘respectable tradesman’ who had ‘buried my five children all within a twelvemonth’.  It was a ‘pitiable’ story the beak agreed but that did not excuse her dishonesty or criminality. She was led away sobbing to face trial on both charges.

At the Old Bailey that May Edwards was acquitted of the robbery in the beer tent but having pleaded guilty to stealing the shawl she was sent to prison for six months. The jury rejected Sullivan’s defense that he had been ‘drinking all night, and knew nothing about it’ and convicted him. The judge sentenced him to be transported back to Australia, this time for 10 years. He had stolen 17(£50) and she had confessed to taking a shawl valued at 4(or £12 now).

It was a very harsh sentence for Sullivan but he’d had his chance and blown it.  Recidivists  were not tolerated if their former crimes were brought up against them in the Victorian justice system. I have more sympathy though for Edwards. Her story may have been a fabrication but it echoes with the lives of many poor women in the nineteenth century – recently highlighted by Hallie Rubenhold’s study of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Women like Kesiah had to live by their wits if they were to survive in an unforgiving world. Some turned to prostitution, others stole or begged, still more stayed with abusive partners simply because a bad man was better than no man if it meant you had a roof over your head and food in your belly.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 15, 1845]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Two tragedies narrowly averted as life takes its toll on two Londoners

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April 1889 must have been a hard month for those living in London. The 1880s were a period of economic slump, if not a full-blown depression, and unemployment, homelessness and poverty were all rife. A year today I wrote up the story of a young woman that arrived from India, penniless and in need of kind advice and support, who got little of either from the Westminster magistrate. In the same set of daily reports from the Police courts two more tales of personal distress and tragedy caught my eye today.

Mr Bros was the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court in northeast London when George King was brought before him. King was a 48 year-old stonemason but he was out of work. He’d lost his wife some years ago and was attempting to support his family on his own. Recently however, the state of trade meant he’d little or no money coming in and his sons and daughters were going hungry.

At some point in the spring it all became too much for George and he decided to end his own life. He swallowed a quantity of oxalic acid (used to bring a shine to marble, so something he’d have used in his work) and almost died. Fortunately oxalic acid is one of the least toxic of acids and while it causes considerable harm (notably to the kidneys) its misuse is survivable.

George King did survive but was later arrested and charged with attempting to take his own life. Mr Bros said he was inclined to make an example of the stonemason since ‘such cases were too frequent’ but thought better of it. Taking the circumstances of his plight into consideration he bound him over on his own recognizes (of £5) to never try to do such a thing again.

If George King’s story was a narrowly tragedy avoided then Thomas Burrows was equally distressing. Thomas was only 14 years of age when he attempted to kill himself by lying on the tracks of the North London Railway. At midday on the 10 April Thomas had been seen jumping ‘excitedly’ off the platform at Mildmay Park station onto the tracks below. Observers rushed to pull him up and a constable was called to take him home to his parents. He was later summoned before Mr Bros at Dalston.

The magistrate asked him if he knew it ‘was an extremely wicked thing to attempt to take your life?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Thomas replied meekly.

The boy’s father explained that he understood that the lad had had a ‘tiff’ with his sister. It was something minor, involving carrying home a basket of work in the rain, but it had upset the boy and he had taken this drastic course of action. Normally Thomas was ‘a very good boy, and was fond of his home and of his brothers and sisters’. This had been out of character and he was sure it would never be repeated.

Mr Bros was shocked but also recognized that it was a ‘one off’. Indeed, he said he was almost inclined to laugh’ had there not been ‘such a serious aspect to the case’. He decided to reserve judgment but released Thomas to his father’s care and set bail  (set at £5 again) to ensure the pair returned again to hear what the court decided.

Both these cases are revealing of a society where mental health care was nothing like as advanced as it is today. The attitude of the courts was to punish those that struggled with their personal demons not to support them. Nor was their the state support for men like King who wanted to work but couldn’t; he had at least four other mouths to feed and the only recourse he had was the workhouse (where he’d most likely lose his children altogether).

We are understandably concerned about the mental health of our children in today’s multi-media society where they are exposed to all sorts of challenges on a daily basis. It is often suggested that mental health problems amongst teenagers are more widespread than ever before. This may be true but cases like Thomas’ suggest that such problems existed in the past, but were treated very differently or simply not recognized at all.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

A welcome new insight into the lives of the ‘Ripper’s victims

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Book Review, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold (London, Doubleday, 2019) 416pp; £16.99

This may not be the first study to look at the lives of the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but it is certainly the first published by such a prestigious printing house as Penguin/Doubleday. Hallie Rubenhold has written about prostitution previously and is also a novelist and she brings both of these skills to bear in this excellent popular history. Rubenhold takes the lives (not the deaths) of the ‘five’ murdered women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – as her subject and traces them from birth, detailing their highs and lows.

She uses a range of archival material, augmented by a strong selection of secondary reading, to map out the lives of these working-class women as they grew up, went into work, married and had children, before – in all cases it seems – beginning the descent into poverty, alcoholism and homelessness that led them to Whitechapel (and their deaths) in 1888.

However, Rubenhold does not describe their murders or give any space to their killer: ‘Jack the Ripper’ is entirely absent from the book, except for a discussion of the mythology and industry that has grown up around him since the murders.  This is deliberate and fitting in the context of the book. While in recent years studies have been at pains to provide context on the ‘Ripper’ case a great many of the books that have received media attention have been those which focus on naming a suspect, and most of these do so with very little attention to the victims.

This is a book with a clear central message, namely that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the unknown murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ were real people, with real lives, and that they deserve better than to be dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’.  Rubenhold writes that ‘in the absence of any evidence that Polly [Nichols], Annie [Chapman] and Kate [Eddowes] ever engaged in common prostitution, many have taken to claiming that these women participated in “casual prostitution”: a blanket term cast over the ambiguities of the women’s lives that is steeped in moral judgment’ (p.343).

It is fair to say that it is this assertion, namely the lack of ‘any evidence’ that three of the five were prostitutes (however we define that term for the 1880s) that has caused most dissent amongst the Ripperology community (another term that can be broadly defined). I am not a Ripperologist but I have researched the case and its contexts, have written and lectured on the subject, and often discuss aspects of the murders and the existing archival evidence with researchers that would classify themselves within that group. I am also a trained historian, like Rubenhold, with an interest in the social history of London in the nineteenth century.

I would say that plenty of evidence exists to suggest (if not prove conclusively) that all of the five canonical victims* in the Whitechapel murder series were, at one time or another, engaged in prostitution. This evidence has been presented by a number of researchers over very many years and while we might reasonably ask questions about police and public attitudes at the time (a point Rubenhold raises), we can’t simply ignore sources that don’t fit our particular view of the past. This book is notable both for the new information it highlights about the lives of the women murdered in 1888 and by the information (mostly about their deaths) that it omits.

Researchers like Paul Begg and very many others have been questioning our accepted narrative of the case for over 20 years and so it is wrong to suggest that it has always been assumed that all of the victims were sex workers. Moreover even a casual engagement with the information that is in the public domain (at the National Archives for example) would us cause to question whether Rubenhold’s assertions are entirely accurate.

I might ask why it matters whether the women were, or were not prostitutes? They were still human beings and innocent victims of a brutal, misogynist killer. As Judith Walkowitz’s work on prostitution in the nineteenth century has shown communities like that in Spitalfields and Whitechapel did not themselves denigrate those poor women who, at times of desperate need, were forced to sell themselves for the price of a bed, a meal, or a drink. The sneering tone of The Times certainly condemned those ‘unfortunates’ for bringing such horror on their own heads but then it was equally scathing about most of those living in the Whitechapel slum.

Rubenhold certainly makes an interesting suggestion when she argues that the victims were killed while they were sleeping rough on the streets. In my conversation with her in the summer it was this new interpretation of ‘street walking’ (from the comments made by Kate Eddowes’ partner John Kelly) that gave me cause to consider how this might affect our understanding of the case. I had previously thought of ‘street walking’ as a euphemism for prostitution but what if it simply it was sometimes meant literally: walking the streets because they had nowhere to sleep indoors?

It is an interesting angle on the killings and certainly one I was looking forward to seeing developed in the book. Once again though, I’m bound to say that I wasn’t presented with any real evidence that these women were killed whilst sleeping rough, let alone evidence that effectively challenges the considerable existing evidence that suggests otherwise. This partly because of her understandable decision not to detail the circumstances surrounding their murders. But it is within the information – such as exists – about the killings that evidence arises that might challenge this second assertion.

So in terms of the two key discoveries in her research I am unconvinced on the basis of the evidence she presents. This leaves her open to criticism by those researchers who know a great deal more about the case than I do, and that is a shame because she has made a significant contribution to the study of the murders in highlighting the lives of five of the victims. While we have had studies of the murdered women before we have never had such a high profile and well written study before.

As a result of Rubenhold’s book very many more people will know about the lives of poor working-class women (and men) in late Victorian London. Bringing these stories to a much wider audience is important, especially in highlighting that the problems of homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence (all current issues) have a long history.

This is a book that will get a large and a different readership to those that have knowledge of the ‘Ripper’ case before. The sympathy with which Rubenhold writes about the ‘Five’ is evident and her ability as a writer to bring these lives to life, to paint a picture of their struggles in the society in which they lived, is great popular history. She has a novelistic style which fills in the gaps left by the paucity of source material there is for almost any working-class life in Victorian Britain. I’m not surprised this has been selected for a television drama, it reads like a screenplay in places.

This sort of book engages new audiences with history and that has to be a good thing. Will anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Whitechapel case learn much from it? Maybe not, but if it asks them to question the way they approach the case then that too can only be a positive.

Finally, the book has made waves. Partly, of course because of Rubenhold’s bold assertions. But also because of the way that she and some elements of the Ripperology community have clashed both before and after the publication of The Five. Some of the social media exchanges have been unpleasant (to say the least) and seems to be dividing into two camps – those that support her and those that attack her ideas. I find this quite depressing and indicative of our modern society where the quality of intellectual debate is at the lowest I can remember it and where even complex questions are reduced to binary ones. So a lot of mud has been slung about and one comments on the book with caution, for fear of being dubbed a ‘heretic’ by either side.

I enjoyed reading The Five and would recommend that anyone with an interest in well-written popular history would enjoy it also. It is not fair to judge it as an academic study because that it not what it is, whether it is a ‘Ripper’ book is also open to question. It is however a very readable and engaging book about working–class women’s lives, and there are too few of them about so Rubenhold deserves a lot of credit for what she has produced here, I’d like to see more.

*And other women listed  in the Police File (held at the NA).

NB in June 2019 my own joint authored book on the Whitechapel murders will be published by Amberley. In it we argue that the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered 13 women and attempted the lives of at least 3 more.