Entertainment mingled with disaster in 1880s Spitalfields

Scene of the late Disaster in Spitalfields, at the Hebrew Dramatic Club, Princes-Street

All sorts of business came before the Metropolitan Police courts, much of it very far from what we might describe as ‘criminal’. The reportage of these courts therefore offers us an interesting glimpse into London life in the nineteenth century.

Take this case for example: three men from Spitalfield’s Jewish immigrant community were brought before a magistrate for staging unlicensed entertainments.

The hearing, on 12 November 1889, was the second one before Mr Bushby so most of the arguments had already been made a week earlier.  Several witnesses, including the police (represented by Inspector Reid1) testified that they had watched dramatic productions and imbibed ‘spirituous liquors’. The defendants, most notably the proprietor Solomon Barmash, had argued that the performances were ‘for social improvement’, but this didn’t convince the magistrate.

All venues putting on plays had to have a license issued by the Lord Chamberlain of letters patent, from the Queen, allowing them to do so. Barmash and his Hebrew Dramatic Club on Prince’s Street had no such license. He and his fellow defendants were accused of staging The Double Marriage and The Convict and selling drinks to the paying customers, which was prohibited under the licensing laws of the day.

The magistrate, Mr Bushby, fined Barmash £36 plus £3 costs, some of which was to be born by his co-defendants Joseph Goodman and Charles Dickerson (the younger). This covered both the sale of alcohol and the staging of plays without a license.

I found it interesting that both plays were performed in Yiddish and these made the magistrate question whether they were in fact ‘educational’. Although he agreed with the prosecution that the law had been broken it does show us that there was a thriving local immigrant community which wanted to see and hear cross cultural entertainments. The Double Marriage was apparently a ‘French’ play according to the court report although there was a Jacobean play of this name.

In January 1887 17 people lost their lives at the Hebrew Dramatic Club when a reported gas leak and fear of fire and explosion caused panic in the club.

‘The scene at the time was one of intense excitement’, reported the Pall Mall Gazette. ‘Screams of terror and cries of appeal and advice mingled while the mass wedged in the doorway struggled and surged’.

Although three of the victims were unidentified the other 14 were all ‘foreign’ Jews, and were mourned by their community in the days that followed.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 13, 1889]

  1. Possibly Edmund Reid (of ‘Ripper Street’ fame) or the less well known Joseph.

‘You shan’t take him’; mob rule breaks down in the East End

220px-Boundary_Street_1890

Some areas of the capital were notoriously difficult to police. There were several streets and alleyways in Spitalfields and Whitechapel where the police simply did not go unless they were in twos or threes; a single beat bobby was at serious risk of being assaulted if ventured into ‘the Nichol’ for example, or strolled down Dorset Street unawares.

In September 1883 one unfortunate copper had affected an arrested  on Brick Lane, just south of the notorious old Nichol Street slum. He’d been given the man in custody on an accusation of assault and was attempting to take him to the nearest station house when a man started winding up the watching crowd against him.

William Harrils shouted at the policeman: ‘You shan’t take him’, before urging the gathered people to intervene. They did, and a ‘mob’ of about 50 started jostling him and trying to get the prisoner away from his captor.

Suddenly the officer was tripped from behind and landed on his face. A woman rushed in and started to kick at him as he lay on the ground, Harrils punched him in the eye as he sat up. Thankfully help soon arrived in the person of a fellow officer and the crowd melted away leaving the female attacker and Harrils in the arms of the law.

The pair were brought before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court where Harrils received a sentence of 21 days in gaol and his accomplice, Emily Manley,  was fined 10s(or a weeks’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay).

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 27, 1883]

A ‘she cannibal’ in court for biting off her victim’s nose

36c43bcb666a2af6c22d18595e051e29

I have spent the last two weeks following the metropolitan police courts in one year, 1888, the year of the Whitechapel murders. I’ll return to 1888 in a couple of weeks to pick up the unfolding case at the point of the ‘double event’ – the murders of Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes on the night of the 30 September. But today it is worth reminding ourselves that the area of Whitechapel and Spitalfields was synonymous with violence  throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Catherine Simpson was well known to the police, and to her neighbours, as a violent woman. Anne Atkins was no angel but on this occasion she was the victim of a brutal assault which arose out of jealousy and, possibly, a misplaced attempt at defending some sense of ‘respectability’ in a part of London where poverty and degradation was ubiquitous.

The attack in question had happened in late August 1860 but as a result of Anne’s injuries it didn’t come before the magistrate at Worship Street until 15 September. Even then Anne was barely able to stand to give her evidence, and trembled at the very sight of her abuser.  Nor did the court do that much to protect her at first, allowing Simpson to cross-examine her directly for several minutes, something that clearly traumatized her victim.

The court was told that on 21 August Simpson had confronted Anne at her front door in Dorchester Street, Hoxton, demanding to know: ‘what business had you with my husband last night?’

Anne explained that she had seen Simpson’s husband that night but he’d not been with her, he’d been with another, much younger, woman. This didn’t satisfy Catherine who called Anne a prostitute and ‘other bad names’. Clearly Simpson either believed Anne was having an affair with her spouse or was tempting him away from her. She may even have genuinely believed that Anne was a prostitute, although it is more likely that this was simply a convenient and oft used term of abuse in working class communities like this.

Anne’s reacted to being called a ‘whore’ by slapping the other woman around the face and turning to shut the door. Catherine wasn’t easily deterred however, and followed her inside. There she grabbed Anne’s shoulders, pulled her towards her, and bit her nose. She bit down hard and left her victim with a bloody mess where her nose once was. Spitting the end of her nose on to the ground, she left.

Anne was quickly taken to hospital where the house surgeon, George Payne, did his best for her. She had lost a lot of blood he later testified, and it was almost three weeks before she was fit to be discharged. After her initial recovery she developed erysipelas, now described as a rash that can be treated with antibiotics. In 1860 however antibiotics were not available and the doctor feared that Anne might die. Fortunately she didn’t.

Catherine was forthright that the attack she’d made was provoked, not only by Anne’s alleged dalliance with her husband but because not only had she slapped her, she’d also spat in her face. As she defended herself and cross-examined Anne the other woman struggled and trembled in the witness stand. Even when the clerk acted as an intermediary, asking the questions on Catherine behalf,  Anne was so distraught that the prisoner had to be removed from the court for a while.

Various witnesses testified to the assault, including Louisa Cox who had screamed and ran for a policeman when she saw Simpson’s mouth covered in blood as she spat out Anne’s broken nose. Simpson was remanded for further enquiries, the evidence against her being considerable and the court being told that she had ‘a propensity for [this] class of offence’. She’d once served a week in gaol for biting sergeant Copping of K Division and was clearly a violent individual.

Reynolds’s Newspaper described Simpson as a ‘she cannibal’ and the whole sorry incident would have done nothing to dispel the view that the East End of London was a den of iniquity where violence, vice and crime  were rife.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1860]

Tragedy in the Temple and a stabbing by a Dorset Street resident; all part of daily life in 1880s London

WO1_IPNW_1889_07_06-0003-F

Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper offered its readers (as the title suggests) a way to catch up with all the news, scandal, gossip, and ‘police intelligence’ that had been carried by the dailies in the preceding week. This Sunday paper had a little more time to frame stories or to carry features than the time limited Daily News or Morning Post did.

It was a very popular newspaper, selling over 1m copies on one day in February 1896, more than its closest rivals the News of the World and Reynold’s Newspaper. It lasted until the 1920s but didn’t survive the financial crisis at the end of that decade.

At the end of June 1889 Lloyds carried a full page of reports from the Metropolitan Police courts, ranging from a case of tea merchant obtaining credit by false pretenses to a valet that stole two gold sovereign coins. By the late 1880s the method of court reporting was well established and the typology of crime and social issues (such as poverty, unemployment, suicide) were very familiar to readers. Individual cases were routinely given a headline (such as ‘Strange Case’ or ‘An Unfortunate Visit to London’), which was not always the case earlier in the century.

Two in particular caught my eye this morning, an attempted suicide in the City and the stabbing of a woman in Deptford. The Deptford case involved was heard at Greenwich Police court but the accused – James Collins – was a resident of Whitechapel. Collins, a 68 year-old wood carver had previously cohabited with Emma Edwards in rooms at 17 Dorset Street, Spitalfields.

Dorset Street was an address that was all too familiar to readers who had been following the news story of 1888. The desperate poverty of Dorset (or ‘dosset’) Street had been highlighted after the brutally mutilated body of Mary Kelly was discovered in a room there in November 1888. Many researchers believe that Kelly was the final victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’, but other (myself included) beg to differ.

Emma Edwards told the magistrate at Greenwich (a Mr Kennedy) that she was walking along Griffin Street in Deptford when she saw her former lover in the street. She noticed ‘the gleam of a knife’ in his hand and suddenly she ‘felt herself stabbed’. She survived and Collins was arrested. In his defense he said it was an accident; he carried knives for his work and she must had fallen against one in his pocket.

The police were able to provide testimony that Collins had threatened Emma on more than one occasion, promising to ‘settle’ her ‘at the first opportunity’. Mr Kennedy sent him to prison for six months for aggravated assault.

The newspaper reports are full of accounts of casual male violence towards women and we should remember this in the context of the ‘Ripper’ murders. However you wish to depict the Whitechapel killings the perpetrator was a misogynistic serial murderer who operated in a society where working class women were placed firmly at the bottom of the social ladder; a reality that enabled him to kill almost without impunity. He was no caped crusader or criminal mastermind, as some versions of the mystery continue to suggest.

At the Mansion House along with the fraudulent tea merchant Sir Andrew Lusk was sitting in for the Lord Mayor. Lusk (no relation I think to the famous ‘Mishter Lusk’ who was sent a piece of human kidney during the Whitechapel murders) served as an MP until 1885 and was Lord Mayor in 1874/5. He was quite old in 1889, being in his late 70s.

By contrast Florence Ross was a young woman with her life ahead of her. An actress or dancer in the music hall, Ross was living with her sister in 1889 while she went through a period of ‘rest’. Whether that ‘rest’ implied she was ill, had fallen pregnant, or was simply unemployed, is not made clear from the report but I think we might speculate.

Florence Ross was rescued from a fountain in Middle Temple gardens where she had tried to drown herself. A policeman saw her rush to the water and jump in and so acted quickly to pull her out. The gardens are close by the Embankment and what is now Temple underground station.

WO1_IPNW_1889_07_06-0003-F

Whatever the reality she was lucky and survived but attempted suicide was an offence and so she was placed in the dock at Mansion House to answer for it. She said little or nothing by way of explanation but the magistrate decided to see what ways the court could find to help her. He remanded her for a week while enquiries were made. The Illustrated Police News later included its artist’s impression of her attempt in its 6 July edition. Sadly no paper seems to have recorded the outcome of those enquiries. Florence’s was one story amongst many, one human tragedy in a city which was witnesses to countless acts of violence, desperation, and cruelty each and every day, only a handful of which made the pages of the metropolitan press.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 30, 1889; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

 

 

 

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

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders – a new Ripper?

Unknown

Today’s blog is something different. As I’m sure many regular readers will have noticed on Saturday my latest book is released by Amberley Books.  Instead of delving into the pages of the Victorian press I thought that today I would give you an overview of the book and some of my reasons for writing it.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper?, is, as it title suggests a study of two sets of murders that took place in London between 1887 and 1891. I’ve not written this alone; the idea for the book and much of the research to discover the identity of the killer, has been carried out by my co-author, friend and former student, Andrew Wise. Andy first brought the culprit to my attention and he worked very hard to persuade me to co-author this with him.

I was never keen to get involved in the unmasking of a long dead serial killer; I’ve studied the Whitechapel Murder case for over a decade, teaching it at Northampton University and giving talks on it to all manner of groups up and down the country. I’ve always thought there is much to learn from the dark history of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but, strangely, identifying ‘Jack’ wasn’t always at the top of my agenda.

I thought it impossible and somewhat beside the point but Andy persuaded me that if we applied solid historical research methods and rigor not only might we uncover the killer we might also be able to shed some light on his motives and the reason he was never captured. This would then provide some sort of closure for the victims and remind society that this was an extremely unpleasant and damaged individual and not some anti-hero who stepped – caped and top hatted – from the pages of some mythical Victoriana. Unmasking ‘Jack’ then had as much to do with dispelling some well-worn myths about the murders and the murderer as it did with bringing a serial killer to face some form of ‘justice’.

pinchinThe book links two sets of murders – the famous ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings of 1888 and the less well-known Thames Torso murders of 1887-89. While the unknown killer who has been given the sobriquet ‘Jack the Ripper’ is usually credited with killing five women between late August and early November 1888 we brought his tally to 13, with an additional three attempted murders.

So, alongside the well know ‘canonical five’ of: Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, ‘Dark’ Annie Chapman, Elizabeth ‘Long ‘Liz’ Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes, and Mary ‘Marie Jeanette’ Kelly we add the names of Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Elizabeth Jackson, Frances Coles and three other unidentifiable torso victims. We believe he also tried to kill Annie Millwood, Ada Wilson and Anne Farmer, and possibly several others. This then was a ruthless serial killer whose impact on the area in which he lived and worked was much greater than history has previously recorded.

In researching this book we chose to look at the sort of man that might be capable of such a horrific series of killings and at his motivations. Means, motive and opportunity are at the heart of any murder investigation so we decided to place them front and centre of ours. Instead of relying on historical artifacts (like the blood stained shawl supposedly left on the body of Kate Eddowes, or the killer’s confessional diary) we looked at the nature of transport links, at the geography of London in relation to the murders, and at the kind of work that might allow someone the opportunity to kill and evade the law for several years.

We named our suspect as James Hardiman, a local man who lived in a variety of homes in the 1880s. He lived with his wife in Heneage Street at the centre of the Whitechapel ‘killing zone’ (see map below – just above the entry for Emma Smith) . He also had digs in Central London not far from the Thames and the site of more than one of the Torso discoveries.  Hardiman’s family even lived in Hanbury Street where Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was found in September 1888. They had also lodged in Dorset Street, where Mary Kelly was so fearfully murdered in November.

1888_whitechapel_london_murder_map

It was out belief that the killer had to be local and had to be able to blend into the background – to hide in plain sight – so the idea that he could have been an aristocrat of prince of the realm, or even a doctor with a  Gladstone bag made no sense to us. Instead Hardiman was a slaughterman working for the largest firm of horse slaughterers in London with access to all their many yards across the capital. He had total freedom of movement after his wife was taken ill and then died and he used the transport networks of the city extensively to travel all over and commit his crimes with virtual impunity.

His motivation was revenge, but revenge augmented by a deep-seated misogyny made worse by his deteriorating mental health. He had contracted syphilis for which he blamed local prostitutes. He passed the disease to his wife and thence to their unborn daughter who barely survived a year from her birth. Instead of looking at his own responsibility for this tragedy Hardiman struck out at that vulnerable class of women that society increasingly demonized in the late Victorian age.  Driven half mad by grief, anger and self medicating with mercury it is our contention that James Hardiman was the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

We don’t expect everyone to be convinced by our thesis but we think it bears scrutiny at least. I found  it fascinating to write and in a final chapter I have tried to make sense of our seemingly endless fascination with ‘Jack’. Have we solved the 130 year old mystery?  That’s for others to decide, I just hope Andy and I have produced a book that people will want to read and to discuss.

Drew Gray

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper? is published by Amberley Books on June 15 2019 and is available to order here.

Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

friern-barnet-1895-1913_hosm65643_large

There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

Representing the Ripper: some lessons from Whitechapel and West Yorkshire

images

If, like me, you watched the BBC’s recent three-part documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper case you might have been left pondering some of the conclusions that might be drawn from that awful episode in our recent history.  Tonight the BBC offers a less in-depth and more problematic documentary, which has already been criticized for its approach. At 9 o’clock Silent Witness star Emilia Fox presents a forensic reexamination of the  ‘Jack the Ripper’ with the help of criminologist Professor David Wilson. So the question I’d like to ask is what, if anything, can we learn from this sudden flurry of serious television aimed at two of the most high profile serial murder cases of the last 150 years?

Haille Rubenhold tweeted that documentaries like the one Fox will front this evening:

‘only feed the exploitative Ripper industry’, adding: ‘Trying out modern tech on some of the most defamed women in history just for the sake of entertainment is pretty low’.

So if exploiting the murders of five or more women in 1888 was ‘pretty low’ can we accuse Liza Williams of doing something similar in her recent series on Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes? I don’t think we can; Williams’ documentary was very careful not to ape some of the voyeuristic tendencies of modern ‘true crime’ programmes. The victims were placed centre stage and considered as real people (somebody’s mother, daughter, or friend) not as bodies to be dissected yet again. She stressed that all of Sutcliffe’s victims (the 13 he killed and the seven or more he attacked) left behind families that were and still are being affected by his casual inhumanity. It was extremely moving to hear interviews with Olive Smelt’s daughter, Wilma McCann’s son, and one of his earliest victims,  Tracey Browne who was just 14 when he hit her five or more times with a hammer in a country lane at Silsden.

Williams also focused her study on the police investigation and its failure to catch Sutcliffe. Although the investigation, led by Assistant Chief Constable Godfrey Oldfield and DCS Dennis Hoban, did eventually take credit for catching the killer Williams shows that Sutcliffe was caught despite the police team chasing him not because of it.

West Yorkshire police questioned Sutcliffe on no fewer than nine occasions and five times in the context of following up a lead directly linking him to one of the murders.  They ignored Tracey Browne’s description of her attacker as they didn’t believe the man they were hunting could have attacked her. This was because Oldfield and Hoban were convinced the murderer was only targeting prostitutes (despite him killing six women with no connection to the sex industry) and then because they believed that a tape sent to them was from the killer, and he had a Sunderland accent not a Yorkshire one.

In 1888 the police failed to catch the killer of five or more women (I believe the number he murdered was certainly in double figures, and that there were at least three non-fatal assaults). Again this might have been because the Victorian police were focusing on the wrong sort of killer, someone from outside of the community he terrorized. In this they were ably abetted by the media, just as the West Yorkshire force were in the late ‘70s and early 1980s. What Williams’ revealed was the way in which the British press (local and national) helped create an image of a monster – a master criminal with supernatural powers that helped him avoid capture.

When Sutcliffe appeared in the dock at Number One Court, Old Bailey in 1981 several journalists commented that he didn’t look or sound like the character they had imagined him to be. Instead Sutcliffe was a very ordinary sort of man, not larger than life at all.

images

In 1888 the terror created by the original ‘Ripper’ was fueled by the intense press coverage of his attacks and the speculation as to his identity and his motives. Whitechapel and Spitalfields was overrun by journalists all searching for angles on the case and, just as the media did 100 years later, all intent of finding witnesses to interview, regardless of how it might undermine any future case the police might be trying to build against the culprit.

Moreover the press played its part in judging the victims by the prevailing standards of the day. In 1888 The Timespretty much stated that since the women killed by ‘Jack’ were ‘unfortunates’ (a contemporary euphemism for  prostitutes) they were culpable in their own demise. As Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow  has sometimes stated the Ripper killings were viewed as ‘so much street cleaning’ by some sections of Victorian society. Liza Williams’ documentary on the Yorkshire case reveals that a very similar mindset persisted there; the women killed by Sutcliffe were divided into ‘respectable’ and ‘immoral’ women when, after all, they were all simply innocent women.

Rubenhold’s new book on the victims (which has its flaws, be in no doubt) champions the lives of the women the Victorian Ripper murdered, just as Williams tries to do in her work. Both remind us that in every murder the killer is only one small part of the story. His name (and it is usually a ‘he’) is often the one that best remembered however, even if that name is often confused and (as with ‘Jack’) mythologized.

So what can we take from these two cases and the way they’ve been presented recently? I would say this: both reveal how hard it is to catch someone who preys on the most vulnerable in society. All of the victims of the Victorian killer were very poor women found out on the street at night, some of them intoxicated or at least befuddled by drink. Many of Sutcliffe’s victims were engaged in prostitution for the simply fact that society had failed them and they believed it was the only way they had to feed their families. Inequality and poverty runs through both these cases.

Moreover, the way these women were viewed also coloured the way the press reported their deaths and the police investigations that tried lamely to catch their killers. Frankly then society let these women down in the first place and then compounded that failure by blaming them for becoming victims.

We need to get away from the societal condemnation of anyone who sells sex for whatever reason. Prostitution is rarely a positive life choice; it is born of desperation, poverty, and (usually male) exploitation of women. A woman that is forced (by circumstances or someone else) to prostitute herself is no less of a woman than anyone else. She deserves the right to live every bit as much as we all do; no one has the right to take away her life and the sooner society recognizes this the better. Where I disagree with Rubenhold’s thesis that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the Whitechapel murderer were not all prostitutes is this: why does it even matter?  That there is evidence for or against them being prostitutes is immaterial in my view; they were all innocent regardless.

Finally what Liza Williams reminded me was that Peter Sutcliffe was no mythological demon possessed of supernatural abilities to evade capture. He was an ordinary nonentity – someone you’d not look at twice in the street. A quiet neighbour who lived with his wife and went to work each day driving a lorry. No one suspected him, not even the police when they interviewed him.

This very much fits the profile of the man Andy Wise and I think responsible for the Whitechapel series of murders between 1887 and 1891. A man we think hid in plain sight and melted away into the alleys and courts of the East Ed which knew like the back of his hand.  The police may have arrested and questioned him as they did many others, but they let him go off to kill again because he didn’t fit the false profile of the monster they were hunting.

‘Jack and the Thames Torso Murders’, by the author and Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in June 2019