For two hours yesterday we walked through the dusk in the streets between The City and Whitechapel, northeast of the Tower of London. The neighborhood is a jumble of utilitarian 20th century office buildings and 19th century Victorian working class lanes, buildings, and mews. The Blitz hit here particularly hard, as if it were trying to wipe out a stain.
We walked as part of the excellent London Walks tours, which are distinctly a low-tech operation: meet by the tube exit sign, hand over seven pounds, and follow a talented guide as he leads you into history. This time we were visiting 1888, the year of Jack the Ripper’s gynocide.
A church named St. Botolph’s that provided overnight shelter for at least two of the women still stands, as does Mary Kelly’s pub of choice, the Ten Bells. One of the murder sites is now a car park. Catherine Eddowes, who lost her life a half hour after the Ripper was interrupted killing Elizabeth Stride, died in the centre of Mitre Square at a place which is now a park bench. The cobblestones are still there but the square is surrounded by tall offices, reminiscent of the courtyard in New York where Kitty Genovese lost her life in 1964.
What if we didn’t call him Jack the Ripper, the name he chose for himself in letters to the police? What if we called him John Doe? The women wouldn’t be any less murdered but may we (me included) might think about them a little more. They had no other means of making money than the fourpence they got for withstanding penetration for a couple of minutes, worth two pounds in today’s currency, less than half our fee for standing at their murder sites. There are no plaques to remember them by. Are there commemorations for the female victims of serial killers anywhere?
Back in 1888 future prime minister of England David Lloyd George, joined one of the manhunts heading into Whitechapel to find the Ripper and was so shocked at what he saw. He said he felt the murders could be considered mercy killings. In Peter Ackroyd’s book of London he quotes a street woman writer Henry Mayhew interviewed 40 years before the Ripper could have laid eyes on her. She was given no name, but her words were:
“I don’t think much of my way of life. You folks as has honour, and character, and feelings, and such, can’t understand how all that’s been beaten out of people like me. I don’t feel. I’m used to it.”
For Mary Ann, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary, humiliation and degradation were part of all their lives. What the Ripper did, and became perversely admired for, was simply the last thing in them.