While you have undoubtedly heard of their killer, the 5 women murdered by Jack the Ripper have been largely lost to the dominant historical narrative of the mysterious Whitechapel murders of 1888.
Accompanying our September Book Club read, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, here is an introduction to the canonical 5 women.
Mary Ann Nichols
Born in 1845 and known to her loved ones as ‘Polly’, Mary Ann Nichols was the daughter of London blacksmith Edward Walker and his wife, Caroline. Polly grew up in the area known as the ‘Street of Ink’ – notorious for the number of printing houses located there.
Despite her family’s small income, Polly was educated until age 15 because of her proximity to the printing industry where the ability to read and write was essential. Yet she balanced education with caring for her family after the death of her mother from tuberculosis.
At 18, Polly married William Nichols, who worked with her father and the young couple were fortunate to gain a space in the new Peabody social housing. They lived there with their 5 children until their marriage became so unbearable that Polly left.
As a poor woman who would have felt the heavy stigma of ‘abandoning’ family life, Polly spent the years between 1881 and 1888 between work houses, cheap lodging houses and occasionally the street, dependent on her family’s charity, unstable work and begging.
Annie was the child of a soldier and grew up moving between barracks in London and Windsor. Her father George’s salary was meagre, but because of his prestigious regiment Annie was exposed to the grand lifestyle of the rich and royal.
Her family were touched by tragedy when 4 of the Smith children died from scarlet fever in 1854. Several years later, while Annie was working as a housemaid for a successful architect, her father, now employed as a gentleman’s valet, died by suicide.
With money from their father’s employer, her mother set up a boarding house where Annie met her husband, John Chapman. John was a coach driver who swiftly rose to work for a wealthy family at St Leonard’s Hill, providing a comfortable life for his wife, Annie, and their two daughters.
Unfortunately, Annie was an alcoholic. In a society that shamed drunkenness – especially in women – Annie agreed with John that she would leave her family for London in 1884. Unable to stand her tee-total sisters, she shared the cost of living with two male companions over the following years.
Annie also had tuberculosis. With deteriorating health, she would have struggled between spending what little money she had on a bed or a drink.
Elizabeth Gustafsdotter was born into a farming family in Torslanda, Sweden, in 1843. She left for Gothenburg to work in domestic service, yet during her employment fell pregnant and contracted syphilis (likely at the same time).
At the time the burden of venereal disease was placed on women, and along with those who fell pregnant outside of marriage, were labelled Allmän Kvinna meaning ‘public women’. These women were assumed sex workers and listed on a police register. They not only received mandatory screenings and treatment for syphilis – an invasive and humiliating process – but would be unable to secure respectable employment.
Elizabeth suffered a miscarriage while undergoing the treatment for her syphilis, which would continue to manifest into the disease’s final stages. She was however brought under the employment of the Weisner family who intended to reform her through domestic service.
Elizabeth then migrated to London where she met John Stride – a Methodist carpenter from Sheerness. The two set up their own coffee house near the docks in Poplar although their enterprise was not successful. With considerable debt and without children their marriage soured and in 1877 after 8 years, Elizabeth left John.
For the rest of her life she stayed intermittently at a boarding house on Flower and Dean Street, worked as a ‘charwoman’, took on new identities, occasionally solicited and drank often.
In 1843, the Eddowes family left Wolverhampton for London. Catherine’s father George had lost his job partaking in then-illegal strike action at the tin-works and sought work in the capital, taking his family of 8 with him.
After a lifetime of childbearing, Kate’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1855, putting an end to Kate’s education at age 15. Her father died shortly afterwards, orphaning the younger children to the workhouse and sending Kate back to Wolverhampton to live with her uncle.
Soon after being caught stealing while working at the tin works, Kate met and fell for an Irish ex-soldier turned peddler, Thomas Conway. Together with their baby, they lived an itinerant lifestyle of story-telling and uncertainty.
However, when Thomas struggled to find work in London their partnership became violent and fell apart, leaving Kate and the children to the workhouse. Kate met John Kelly, with whom she travelled to Kent in hope of hop picking in the summer of 1888, but a bad harvest meant no work and they soon returned to the precarious life of the poor in Victorian London.
Mary Jane Kelly
In one version of her life, Mary Jane Kelly claimed to have been born in Ireland in 1863/4 before moving to Wales. Aged 16 she apparently married a coal miner who died a year later in an explosion. Mary then travelled to Cardiff where she met a cousin who coerced her into “a bad life”.
What historians do know is that after arriving in London around 1884, Mary worked as a high-end sex worker for men with position and money. She managed to escape being trafficked to Paris, where she would have been trapped inside a state brothel, but the fear of being found by the dangerous sex traffickers drove her to find work with a madame near the docks.
For some time between 1887 and her death in November 1888, Mary lived as if married with a man called Joseph Bartlett. When he ran out of work, she returned unwittingly to prostitution.