CW: Strong descriptions of violence, femicide, sexual violence
We all know who Jack the Ripper is. Well, no-one actually has a clue who he is, but we know the name ‘Jack the Ripper’. And we know who he killed – the ‘Jack the Ripper victims’, or ‘Ripper victims’. Hardly anyone bothers to learn their actual names or who they were as it’s easier to lump them under the header ‘victims’ and simply assign to them the same nickname given to their killer. Except, of course, we know their names.
Their names were Elizabeth, Catherine, Mary Ann, Annie and Mary Jane.
There are others who were possibly killed by the same man but these are the ones generally agreed upon by historians. While we never bother to remember their names, we know everything about their deaths. Ask someone about the Ripper killings, and you’ll hear the same details.
“He used medical tools – scalpels and things – to remove their organs.”
“He cut their breasts off!”
“He tore their wombs and ovaries out.”
“He hacked away their faces!”
There are photographs of these horrific injuries on Wikipedia – the women’s autopsy images are considered free to use and are easy to access. The women have no privacy, no respect and no life before death. They are simply corpses, used as a warning against the dangers of being female and working class or to drive home how brutal the killings were. The images and facts of the murders delight and titillate, the perfect combination of sex (because all of the women were involved with sex work) and violence, and best of all – nobody feels guilty reducing them to gruesome cadavers because they are all fallen women, and therefore not deserving of dignity. By selling their bodies for sex while alive, we assume it’s fine to sell their bodies for entertainment after death.
We’ve compiled some research on the women and the lives they lived before Jack the Ripper cut them short. Please read these brief biographies and bear them in mind when the next museum, pantomime or other attraction opens, gleefully exploiting the real women who lived, worked, loved, like we do.
Annie ‘Sievey’ Chapman (1841 – 8 September 1888)
Annie Chapman was born to soldier George Smith and Ruth Chapman in 1841. She married a coachman, John Chapman, and the couple had three children, two daughters and a son. Their son was born disabled and one of their daughters died of meningitis at the age of 12. Following their daughter’s death, both Annie and John took to heavy drinking and, like many couples after the death of a child, eventually separated.
Annie moved to Whitechapel and lived with a local man who made wire sieves; because of this, friends nicknamed her Annie ‘Sievey’. She earned an income from crochet work and selling flowers, and when Annie’s weekly allowances stopped, she discovered that her former husband, John, had died. Abandoned by her new partner shortly after, one of Annie’s friends later testified that she began to suffer from depression and “gave up on life”. She started working as a casual prostitute, and her friends called her ‘Dark Annie’, for her dark brown hair.
By 1888, Chapman was living in common lodging houses in Whitechapel. An acquaintance described her as “very civil and industrious when sober”, but noted “I have often seen her the worse for drink.”
Annie’s body was discovered on 8 September 1888.
Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes (14 April 1842 – 30 September 1888)
Catherine Eddowes (known as ‘Kate’ to her friends) was born on 14 April 1842 to a tinplate worker and his wife in Wolverhampton, one of 11 children. She worked in Wolverhampton as a tinplate stamper but when she lost her job, Catherine started a relationship with a former soldier, Thomas Conway, and moved to London with him. She had a tattoo of his initials ‘TC’ in blue ink on her left forearm, and the couple had a daughter and two sons.
In 1880, Catherine began drinking heavily. She left her family, living from 1881 in a common lodging-house in Spitalfields with her new partner, John Kelly. Her ex-partner, Thomas, kept her sons’ addresses secret from her so that she could have no contact with them, though she was able to contact her married daughter. Catherine took to casual prostitution to pay rent, occasionally relying on the help of her daughter or working as a hop-picker during harvest times.
Her friends described her as “intelligent and scholarly, but possessed of a fierce temper” and “a very jolly woman, always singing”. Her family described her “as [a] very good looking and jolly sort of girl.”
Catherine’s body was discovered on Sunday 30 September 1888.
Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols (26 August 1845 – 31 August 1888)
Mary Ann Nichols (known as ‘Polly’ to her friends) was born to a locksmith and his wife on 26 August 1845 in Dean Street, London. In 1864, she married William Nichols, a printer’s machinist, and together they had three daughters and two sons. After 17 years together, their marriage broke up. According to Mary Ann’s father, William left Mary Ann after having an affair with the nurse who assisted during the birth of their final child. According to William, the couple stayed married for three years after his alleged affair, and so this could not have been the cause. He claimed that Mary Ann left him to become a prostitute. Police reports blame Mary Ann’s alcoholism.
Legally required to support his estranged wife, William stopped paying his former wife’s allowances after 1-2 years, claiming she was earning money through illicit means (her sex work). Mary Ann spent most of her remaining years in workhouses and boarding houses, living off charitable handouts and her meagre earnings as a prostitute. In early 1888, she was placed in the Lambeth workhouse after being discovered sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square. At the time of her death, Nichols was living in a Whitechapel common lodging house in Spitalfields. She was described as “a very clean woman who always seemed to keep to herself.”
Mary Ann’s body was discovered on 31 August 1888.
Elizabeth ‘Long Liz’ Stride (27 November 1843 – 30 September 1888)
Elizabeth Stride (known as ‘Long Liz’ to her friends, either due to her married surname ‘Stride’ because a stride is a long step, or because of her height) was the daughter of a Swedish farmer and his wife, on 27 November 1843. Working mainly as a domestic help, Elizabeth was also known as a prostitute to local police from the age of 22. She reportedly gave birth to a stillborn girl on 21 April 1865 as a result of this work.
A year after the stillbirth, Elizabeth moved to London for domestic work with a family. There she met her future husband, John Thomas Stride, a ship’s carpenter. After 8 years of marriage, Elizabeth was admitted to a workhouse, suggesting a split from her husband. After briefly reuniting in 1881, the couple separated permanently by the end of the year. From then on, Elizabeth lived in different workhouses and lodging houses, making money from sewing and occasional housekeeping work. She asked for financial assistance from the Swedish Church in 1878 and the clerk of the church remarked to the inquest that at the time she had been in ‘very poor’ circumstances.
From 1885, she lived with Michael Kidney, a local dock labourer. The couple’s on-and-off relationship was tumultuous, which Kidney ascribes to Elizabeth’s drinking. In 1887, she filed an assault charge against Kidney but failed to appear for her court date. Elizabeth was believed to continue working as a casual prostitute, only soliciting clients when in desperate need for money.
Elizabeth could speak Yiddish, English and Swedish. An acquaintance described her as having a calm temperament, though she appeared numerous times for being drunk and disorderly at Thames Magistrates Court. Lodgers described her as a quiet woman who would do a “good turn for anyone.”
Elizabeth’s body was discovered on Sunday 30 September 1888.
Mary Jane ‘Ginger’ Kelly (1863 – 9 November 1888)
Compared with the other women, Mary Jane Kelly’s (known as ‘Fair Emma’, ‘Ginger’, and ‘Black Mary’ to her friends) origins are obscure and undocumented, with much of it possibly embellished, and no photographs exist of her alive. According to one of Mary’s partners, Joseph Barnett, she was born in Limerick, Ireland, around 1863, to an iron-worker and his wife as one of at least 9 children. The family is thought to have moved to Wales when Mary was a child, though later Mary’s landlord claimed she received infrequent letters from her mother in Ireland.
Around 1879, Mary married a coal miner who was killed two or three years later in a mine explosion. She moved in with a cousin in Cardiff, and it is alleged that she began working as a prostitute during this time. In 1884, Mary left her cousin, moving to London and working in a brothel in the affluent West End. Later, she moved towards the poorer East End of London, living with various local men.
When drunk, Mary would be heard singing Irish songs; in this state, she would often become quarrelsome and even abusive to those around her. A friend said, “She was a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink” while another said, “She was a good, quiet, pleasant girl, and was well liked by all of us.” A housemate described her as “an excellent scholar and an artist of no mean degree”, though Joseph described her as illiterate. Mary was described by many people as very attractive, with blonde or red hair (accounts differ) and was said to be fluent in the Welsh language. She was about 25 years old, and living in poverty at the time of her death.
Mary’s body was discovered on 9 November 1888.
These women all lived under the same circumstances as many women do today.
In 2015, food banks are providing emergency food to over 1 million people in the UK. Funding for domestic violence services has been reduced by 30 percent, with further cuts planned. Nearly six in ten poor adults are women, and nearly six in ten poor children live in families headed by women. Poverty rates are especially high for single mothers, women of colour, and elderly women living alone. In the United Kingdom around 70% of women in prostitution are single mothers who do not receive social benefits. Sex workers continue to experience high levels of violence.
These conditions need to change, and the way the women living in these conditions are treated by society needs to change. Nobody deserves to be reduced to the status of victim.
– Alexandra Becker is a Fourth Wave feminist activist. She’s anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, possibly a latent anarchist and is definitely pro-hugs.