In Celebration of the Women of the East End of London, or the Visceral Experience of Writing on Jack the Ripper

Forbes Winslow conjures up the secret actions of Jack the Ripper, from the Illustrated Police News. C. 1889. Courtesy of the British Library.


By Grace Moore, The University of Melbourne

I’ve recently completed a book chapter on the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, better known as the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings.  I’ve taken an inordinately long time to write this essay, and found myself picking it up and putting it down much more than I would any other piece of work.  I shouldn’t really be surprised; a few years ago, the Ripper slayings would feature in week 10 of my ‘Victorian Crime Writing’ class.   Each year I’d find myself saying that I wouldn’t teach them again, but then time would pass, another year would roll around, and once again I’d be bracing myself for a lecture that left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

My unease at teaching the murders stemmed from the fact that the crimes were the only real-life cases to feature on the course.  They were also the most grisly.  For the most part, I would treat the stories surrounding the terror that pervaded London in the late 1880s just as I would any fictional text.  But every year that strategy would break down and I’d find myself once again reflecting on the fact that in textualising the stories of the Ripper’s five official victims, the prostitutes Mary Anne (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, I was somehow complicit in an act of violence against them and their memories.  The serial killer, after all, put that which should have remained private on public display, carving up these women’s bodies and arranging them for his pleasure.  There were times when I was teaching these cases when it felt as though I was facilitating something rather similar, encouraging smart undergraduates to close-read these case as though they were fiction; standing back and watching, while they created elegant turns of phrase, imposing theories and clever meanings upon the corpses of real women.

There is a huge amount of voyeurism associated with the Ripper case, which attracts so much interest partly because of its violence and gore, and partly because it remains an unsolved mystery.  In the late 1880s hundreds and thousands of words were given over to the crimes, whose episodic nature made for a perfect fit with the press’s need to provide ever more salacious installments for hungry readers.  The critic Mark Seltzer has labelled the murderer we call Jack the Ripper a ‘white-male-sadist-performance artist’ (see Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, 1998), and in so-doing he references concerns that link directly back to the Ripper’s reign of terror.

The controversial investigative journalist and editor, W. T. Stead (who was jailed for three months in 1885 for his exposé of the trafficking of young virgins in London, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon) argued that the murders were the work of a ‘scientific sociologist’ seeking to draw attention to the widespread depravation of life in London’s East End, believing that only a series of spectacular crimes would galvanise the otherwise apathetic affluent classes into action.  As Stead expressed it in The Pall Mall Gazette:

If these cesspools of brutalized humanity were not to become a permanent source of poisoned miasma, it was necessary something should be done that would at once rouse public attention, create universal sensation, and compel even the most apathetic and self indulgent to admit the first postulate of the Socialist’s faith, that the luxury and the wealth of the West must be employed to mitigate the squalor and crime of the East.

19 September 1888.

Stead goes on to say, ‘There must be blood … the warning must be printed in letters of gore’, his shocking words pointing to the increasingly widespread belief that the slums of London in the East End were uncharted territory, in need of the kinds of ‘civilising’ missionary activity with which the British had targeted their overseas colonies.  That there was misery, starvation, crime and violence at the very heart of the empire’s capital was a cause for national embarrassment, and the Ripper’s crimes brought this into sharp focus.

While Stead’s interpretation is an unconventional one, he was right in his assertion that it would take something out of the ordinary to compel well-heeled men and women to think about the unfortunates on their doorsteps.  The death of Catherine Eddowes, in particular – whose body was found in Mitre Square, part of London’s financial district – unsettled the middle and upper classes by forcing them to confront their physical proximity to the slums and the so-called residuum who inhabited them.  Literary responses to both the killings and their broader context followed very swiftly, and a number of these works engaged explicitly with calls to throw a spotlight on the area that General William Booth of the Salvation Army famously termed ‘Darkest England’.

“The Nemesis of Neglect” from Punch, or The London Charivai. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Ripper murders highlighted the dangers posed to women working on the streets.  However, for some respondents this climate of fear was the thin end of the wedge.  In her graphic and chilling novella, In Darkest London (1889) Margaret Harkness used newspaper boys, shouting the details of the latest killings, as part of an East London soundscape.  Emphasising the routine nature of domestic violence in the East End – both in the home and on the street – Harkness pushes the Ripper to the periphery of her narrative, relentlessly exploring prostitution, child labour and the systematic exploitation of the workforce, through the eyes of her slightly naïve heroine who dreams of becoming a Salvation Army ‘slum crusader’.  The pages are punctuated with reports of women’s deaths at the hands of domestic partners, and Harkness takes great pains to show how unremarkable these murders were considered to be.  We see women who have had their eyes knocked out by their husbands, women driven to drink and suicide, and even one woman who is awaiting trial for murdering her abusive husband.  Like Stead, Harkness wants her readers to understand that the gruesome Whitechapel deaths signify a much more widespread culture of violence that is threatening to spill beyond the slums, into broader society.  Harkness was, of course, not alone in this concern, and stories like Rudyard Kipling’s remarkable piece ‘The Record of Badaliah Herodsfoot’ (1890) and Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896) highlighted the urgent need for intervention in the poorest areas.

Working on these novels, alongside contemporary newspaper accounts and histories can be quite overwhelming.  My response to this material is visceral, and as I said at the beginning of this post, every so often I would need to step back from the project, just as I did in my lecture class all those years ago.  Partly, this need for distance stemmed from a need for relief from the unstinting accounts of brutality and misery, but that same feeling of needing to respect the Ripper’s victims also took over and would make it difficult to slip airily from fiction into fact.

The protests surrounding the opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum in October compounded my sense of unease.  Claiming to ‘recognize and celebrate the women of the East End of London’, but in fact offering reconstructed murder scenes and a replica mortuary, the museum – like the London Dungeon before it – is catering to an audience who are thrilled by the enigma surrounding the vicious killings.  With photographs on the walls – the same images which appear in the carefully argued critical sources I’ve drawn on for my project – and waxwork figures, somewhere along the way, the sense of these women as sentient suffering beings has been lost.  The terror and agony of their deaths has almost vanished as Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly are reduced to the status of mere clues, interesting only for what they can tell us about the mind-set of an unidentified psychopath.

As I’ve been finalising my essay, then, and thinking about International Violence Against Women Day, I’ve been wondering how to return some dignity to the Ripper’s victims; how to write about them in a way that doesn’t replicate their exploitation and abuse.  I’m not certain that I’m there yet, and several times it has seemed easier to walk away from the essay, than to keep going and get myself caught in a cycle of textual violence.  One of the depressing aspects of this work is the realisation that for many women across the world, little has changed since the 1880s.   It is for this reason that I’ve persevered, hoping that in trying to find an appropriate voice for those who could not speak, it might be possible to undercut the gory excesses surrounding representations of the killings, and to consider these women who died in fear with the compassion that is due to them.

Grace Moore is a Senior Research Fellow in the Shaping the Modern program  and a lecturer in literary studies at the University of Melbourne. A Victorian scholar by training, her primary research project is an examination of the representations of bushfires in nineteenth-century settler literature, which will lead to a research monograph, Arcady in Flames.  Grace’s recent research includes an essay on Anthony Trollope and dingo-huntingand another on representations of arsonists in nineteenth-century novels and short stories.  She has also been engaged in a study of hearths and has a developing research interest in the ecological humanities.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s