Jack the Ripper has gone down in history as one of the most notorious, chilling, and mysterious serial killers of all time. Between August and November 1888, he killed five women in London, the center of the British Empire. The killer was never caught, spurring a host of theories about who, exactly, this madman - or madwoman - actually was. He was neither the first nor the last serial killer who targeted women.
But, what about Jack the Ripper's victims? In the hunt to identify him and obsess over the smallest details of his crimes, the women killed by Jack the Ripper often get overlooked and forgotten. Though historians have not all come to a consensus about the total number of Jack the Ripper’s victims, there is a group of the so-called “canonical five”: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly.
Though history remembers these women merely as prostitutes whose professions led to their deaths, they were a lot more than simply sex workers. They lived complicated, interesting lives filled with a variety of challenges. These women were among the poorest residents in London, often living penny to penny in one of the most crowded, unhealthy corners of the city – the East End. At a time when the British Empire was the envy of all nations, these five women were evidence the prosperity of empire had left a huge segment of the population behind.
Their names would be remembered while his true identity remains unknown. Their stories are fascinating, heartbreaking, and deserve to be told.
Some Of The Victims Were ImmigrantsPhoto: Wellcome Images/Wellcome Trust/CC BY 4.0 / via Wikimedia Commons
The East End was a culturally diverse place, thanks to the immigrants who came there for cheap housing and industrial jobs. The two biggest immigrant groups were the Irish and Russian Jews, but the East End was also home to various other immigrant communities.
Jack the Ripper’s victims were no exception to this East End reality. Elizabeth Stride had emigrated from Sweden in 1866, when she was around 23. Mary Kelly, the final canonical Ripper victim, was said to have been Irish, having made her way to London in the early 1880s.
Prostitution Was One Of The Quickest Ways For East End Women To Make MoneyPhoto: Jack London/Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons
Women in the East End often used prostitution as a form of infrequent, casual labor whenever they needed money - many of them were not strictly “prostitutes,” but performed sex work alongside other tasks, like childcare or laundry work. Jack the Ripper’s victims weren’t strictly prostitutes - they were women who sometimes sold their bodies to make ends meet.
Though women could make money selling their bodies, they often did not make much. According to Jack London - the American author of White Fang and Call of the Wild who spent several weeks living amongst the London poor to do research for his book People of the Abyss - some East End women would sell themselves for a stale loaf of bread or as little as two pence.
By 1888, prostitutes had become a source of social panic amongst buttoned-up Victorians. Prostitutes were seen as either “fallen women” who were pushed into a life of vice or a dirty, disease-ridden criminal class no better than dogs.
Some Victims Were Walking The Streets At Night Because They Couldn't Afford A BedPhoto: Sir Hubert von Herkomer/Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons
The sheer number of people who were crammed into the East End of London made it sometimes difficult to find affordable housing. Like many destitute East Enders, the majority of the Ripper victims did not have their own roof over their head. They often slept in communal lodging houses - where they could rent a bed for a night - committed themselves to workhouses for room and board, or spent the night wandering the streets until morning.
Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, for example, could not afford a bed that cost four pence in a lodging house on the night of August 31, 1888. So, she pluckily put on her best bonnet, vowing to the housekeeper, “I’ll soon get my money. See what a jolly bonnet I have.” Nichols set out that night to earn money so she could have a place to sleep. She never made it back. Hours later, her corpse was discovered on Buck’s Row.
Some Of Them Were MothersPhoto: Special Collections/Toronto Public Library/CC BY SA-2.0 / via Wikimedia Commons
A handful of Jack the Ripper’s victims actually had children. Polly Nichols had five children with her estranged husband, the eldest of whom was in his early 20s when Nichols was murdered. Annie Chapman, too, was a mother several times over: she had three children with her husband, including a daughter who died of meningitis at the age of 12 and a son with a physical disability. Catherine Eddowes had three adult children. She had intended to visit one of her daughters to ask for money shortly before she was murdered.