The notorious serial killer 'Jack the Ripper' continues to fascinate public imagination. The vulnerables identified by the killer all had failed marriages.
How Jack the Ripper's five victims turned to prostitution after their marriages failed
17th September 2009
Over the last century they have passed into gruesome folklore, but Victorian census records on Jack the Ripper's victims cast new light on the lives of some of the murdered prostitutes.
An online genealogy website which trawled the 1881 census - taken seven years before their deaths - has pulled together information on the women that 'provides a small window onto the past' and dispels the myth that they had been teenage street walkers.
The five - Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly - were all brutally murdered in London's East End between August 31 and December 20, 1888. Their bodies were left horribly mutilated on the streets of Whitechapel. Their murderer was never caught.
Although prostitutes at the time of their violent murders, three of the five had previously been married, according to records taken on April 3, 1881.
The website www.findmypast.com discovered Stride was recorded as 37 at the time and living with her husband, a carpenter. Eddowes was 38, living with her husband and two children, her occupation listed as "charwoman" - a cleaner.
Chapman was then 40, married but living with her parents. Later the same year she moved to Clewer, near Windsor in Berkshire, where her husband John, a stud groom, had taken up an offer of work. After a series of family tragedies, including the death of the couple's daughter to meningitis, they both turned to drink and separated.
The women appear to have turned to prostitution after their marriages broke up. According to newspaper reports of the time, none of the victims was living with their husbands at the time of their deaths.
There are no records for Nichols or Kelly in the census, suggesting they may already have been working the streets at that time.
This information on the three women has been available online since the 1881 census records were published eight years ago - it is only now that they have been pulled together to provide an insight into the lives of the women in their latter years.
'Some people treat the Jack the Ripper story as a bit of a game,' said Alex Werner, a Museum of London historian who curated a recent Jack the Ripper exhibition. 'It wasn't a game. It was against real people in the East End, people who had fallen on really hard times, who had gravitated to the East End as a place where they could earn some kind of living as a prostitute.'
Newspaper accounts at the time, which helped the Ripper's fame spread, touched on the women's fall from respectability.
The Star newspaper's report on September 27, 1888, on the death of Chapman, struck a sympathetic tone, describing how a woman who "had perhaps a happy and innocent girlhood, and was once a wife, had to turn out and seek the sale of her body for the price of a bed."
'A few hours later,' the newspaper said, 'she was found a corpse.'
The murderer's infamy spread quickly around the world. London newspapers revelled in the gore, which was spread across the country and to distant lands by telegraph. The killer was dubbed "Jack the Ripper" after a man using that pseudonym claimed responsibility in letters to the media and police.
No one was ever prosecuted for the murders, helping to fuel speculation about his identity that continues to this day. Among the suspects identified at various times are Francis Tumblety, an American quack doctor; Sir William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria; Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor; and the artist Walter Sickert.
Andrew Cook, author of the recent book "Jack the Ripper," thinks the Ripper has always been a media creation. He argues that the crime could not have been committed by a single person.
Cook said the Ripper myth has been constructed from "layer upon layer of sediment, nonsense and crazy theories."
'It has become an industry,' he said. 'What really was a terrible scenario of events has almost become over-commercialized.'
Werner doubts we will ever know the Ripper's true identity.
'My feeling is we'll never know for certain,' said Werner. 'We are too far away now to make sense of the different candidates.'Picture: Sir William Hull (a key suspect)