Despite having a keen interest in all types of Victorian crime, I have to admit that I’ve always felt bewildered by ‘Jack the Ripper’, as there’s so much already written about the Whitechapel murders and it’s hard to know where to begin. However, all that changed when I recently came face-to-face with one of the victims.
The City of London Police Museum is now established in its new home at the Guildhall Library – I went along to see the permanent exhibition. After the displays recounting the history of this unique police force, I turned the corner into the next section to be confronted with images connected with the murder of Catherine Eddowes, one of the victims attributed to Jack the Ripper.
At 1.44 am on Sunday 30 September 1888, PC Edward Watkins of the City of London Police walked into Mitre Square, near Aldgate, on his regular beat. He had visited the cobbled square, surrounded by tall warehouses, 14 minutes earlier, and nothing had been amiss. This time, however, he came across a sight that shocked him to the core. Near the carriage entrance, he caught sight of the dim outline of a person slumped against the wall. Thinking it was someone in a drunken state, the officer approached with his lantern to find the body of a woman lying in a pool of blood. Her skirts were pulled up, revealing her badly mutilated body, and her face was severely disfigured.
PC Watkins immediately alerted a night watchman lodging nearby and within minutes more police officers and a doctor arrived at the scene. The body was photographed before being removed to the mortuary for further examination. This was the fourth victim in a spree of violent killings at the hand of the mysterious figure known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. Just half an hour earlier, the body of another victim Elizabeth Stride had been discovered within a few minutes’ walk of Mitre Square – there was no doubt that a bloodthirsty murderer was on the rampage in the dark streets of Whitechapel: ‘The whole country was horrified beyond measure by the news that not only one ghastly crime had been discovered, but two.’ (Chief Inspector Walter Dew, C.I.D.)
There was nothing to identify the latest victim. She was shabbily dressed, wearing layers of dirty clothing. The police noticed that a piece of linen from her apron had been torn away and was missing. The only other clues were were a couple of pawn tickets for clothing in her pocket. A short while later, another police officer found a fragment of bloodied cloth a few streets away, above which an anti-Semitic message had been chalked on the wall. Concerned that it might cause a riot, his superiors ordered the message to be erased, before there was even time to photograph it.
The piece of cloth was thought to have belonged to the victim’s apron and the police initially thought the killer might have used it to wipe his hands – as fingerprinting wasn’t available at this time, it was useless as evidence. The Ripper’s fourth victim remained unidentified for several days, until labourer John Kelly came forward to confirm that she was his common-law wife, Catherine Eddowes. The pawn tickets corroborated her identity, as she had received them from a friend.
Catherine Eddowes was born in 1842 in Wolverhampton. She was the sixth of 12 children and her family moved to Bermondsey when she was almost two years old. By the age of 15, both Catherine’s parents had died and she was left to fend for herself. Initially she returned to Wolverhampton to stay with her aunt, where she met army pensioner Thomas Conway, after which she travelled around with him, earning money where they could. The couple, who had three children, were living in Westminster in 1868 and they stayed together until 1881. After her separation from Conway, Catherine entered into a relationship with John Kelly.
At the time of her murder, Catherine was lodging in Flower and Dean Street, in one of the poorest districts of East London. During the evening of 29 September, Catherine had been drinking heavily and was arrested for drunkenness. She was detained in a cell at Bishopsgate police station until she sobered up, and then released at 1 am, just 30 minutes before her death.
Catherine Eddowes was the only one of Jack the Ripper’s canonical victims to have been killed within the jurisdiction of the City of London Police. Following the discovery of her body in Mitre Square, the force had to work together with the Metropolitan Police to stop this violent killer. Catherine was buried in the City of London Cemetery, near to the Ripper’s first known victim, Mary Ann Nichols. As we all know, her killer was never caught. I shall have to carry on investigating…