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Disease, deprivation and murder

In the late 19th century London was gripped with fear as a series of unsolved murders captured the public imagination.


London at this time was a sunless, sprawling city straddling the river Thames; a place of slums, warehouses, dark alleys, gin joints and brothels.

Rapid growth into the industrial age had brought with it political disruption and serious environmental, ideological, and public health issues, leading to deprivation, disease and death. The poorer classes were living in bad housing with inadequate sanitation and they were often malnourished.

Diseases like typhus, tuberculosis, diphtheria, smallpox and influenza were more or less endemic at the time, erupting into epidemics when the right climatic conditions coincided with periods of economic distress.

There were of course the other infectious diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, that killed thousands without becoming epidemics. 

Cholera was first diagnosed in the UK in 1831 (the last recorded case was in 1901), with the epidemic reaching London in 1832, resulting in a considerable loss of life. It was during an epidemic in 1853-54 that John Snow, succeeded in tracingthe source to a single water pump on Broad Street in the Golden Square area.

Although this finding was potential evidence for Snow’s view that cholerawas due to a contagious and probably live agent transmitted in the water supply, the Board of Health rejected Snow’s conclusions – it amassed a huge amount of information, which it interpreted as supportive of its conclusion that the epidemic was attributable not so much to water as to air.

The Registrar General reported in 1841 that while mean life expectancy in Surrey was 45 years, it was only 37 in expectancy in London and 26 in Liverpool.

The average age of “labourers, mechanics, and servants”, at times of death was only 15. Mortality figures for crowded districts like Shoreditch, and Bermondsey, were twice as high as those for middle-class areas of London. Whitechapel in London’s East End was a relatively prosperous district in the 17th century. However, some of its areas began to deteriorate in the mid 18th century, and in the second half of the 19th century it had become increasingly overcrowded, with an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.

It was a warren of small, dark streets with poor housing conditions and a significant economic underclass. The endemic poverty had driven many women to prostitution, which had led to an increase in syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Racism, crime, social disturbance and real deprivation fed public perceptions that the area was a notorious den of immorality...

The Whitechapel murders

Over a period of three years, from 1888 to 1891, 11 prostitutes were murdered. The London Metropolitan Police Service called them “the Whitechapel murders”. Although the murder of prostitutes was not a unique occurrence at the time, several of the murders drew particular attention.

Five of the victims stood apart from the rest on account of the savagery with which they were killed and subsequently mutilated. These five are believed to have all been murdered by the same hand. All the victims shared distinct and similar wounds, as well as postmortem organ removal and mutilations in some cases.

The police surgeon, Thomas Bond, had linked these five killings together and, in a letter written to Robert Anderson, the head of the London CID, he described the murderer as being a man of “physical strength and of great coolness and daring with periodical attacks of homicidal and erotic mania”.

He theorised that the murderer was in their external appearance quite likely to be a quiet in offensive looking, probably middle-aged, respectably dressed man, possibly with the habit of wearing a cloak or overcoat to disguise the blood on his hands or clothes.

Over the course of these murders, the police, newspapers and others received many hundreds of letters regarding the case. Although many of the letters claimed to have been written by the killer, three in particular are prominent: the “Dear Boss” letter, the “Saucy Jacky” postcard and the “From Hell” letter.

It was the “Dear Boss” letter, dated 25 September 1888, that gave the murderer a name. It was received that day by the Central News Agency and was forwarded to Scotland Yard on 29 September. The letter was couched in lurid prose and said: “I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled...” It was signed in red ink “Jack the Ripper”. Here then was a man, who did not have the intention to merely kill his victims and mutilate them but to share the experience, as discovered by George Lusk, the Chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee.

On 16 October 1888 he received half a human kidney in a cardboard box through the post, along with a letter scrawled in a spidery hand and addressed “from Hell”.

Although the police and police surgeon felt it was probably a hoax by a medical student, others believed it was part of Catherine Eddowes’ missing organ. According to the memoirs of Major Henry Smith of the City Police, published more than 20 years after the incident, the kidney left in her corpse was in an advanced stage of Bright’s disease, as was the kidney sent to George Lusk. 

Mary Jane Kelly is generally considered to be the Ripper’s final victim, and it is assumed that the crimes ended because of the culprit’s death, imprisonment, or institutionalisation. But four more murders followed her death.

There were wild suggestions that the “Ripper” had returned on the occasions of these subsequent murders, but nothing was proven. In early 1889 Inspector Abberline, who had taken over the investigations, returned to Scotland Yard to take on other cases, and the inquiry was handed over to Inspector Henry Moore. Despite an extensive investigation of the killings, Jack the Ripper was never apprehended, nor convincingly identified.

The aftermath

The Whitechapel murders galvanised public opinion against the overcrowded, unsanitary slums of the East End, and led to demands for reform. Many believed that the murders were an inevitable consequence of the state of the slums, which represented a shift away from the previously held belief of poverty being the result of moral and character deficits.

Charles Booth’s work Life and Labour of the People, published in 1889, looked at poverty in the East End of London and a second volume, entitled Labour and Life of the People, appeared in 1891 and looked at incidences of pauperism in the East End of London.

He showed that 35% of Londoners lived in abject poverty (which was far higher than the 25% claimed by Henry Hyndman in a previous study) and he also popularised the idea of a “poverty line”, which he considered to be the minimum amount necessary for a family of four or fivepeople to survive (in 1888 this was about 10 to 20 shillings). 

The poor of the East End had long been ignored by affl uent society, but the nature of the murders and victims drew attention to their living conditions. Acts of Parliament, such as the Public Health Act 1890, were more effective than previous legislation in ensuring that towns took responsibility for the basic provision of pure water supply and proper sanitary conditions.

While the Housing Act 1890 placed emphasis on slum clearance, it had only a limited effect, but the worst of the slums were demolished in the two decades following the Whitechapel murders. The development of town planning began to stress environmental considerations that influenced the layout of some suburban developments and created a healthier environment.

Whenever Parliament debated some new or reformed bill, Victorians were reminded that the Industrial Revolution had brought as an unwelcome by-product the proliferation of disease, occupational illnesses and deprivation. George Bernard Shaw highlighted the issues in a sarcastically worded letter to The Star newspaper in September 1888, under the title “Blood Money to Whitechapel”.

It read: “Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation and organisation, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling... women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.”

As a final twist to the tale, in the Spring of 1891, in the heart of New York City’s squalid Fourth Ward a prostitute was found murdered and brutally mutilated in a room at the East River Hotel, a boisterous and forlorn dive typical of the many flophouses that lined the bustling docksides of lower Manhattan.

News of the slaying quickly spread across the city, around the nation and over the seas. Although murder was not uncommon in the Fourth Ward, slaughter of this sort was unheard of. There were few city news agencies that did not proclaim the likelihood that the Ripper had made Manhattan’s teeming streets his new killing fields.


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