Blog15 Sep 2009
The gruesome ‘Jack the Ripper’ slayings of 1888 sparked a pandemic of panic and fear, unlike any London had seen before. The identity of the killer still perplexes and fascinates history buffs today. But despite a wealth of conspiracy theories and numerous investigative books, it seems we’re still no closer to discovering who was responsible.
To mark the 121-year anniversary of the murders, and to separate the myths from the facts, findmypast.com has turned to the newly-completed 1881 census, which offers a snapshot of the victims’ lives just seven years before they met their tragic end.
Modern cinema has portrayed the victims as young, lifelong prostitutes, struck down in the prime of their lives. But the 1881 census shows that by the time of their deaths they were mostly in their 40s, and had previously been living – at least on paper – respectable family lives.
Catherine Eddowes, who appears on the 1881 census as ‘Kate Conway’, is listed as a ‘charwoman’ and was living in Chelsea with her common-law husband, Thomas Conway (a ‘hawker’), plus their two children:
Elizabeth Stride, who is believed to be the third victim, had worked as a prostitute in her 20s. But by 1881 (then aged 37), it seems she had escaped that life, and was living in Bow with her husband John stride, a carpenter:
Annie Chapman – whose story is perhaps the most tragic – was staying with her parents on the night of the 1881 census with her three children. She is listed as a ‘stud groom’s wife’. (Her husband, John Chapman, was living above stables in Berkshire, where Annie and the children later joined him):
Annie and John Chapman’s eldest child, Emily Ruth Chapman, died in 1882 of meningitis, aged just 12. In the wake of the tragedy, both parents took to drink, which probably precipitated their separation, and started Annie Chapman’s descent into prostitution.
Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, and Mary Jane Kelly (the only victim in her 20s), are not found on the 1881 census, so they may have been walking the streets on the night it was taken. But Nichols, at any rate, was married with three children at the time of the 1871 census, so the reality, once again, has not been faithfully depicted by Hollywood.
According to contemporary newspapers, by the time of their deaths, none of the three victims we found on the 1881 census were living with their husbands. Poverty was rife in the East End of London, so it’s likely, following the breakup of their marriages, that these women turned to prostitution simply to survive – a decision which, ironically, led to their untimely deaths.