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Unmasking Jack the Ripper
"Perhaps the best Jack the Ripper documentary produced in recent years." North American and European DVD formats both available.
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 A Ripperologist Article 
This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 74, December 2006. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.
A Life Less Ordinary:
The Victims of Jack the Ripper on the Big Screen
By JENNIFER PEGG and DON SOUDEN

“The Introduction”

Jack the Ripper has been a popular theme at the movies and the website, Hollywood Ripper, states that there have been a total of 38 Ripper productions and 18 ‘faux Ripper’ movies. The site compares this to just seven about Ed Gein (apparently the second most popular serial killer in Hollywood). We have looked at six films produced over the past six decades and compared these depictions of the victims of Jack the Ripper with each other and with reality. The films focused on are Jack the Ripper (1959), A Study In Terror (1965), Murder By Decree (1979), Jack the Ripper (1988), The Ripper (1997) and From Hell (2001). Each of these films represents a different decade from the past sixty years and so help to show the evolution of the victims’ portrayals. While we are examining the portrayals in these movies not only against each other but also against known facts, we accept that some degree of artistic license is used when making films, even though the events therein are based on facts.

“Life On The Edge”

It is one of the enduring ironies for those who explore the Jack the Ripper mystery that while Jack is clearly the focus of most studies and his victims only necessary but neglected bit players, we know much more about his victims than we do Jack. Part of the reason for this is that Jack was never caught and despite the arguments of many for whom ‘the truth has been revealed’, we still have no good idea who he was or what his life was like.

Indeed, among many of the favoured suspects there is a positive paucity of information. For example, Aaron Kosminski remains an almost total cipher; a troubled teenage immigrant who ghosted through Whitechapel for a few years and then spent his remaining years in a mental hospital. The record is hardly better for Joseph Barnett and although there are a certain number of public records (even cricket scores) pertaining to Montague John Druitt, his personal life and the devils that drove him to suicide remain hidden to all but surmise.

Among the more famous suspects (who often seem to be suspects only because they were famous) like James Maybrick, Walter Sickert and even Prince Albert Victor, we have a great deal of information as to what made them tick, but none of that knowledge suggests the sort of mental tic that drove Jack to murder. In contrast, diligent research over the years has revealed much about the lives of his victims—and none of it is very pretty.

Coroner Wayne Baxter, in his summation to the inquest into the death of Polly Nichols, may have been the first to see a common and disheartening thread within the fabric of the victims’ live. Referring to Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Nichols and Annie Chapman (who had been murdered before the Nichols inquest closed) Baxter said:

All four victims were women of middle age, all were married and had lived apart from their husbands in consequence of intemperate habits, and were at the times of their death leading irregular lives and eking out a miserable and precarious existence in common lodging houses. (1)

Smith is not considered a Ripper victim by many and the jury remains out on including Tabram, but there is no debate that they led lives of much the same quiet desperation as Nichols and Chapman.

Sadly, that pattern was repeated with the other three unfortunate women who are, at least popularly, suspected of being Ripper victims: Elizabeth Stride, Catharine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Certainly, Stride and Eddowes quite neatly fit Baxter’s template in terms of age, past marital history and a marginal existence before death gave them a prominence they never enjoyed in life. Kelly is a bit different, mainly because she was much younger than the others and her history remains murky at best. Still, by the time her brief life was ended she was likely an alcoholic, was prostituting herself and had already sunk to living in lodging houses or the hovel masquerading as an apartment at Number 13 Miller’s Court.

Yet, if nothing else, we should examine the sad lives of these women to gain greater insights into them not just as victims but as real people. Nothing new will be introduced here, but we think a closer look at the lives the Canonic Five led before they met Jack and forever entered history books is well warranted. Their lives may not have been the stuff of dreams, but they were certainly the raw clay from which a compelling drama of life on the edge in the Late Victorian Period can certainly be wrought.

“Along Came Polly”

Mary “Polly” Nichols was born in August, 1845, to Edward and Caroline Walker. Her dad was a locksmith, a respectable trade, and one assumes she had a likewise respectable upbringing. Polly left the nest early in 1864 when, at 18, she married William Nichols at St. Bride’s in Fleet Street. Her husband was a printer’s machinist, again a trade that with diligence and aptitude might provide steady employment.

Over the course of the next decade and a half the couple moved several times and produced five children: Edward, Percy, Alice, Eliza and finally, in 1878, Henry. Just five children in nearly 15 years was hardly an excessive burden on a family in the period and one might have expected Polly and William Nichols to have enjoyed a fairly stable and secure home life. Such, however, was most assuredly not the case. Instead, it would seem dark clouds had been gathering for years and in 1880 Polly and William separated.

At the inquest, her father blamed William for the separation, saying that ‘[t]he reason [Polly] parted from her husband was that he went and lived with the woman who nursed his wife during her confinement’. (2) William Nichols was at pains to deny this and was quoted in the Daily Telegraph for September 10, 1888, as saying ‘I did not leave my wife during her confinement and go away with a nurse-girl. [She] deserted me four or five times, if not six’.

There is no way of telling at this far remove in time which of the men, if either, was telling the truth. Still, there seems no question that Polly had also developed a growing drink problem. At the inquest, William Nichols stated that their repeated separations were due to Polly’s drinking, until he finally left her. And her father also testified that Polly ‘was not a particularly sober woman’ and that after ‘words’ on the subject she left her father as well.(3)

Almost all the rest of Polly’s life was spent in workhouses or cheap lodging houses. She received 5s. a week from her husband after they separated, but as soon he found out she was living with another man he stopping paying the allowance. After that, except for the time spent with her father, her meagre life was measured in the amount of time she spent in and out of various workhouses—even the one opportunity to break that cycle ended in personal failure.

At the inquest, her father produced a letter received from Polly earlier that year after she had taken a job as a domestic servant for the Cowdry family in Wandsworth. It was full of hope and good intentions and she even recognized her greatest problem when she wrote about her employers ‘They are teetotallers and religious, so I ought to get on’.(4) Something soon went wrong, though, and Polly left the Cowdrys, absconding with, it was said, clothes worth £3.10s.

For a time after that Polly shared a room with Ellen Holland on Thrawl Street, but evidently spent the last of her days at another cheap lodging house. The latter part of life for Polly had been an ever downward spiral, driven by her personal demons of drink. Yet, there was also an ever-ready reservoir of hopeful optimism to this gentle woman and her last recorded words were, to Ellen Holland, ‘I’ll soon get my doss money; see what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now.’ An interesting woman.

“Annie”

Eliza Anne Smith was born in 1841 to George Smith and Ruth Chapman, her parents making their union a bit more official by marrying the following year. Her father was a soldier, though evidently one of little ambition as he seems to have remained a private in the Lifeguards throughout his career.

Annie, as Eliza became known, was likely something of a slow-coach in life herself and it was not until 1869, when she was 28 years old, that she married coachman John Chapman. A picture exists of the pair around the time of their marriage: John looks to be quite the trig and trim fellow, but Annie already appears a bit matronly. Just barely five-feet tall, she was many inches short of the ideal height for her weight. Still, she was said to have had lovely, dark brown wavy hair and clear blue eyes.

The couple moved several times after marriage as John took on new positions, but at least from afar they seemed to be secure. They had two daughters, Emily Ruth, born in 1870, and Annie Georgina, born three years later. There are also pictures of the two girls and they looked quite fetching if also rather sombre, which was the norm when posing in that period. In just a few years, however, whatever family happiness there was would begin to disintegrate. A son, John, was born in 1880, but instead of the hoped-for-heir the boy was a hopeless cripple.

Adding further to the couple’s despair was the death two years later of Emily from meningitis. Both John and Annie were later described as heavy drinkers and if they had not been so inclined before, one can well imagine they took to alcohol to still some of the pain of Emily’s death and young John’s condition. At the time of Annie’s death, the boy was in a charitable school and Annie Georgina, just 15, was reportedly in France as part of a performing troupe.

In any case, the marriage fell apart rapidly after Emily’s death and within a year or two Annie had left her husband and the two remaining children. According to a police report at the time of Annie’s death, the separation was ‘through to her drunken habits’.(5) Just what formed the basis of this bit of hearsay is not provided. Whatever the reason, though, the pair were living apart by 1884. Kinder than William Nichols or simply less interested, John Chapman sent her 10s. a week even though by early1886 Annie was living with a sieve maker and had adopted the eponym of ‘Annie Sivvy’.

John Chapman died in December 1886, and Annie’s life headed ever more downward. Clearly the loss of her weekly stipend made her circumstances more straitened and soon after ‘Mr. Sivvy’ disappeared from her life. Philip Sugden has suggested that her main attraction for that man may have been the allowance.(6) Beyond the loss of the money, however, the deaths of John and Emily and young John’s disabilities are said to have weighed heavily upon Annie in her last years.

For those last few years Annie lived mostly in Whitechapel lodging houses. In the quaint argot of the time, her friend Amelia Palmer testified at the inquest that Annie ‘was not very particular what she did to earn a living and at times used to remain out very late at night’.(7) That is to say that Annie was at least an occasional prostitute, but to her credit she was also more. She did crochet work, making antimacassars, that she would sell weekends in Stratford, and would also sell flowers to bring in a few more pence.

In addition to the crochet work, Annie also did some embroidering of her history. According to Amelia Palmer, Annie spun a tale that rather than John Chapman, coachman, she had been married to Frederick Chapman, veterinary surgeon. This method of coping is hardly unusual among those in reduced circumstances and we shall see it in other of Jack’s victim’s as well.

Adding to her woes, Annie Chapman was also a very sick woman by the fall of 1888. At her inquest, Dr. George Bagster Phillips stated that Annie ‘was far advanced in disease of the lungs and membranes of the brain... there were signs of great deprivation, and [I] should say she was badly fed’.(8) She was probably in the advanced stages of tuberculosis and even had she not met Jack we can wonder if she would have made it through another winter.

Annie also had a few more recent medical problems, a black eye and badly bruised chest picked up in a fight with another woman. The immediate cause of the fracas is uncertain (either a pilfered florin or pilfered piece of soap), but at the base of both stories was Edward Stanley. He was a self-described Army pensioner, but that canard was unmasked at the inquest.

Indeed, Stanley came across as a cad at the inquest. Despite testimony by both Palmer and the lodging house deputy, Timothy Donavon, that Stanley frequently shared a weekend bed with Annie, Stanley was at great pains to disassociate himself from her and avowed he’d only spent the night with her once or twice.(9) Aside from her husband, Annie never seemed to inspire much loyalty in her men.

Annie Chapman’s last night was spent desperately seeking the few pence needed to pay for a bed at Crossingham’s. She had subsisted on little but tea the previous few days and whilst she could perhaps sense her world collapsing in upon her, she had not yet quit on herself. The last thing she said that day to Amelia Palmer is ‘It’s no use my giving way. I must pull myself together and go out and get some money, or I shall have no lodgings’.(10) An interesting woman.

“Elizabeth”

“Long Liz” Stride was born Elisabeth Gustafsdotter on November 27, 1843, on the farm Stora Tumlehed north of Gothenburg, Sweden. Like many before and after her, life on a farm was exchanged for that of a big city as soon as possible. In Elisabeth’s case, she left for the brighter lights of Gothenburg just before her 17th birthday. She initially found work as a domestic, but by early 1865 the police had registered her as a prostitute. It didn’t get any better for her and in that same year she gave birth to a stillborn infant and was twice treated for venereal disease.

Some time in early 1866 Elisabeth Gustafsdotter came to England. During the inquest into her death, her long-time companion, Michael Kidney, said Liz once told him she left Sweden to see England and at another time told him she came to England as a domestic.(11) It is quite probable both stories are true and she had taken a job as a domestic with a family she knew was leaving Sweden for London and its broader horizons.

Friends would ascribe to Liz a certain facility with languages and it has become lore that she spoke English like a native. In fact, though, the deputy at the lodging house at 32 Flower and Dean Street, Elizabeth Tanner, was asked ‘When she spoke English could you tell she was a foreigner’?(12) and she said “No.” But, that answer might well have meant only that Liz lacked a heavy accent, unlike so many of the newly arrived foreigners in the East End. Similarly, her reputed knowledge of Yiddish could only have been a few phrases she picked up charring for Jews, which would nonetheless be a lot more than her compotators.

A linguist or not, Liz obviously knew enough English to charm ship’s carpenter John Stride and the pair were married on March 7, 1869. Within a year, John Stride was evidently running a coffee house in Poplar and he seems to have stayed with this occupation until 1875. There is virtually no information about the marriage, though Kidney testified that Liz told him ‘she was the mother of nine children’.(13) However, not only is there no evidence of this baseball-team-sized brood, but she went on to tell Kidney that two of her children, and her husband, had drowned in the Princess Alice disaster.

As with Annie Chapman, Liz Stride had created a fable about her past. In September, 1878, the steamer Princess Alice collided in the Thames with the Bywell Castle, a collier, and upwards of 700 people on the steamer died. Ever after, Liz told the story that not only had her husband and two children drowned in the accident, but that in gaining safety herself her upper palate had been severely damaged.

The story was almost assuredly untrue. Not only did the autopsy disclose no evidence of injury to her mouth, but no evidence has been produced to support her tale. Her story about the disaster may have given Liz a certain sense of importance, but it also gave her financial opportunities. Shortly after the disaster, she told the pastor of the Swedish Church in London that her husband had been killed in the crash and did receive financial succour. Finally, the story of her husband’s death conveniently hid the fact that her marriage had foundered and that she and John had separated.

In fact, John Stride was quite alive in 1878 and didn’t die until 1884, apparently many years after he and Liz had gone their separate ways. Once the marriage dissolved, Liz seems to have spent most of her time in and out of lodging houses and workhouse infirmaries during this period. Then, in 1885, she took up with Michael Kidney, a dock labourer, and the two ‘enjoyed’ a stormy relationship over the next three years.

The couple spent most of that time living at 35 Devonshire Street, which would have been close to Kidney’s workplace. But, according to Kidney, their relationship was not always cordial, as he explained at the inquest:

She was subject to going away whenever she thought she would. During the three years I have known her she has been away from me altogether about five months... It was drink that made her go away, and she always returned without my going after her. I do not believe she left me on Tuesday to go with any other man.(14)

Since Liz had told a fellow lodger at 32 Flower and Dean Street that she and “the man she lived with” had exchanged a few words and she left him as a consequence, it is clear Kidney was trying to put as nice a gloss possible on her most recent departure.

Like those supposed victims of Jack before and after her, Liz had a problem with drink (from 1887 to 1888 she had eight convictions for drunkenness at Thames Magistrates Court). She was at least an occasional prostitute and was given to spinning fables about her life.

At the same time, she was also given to honest toil. She charred for Jewish families (picking up some Yiddish as she did) and the day of her death she had earned 6d cleaning at her lodging house. And, like the others, Liz somehow remained optimistic about life. The last thing she did before going out for the last time was to give another lodger, Catherine Lane, some green velvet to hold for her, doubtless intending to turn it into some item of clothing. She, too, was an interesting woman.

“Finding Kate”

Catharine Eddowes was one of George and Catharine Eddowes’ 12 children, and was roughly the middle child in that dozen. She was born on April 14, 1842, in Wolverhampton, but her father, a tinplate worker who lucklessly seemed never to take advantage of the many employment opportunities in the field at that time, moved the family to Bermondsey before Catharine’s second birthday. (And Catharine she shall be here—it was her mother’s spelling and the spelling on her birth certificate).

A successful book once suggested families were Cheaper By the Dozen, but that was hardly true for the Eddowes brood who suffered some youthful deprivation. Things only got worse when first their mother died in 1855 and then dad succumbed two years later. Even so, young Catharine had an opportunity denied her younger siblings. At the urging of an older sister, Emma, an aunt and uncle back in Wolverhampton agreed to take her in, but within months Catharine had stolen from her employers and run off to Birmingham.(15)

Initially, she stayed in Birmingham with another uncle, but Kate (which she had surely become by then, shedding the family nickname of ‘Chick’) had a wild streak and soon left that arrangement to, presumably, live ‘rough’ for a few years. And somewhere in Birmingham Kate met Thomas Conway and sparks evidently flew between the two—so much so that Kate let him tattoo TC into her left arm with India ink.

Although they never married, the two stayed together for nearly 20 years, living on Conway’s army pension and what they earned as hawkers. They also had three children, a daughter, Annie, (who married in 1885 at age 20) and two sons, born in 1868 and 1873. Inevitably, though, the pair separated around 1880 and for the same sad reasons as the other victims.

At the inquest, Kate’s daughter, Annie Phillips, testified that her parents separated because her father ‘was a teatollar [sic], my mother and he lived on bad terms because she used to drink... He left [my mother] between 7 & 8 years ago entirely on account of her Drinking Habits’.(16) Similarly, in an interview published in the Daily News of October 4, Kate’s sister Emma Jones said ‘there were occasional quarrels between them, owing to my sister’s habit of excessive drinking... I fancy he must have left her in consequence of her drinking habits’. Finally, in an October 18 interview with The Times, Conway was quoted thusly ‘He states that he left Eddowes in 1880 in consequence of her intemperate habits’.

Soon after separating with Conway, Kate met John Kelly, a labourer who jobbed about the markets, and the two lived together for the next seven years, residing for most of that time in a lodging house at 55 Flower and Dean Street. During that time Kate added to the pair’s income by continuing hawking and doing some charring. Moreover, the two usually took time in the summer, as they did in 1888, to go to the country and pick hops or fruit.

In many ways, Kate’s life attracts more interest than that of any other victim. By most accounts she was an extroverted, plucky, jolly soul who always had a song on her lips. In contrast, though, she was not so well thought of by much of her family. Certainly, her daughter Annie felt she was a money moocher and Annie not only purposely avoided telling her mother her new address after she had moved, but kept her brothers’ whereabouts a secret as well so their mother would not pester them for money.

Then there is the question of whether Kate was even an occasional prostitute. Certainly Kelly and the lodging house deputy denied that she was, but they would in any case to protect themselves, whilst many modern students of the field also deny it from what seems nothing more than an emotional attachment. There can be no definitive answer now, but we will defer to Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow who recently wrote: ‘All things considered, it seems obvious that Eddowes was not much different from the other victims and was surely engaged in casual prostitution to raise money in order to survive’.(17)

Whatever may or not be said about Catharine Eddowes, she was a vital, plucky woman and if her life had been less than it might have been or certainly far short of what her family had hoped, it was likely seldom dull. She was an interesting woman as well.

“Mary and Joe”

Mary Jane Kelly was born in... well we don’t know where the woman known as Mary Jane Kelly was born. Nor do we know when she was born, who her parents were, or almost anything at all about the woman. Indeed, after 118 years of often frenzied research, we are no closer to learning her antecedents than were the Metropolitan Police at the time of her death. Indeed, almost all the information we do have comes from “pillow talk” between Kelly and her partner of 18 months, Joe Barnett—and judging from the paucity of what Barnett passed on they weren’t much for pillow talk or Barnett was about as curious as a mummy.

What Barnett did disclose at the inquest was that Mary told him she was 25 years old, had been born in Limerick and moved when young to Wales. Her father was named John Kelly and was foreman at an iron works in Caernarvonshire. She had one sister and six brothers at home and another in the Scots Guards. She had married a collier named Davies or Davies at age 16 and that a couple years later he died in a mine explosion. She moved to Cardiff, a cousin led her into prostitution and that in 1884 she came to London. She started in a West Side bordello, was briefly in France, returned to London and lived with two men (a Morganstone and a Fleming) before settling in with Barnett.(18)

The only parts of her life history that have been even partially validated are those that relate to the time just before she met Barnett. Otherwise, what we have is revealed through a very dark glass and the combined efforts of many have as yet failed to pierce the fog of mystery surrounding Mary Jane Kelly. Indeed, the truth may well be that this woman was a foundling and there is no past to be found.

We have certainly seen that others in Kelly’s situation, particularly Polly Nichols and Liz Stride, were not above inventing a more glamorous or more sympathetic personal history so it would not be a great leap of non-faith to think the same of Mary Jane. Michael Kidney lived three years with Liz and accepted all she told him about the Princess Alice. Moreover, Kidney testified that the 45-year-old Stride was 35 or 36 because she told him so, leaving open the possibility that Kelly, too, was older than she claimed. There were some in Miller’s Court who thought she looked 30 and this possibility just further deepens the mystery of Mary Jane Kelly.

It is probably the mystery surrounding her that has, in part, made Mary Jane Kelly such an iconic figure among the victims. In addition, whatever her real age she was a good deal younger than the other victims and, according to the standards of the age and place, was accounted an attractive woman. She too, was an interesting woman, but in her case the interest her life provides is largely a lump of clay that can be sculpted into almost anything the imagination can conjure.

“Far From Heaven”

Turning to the films themselves, it can be seen that the way that the victims are portrayed in terms of their appearance, the role prostitution played in their lives, their class and their consumption of alcohol varies dramatically. While some films seem to get some of these things better than others, this variation in accuracy does not improve over time, it merely alters.

We have a very good idea of what the victims would have looked like on the nights that they were murdered. There are recorded descriptions of their clothes so it is possible to get a feel for how provocatively they would have been dressed and how shabby or dirty they would have been. The clothes the victims were wearing would not be very sexy as they consisted of high-buttoned tops and layers of undergarments—therefore it is also possible to state that their cleavage would not have been on show.

We can take Nichols as an example: She was wearing two petticoats, a corset and vest under her new brown linsey frock (made of a cheap, coarse material this buttoned up to the neck) and over this she had a tight, long-fitting coat known as an Ulster. She also had on black wool stockings, flannel draws, a black straw bonnet and men’s elastic boots. These would have most likely been dirty and shabby. It is a similar story with the other victims. Mary’s clothing is known too, but it is a little unclear as to how low cut her top was, but it, too, probably did not show much cleavage.(19)

The way the victims appear in the films varies greatly and this can be easily compared to the reality of how they looked. There seems to be little effort to make them actually appear in the clothes they are known to have been wearing. For example, Annie Chapman in real life was wearing red and white stripped stockings on the night of her murder(20) but she does not appear to be wearing such colourful stocking in any of the films. Therefore, we will focus on the general appearance of the victims here.

The 1959 production shows the victims wearing very high-necked garments, they are generally well turned out and do not appear to be dirty or shabby. By sharp contrast, in A Study In Terror all the victims but Eddowes are young blondes with their cleavage on display. This is clearly unrealistic and based on a stereotypical interpretation of what a prostitute looks like.

Susan Clark plays Mary Kelly in Murder By Decree. The clothes used in this film are probably the most accurate.

Murder By Decree probably offers the most accurate portrayal of the victims’ appearance. There is no cleavage to be seen here and the victims clothes are very shabby and quite dirty looking. They also seem to be wearing several layers of clothing. In Jack the Ripper (1988) the victims are not well-dressed and appear to be wearing fairly shabby clothes that cover their cleavage. When asked if Nichols had any regulars, Eddowes comments “they’d have to be blind”. In The Ripper, the real victims of Jack are barely seen, but when they are shown they are wearing working-class clothing that covers their cleavage. The victims in From Hell tend to be showing more bosom than they would have done in real life. Their clothing is, however, fairly drab and shabby.

It is known that the victims of Jack the Ripper were of a low class, living in extreme poverty. However, this is not always the way that they appear in these films. In the 1959 production, one of the victims is a barmaid and so clearly holds down a regular job. In fact, none of the victims in this film appear to live in extreme poverty and all are well-spoken. The class of the victims is much more accurately portrayed in subsequent films.

In A Study In Terror, all the victims appear to be poor and Annie Chapman is thrown out of her lodging house because she cannot afford the rent, whilst Nichols is shown stealing money. In Murder By Decree, although the investigation is focused on more than the victims, it is made clear they are low class when the men who come to ask for Sherlock Holmes’ assistance state that if the victims were rich more help in catching their killer would be forthcoming. Likewise, in the 1988 production the victims are clearly of a low class and it is said that Mary Kelly is behind with her rent. In The Ripper the victims appear to be poor and live in single rooms and the character Florrie says she is in need of money, particularly because she would like to go and live in America where ‘everyone is equal’. From Hell, moreover, shows the victims discussing with Annie Crook that they are all in ‘a terrible way for money’. The victims live together in Miller’s Court and prior to this are also seen sleeping on a bench in a lodging house. It is clear from these scenes that the women are poor.

There is a consensus that the victims of Jack the Ripper were engaging in a form of at least casual prostitution, but the way the films deal with the subject has greatly changed over the years. It is not always made clear how fear and desperation must have led these women to that source of money. The 1959 production does not show any of the victims engaging in prostitution, either at the times of their deaths or before. Although the third victim works in a musical hall as a dancer and when, after the performance, she is invited to go upstairs with one of the other girls to ‘entertain’ a Lord, far from going through with this she flees. It is because she is fleeing from selling her body that she encounters Jack. It is revealed by another character that she used to engage in prostitution, but she is in no way doing so at the time of her death. In short, none of these victims are actually shown as prostitutes at the times of their deaths.

A Study In Terror follows another extreme; it is clear that all the women are engaging in prostitution, but they are doing so in what can only be described as a stereotypical, exaggerated manner, and they appear to have no problem with this. In Murder By Decree the victims are not focussed upon very much, but it is said that the victims are poor women who have been ‘forced onto the street’. This implies that their prostitution was not a choice but a necessity. By 1988, though, the portrayal of the victims’ prostitution appears to be more accurate. However, it is organised rather than casual prostitution and there even is a pimp character called Billy who is seen to be running all of them at some point (although not Kelly at the beginning).

‘Florrie’ in The RIpper

In The Ripper it is also obvious that all the victims are engaging in prostitution. The Mary Kelly character appears to turn to prostitution through choice, as she already earns money working in a factory and she actively encourages another character, Florrie, to join her with a client. Although Kelly doesn’t find this a problem, it is different for Florrie and it is implied she had no choice but to turn to prostitution. The film that identifies the prostitution that the victims’ engaged in the most conspicuously is From Hell. This picture shows Kelly being asked for business and goes so far as showing Nichols engaging in prostitution. It is made clear that the need for money is what is driving the women to prostitution and that it is dangerous to be soliciting.

Alcohol certainly played an important role in the lives and deaths of the victims of Jack the Ripper. One notable example is the fact that Eddowes had been taken into police custody shortly before she was murdered for being drunk and this is mentioned in the 1988 production. In the 1965 production, Nichols is seen drinking and then skipping merrily down the street. It does not, however, show the misery that alcohol had in fact inflicted upon her life. In the 1988 production, all the victims were drinking and spent a lot of time in the pub. And whilst all the victims were drinking, Stride is the most visibly drunk and the only one noticeably over the limit. In fact, Eddowes states the rest of the victims have trouble in keeping up with her and are always ‘six drinks behind’. From Hell follows a similar pattern and Elizabeth Stride appears to be an alcoholic whilst the rest of the victims, if obviously seen to enjoy a drink, are not shown drinking to excess.

“A View To A Kill”

The murder scene, location of the bodies, the injuries inflicted on the victims and the likely cause of their deaths are largely of historical record and thus it is possible to have a fairly good idea of what happened to the victims when they were murdered. The way these films depict these facts varies considerably, however: in some cases a lot of artistic license is used and in others the filmmakers have clearly tried to stick as closely as possible to the historical record.

The 1959 film contains only victim characters who are not the real named victims of Jack the Ripper. Clearly then, the locations and injuries inflicted on these people are inaccurate because they did not exist. The victim who most resembles a real life victim of Jack is Mary Clarke and she appears to be based loosely on Mary Kelly. This woman is murdered inside her flat and on a bed, but here the similarities to Miller’s Court end. It is just that the death of Clarke and her character resemble Kelly more than any of the other victims portrayed in the film resemble the actual victims of Jack the Ripper.

blood bath – the murder of Nichols in A Study in Terror.

There is a nameless ‘street walker’ in A Study In Terror who is murdered at the very start of the film. She is found with a knife stuck through her neck; this is clearly a case of something done solely for dramatic effect. The deaths of four of the five canonic victims of Jack are shown in this film, whilst Catharine Eddowes remains alive until the end of the film. The murders of the victims can all be seen to be highly inaccurate and the film does not refer to any of the actual murder locations. Mary Nichols is attacked whilst walking down a street and is killed by being stabbed in the neck as her head is plunged into a water trough. Annie Chapman is murdered in the street under a railway arch. Her throat it seen to be cut and there is a shot of the Ripper doing something after this has happened—maybe he is mutilating her, but it is unclear.

The doctor in the mortuary opines that the killer used two weapons on Chapman, a bayonet and a scalpel and this is clearly dramatic invention. In fact, it was said at the Chapman inquest that her injuries could not have been caused by a bayonet.(21) The film portrays Stride’s death occurring in an alleyway and the murder being committed by the Ripper walking up to her and simply slashing her throat. It is later said that her head was almost severed, but Stride was not killed by a wound that deep and was assuredly killed whilst lying down.

The audience sees the murder of Mary Kelly from the moment she first encounters Jack. Her room bears little resemblance to Miller’s Court: it is upstairs, it is cluttered and it faces a street. The injuries to Kelly are not gone into in detail, but it is clear from the faces of those who have seen the body that it a revolting sight. This, surprisingly, may make the Kelly murder the most accurate in detail of all the death scenes in the film, but that is not saying a lot. It could be argued that with the apparent non-murder of Eddowes and the incorrect details of the other murders that A Study In Terror did not improve much upon the accuracy of the scenes of death of those in Jack the Ripper 1959.

In Murder by Decree, the facts of the murders are a little confusing as the murder of Nichols is not seen because it occurs before the film begins and the other murders are not shown in sequence. The ‘carriage-based plot’ further stifles the accuracy of the locations of the bodies. For example, Annie Chapman is pushed out of a carriage onto the street. This means the location of the body must be considered inaccurate as in real life it was found in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street rather than in the street itself. The injuries inflicted are also unclear, but it is obvious that she has had her throat cut. Similarly, Eddowes is lifted out of a carriage and placed on a plinth in the middle of a square—clearly, this is not how she was found by PC Watkins.

The injuries are not revealed in detail, though it is clear from the images that her throat has been cut and reference is made to the fact that her ‘internal organs’ have been mutilated. Jack kills Stride by throttling her to death in the street and she is not seen to be injured in any further way. There is no question that these scenes are not very realistic. As with the other victims, the Kelly death scene is a little sketchy on details, but she is shown murdered on a bed in a room in a court. And, although the details of the room and Miller’s Court are not that true to real life, this is by far the most realistic crime scene shown in the film and probably the most accurate of all the crime scenes shown in films up to that time..

It should be remembered that the TV movie Jack the Ripper 1988 claims to be based on the facts and this might rightly led viewers to expect factual accuracy about the victims’ deaths. The locations of all the crimes are correct and the injuries and causes of death are shown in a fairly accurate light. There are some discrepancies from recorded fact; for example, it is claimed that the killer removed Nichols’ kidney and uterus when in actuality the killer did not remove any of Nichols’ organs. It also is incorrectly said that Catharine Eddowes ears were cut off. Nonetheless, the full horror of Miller’s Court is made abundantly clear by the reactions of the police officers who are seen exiting the room, most of whom look as though they are about to be very ill (reminiscent of Dr Watson and Inspector Lestrade’s reaction to the Kelly crime scene in A Study In Terror).

The film, by and large, does not show the victims actually being killed and so avoids inaccurately showing the method of murder (a trap that the other films fall into quite frequently). That said, in some cases—such as Eddowes’ murder—the victim is clearly shown as being killed inside a carriage, which must have been done for dramatic purposes. Although it is claimed to be based on facts, there is no question this film gets some details of the crimes wrong. That said, it is still the most accurate of the four films mentioned so far in terms of these details.

The discovery of Liz Stride’s body from The Ripper

The Ripper starts with a second murder (presumably Annie Chapman’s, although this is never made clear), when a body is found under an archway leading to a court. The body has clearly been mutilated and the crime is described as a ‘very nasty business’. It is said that her bladder, vagina and intestines were thrown on her shoulder and her ovaries and uterus were removed with surgical precision. This is not entirely accurate as her vagina and bladder were not with her intestines on her shoulder. The second murder shown is that of Elizabeth Stride, who is throttled to death and her throat slit, although the killer is disturbed before he can do anything else. This would appear to be fairly accurate, however, the killing takes place in a back alley rather than the entrance to Dutfield’s yard.

The sequence of murders is also highly distorted and inaccurate. The Florrie character is shown a crime scene picture of Kelly and Eddowes before they have died (in fact Eddowes is not even in the film). The following scene involves the statement ‘third prostitute killed’, which means that Kelly and Eddowes cannot be dead yet, even though the police officer character Hansen has pictures of their dead bodies in his possession—very confusing even considering dramatic license. Mary Kelly is later found dead in a small room in a court and is shown briefly on a bed inside the room; the scene is not dwelt on for long but it is clear her throat has been cut and there is blood everywhere. Although the location of this room within the court setting itself is not very accurate, it is closer to reality than in the 1959 and 1965 productions. In terms of the evolutionary process towards more realistic portrayals that had taken place between the 1959 and 1988 films, this is a clear backwards step as it gets many details wrong, muddled or confused and is far less accurate than Jack the Ripper 1988.

In the production From Hell, the directors and scriptwriters tried to make the locations and mutilations as accurate as possible and referred to contemporary photographs and consulted with prominent Ripperologists. The directors of the film, the Hughes brothers, state on the DVD extras that they feel the murders, locations and details of the crimes are pretty accurate. The directors say the locations are as accurate as they have ever been in a Ripper movie, and this is true in the case of those films examined here—which is hardly a ringing endorsement. However, the crimes scenes when the bodies are discovered are startlingly accurate. For example, Catharine Eddowes intestines can be seen by her head whilst Abberline is examining her body.

The film also shows the deaths of six victims, starting with Tabram and ending with Kelly. It is portrayed that the murderer grabs Tabram and drags her into a doorway, before stabbing her repeatedly. Later the doctor says the killer cut her throat and removed her livelihood as a keepsake. This is inaccurate as it is known that Tabram was killed on a first-floor landing, her throat was not cut and no organs were removed from her body. Abberline states that Nichols was disemboweled and at least one of her organs were taken, but this, again, is inaccurate since none of her organs were taken. Stride is murdered as coachman John Nettley holds her whilst the Ripper slashes her throat from the front. As mentioned previously, this is not entirely accurate since Stride was probably killed whilst lying down. Similarly, the killer walks up to Eddowes and slashes her throat when she too was certainly murdered whilst on the ground.

In the case of the Miller’s Court death scene, we see the extent of the horror briefly as Dr Gull finishes the murder and the camera reveals the carnage. The sickened reaction of the police to the crime scene, as with previous films, also indicates its horrific nature. Even though this film is actually based on a novel, it still manages the most accurate portrayals of the crime scenes of all the films we examined. That does not mean to say it is an entirely accurate portrayal of the victims’ deaths as these are distorted in part by the carriage storyline and some artistic license has been invoked for some of the death scenes and details of the injuries to create a more dramatic effect.

It is interesting to note that the most recent of these films is also the most accurate in terms of the locations of the murders, the crime scenes and the injuries to the victims. These films go into more details about the crimes as they move forward in time so that the 2001, 1997 and 1988 movies contain details about the mutilations to the victims whilst the earlier films are a lot more general, only briefly mentioning mutilations, if at all. This means that the earlier films have very general inaccuracies, such as Nichols head being in a water trough when her throat is cut and the more recent films have more specific inaccuracies, such as claiming Eddowes had her ears cut off or Nichols her uterus removed. Is it coincidence that the real life victims are focused on more in the 1988 and, especially, the 2001 productions and that in these films their murders could also be argued to be portrayed the most accurately, at least in terms of the crime scenes, locations of their bodies and injuries to them?

“No Man Of Her Own”

Stride kisses Nichols in From Hell.

Stride, Eddowes and Kelly all had a man in their lives during the autumn of 1888 whilst Nichols and Chapman had male friends with whom they spent time occasionally, but the majority of these films do not show, or even refer to Michael Kidney, John Kelly or Joseph Barnett. Yet, these men played an important role in the victims’ lives and understanding their relationships could be important for understanding how they came to be on the streets in the autumn of 1888. In most of these films it is as if these men never existed at all, whilst in two of the films there are brief mentions (though not by name) of two of their men. In A Study In Terror, Catharine Eddowes refers to her husband by saying he is at home waiting for his beer money, and adds ‘he’s dying for me to get off’. In Murder By Decree. Holmes and Dr Watson briefly mention that Elizabeth Stride lived with a man in Dorset Street (so not entirely accurate there, either).

The victims are given greater emphasis in Jack the Ripper (1988) and From Hell than in the other films. In these two films the victims hang out together in the Ten Bells and in From Hell they even all live at Miller’s Court together. There is no room for men in this plot. In fact, in From Hell Elizabeth Stride is portrayed as a lesbian and is shown trying it on with several other women, including the other victims (quite what Michael Kidney would have made of this we can only guess!).

“There’s Something About Mary”

Yes she is Mary Clarke!

The journey into these movies started with the question “are you Mary Clarke?” and ends with Mary Kelly and Alice Crook in the countryside living happily with their sheep. There’s usually something about Mary Kelly that makes her portrayal in these movies different to that of the other victims.

In the 1959 production of Jack the Ripper, the Mary Clarke character is the victim that bears the most resemblance to Mary Kelly and she provides a mystery within the film. The killer is seeking her out, asking people if they are her before he kills them regardless of their answer. This creates a mystery within a mystery as Jack hunts for the illusive Clarke, finds her and eventually kills her.

A Jack’s eye view of the murder of Kelly from A Study in Terror.

Heather Graham playing Kelly in From Hell.

Mary Kelly’s part in A Study in Terror is relatively small. She is no more featured than, for instance, Annie Chapman. Yet, the way that her character’s prostitution and death are portrayed is very different from the portrayal of the other victims. Kelly’s character has a certain innocence about her: ‘I’m proper new I am’, she proclaims. Her death is the only one seen solely from the point of view of Jack, complete with his own red mist. Her death scene is given more time and so is developed more fully. It makes the audience feel somehow more connected with her character’s death than with those of the others because they are witnessing it from the uncomfortable point of view of her killer.

In Murder By Decree, Holmes and Watson are put on to a lead that will help them find the Ripper and this clue is Mary Kelly herself. As in the 1959 production, the character that represents Mary is integral to finding the killer. She is more than a victim; she is a clue to the Ripper’s identity. The plot revolves round the Crook conspiracy story line and Kelly is vital to the plot since she knows about Annie Crook’s baby and its whereabouts—this means the killer is looking for Kelly. The other victims’ deaths are caused by what Kelly knows that she has passed on to them; for example, she mentions that she told the conspiracy secret to Annie Chapman and soon Chapman is dead.

The character of Mary Kelly in The Ripper has a fairly small role when compared to the other films examined here. Kelly is seen working in a factory and encouraging the lead female character, Florrie, into prostitution. Though there isn’t anything particularly different about Mary in this film, the part of Florrie is a starring one and appears to be based on Kelly (even though she’s in the film herself!). Florrie’s living quarters and Irish accent are all reminiscent of the real life of Mary Kelly.

In From Hell, Mary Kelly occupies a central role in the plot as both a love interest for Abberline and as the a person whom Jack is hunting. Mary helps Abberline with the investigation as he unravels the Annie Crook-themed plot. Mary is a central character and is played by a big-name actress. There is something different and more important about her when compared to the other victims.

“The Others”

In most cases the actual victims of Jack the Ripper are not the lead female character in these films and are not played by the leading female actress. There are other female characters that have provided many differing plots over the years such as love interests, offering social-class contrast, and as the final victim who is saved from the evil clutches of the Ripper, to name a few.

Anne Ford is the main female character in the film Jack the Ripper (1959). She is the ward of a surgeon who works at the hospital and is therefore middle-class and in effect more ‘respectable’ than the other female characters in the film who end up being murdered. She provides a female focal point for the story and a love interest for one of the American detectives assigned to the case. Anne is the female character with whom the audience achieves the greatest rapport and therefore cares about the most. This provides some tension as Anne is locked in the kitchen whilst Mary Clarke is being killed. Jack next turns his attention to murdering Anne, but she is saved when the American detective arrives in the nick of time!

1988’s love interest, Emma Prentice, played by Jane Seymour.

In the 1988 production, the character of Emma Prentice is the leading female one. Emma is a respectable middle-class painter who is helping the newspaper to literally draw the suspect Robert Lees has identified through his ‘psychic visions’. It is Emma who is played by the most famed actress (Jane Seymour) and who is loved by Michael Caine’s Abberline, the hero of the piece. Emma and her middle-class life provide a stark contrast to the squalor of the victims. This is made apparent by the difference in the places where Emma and Mary Kelly live. Emma lives in a flat full of colour and clutter, whilst Mary resides at Miller’s Court in obvious poverty. Even though she did not exist, Emma takes up as much screen time as the real life victims of the killer.

In The Ripper there are two fairly prominent female lead characters. In terms of the importance of these other female characters, this film could be argued to occupy a transitional phase between the 1988 production and From Hell. Inspector Hansen has two female love interests in the film and they not only represent two classes of women, but they also represent a choice Hansen must make: trying to improve his social position and mixing with high society (Jack’s world) or staying loyal to his East End roots (the world of Jack’s victims). The choice that Hansen makes is to pursue Florrie, a prostitute who has seen the Ripper and so in Hansen’s eyes needs protecting. Florrie’s story is one of hardship and suffering. This role provides much of the drama in the film. When Florrie is used to as bait to catch Jack, once again a female lead character saved from the clutches of the Ripper. This was a fate that the real Mary Kelly and the character of Mary Kelly in the film, could not avoid, but it still somehow makes for a happy ending since the lead female character lives to pursue her dream and be pursued by Hansen.

By the time we reach 2001 and From Hell, female characters that did not exist but occupy a leading role have all but vanished. Mary Kelly is played by the top-billed actress (in this case Heather Graham) and she is the love interest of Inspector Abberline and she can be this even though she is clearly a prostitute. For the first time the audience is clearly allowed to identify with and care about a real life victim of Jack the Ripper. Yet despite this switch, it is still the case that the uncomfortable truth about the death of the real Mary Kelly cannot be stomached after the audience has been made to form an emotional attachment to her. In this instance, the fate of Kelly is changed and it is someone who never existed—and is barely in the film—that is so horribly butchered, allowing Mary to escape the clutches of the Ripper (just as Anne Ford had in 1959 and Florrie Lewis did in 1997).

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”

There are additional female blonde prostitute characters introduced fairly late into the 1988 and 2001 films (in fact, in the 1988 production only Mary Kelly is still alive when this new character is introduced). They provide companions for Kelly in the later stages of these films after the other victims have been murdered. The roles of these two characters are quite similar and yet their fates are very different.

In the 1988 production this character is named Millie and is with Kelly in the Ten Bells the night she is murdered. Millie is scared as she is out on the game for the first time in the height of the Ripper scare. Billy, the pimp character in the film, gives both Mary and Millie a ‘job’ to do and both are seen waiting for ‘clients’. This extra character is probably intended to add dramatic tension to the proceedings, making the audience wonder which of the two women is waiting for Jack. In this film the blonde prostitute character actually survives and is shown outside Miller’s Court after the murder crying and needing to be comforted by Abberline and Godfrey.

Millie hears the news that Kelly is dead.

It’s a different story in From Hell, where there is a character similar to Millie, although this time she’s not just blonde, she’s French, and her name is Ada. Ada is staying with Kelly at Miller’s Court on November eighth. In this film, the plot twists in a different way to the 1988 production and Ada is not so lucky as Millie. She is killed because she is in Kelly’s room and she has been mistaken for her, whilst Kelly herself has escaped to safety with Abberline’s money. Same plot device, different outcomes.

“Hands of the Ripper”

Ada, the character murdered in the place of Kelly in From Hell.

While the portrayal of the victims of Jack the Ripper can be seen to have shifted and altered, varying dramatically through time, the image of Jack himself has remained constant. Jack the Ripper appears to be an iconic image of Victorian terror that has barely changed in the last six decades. The Jack of 1959 could easily have walked into any of the other films used in this article and his style and appearance would have barely changed at all—he is in essence the same person, the same image and provides the same reasons to be scared. This is the case even though Heather Graham’s Mary Kelly would be lost in the 1959 Jack the Ripper production surrounded by unfamiliar names and locations. There must be something about Jack the Ripper himself that means he creates a certain type of iconic fear that is only portrayed in a certain way.

This constant image of six decades starts in these films with the Jack the Ripper of 1959 who wears gloves, a top hat, cape, carries a Gladstone bag and exists mainly in a world of fog and shadows. Six years later, when Jack emerges in A Study in Terror he does so in much the same way. By 1979 the influence of Stephen Knight’s Final Solution on the popular imagination has become apparent in the cinematic world and a carriage has been introduced to the plot, but nonetheless Jack emerges from it top-hatted and well-dressed. When he emerges from his carriage in 1988, Jack is wearing his top hat, cape and gloves, carrying his Gladstone bag and he also has his face partially covered. In The Ripper, Jack loses his carriage, but as well as his usual hat and cape he has gained a walking cane in which he stores his knife (so no need for a Gladstone bag in this instance). In From Hell, Jack regains his carriage and comes complete with top hat, cape, Gladstone bag and white gloves.

The portrayal of Jack the Ripper himself remains startling similar throughout the six films. Here he is in the 1959 and 2001 productions.

Medical knowledge is also an important part of Jack’s character and in all these films he has some form of medical insight. In fact in all these films but The Ripper Jack turns out to be a doctor (whilst in The Ripper it is stressed that Prince Albert Victor had some training in anatomy). As he emerges from the fog in 2001 Jack is in essence the same iconic image that existed back in 1959 and has spanned six decades of cinema.

“The End”

With so much interesting material with which to work, we find it very disappointing that major films to date have presented so many erroneous and uninspired depictions of the victims (and of course, Jack himself). This is sad not only because the films have been grievously ahistoric, but because in the process filmmakers have missed the opportunity for some compelling cinematic storytelling. Take the lives of any of the victims, save possibly Mary about whom so little is known (and much of that probably fantasy), and recreate those lives on the screen and the result could be exciting in its stark reality. Surely, there would be no happy endings, but done in a caring—if honest—manner the story would be one well able to reach out and grab viewers by their hearts while engaging their minds. Forget iconic Jacks and cookie-cutter victims: there are some interesting, arresting victims’ stories out there just waiting for a daring and creative filmmaker to turn into a dramatic masterpiece. And if anyway wants to try, we are more than willing to help.

Bibliography

Begg, P, Fido, M. and Skinner, K. (1996) The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Headline, London; Collins Smith, C., (2006) ‘Hollywood Ripper: A Guide to Jack the Ripper on Screen’ [online.] accessed at http://www.hollywoodripper.com/index.html 7/12/06; Daily News, 1888; Daily Telegraph, 10th September 1888; Evans, S. and Rumbelow, D. (2006) Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates, Sutton, London; Evans, S. and Skinner, K., (2000) The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York; Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com; Knight, Stephen, (1976) Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, George G. Harrop & Co., London; Sugden, P (2002) The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York; Times, October 18th 1888.

Filmography, 1959; A Study in Terror, 1965; Murder By Decree, 1979; Jack the Ripper, 1988; The Ripper, 1997; From Hell, 2001; From Hell – ‘UK DVD Commentary by Albert Hughes, Rafael Yglesiad, Peter Deming and Robbie Coltrane’, 2002; From Hell – ‘Murder Locations’, UK DVD Extras, 2002; From Hell – ‘Production Design’, UK DVD Extras, 2002.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Rob Clack, Jane Coram, Stewart Evans and David Pegg.

Notes

1 The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion, Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner, Carroll & Graf Publishers (New York 2000), p. 47.

2 The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion, Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner, Carroll & Graf Publishers (New York 2000), p. 33

3 Ibid,. pp. 33 & 38

4 Daily News, September 3, 1888.

5 Evans and Skinner, p. 64

6 The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, Philip Sugden, Carroll & Graf (New York 2002), p. 78.

7 Evans and Skinner, p. 72.

8 Evans and Skinner, p. 88.

9 Ibid., p. 99.

10 Ibid., p. 73.

11 Ibid., p. 154.

12 Ibid., p. 152.

13 Evans and Skinner, p. 155.

14 Ibid., pp. 154-5.

15 Daily News, Oct 4, 1888.

16 Evans and Skinner. pp. 208-9.

17 Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates, Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow, Sutton (London 2006), p. 260

18 Evans and Skinner., pp. 368-9

19 Personal correspondence with Jane Coram.

20 Personal correspondence with Jane Coram.

21 The Jack the Ripper A to Z, Paul Begg, Martin Fido and Keith Skinner, Headline (London 2000) p. 347


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