2021 - 2022 Modern Volume 22

For Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane: The women murdered by Jack the Ripper

By Hannah McCann

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

Juliet, Romeo and Juliet.

There is much in a name.

Take a moment to truly consider the horror of the name ‘Jack the Ripper’. He was a serial killer who brutally murdered his victims with a knife, ripping their bodies, mutilating, and dissecting them. It makes you sick to your bones to even contemplate the brutality of his violence. Yet, this man, has numerous walking tours named after him, a museum, his own fan clubs. All engrossed in his twisted violence and the unmasking of his identity.

Yet, it was not until 2019 when the names and lives of his victims were brought back into the world – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane. Hallie Rubenhold treated each woman with dignity and respect, carefully piecing their lives back together, making them a human being again – not a point on a walking tour where tourists look down at the empty pavement and imagine their broken bodies. Rubenhold treated these women as women. As women who were murdered, but also as women who had lives, husbands, children, friends, family, hopes and dreams, minds of their own. Just because someone’s life ends in violence, that doesn’t erase what came before.

This is not history. The Femicide Census reports that 110 women were killed by men in 2020. That’s one woman every three days. Violence against women is as old as time. But times change and the End Violence Against Women Coalition is working towards a safer future.

To honour these women, I have written five short stories imagining their lives – drawing on the vivid accounts from Rubenhold’s book.

Further Reading: Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (London, 2019).

For Polly ~ 26 August 1845 to 31 August 1888.

The summer sun crept through the window, bathing the attic in a still, golden glow. Polly sat on her bed, smoothing out the unfamiliar sheets, feeling the fibers of the clean cotton beneath her palms. Her new maid uniform was draped on the bed – ready to wear. When she put it on, she knew she’d take on a new life. Not the life of drink and workhouses, but the life of maid, in a big house, cooking, cleaning, fetching apples from the swaying tree in the garden. A life of calm. A life of safety. She would never be cold again.

Polly, still in her night dress, pulled up the chair at her desk. Her mistress had brought her paper and pen, so that she might write. Polly looked out of the window, seeing London stretching out before her. The bright blue summer sky stretched out above her head. She could hear the faint din of the city, the people, the horses, the machines. Was this what it was like to live in peace and quiet?

She took her pen and began to write to her father. She told him about the house, the garden and the trees, the nice family who didn’t drink, and the ease of her work. She asked about her eldest.

She signed the letter, Your Truly, Polly.

Underneath she added Answer soon please and let me know how you are.

Polly laid the pen down, and with the afternoon laid out ahead of her, like a blank newspaper sheet, she closed her eyes in the sun and drifted into the serenity of sleep.

For once her dreams were not interrupted by visions of the workhouse, she did not awake from the hunger for drink.

For once she was peaceful, under the summer sky.

For Annie ~ September 1841 – 8 September 1888.

Emily Ruth would not sit still. Annie was attempting to do up the buttons on the front of her tartan dress, the one with the big bow that she let her wear on special occasions. But Emily Ruth was fidgeting with the ribbon in her hair.

‘Come now’, Annie said, fastening the last button. ‘You are going to have your picture taken today. You need to look your best.’

‘Why Mama?’, the eight-year-old asked – now tugging at her stockings.

Annie stood, stretching her back, then walked across the room to the mantlepiece. On the wooden ledge was a framed photo of her and her husband. Newly-weds in their Sunday best, her on a chair in her finest dress, him leaning handsomely against a wooden plinth. A moment captured. She picked from the mantlepiece, wiped the dust off on the ruffles of her dress and brought it over to Emily Ruth.

‘Here’, Annie said, passing her daughter the frame. ‘Have a look’.

Emily Ruth traced the faces of her Mama and Papa with her small fingers. To her they looked angry, but she knew that’s just how photos were. You had to be proper in them.

‘You look beautiful Mama.’

‘So will you.’

‘I wish they’d taken a photo of you smiling.’

Annie laughed and knelt down next to her daughter.

‘We have photos, after special events, or when you reach a good age, to remember them. To share them with your family. When I’m an old woman you can show this photo to your daughters and say look how she used to be. That Annie.’

‘You will always be pretty Mama.’

‘And so will you. But today we get to hold onto a moment and remember.’

‘How long for?’ the little girl asked, looking into her Mama’s eyes.

Annie reached out to stroke her hair, ‘Forever my dear’.

For Elizabeth ~ 27 November 1843 – 30 September 1888

She’d only popped in for a penny bun. The waitress was having trouble understanding her Swedish accent and Elizabeth was already running late on an errand for her mistress. ‘Bun’, she said pointing at the golden pastry, ‘penny bun’.

Finally, the waitress understood, and Elizabeth exchanged a penny from her purse for the treat. Her arms ached from carting the laundry about all morning and to come into this coffeehouse was a relief. Women didn’t normally come in here, it smelt of smoke and pork chop fats, coffee, and the sweat of the working men. The rustle of the newspapers and chatter of the men as they lounged about in the chairs.

She stepped to the side to wolf down her bun.

A man walked into the coffeehouse, the sound of the clatter of the yard outside slipped in with him. Everybody turned. The men, who had lazily taken off their hats, put them on again to tip them to this stranger. A chorus of ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Stride.’ The waitress looked to the floor.

Elizabeth met his eyes and smiled.

He brought a coffee, then turned to her – ‘is that bun any good?’

‘Yes, sir’, she said her mouth still full. ‘Delicious’.

‘I’ll take two then’, he said.

He stood before her, this tall, handsome man, with a mug of coffee and two buns.

‘Would you like another one?’, he asked, gesturing his hand that the buns were stacked in.

‘If you’re offering,’ Elizabeth smiled. Elizabeth knew how to play men, but she didn’t want to play him. ‘I’d love another.’

She followed him to a table where the remains of a kidney and pork lunch were spread about. She stacked the plates with ease and carried them back to the grateful waitress.

‘You’re good at that,’ the man said.

‘I better be,’ she said laughing. ‘It is my job -which I should get back to. My mistress will kill me.’

‘No matter, take this bun and meet me here again. Tonight.’

‘I’m not an easy woman.’

‘No, no’ he said. Elizabeth could see that he was blushing. ‘I’d simply like to get to know you better. Er…’

‘Elizabeth. Liz.’

‘Well Liz, I’d buy you anything you ever wanted if you’d come talk to me again.’

‘I’ll see you later Mr. Stride.’

‘John please.’

Elizabeth swept up her bun and marched out of the coffeehouse, knowing that John was watching her as she left. Her heart was racing as she ran back to the house, knowing there was someone who saw her. Someone who wanted to know her better. Someone, in this lonely city, who cared.

For Kate ~ 14 April 1842 – 30 September 1888

‘You nearly there Tom?

The light from the fire was burning low. The orange glow filled the wood-panelled pub, reflected on the half-drunk glasses of ale. Kate was gazing at the empty parchment, pen in her hand, ready to write. Tommy sat beside her, muttering a verse to himself, rolling the tune around in his head and his heart.

‘Nearly love’, he said.

His Irish accent still tugged at her heart.

Tommy burst into song, a new verse about an upcoming execution.

Come all you feeling Christians

Give ear unto my tale…

Kate scribbled the words down, noting the inclinations in his voice in her own shorthand, so she could replicate the tune later. That’s what they did. They wrote music and they sang their verses wherever they went, on the street corners, in the pubs, to the crowds watching a good hanging. A world away from her life in school, her education for being in service. Instead, they slept under the stars and made music. A freedom she had only dreamed of.

I poor Harriet Segar killed.

‘It needs more,’ Kate said, scanning her eyes over her scribbles.

‘More?’ Tommy asked. ‘For what? It’s enough already.’

‘I’m the one who can read. I’m the one who can write. I can see when a story’s not done, as you well know.’

‘Fine.’

Tommy leaned back in his chair, a smile on his face, a challenge in his eyes.

‘Go on.’

‘We need a message at the end. Get into their hearts. Something like…’

May my end a warning be

Unto all mankind

Think on my unhappy fate

And bear me in your mind.

Kate voice rose loud and clear through the pub, a smooth as water and as delicate as a bird’s wing. All eyes in the pub turned to her. Some men cheered.

‘To hear the rest, you’ll have to pay’, she laughed.

‘That’ll get into their hearts, get that wretched man’s voice into their heads. That’ll keep them hooked. Then we can hit them with more verses.’

‘More verses, more money,’ Kate smiled.

As Kate wrote down her verse, she saw the words again. If anything, this was not a message from the noose, but a message from the dead woman’s lips. She didn’t tell Tommy. It would be their secret. To give Harriet a voice beyond the grave. That’s all we can ever hope for, she thought. For our words to carry on.

And bear me in your mind.

For Mary Jane ~ 1863 – 9 November 1888

He’d offered to take her to the theatre, afterwards of course. As a treat, as a reward, something to keep her occupied, keep her his for as long as he could. Mary Jane normally never accepted gifts that weren’t physical, like a ring, or a new necklace, or a box of dresses. She was good at her job. Careful. Selective. Clever.

But she had always loved the theatre and this man was kind enough. Kind enough not to touch her in public, kind enough to put on a pretence of being with a mistress. He thought he was being kind. Mary Jane did not care what he thought. He was a customer. A paying one and she had a lifestyle to maintain.

They took their seats in the centre of the stalls, surrounded by other couples, men in their waistcoats and hats, women in their dresses and bonnets. A low, polite chatter, a pretence. She recognised a few customers, a few of her friends also enjoying the spoils of men’s money.

‘Puppets’, their landlady always said. ‘Use them while you’re still young.’

Mary Jane could not push her luck too far, a man could strike if aggravated, but she was happy to pretend she was happy. Actually, on this night she really was.

As the lights dimmed Mary Jane could lose herself in the music, in the laughs, in the tears. She could step outside her body and float over to the stage, swirl among the dancers with their painted faces. The music drifted up from the pit, and she imagined herself at the piano, winding her fingers up and down the keys.

The music reminded her of her mother’s lullabies.

She never told anyone about where she was from. Sometimes it was Ireland, sometimes it was Wales. And her name was never Mary Jane but Marie Janette.

Her name was hers and hers alone.

May my end a warning be, unto all mankind. Think on my unhappy fate, and bear me in your mind.

Thomas Conway and Kate Eddowes, ‘A Copy of Verses on the Awful Execution of Charles Christopher Robinson, For the Murder of his Sweetheart, Harriet Segar, of Ablow Street, Wolverhampton, August 26th.’