Jack the Ripper: The Story Behind the Book

Jack the RipperThey had names but not faces. Their dismembered body parts were identified but not their dreams and hopes. Even a century later, the world seemed to care more about their mysterious killer, Jack the Ripper, than it did about his known victims. It was that injustice, those five women, who kept me slogging through the bloody, confusing annals of his crimes. In 2003, the assignment I had taken on as a whim—to write a book about these notorious serial killings in 1888 London—acquired personal meaning for me. I wanted to acknowledge the humanity of prostitutes Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. I wanted their lives and deaths to have as much and more meaning for strangers than that of their murderer, whatever his twisted motives or real identity.

And so, in 2004, my Jack the Ripper became only the second book then in print to contain this letter written by Polly Nichols to her father in May, 1888. The 44 year-old woman, just four months sober, was so happy in her new job as a housecleaner. She wanted to share news with her family, and wrote:

You will be glad to know that I am settled in my new place, and going all right up to now . . . . It is a grand place inside, with trees and gardens back and front . . . . They are very nice people, and I have not got too much to do. I hope you are all right, and the boy [her son] has got work. So good bye for the present. From yours truly, Polly.

Answer soon, please, and let me know how you are.

Polly Nichols did not hold onto this job, though. On August 31, 1888, she became the Ripper’s first known victim. Middle-aged Annie Chapman, who had tried and failed to earn a living by selling flowers and crocheting, became his second. Forty-five year old Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish immigrant born Elisabeth Gustafsdotter, was the third woman he butchered.

Catherine Eddowes, who at age 44 still cried when she met her respectably married sister and said, “I wish I was like you,” became the Ripper’s fourth victim. Mary Jane Kelly, still light-hearted enough at age 25 to sing and smile as she walked through her neighborhood, was the fifth woman he slaughtered. These are some of the details I was able to include in the book, after working hard to convince my editor that such information did not “ruin its suspense or mystery” focus! Unfortunately, the editorial budget did not extend far enough to include the only pre-mortuary photo we have of any of these women. That formal studio portrait of Annie Chapman and her husband is, though, now accessible online. Just google “Annie Chapman images.” The portrait’s sepia tones set it apart from the black-and-white mortuary photos and newspaper sketches surrounding it.

In a violence-filled world, we remain fascinated by what motivates crime. One new book I blogged about in the May, 2013  Gone Graphic is Derf Backderf’s memoir, My Friend Dahmer. Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, who became a notorious 20th century serial killer. He murdered for the first time around their high school graduation, which concludes the memoir. I was relieved and reassured to see that Backderf’s End Notes contain a detailed, respectful account of Steven Hicks, the 19 year-old concert-goer who became Dahmer’s first victim. Readers hear from the Hicks family, too. This emphasis is appropriate and long overdue. As many survivors of recent acts of terror have remarked, theirs are the stories to memorialize, not just those of their attackers. This viewpoint inspired my writing of Jack the Ripper.

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