Research can lead a person down the most surprising byways. At the end of the day it may not add a pennyweight of value to the book one is writing but it can be fun and so very absorbing.
A few hours before she was murdered Kate was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and was taken to Bishopsgate police station to sober up. She was reported as having, ‘attracted a crowd on Aldgate High Street by doing an impersonation of a fire engine.’
It conjures a comical scene. We all know what silly things people do in drink. But what, I wondered, in 1888, could an impersonation of a fire engine possibly mean? Clang-a-lang-a-lang? Not neenaw neenaw, that’s for sure. Then I discovered a revealing name for a 19th century fire vehicle: a steamer. The water pumps that forced the water through the hoses were powered by steam. Of course.
An hour reading about steam pumps brought me a little closer to understanding what Kate Eddowes’ fire engine impersonation might have been: the kind of choo-choo steam train noise still beloved of small children. One of the sounds that belong to history. Perhaps Kate had just heard an engine go past. Or perhaps she’d simply had too much rum. But then I stumbled upon another possible explanation.
Kate Eddowes was known to suffer from chronic nephritis or what used to be called Bright’s disease, a kidney condition that was quite likely to have made her breathless. Yesterday, when I had an asthma attack brought on by my own foolish negligence, going out in the freezing air without a scarf over my nose and mouth, I found myself huffing and puffing along the street, stone cold sober but nevertheless impersonating a steam engine. Maybe that was what Kate was up to. We can never know and indeed the are many Ripperologists who regard the fire engine story as apocryphal. But there, for what it’s worth, is my tiny contribution to the ever-growing mountain of Whitechapel Murder arcana and crackpot theories.
What tragic bad luck anyway for Kate Eddowes that by 1 a.m. she was sufficiently sober to be released from the cells and sent on her way. Half an hour later she lay dead on Mitre Square and another sound, familiar then but now consigned to history, would have been heard. The frantic blowing of a police whistle.