So what’s in your coat pocket? And are you, like me, also hauling around a shoulder bag that feels like it’s full of rocks?
When a person is found murdered there can be few things more eloquent than the possessions found on them. This was especially true of the women killed by Saucy Jack in Whitechapel in 1888. They all lodged in doss houses and whatever they possessed in the world they either pawned for a bit of cash to tide them over or carried with them at all times.
I’ll begin with Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, officially the first of the Ripper’s victims. I believe there’s a strong case for making Martha Tabram his first victim but as I’ve been unable to find a police record of her possessions I’ll say no more about her in this post.
It was a late August night when Polly Nichols was killed, thundery and not particularly cool. Nevertheless she was wearing an ulster overcoat, a dress, two petticoats, stays, a pair of flannel drawers, a bonnet and spring-sided boots. In her pocket she had just three items: a comb, a handkerchief and a piece of mirror. Where Polly had been lodging, at the White House on Flower and Dean Street, a piece of mirror would have been a prized possession.
Her clothing was similar to Polly’s - a coat, a skirt, two bodices, two petticoats, wool stockings, a neckerchief and a pair of lace-up boots. Multiple petticoats were the norm. They kept you warm while you trudged the streets and anyway, where else would you keep them when you never knew where you’d be sleeping from one night to the next? The contents of Annie’s pockets were even more wretched: a scrap of muslin, two combs and two unidentified pills screwed up in a piece of old envelope. The post mortem revealed that Annie suffered from advanced tuberculosis for which, of course, there was then no remedy. The pills could have been anything. Hooper’s Female Pills, Dr Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, it’s anyone’s guess.
Three weeks later the Ripper struck again. September 30th, the night of what has become known as The Double Event. First, Lizzie Stride, out drinking and looking for trade. She was wearing a fur-trimmed jacket, a skirt, two petticoats, a bodice, a chemise, stockings and boots, and a bonnet. Sometime between leaving the lodging house and meeting her killer she had also acquired a nosegay which was found pinned to her jacket. Did Jack give it to her? We can never know. In her pockets: two handkerchiefs, a thimble, a scrap of muslin, a length of wool wound onto a card, a small key, a stub of pencil, two combs, a spoon, and a few buttons.
And then Kate Eddowes, killed the same night, on Mitre Square. She is for me perhaps the most vivid of all the Ripper’s victims with the varying fortunes of her life and her relentless decline. The list of her clothes and personal effects makes for the saddest of inventories. A cloth jacket, a skirt, three petticoats, a man’s vest, a bodice, a chemise, stockings, boots, a neckerchief, a bonnet, and three tie-on aprons or pockets as they were then called. In the pockets: two clay pipes, one small tin containing tea, one small tin containing sugar, various pieces of fabric with pins and needles, six scraps of soap, a comb, a teaspoon, a length of string, a button, a thimble, a pair of spectacles, one mitten, and an old mustard tin containing two pawn tickets.
The worldly goods of a forty six year old woman who had worked every day of her adult life. Imagine.
The Night in Question by Laurie Graham is published by Quercus.