Mary Ann Nichols
Well. Look at you, Mary Ann Nichols, drinking in the Frying Pan. The clock’s ticking. Not the slow, hollow tick of the clock on the wall above the end of the bar, but the unmarked tick of your heart. Do you know how many ticks are left before that clock falls silent? Not many. Not nearly enough.
I wish I could help you, Polly. I wish I could put an idea in your head that you should stay away from Buck’s Row tonight. I wish I could turn your steps away from the east and stop you being the first. If you even are the first (I have my suspicions about poor Martha Tabram. You remember Martha? Of course, you do. It was only 25 days ago, and news decays less quickly here and now. ’orrible murder. Stabbed and stabbed and stabbed to death. Likely two weapons—a short blade, and one deep incision with something like a bayonet. Hunt down the army boys—did one of you do for a whore in George Yard Buildings? I should hope not; messy job like that? Call yourself a soldier? But the truth is, any fool can buy an old bayonet on the markets). Anyway, let’s not you and I argue about modus operandi,right this moment. There’ll be time later. A nine-day wonder with 25 days of life. Unlike you, Polly Nichols.
I dislike violence. Even at a range of 130 years, I can feel their terror, and it turns my stomach. I should stop working on this, but I need the money.
There’s nothing I can do to stop you, Polly. The pub’s a balti house these days, you know? No, there’s no time to explain what “balti” is. Your clock is ticking.
What a shithole this is. We grow up with Hollywood visions of Whitechapel in 1888, and it’s so sterile. Clean filth. “Ello, dearie! Fancy a good time?” This whore has all her teeth and not a hint of alcoholism, syphilis, or malnutrition. This whore gleams with foundation cream and blusher. This whore has labels on her underwear.
Let me show you something. The Frying Pan is at the eastern end of Thrawl Street. Up over there, to the northwest, is Brushfield Street. Sketch out a square about a quarter mile along a side with here and there across the diagonal. That’s the “Wicked Quarter Mile.” Know why it’s called that? Because it is an incredible shithole. Poverty you cannot imagine. People who only own what they stand up in, and sometimes they’re naked. Some guy said he’s travelled everywhere, and this was worse than the worst he’d seen in Ireland or India. But, hey, someone with no money can’t be worse off than somebody with no money elsewhere, yeah? Nope. Over there, an hour’s walk to the west, they’re rich. Honestly. Stinking rich. This is the richest city in the world. But over here in this pit, there’s Dorset Street—“the worst street in London”—and there’s Flower and Dean Street, which makes Mos Eisley look like Aspen. It’s not just that they’re poor. It’s that they’re poor while surrounded in money. London, England, Heart of the Empire, with a cancer clean through the eastern ventricle.
I should take a rest from this. It’s hot. I’m not sleeping.
I’ve read so much, so quickly. The names, the places, the dates, all slip over one another like eels into my memory. It’s not coherent. A mass of shimmering facts, mercury in a pan. In a frying pan. If you go to that balti house today and look over where the corner entrance used to be, there’s a terracotta crest of two crossed frying pans. Does that matter? No. Is that relevant? No. I don’t know what matters. I don’t know what’s relevant.
Be vewy vewy qwiet. We’re hun’ing Jack the Wipper.
She ignores me. She always does, she always will, she always must. Come back, Polly Nichols. Come back. She fades and reappears. Possible sightings, partial reconstructions. Here she is being kicked out of No.18 because she can’t pay fourpence for a bed for the night. There she is at the southern end of Osborne Street, pissed out of her face, but, oh, such a pretty bonnet. And there she goes. Chase her, chase her, chase her, but I shall always get there too late.
I catch a glimpse of a woman. A woman in a red dress, too gorgeous for this horrible place, this horrible time, this trash heap of the Empire, this clearing house for the destitute from other people’s pogroms. I see her from the corner of my eye, an impression of an impish smile and she’s gone. I was baffled. I am baffled. Who the fuck was that? Somebody I read about in passing? A character from a penny dreadful, her skirts pick up no filth from the pavements, no coal smuts from the air, and that material will never show the blood.
But I have to go. I have to go. Buck’s Row is calling in a red and black voice.
I get there from the west as Robert Paul turns onto the Row from the east. And there’s Charles Allen Lechmere, the shady fucker. He’s a smeared blur like a dragged thumbprint across a wet canvas, one end in the middle of the road, the other over where Polly lies, dead and disrespected, although they won’t know the truth of that until they get her to the mortuary and see her abdomen winking at them, her intestines gleaming.
Oh, Polly. I’m sorry. I ran as fast as I could, but I can never get here in time. There’s never enough time. The facts are all broken, you see.
Look at Charlie, for instance. Is he in the middle of the road when Bob turned up, like Charlie said at the inquest, or was he standing over the body as Bob said in his statement? And why did Charlie say his name was Charles Cross at the inquest? And why is the timeline saying he was standing there, an uncertain smear, for ten to fifteen minutes before Robert Paul showed up to collapse his waveform into something like objective truth? Are you the killer, Charles? Did you strangle her dead, or near dead, then cut her throat, and then rip into her abdomen? Did you do that, Charlie? You’re a carman; you lug meat around from slaughterhouse to butcher for Pickfords. You know this whole area well. You’re a common sight. You’re invisible even when you have blood on you, Charlie. Did you kill Polly? Are you going to kill anyone else? I’ll help you out, Charlie; if the answer to the first question is Yes, then so is the answer to the second.
Oh, this place. This stinking place. There’s the Board School and there’s the New Cottage and there’s the Essex Wharf, all as black as coal dust and all sweating blood, beading blood, rivulets between the cobbles, and here are the police, ignoring the rising tide clotting into the blue serge of their uniform trousers until all I can see is a picture drawn in thin black lines on a deep red field.
I have to go. The day is done, and I am very tired.
That night, I dream of the dead. They seem to sleep in their mortuary photographs, even the ruins of Catherine and Mary Jane. Do they dream of the living? Do they dream of me?
Am I ready for this? Are youready for this? No? Okay.
Here comes Annie Chapman. For a little while there, she had money, comfort, and she’s the only one of the “Canonical Five” (can’t you feel the wiggle of delight in whoever came up with that term?) for whom we have a picture of her alive and breathing, and not on a fucking slab because fucking Jack put her there. We’ve got that, too, but look, here’s Annie. Not smiling because they hadn’t invented smiling at that point, but there she is with her husband and, glory be, she is alive.
I look at that picture a long time.
Hello, Annie. I’m sorry for what’s coming.
Her life reads like a bad soap opera. Born Annie Eliza Smith, she was married to John Chapman, a private coachman. I think they were happy for a while there. Three kids, one died, one was physically handicapped. Annie and John hit the bottle, Annie harder. Fifteen, sixteen years, and they split up. She went east, but, but, but John kept sending her ten bob a week. In ye olde money, two quid a month is an okay living. That was not a small sum for John Chapman to part with. They still loved one another but couldn’t live with one another. There is nothing about Annie Chapman that isn’t steeped in tragedy. So, there she was, a woman of independent means, living on Dorset Street, Spitalfields (Yeah. Dorset Street, the place Satan dumped on Earth because it wasn’t classy enough for Hell), where she lived with a maker of sieves. That’s a ludicrous detail, isn’t it? “So, what do you do?” “I make sieves.” “Really? How’s the state of market for those?” But these were the good old days, when not everything was technically or economically viable to be made in factories, so you still had people in little workshops making the weird fallen-through-the-gaps-of-the-industrial-revolution things. Like sieves.
Then John died.
Christmas Day, 1886. He turns up his toes, and the money stops coming. Christmas Day and fate’s gift to Annie Chapman is take away her income and the only man in the world who gives a tinker’s cuss about her. The sieve maker? Oh, he’s gone at the first news that Annie no longer has ten shillings a week coming in. No money, no job, no man. She wept for John whenever he was mentioned. Almost two years afterwards, her friends said she had “given away all together” at his death and never fully recovered. I’m reading that as a breakdown. Almost two years. She never got a full two years.
And there she is, forty-seven years old, out on the street in the early hours of Saturday, September the 8th, looking for money to pay for a bed in Crossingham’s Lodging House (on Dorset Street, remember, so you can make a guess how glorious an establishment that is). She has the remnants of a black eye where Eliza Cooper clocked her one a few days earlier in a fight over a bar of soap. She’s on Hanbury Street, pressed up against the shutters of No.31 by a man who asks her, “Will you do it?”
Annie says, “Yes.” It is 5:30, by the striking of the brewery clock over on Brick Lane.
The front door of No.29 is rarely locked, the back door into a small backyard with no other exits is never locked. A few minutes later, Albert Cadosch wanders into the yard of 27 to have a piss in the outhouse (or perhaps empty a chamberpot; amazingly, he wasn’t forthcoming on these details at the inquest) and hears a woman say, “No,” and the sound of something bounce against the wooden fence. He ignores it. It’s Spitalfields, 1888, and people having crafty fucks against fences happens all the time.
At six o’clock, John Davis opens the door into the yard of No.29, presumably to use the outhouse there before going to work. He sees Annie Chapman.
I can’t say it. If I don’t say it, maybe it never happened. Perhaps the Jack the Ripper killings exist only in my imagination. Mental healthcare in 1888 started with asylums and finished with asylums, and perhaps I’m in an asylum, telling a nice man about a string of murders that happened in Whitechapel, Spitalfields, and the City in the autumn of 1888, and he’s smiling, and shaking his head, and assuring me it never happened.
I couldn’t help Polly Nichols. I couldn’t help Dark Annie Chapman. That was her nickname. “Dark Annie.” It makes me think of “Black Annis,” the bogeywoman who lived in a cave in the Dane Hills of Leicestershire, creeping about, eating lambs and children. If only you’d been Black Annis Chapman, Annie. If only, when he’d pushed you against the fence, you’d said, “Yes,” and opened your jaws to show teeth a yard long and a hope’s width, and speared him in a forest of yellow needles. John Davis comes out in half an hour and finds a man’s boot with a foot in it and nothing else. That would have left you replete and happy, me happy and relieved.
But time has put a layer of varnish on affairs. Wishful thinking isn’t going to change one dot of an ellipsis. You’re dead. So terribly dead.
The last bunch of bobbies were mostly J Division (apart from PC Mizen. Hello, Jonas. Hell of a night, eh?), right on the edge of their manor to see poor Polly Nichols all tattered and torn on the cold pavement of Buck’s Row. This time, we are deep in H Division lands. Down they trot from the station on Commercial Street, a handsome hatchery of enthusiastic plods, with an ungodly number of chimneys.
I don’t want to see this. I want to unknow what that fucker did to her.
Fast forward to the inquest. Up on your hind legs, Doctor George Bagster Phillips. Box up the horror into bite-sized factoids and spit them down the decades. “The left arm was placed across the left breast.” Do tell? “The legs were drawn up, the feet resting on the ground, and the knees turned outwards.” Okay. “The face was swollen and turned on the right side. The tongue protruded between the front teeth, but not beyond the lips.” Okay, you can stop now. “The tongue was evidently much swollen.” Stop. “The front teeth were perfect as far as the first molar, top and bottom and very fine teeth they were.” That’s a good place to stop. Please stop.
“The body was terribly mutilated.”
Was that him? The man who said, “Will you do it?” He spoke to you, Dark Annie. He acknowledged you as a fellow human being. And then he
“… dissevered the throat deeply …”
“The abdomen had been laid entirely open.”
“… the intestines, severed from their mesenteric attachments, had been lifted out of the body and placed on the shoulder of the corpse; whilst from the pelvis, the uterus and its appendages with the upper portion of the vagina and the posterior two thirds of the bladder, had been entirely removed. No trace of these parts could be found, and the incisions were cleanly cut, avoiding the rectum, and dividing the vagina low enough to avoid injury to the cervix uteri.”
I will stop you. I will stop myself reading about this. This project. I don’t sleep, and it’s so hot here.
Something about metal objects. I skim read that. What’s that about? I’ll go back. I would go back, but time has me by the shoulders. I have to go forward. I look up and I see a woman in a gorgeous red dress, boots and hat, a creature of the period, but perhaps not of the place. She looks at me seriously, then smiles suddenly, and it’s a smile that would break a statue’s heart.
Dear Boss—An Intermission
A letter, written in red ink, a postscript in red crayon.
“I’m down on whores.” Are you, indeed? And why might that be?
A shiftless turd shrugs.
Yes, I thought as much. Well, fuck you, matey. Fuck you and the small army of urgently masturbating, giggling inadequates, who are going to send about 200 letters and postcards from every corner of London, of Britain, of the Empire, of the Earth, all claiming to be the killer.
But especially fuck you, “Dear Boss” bloke, for signing your letter with a name that’s already doing the rounds of the street corners and the public bars, so don’t you go claiming you came up with it.
“Jack” is any random male—Jack the Lad, Jack be nimble, Jolly Jack Tar, Jack & Jill—and “rip” is slang for a stabbing. The killer was already nicknamed “Jack the Ripper” before you scrawled it at the end of your little letter. “Don’t mind me giving the trade name.” Fuck you.
And then he apologises for using red ink instead of blood. I’m just impressed you kept the wank stains off the paper, you sorry shit.
And now, we return you to normal programming. The double event is about to begin.
The fans just shunt the heat from one part of the office to another. I can’t remember the last time I managed to sleep over six hours.
And yet it’s raining. I can feel the drops on my face, even though there isn’t a cloud in the sky, but it’s heavily overcast, and it’s night and day all at the very same glorious, miserable time.
There’s so much excitement now. That was Annie’s doing. Polly was just done to death by some random monster, just like Martha before her, and poor Emma Smith given a miserable painful death by a pack of men before Martha. I wipe away the sweat, and it’s cold rain, fitting for an autumn evening in July.
Out of all the murders, this is the one that keeps drawing me back, and of all the five “Canonical” murders, the one I’m convinced wasn’t done by Jack the Ripper. I’d accuse just about any man within a quarter of a mile of this murder before I’d put it at the door of whoever did for Polly and Dark Annie. It just
my headache won’t leave me exhaustion and heat
it just doesn’t feellike the work of the same man. But it hasn’t happened yet. I’m in the right place, but in the wrong time. There’s a school on the wrong side of Berner Street, and the Nelson Beer House has gone altogether. Just as well. I’m usually a big fan of pubs, but that place looked like a dive. It closed in 1897. My
headache is caused by a thousand facts I don’t need like
head is stuffed with things like that. When a pub closed for the last time. In an office chair, I stare at a street view of Berner Street, except now it’s called Henriques Street, and there’s no corner pub, and where it used to be, there’s the corner of a schoolyard. I stare at it like it will yield secrets. Like it will tell me how to stop things happening that occurred before my grandparents were born, and I’m old enough that my grandparents were born a shockingly long time ago. The house next to the pub was home of a grocer and barrowman called Matthew Packer. Then No.42, which nobody seems to know very much about. Then a gateway into a yard, and then the International Working Men’s Educational Club. Next door to that was the house of the excellently named Barnett Kentorrich.
Wind back a little. See that yard? That yard is called Dutfield’s Yard.
Don’t go in there, Elizabeth Stride. Not one fucking step.
Except she will.
Everything is worn smooth here. I’ve thought about it too much, tried to understand what happened here, tried to understand why it happened here. This case, the whole thing, like a jigsaw that never fits together, so you get your big wooden mallet, and you pound the pieces together, and it’s a Swiss chalet and it’s a dish of baked beans and it’s a village green and it’s the fucking Freemasons because why not?
I literally used to be paid for putting conspiracies together from whole cloth. That was a weird nine years, but I glued together historical conspiracies for a series of games about conspiracies, and I think I know a little something about what a real conspiracy looks like and what one stitched together from coincidences looks like, and as soon as you say the magical word “Freemasons,” I will laugh in your face. I know Freemasons. Organising a function tests them. Organising a watertight conspiracy? Allow me to laugh in your face again. ha ha
Real conspiracies have limited scope, and relatively few people involved, because risk of exposure rises exponentially with the number of mouths to blab. As soon as you start talking about just about everybody from across umpteen masonic lodges putting their loyalty to Freemasonry above all else, and cheerfully committing criminal acts to protect it, I have to ask, have you ever met the human race?
So, you can keep your masonic hit squad fronted by Sir William Gull, surgeon to the Queen, and old and knackered and never quite recovered from a debilitating stroke, yet somehow ninjaing around Whitechapel, or—differently hilarious—Michael Maybrick, responsible for every murder in the United Kingdom for a couple of years, if you buy into this—an impulsive idiot half the time, Hannibal Lecter the rest—murdering, murdering, murdering, and (for a sideshow) sullying the good name of the Freemasons at the same time. So, in this fever dream, they chase him around, covering up his naughty intimations while never knowing who he is, a vision of upright men in shiny top hats and compasses on their watch chains, pursuing a giggling composer of famous religious songs from pillar to post, presumably while “Yakkety Sax” plays.
Berner Street is smooth with thoughts, slick with pondering. I know there’s not a chance, not this time, but I feel kindly for Long Liz and I have to make the effort. I approach from Fairclough Street, past the Nelson, past Packer’s, oozing with grape juice and mendacity, past mysterious No.42, which may have been empty, but it’s weirdno one seems to talk about it, and so into Dutfield’s Yard. As I pass beneath the rusty iron cart wheel that serves as a sign, I grind time down to as near as I can get it to a full halt. It’s not perfect, but I’m no historian, and it’s the best that I can do. Time clicks, skip the stylus, over the groove, and around again. From down Berner Street, I can hear the sound of Louis Diemschutz approaching on his little cart, drawn by his little pony. I don’t let them get any closer, and there is the sound of the same hoof falling upon the cobbles once a second. The same one second of some doughty song that will crush the bourgeoisie and bring down capitalism floats from the International Working Men’s Educational Club. Bless you, lads. I wonder how Barnett Kentorrich tolerates all that singing at all hours?
(I love you, Barnett Kentorrich, for your beautiful name.)
Elizabeth Stride lies in the darkness, just beyond the yard gate. Her throat is cut, and she is dead, but she is otherwise unmolested. I go to her and sit by her in the mud and the horse shit.
“He didn’t do this, did he, Liz?” I ask her corpse. Outside the yard, Diemschutz’s pony seems to hop, counting out infinity.
She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t care. What’s done is done. I can barely make her out, masked by darkness, hidden by years. She lies with her head turned a little away from me, the left side of her face and hair mired in the blood, and the mud, and the manure.
I like Long Liz Stride. She has a wonderful name. We have one picture of her, calm on a mortuary table, plus any number of engravings, showing her more vital but less human. She was a handsome woman, reasonably educated for her station in life, made most of her money from sewing and charring with a little prostitution to make ends meet. She is hardly alone in that, then or now.
“Who did this to you?”
An angry client? A frustrated beau? A passing lunatic? For all I know, he’s lurking in the yard behind me, interrupted in the act, looking for a chance to skip away. I look back there, but it’s a chaos of partial impressions. No one ever took a picture of the inside of Dutfield’s Yard. Not one that’s survived, at any rate. The possibility of the killer still being there flickers like an inflorescent tube that projects darkness. The shadows deepen and lighten spastically. There he is, no, he isn’t, is, isn’t.
Whoever it was, I doubt it was the man who killed Polly and Dark Annie, not least because that fucker has another atrocity to perform over in Mitre Square this very night. I am not only holding back Diemschutz and his prancing pony, I am also keeping Catherine Eddowes alive.
“It can’t be him, can it?” I ask Liz. I see her hand wrapped around a packet of cachous. It makes no sense to me. The killer strangles, then cuts the throat. How was Liz strangled without her dropping the cachous? She’d have fought, or at least freed her hands to fight. Unless her throat was cut immediately with no strangulation.
“That is not the Ripper’s modus operandi, is it, Liz?” I resist the urge to explain what modus operandimeans to her; the dead dislike being patronised even more than the living. Never mansplain a corpse.
She doesn’t answer. In my researches, I have grown fond of her, which I admit is weird and perverse of me, but she’s well past being hurt by such fond feelings. I imagine taking her away from here and now, restoring her life in the process because it was an error it was ever taken. We can live in a cottage near the sea with roses around the door. We can sort out dentures or implants for the bare gum along her left, lower jaw. I could buy her a gorgeous red dress with matching boots and bonnet. We could be happy, the dead woman and the man who is no longer sure who he is or what he is or where he is.
Elizabeth Stride opens her right eye and looks at me.
You don’t own me.
No. I don’t.
You don’t own my history.
No. I don’t.
Again, I am sorry. I am sorry somebody murdered you by cutting your throat to make it look like a Ripper killing. I am sorry I can’t save you or offer you any justice.
If you know your way around Whitechapel, you can get from Dutfield’s Yard to Mitre Square in twelve minutes. If you go by what looks like the straightest route, but which has a couple of wiggles along the way that slow you down, it’s quarter of an hour. You can’t run because running will draw attention. So, the theory is Jack the Ripper kills Long Liz, but doesn’t mutilate her because he’s interrupted. So, what does he do? Does he head for home because he has chanced his arm long enough for one night, and almost got caught? Or does he hightail it westwards for almost a mile, find another victim, make sufficient small talk to get her to go into a dark corner for a clandestine fuck, and then kill and mutilate her, despite the very high probability that a hue and cry is about to be called any minute?
No. I don’t believe it, either.
I have to go, Liz. More red into the black in the City. I have to go. I shan’t forget you.
Behind me, as I slip up the wall and over the rooftops of an engraved London, I hear Diemschutz finally turn the corner, and his pony shy at the scent of blood.
Looking down on an Ordnance Survey London peopled by Illustrated Police News figures, the distance can grow. Not just physically, but in time. I cannot feel the chill of the September night. I inhale, but I do not smell the filth and deprivation and desperation, only my tea and the scent of my reference books’ pages, arrayed about me in towers of uncertainty. There is not a soul left, and the primary sources have been steadily lost over a century and a third to inconsistent file keeping, Luftwaffe incendiaries, and sticky-fingered “Ripperologists,” who decided they were better guardians of the irreplaceable than the civil service.
I, for all my various sins, am nota Ripperologist. When I am done here, I shall let the door swing shut on 1888, and good riddance to it. I shall walk away, and I shall not be whistling “A Violet from Mother’s Grave.” But I cannot leave yet. I am contractually obliged to wallow in ancient blood for some time yet, and I shall not do it lightly. I don’t want to go to Mitre Square, though. What I want and what I must do, however … not the same.
The maps obsess me. I have always been fascinated by maps, and there’s that strange thing that happens with maps; the world changes and the maps stay the same. Of course, there are new maps, but the old maps are like X-rays of how we used to be. See, this artery has changed its name, that bone curves this way now, and a 500 kilo bomb caused a certain amount of necessary restructuring just here … la.
Buck’s Row becomes Durfield Street, and—while Winthrop Street around the corner where the knacker’s yard used to be is now a feeble stump of its former length—the board school is still there after suffering years of abandonment. It looks like it’s flats, now. Of course, it’s flats (it’s London; you leave a birdcage on a street corner for ten minutes in London and you’ll come back to find its been split into bijou executive apartments. It’s only a matter of time before the sewers are gentrified). Berner Street became Henriques Street. Mitre Square became …
It’s still Mitre Square. I can see it on the map. transformed from a dark little brick-sided, open-topped trap full of dark corners and three gas lamps (two small wall-mounted lamps, and a large freestanding one that wasn’t working properly that night) into a bit of a gap between towering corporate edifices in the City. Airier, prettier, and somehow less human.
In the City. That’s the City of London, the Square Mile, the original core of the town, now become the living heart of British capitalism. It was a typical dick move of the killer to wander over the line from the Metropolis into the City because they have their own police force over there and it’s a different jurisdiction.
I look at the map and I see that line between the two. I see all the lines, all of London made geometrical and systemised. I see the beats of PC Edward Watkins (881 City) and PC James Harvey (964 City) marked out, like paths on a game board, the policemen painted wooden pawns with expressionless little bearded faces peeking out from their fancy City Police uniforms with the brass buttons and the red and white jacket cuff on one sleeve and the huge City crest on the front of the helmet and the ridge at its top. With measured steps (two and a half miles an hour is the approved patrol speed) they follow their set beats.
There goes Harvey, gliding across the shiny paper of the board along the dotted line. Up and down the little spit of Duke Street that connects to Houndsditch, then north-westerly up Bevis Marks, right onto Goring Street, then back down Houndsditch to Aldgate, follow that down to the southern end of Mitre Street, then back and up Duke Street again with the briefest diversion along and back Church Passage to make sure all is well in Mitre Square.
There goes Watkins. That night, he was doing his beat “left-handed,” the opposite direction to his norm, presumably both to break the routine for him a little and also not to be too predictable for the local criminals. “Oh, no! We weren’t expecting you to go up Kings Street, through St James Place, and then left onto Duke Street along a little bit of PC Harvey’s beat, then down Heneage Lane, then left onto Bury Street, along Cree Church Lane to Leadenhall Street, left through to Aldgate, onto Mitre Street, and so complete the loop, oh, with a quick circuit of Mitre Square to make sure all is well. You caught us dead to rights with your cunning widdershins shenanigans, copper.”
(Suddenly, a wild reference appears. Watkins walked his beat left-handed because he was ordered to do so that evening by his sergeant. Good man, Watkins. The words he said to a warehouseman after he found the body have come down to us. “For God’s sake, mate, come to my assistance,” and when asked what the trouble was, “Oh, dear! There’s another woman cut to pieces.” To my mind, those are the words of a decent, distressed man. I like PC Watkins.)
The beats take about fifteen to twenty minutes to complete. They touch in three places, one of which is Mitre Square. I watch the police pawns slide around to the accompanying clatter of wooden dice from a velvet-lined cup. I watch the killer and the Catherine Eddowes pawns meet in different locations, dither, head for the square, always just out of the sight of the police, and any other witnesses who might give a damn. This isn’t Spitalfields. This isn’t Whitechapel. Things aren’t so bad here. Booth’s poverty maps stop dead at the edges of the City, so we cannot see if the black marks Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminalextend here, but the census strongly indicates not. Another set of map data overlaid upon this. Such a complicated game. Yet one that can be won with luck.
I was distracted, I looked away, I didn’t want to see, and in that moment, the killer’s pawn is gone, and Catherine Eddowes lies dead, not a pawn, not an abstract quantity, but a woman with little enough who has had her life taken from her and, in death, her dignity, too.
He’s turned her into a bad joke. Cut her throat, then carved her open and defaced her. I suddenly realise how very much I hate him. What a selfish shit he is. For the sake of his weird, little, psychosexual inner dramas, he goes into the world and does this to his fellow human beings. Instead, he could have gone, “No.” I don’t accept that he can pass as a more or less normal human being during the day, and then turn into a monster at night, who has no control over his actions. This is deliberate and calculated, and at every turn, from choosing the knife to fastening his boots to go out, he had the option to say to himself, “No. I shall not do this thing.”
But he went off and did it anyway, and the pictures of Catherine Eddowes in the mortuary make me weep in a quiet moment, and rage for the rest.
But, lo. What is this that creeps down the wall above? It is a Ripperologist, and it has wisdom to impart.
Look at her face.
Face. It’s hardly that, anymore. It’s a scribbling board for a stunted intellect with a knife.
See the marks on the cheeks? Upward pointing arcs. They’re architect’s compasses.
Here we go. I look up at the thing on the wall.
Freemasonssssssssssss …it hisses in triumph, its top hat almost falling off in its excitement.
Oh, do fuck off.
This is a blind spot for a lot of these guys (and they are purely, as far as I am aware, guys). Jack the Ripper is regarded (sometimes lauded, it seems) for being the first modern serial killer. So, people get the tee shirt and then largely ignore the vast amount of research into the psychology of serial killers that has accumulated in the intervening decades. They treat him as if he’s some sort of unique outlier, rather than just another self-centred fuckwit like Bundy, Sutcliffe, Uncle Tom Psycho, and all. So, there’s his novelty and the delicious fact that he was never caught. There’s this void, and anything can be projected onto it, including conspiracies. Oh, the conspiracies. There have been some terrific conspiracy theories, of which the masonic ones are the dullest. I especially like the Olga Tchkersoff story, a grand guignoltale of a happy family brought low by drink and prostitution. Olga, the sole survivor of this moral massacre, sets out to revenge herself on the whores of Whitechapel. It’s all very giallo, and all very bullshit. There’s not a shred of evidence Olga Tchkersoff ever existed, but I’d rather believe in her than any number of masonic conspiracies.
The Ripperologist is adamant. Look at all these people who were Freemasons. What’s the point of freemasonry except to do huge and suspiciously perfect cover-ups?
Look, dude, the tip of her nose was removed, too. Which esoteric bit of freemasonry does that refer to? To me, with the red nose tip and the cuts under the eyes, it looks more like an attempt to make her look like she’s in clown makeup, using a blade instead of greasepaint. How about that for a theory, eh? “The Jack the Ripper murders were carried out by an evil clown, or clowns, unknown.” Check the archives for passing circuses. Scour the police records for references to huge footprints. Do what you like. Just fuck off with your idiot theories and give the dead some small peace from your bullshit.
It isn’t listening. It scuttles back up the wall and across the rooftops in the direction of Goulston Street. I can’t be bothered to chase it. I know exactly where it’s going; there’s a bit cut from Catherine Eddowes apron because the killer needed something to wipe the blade and Kleenex wasn’t an option. He dumps it in the doorway to 108-119 of the “model dwellings,” a tenement (where that doorway once was is now a fish and chip shop, thank you for asking, why do I know all this stuff, my brain needs an enema). On the wall above is written (deep breath):
“The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.”
Unless it says:
“The Juwes are not the men who will be blamed for nothing.”
Unless it says:
“The Jewes are not the men to be blamed for nothing.”
Obviously, “Juwes” means “Freemasons,” because every fucking thing means “Freemasons.” It cannot possibly mean “Jews,” and be a piece of anti-Semitic graffiti in an area rotten with anti-Semitic graffiti. No, no, no. Don’t be such a sheep, such a victim of the conspiracy’s legerdemain, such a reasonable person who has a decent grasp of Occam’s Razor.
There are smears of red along the paper pavements as the pawns slide around. In a cardboard diorama of Mitre Square—painstakingly created from the Frederick Foster map—a little Kate Eddowes dolly lies in the corner with her dolly intestines over her dolly shoulder, her dolly face mutilated, ever so
This is a city of blood and shadow.
When I’m not exhausted, I’m angry. When I’m not angry, I’m exhausted. All I want to do is sleep and weep in blank dreams.
On the rooftops, the Ripperologists gather like midnight ravens, attracted by the scents of blood and uncertainty. Oh, they all love Jack. He’s a puzzle, an enigma, a cypher wrapped in stolen lives. If only they could solve the mystery of his identity, they can solve the mystery of his existence, saw off his enigmatic head and mount it upon an oaken shield labelled
JACK THE RIPPER HOMO FUCKING SHITTUS
I don’t want a trophy. I want to stamp on his fingers until he falls from the brink of history. I want to crush him into an oily streak on yesterday’s highway and nothing more.
It’s about now that—or maybe it was earlier—I finally identify that sensation of something hard and crystalline, turning in my soul and chaffing it raw, as hatred. It’s about now the sleeping dead smile in their silent dreams.
I can’t approach the corpse. I can only lean against the wall of Church Passage, feel the cardboard bow under my weight, and admire the craftsmanship of the doll. No murder room for you, Kate; just a wet night in the City. I’m sorry.
[On its back, the head turned to the left shoulder, the arms by the side of the body, as if they had fallen there. Both palms were upwards, the fingers slightly bent.]
I’ve grown didactic in my anger.
[A thimble was lying near.]
As if that somehow ameliorates things.
[The clothes were thrown up. The bonnet was at the back of the head.]
Who is doing this?
[There was great disfigurement of the face. The throat was cut across. Below the cut was a neckerchief. The upper part of the dress had been torn open.]
I don’t feel coherent. My mind is full of rags and tatters.
[The body had been mutilated and was quite warm. No rigor mortis.]
A rustle of taffeta from Duke Street, something crimson.
I forget to say goodbye to Kate Eddowes. This is my failing.
Mary Jane Kelly
Dorset Street; the worst street in London, and there is some reallystrong competition. And off the rotten bowel that is Dorset Street is the cancerous appendix of Miller’s Court.
It’s November the ninth, 1888. I don’t even have to look that date up. I’ve read and reread it so many times. This is the worst one. Out of all the deaths, this is the one I dread most. Mary Jane Kelly. The one time the murderer had the luxury of killing indoors, and the extra time this awards him. He dismantled Kate Eddowes inside ten minutes. In Room 13 (end of the entry, last on the right), he will have perhaps two hours to defile Mary Kelly’s corpse, by which time he has run out of ideas.
I don’t go there to stop him. Why try, when I know I will fail? Instead, I stand in Goulston Street and stare at a piece of black fascia, where once it said something about Jews, or maybe didn’t, but it did. I think of the personalities that have been filtered by decades in eroded glyphs where once they were humans. But they smiled, and laughed, and loved, and made bad choices. Mary Kelly has already made hers and paid for it. Now the killer burns her clothes by the armful in the grate to give him enough light to “work” by. There is only a stub of a candle, otherwise, enough illumination for the work she thought she was going to be doing. Why are you even here, Mary? You were an ornament in a “gay house,” an upper-class brothel in the West End. The historical footnote that explains why you came to this cesspit was never written, and now I shall never know because no one does. I can only wish that you hadn’t and had stayed in a comfy parlour in a very friendly house, coaxing orgasms out of bankers. Say what you like about the bourgeoisie, they don’t tend to be serial killers. Not often, anyway.
(Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed and Gilles de Rais run by, giggling. I ignore them.)
But you’re not there, Mary. You’re in a dingy room, lit by flaring clothing with someone who breaks other people’s toys. I shan’t think of that.
I shall think of the decent people who honest to God tried to stop this. Poor Mr Lusk, and his failing business, so focussed on running the Mile End Vigilance Committee that he can ignore the dwindling client list for decoration and refurbishment, especially of music halls. Perhaps that’s why he does this, to distract himself.
Or PC George H. Hutt who had to live with not keeping Kate Eddowes in a cell a bit longer to sleep off drink. Another ten minutes, her path might never have crossed the path of Jack. But, earlier, after Annie Chapman was murdered, there was a lot of anti-Semitic feeling, and PC Hutt, bless his beetle crushers, charged into battle in the local paper with a letter (initials only, but it looks like Hutt’s our man) supporting the Jewish community, and commending their lawfulness, certainly in comparison with the Christians, who were so keen to scapegoat them.
Or Major Henry Smith, acting commissioner of the City Police, who also defended the Jews against insinuations that they knew who the Ripper was but were hiding him because he, too, was a Jew. In his memoirs, Smith wrote a very elegant “Bollocks to that” aimed at Sir Robert Anderson, the assistant Metropolitan Police commissioner, who subscribed to the theory that the Jews of Whitechapel were a monolith, who lacked the decency to grass up a homicidal maniac. “Fuck you, sir,” says our man Smith, albeit at rather greater length.
I like Constable Hutt, and Major Smith, and Mr Lusk and all the rest of them, lost in a clinging black fog of fear and intolerance that turns people into mobs, and yet they say, “No. We shall have order and we shall have justice, and we shall have basic bloody decency unto our fellow humans, you fuckers.” Even here, in this midden heap, even now, in this time of darkness, there were men and women who glow with an inner humanity, and the Ripper isn’t worth a single paring from one of their nails. Ladies and gents, you give me hope.
A lady stops in the middle of the bizarrely empty Goulston Street. This place shouldn’t be this silent, even at this hour, but it is because we are not truly there, she and I. I believewe’re in my imagination, but my imagination hasn’t been behaving in ways I am used to recently.
She wears crimson. Dress. Boots. Hat.
I’m not sure I’m imagining this. The street, the smell, the coolness in the air. It’s November the ninth. Always November the ninth.
Her lips are as red as her dress, the red of spilt blood. The smell of blood is a nauseating thing, but it’s sweet tonight. Her lips part, and her teeth are surgical steel. She smiles coquettishly, and I experience something that feels like the reciprocation of a long unrequited love I never knew I had.
“’Ello, dearie. Fancy a good time?” she asks.
Oh, fuck, yes.
“Is your name ‘Murder?’” I ask.
She shakes her head, and I am embarrassed I said it. Of course, she isn’t Murder. She’s Alecto, or Megaera, or … oh, of course.
Hail, Tisiphone, avenger of the murdered, in your blood-wet dress.
She smiles, and dimples prettily. I bow deeply. “Madam, make of me what you will,” and she devours me in a hiss and a growl.
I am engulfed, the blades scythe by me, the buildings roar, the casements shudder, the ground shakes. We are all one, now. I have no idea what she has made of me, only that I am necessary to the conclusion as any one of the other countless souls she has devoured from November 1888 to the present and further into the future. Perhaps I am a gleam in a fang, or the rustle of a crimson pinion, or the least synapse in a dead-end nerve in an uninteresting region of her left buttock. It doesn’t matter which. I could not be more proud than to be part of this wonderful enterprise.
Do what needs to be done, madam. I am glad you ate me. You have made me very happy.
She turns and runs. Distantly, we hear the sound of Jack the Ripper leave Room 13. He pushes the door to, reaches through the broken window pane Mary smashed when she was drunk some while ago, engages the latch from the outside. Ooh, aren’t we clever, Jack? Mary told you all about it when she brought you home, didn’t she? That locked door is going to cause a little trouble for the police later, when the sun’s up, but not to worry, Jack. You have other things to worry you.
Let me tell you something interesting, shall I, Jack? Do you know the second big mystery about you, the mystery after “Who was Jack the Ripper?” You won’t have had cause to think of it before, Jack, because it’s a retrospective sort of thing.
Oh, watch you go, you indeterminate mass of data, you. Just watch you scuttle for home.
Would you like to hear what the second mystery is, Jack? I’ll warn you, it’s a bit of a spoiler. It’s this:
“Why did Jack the Ripper stop killing after Mary Jane Kelly?”
Of course, maybe he didn’t. There’s Alice McKenzie next July, although that smacks of copycatting to me. And there’s Frances Coles, throat cut in Swallow Gardens, which is a pretty sort of name for a road under a railway arch. But, no. The modus operandiis all wrong for that. No. Mary Jane Kelly. She’s the last. Many, many years into the future, Jack, there will be something called the “FBI” and it will have people called “profilers,” who will call people like you “UNSUBS” and they will forensically dissect that buzzing little nest of blowflies it pleases you to call your mind, and they will come to a few likely conclusions about you. One of them is that you stopped killing because you were almost caught, and it put the wind up you.
Paceto the doughty profilers of the FBI, but you were almost caught in Dutfield’s Yard (if that was your doing), and you were almost caught in Mitre Square, and it didn’t stop you. I’m not sure you’re smart enough to understand risk, Jack.
The red woman makes a cry like a carrion crow and leaps, graceful and joyful, into the air. Her wings extend, erupting from her bodice and shearing through the red cloth of her fashionable jacket. Her stylish boots curl and sharpen into talons. Her hands clutch at the stars and drag her upwards and forwards, for nothing may escape her grasp once she is set upon it.
We rise above the street, and as we clear the rooftops, Whitechapel and Spitalfields undergo a miracle. They are momentarily beautiful. The rooftops glitter with cold rain and the smoke from the few chimneys that are trailing grey at this time is damped. The cobbles shine beneath the gas light, and for a moment, it’s possible to forget the mire of misery that lies beneath us, the people who literally have only the clothes on their back, the people who die unattended by any doctor for the price of a few unattainable shillings.
She inhales hard, hawk-eyed and red-feathered beneath a pretty bonnet, our noses fill with the stink of gore. The beauty fades. London becomes the warren it has been for centuries and will return to when the money runs out and the skyscrapers fall. It drags its history behind it like a heavy blood-soaked cloak and will never be rid of it no matter how some try.
We rise; her wings flap powerfully, kissing the air. Beneath us the thoroughfare of Wentworth Street passes by, quiet at this time. More rooftops, then a strange little ladder of streets to cram as many buildings as possible into a dark rectangle of city. We climb the rungs
and there goes White’s Row.
She climbs hard, wings over, and stall turns along the line of the roof ridges on the south side of Dorset Street. Down there on the north side is the architectural afterthought that is Miller’s Court. Through eyes attuned to murder, we see a rolling plume of red smoke rising from the courtyard, streaming through a broken window, smoke from the wreck of a human. A finer trail of smoke runs from the entrance to the courtyard and eastwards along Dorset Street to Commercial Street, and then south.
Oh, Jack, we sing. You’re trailing murder, Jack. We see you. We see you.
Wherever are you going? Flower and Dean Street? Boring Flower & Banal Dean Street? Of course, of course. No return to a swanky house for you, no tiptoeing back to your surgery, your artist’s studio, your actual fucking palace. You were never anything more than a little man who wanted to feel a little powerful for a little while, were you? You were lucky, not smart. You left your mark, but your real name never stuck in history more than a line in a clerk’s careful copperplate upon a census page. Oh, Jack. A failure in so many ways. You’ll make the Ripperologists cry.
He scurries along. Why has he done this thing? This newest outrage? This dreadful deed?
Jack, oh, Jack, oh, Jack.
We do not fucking care.
Because your reasons will turn into explanations and the explanations will turn into excuses and we are so very past that stage. We do not care who you are or what you were. We do not care about your inciting incidents and your past traumas. We are not here to forgive you, because forgiveness is not in us. We are not here to judge you, because you have already passed sentence on yourself.
Jack, we are here to erase you.
She swoops down, extending her legs forward, uncurling those magnificent talons, and we hit him squarely in the shoulders. The spurs punch clean through his scapulae and erupt beneath the clavicles, there to meet the closing forward claws, locking tight and hard across his shoulders. She pivots forward without slowing, a harsh beat of wings, and then we are all airborne once more.
So, as I was saying. Want to know why Mary Jane Kelly was the last victim? This. This is why.
She laughs with the voices of victims and sings “A Violet from Mother’s Grave.” He’s struggling in terror beneath us—good—breathless with shock, but the song freezes him for a moment. Mary Jane Kelly sang it to you, didn’t she? It’s still in your head. This voice is still in your head. Ah, now you understand. Now you know.
She shakes him, and the glossy top hat he never owned falls away. Another shake, and he drops the black bag that was never his. There goes the leather apron and the double-peaked cap and the bunch of grapes, and oh, I think we’re high enough now, don’t you?
She peels him like an overripe banana. She tears away layers of accumulated legend to reach the wet little fistful of pulp that is the man beneath. There goes the coat with the astrakhan trim. There goes the red neckerchief. There goes the black cut-away coat.
And look, see? We have an audience. An appreciative audience. There’s Mary, and Mary, Dark Annie, Long Liz, and Kate. There’s Emma and Martha, Alice and Frances. There’s a maggot eaten thing in Whitehall and something in Pinchin Street that waves to us but cannot walk. There’s every blow thrown by a man too lazy to stop it, too weak for his strength, too drunk to care. There’s every bruised eye and split lip. There’s every throat encompassed by a hand, every smothered cry, every choking sob. This is your audience, Jack. Take a bow for all those joyless grins.
He overcomes his terror enough to draw breath and he screams now. He screams from pain and fear and a sudden, sure knowledge that he is about to be torn out of history and just leave his shadow, stinking like an overflowing privy in high summer, for a thousand, thousand sincere investigators to stroke their chins over in vague hopes of solving his “mystery,” like it matters. Like it mattered even one second after he choked the life out of Mary Jane Kelly.
He screams again, does Jack the Ripper, does Saucy Jack, does this nameless, pointless fuck as he’s clinically discorporated over a reeking city. It’s a high-pitched scream like a woman’s (“Murder! Murder!”) so, naturally, no one cares. Just some slut getting the back of a hand, a lash of a belt, a whop of a strap. No better than she deserves. Enjoying yourself, Jack?
No one looks up. A spread of a wing and the gutters glitter with polished farthings that shine like sovereigns, and every eye is turned down, away from the greasy firmament, where a Fury bears a man aloft and tears at him and does beautiful, bloody murder. She bears less and less until her claws close on nothing. Nothing at all. Mysteries are not given to us by a divine source, but taken by such? Perhaps.
And I awaken with the taste of blood in my mouth and, finally …
some peace to share with the smiling dead.