Charles Dickens most certainly knew the East End of London well. Indeed, had he not died in June 1870, 18 years before the commencement of the Whitechapel Murders, then there is little doubt that, by now, an author somewhere would have put pen to paper (or should that be fingers to keyboard?) and linked his name to that of Jack the Ripper.
What sort of evidence would they have come up with?
Well, for a start, Dickens was a great nocturnal walker who liked nothing better than weaving his way through the Victorian Capital’s worst slums in the dead of night. Indeed, several of his night time perambulations had taken him into Whitechapel, where he would, no doubt, have walked the very streets where the Jack the Ripper murders occurred.
Secondly, he had featured several fallen in women is his works, most famously, the character of Nancy in Oliver Twist, who Dickens consigned to a particularly gruesome murder at the hands of her lover Bill Sikes. A murder, it should not be forgotten, which he used to re-enact in his dramatic readings and into the acting out of which he put so much realism and violent emotion that some members of his audience used to faint.
Thirdly, Dickens had a known involvement with prostitutes. Now by this, I’m not saying that he cavorted with the ladies of the night. I am speaking, rather, of the philanthropic interest he showed in their welfare through his endeavours, on behalf of Angela Burdett- Coutts, the second wealthiest woman of the era after Queen Victoria.
Together they had set up Urania Cottage, a home for fallen women, and Dickens himself had penned ‘An Appeal to Fallen Women’ which he had then had distributed amongst women prisoners hoping to persuade them to enter the home rather than return to a life on the streets. In his ‘Appeal’ he requested that they ‘be gentle, patient, persevering and good-tempered. . . you will (otherwise) occupy, unworthily and uselessly, the place of some other unhappy girl. . . ‘
Not only did he select the staff for the cottage, but he also insisted on interviewing prospective residents. There was a touching moment, which showed that Dickens truly felt for the plight of the women and their circumstances, when a Prison Governor told Burdett-Coutts that, ‘the love of dress is the cause of ruin of a vast number of young women’. Dickens responded by arguing that “…colour these people always want, and colour. . . .I would always give them. . . . In these cast-iron and mechanical days…”
No doubt, had Dickens been alive at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, by now his name would have been added to the ever growing list of suspects as some author – wishing to sell a book idea to a publisher, more interested in profits than accuracy – twisted all these facts to build a, seemingly, credible case against one of England’s greatest novelists.
Think I’m exaggerating? It’s happened to Dr. Barnardo and Walter Sickert. In both their cases, the only tangible evidence against them is they were alive in 1888 and they did, or may have, had connections with Whitechapel at the time of the Jack the Ripper Murders.