Jack the Ripper’s victims shared many things in common and, in a way, they reflected the shortcomings of Victorian society.
Early on in the Jack the Ripper case the police were following the line of enquiry that the murders were gang related. There were several gangs in the neighbourhood who were running extortion rackets amongst the prostitutes and so this, at the time, seemed a logical line. Credence to this theory was the fact that Emma Smith, the first victim whose name appears on the Whitechapel Murders file, who died in early April 1888, had survived the initial attack and had staggered back to her lodging house where her fellow lodgers persuaded her to seek treatment at the nearby London Hospital. Here she was able to tell the doctor who treated her that she had been assaulted and robbed by a gang of youths. Now, the probability is that she wasn’t murdered by Jack the Ripper but rather had been attacked by one of the local gangs. So, when the Jack the Ripper murders gained momentum in September 1888, the police enquiry was influenced by the belief that a gang was responsible.
However, when Inspector Abberline arrived in the area to take overall charge of the investigation, he seems to have concluded that this belief was wrong and so he sent his men in to the area where the victims dwelt, and area abounding Commercial Street which, at the time, was known as “the wicked quarter mile.”
Once the detectives began interviewing some of the estimated 1200 prostitutes that police intelligence revealed lived in and worked out of the evil quarter mile, journalists were quick to follow and the everyday lives of the victims, and of many of the local residents, became the focus of a huge amount of press coverage.
What that coverage revealed was a very sad story about the women who fell victim to Jack the Ripper. Almost all of them, with the possible exception of Mary Kelly, about home we no very little before she arrived in Whitechapel, had been wives and mothers who, through a combination of tragic circumstances and a downward spiral resulting from alcoholism, had found themselves ostracised from their families and had drifted to the East End where they settled into a transient lifestyle moving around the Common Lodging Houses of the Wicked Quarter Mile.
They resorted to street prostitution, not out of choice, but out of a need to survive. They led a hand to mouth existence, begging, scrimping and, whenever possible, selling their bodies to strangers who they would take to dark corners of dark streets or squares. However, much of the money they made would be spent on drink, forcing them to have to go out onto the streets again. In this way they became easy prey for an opportunist serial killer such as Jack the Ripper.
So, when we consider the victims of Jack the Ripper, it should always be remembered that these were women whose lives had been blighted by alcoholism and tragedy and who, in the days before the welfare state that is so derided today, had simply fallen through the net and ended up on the streets of one of Victorian London’s most dangerous quarters.