Wifebeaters And Jack The Ripper

Florence Fenwick Miller (1854 – 1935) was an English journalist, author and social reformer of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Although she studied medicine at Edinburgh University, she was unable to complete her degree on account of the fact that the University had decided against awarding medical degrees to women.

Instead, she headed to London, where she studied midwifery at the ladies medical College.

However, she soon moved away from medicine and began lecturing on literary and social reform topics, becoming an early and vocal advocate of women’s suffrage and, later, in 1889, she became one of the founders, with Emmeline Pankhurst, of the Women’s Franchise League.

A photograph of Florence Fenwick Miller.
Florence Fenwick Miller. From The Woman’s Signal, Thursday, 3rd October, 1895. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In early October, 1888, she wrote to the London Daily News to make the point that, as horrible and as depraved the Jack the Ripper murders might be, they were, in a way, the fault of society at large, and of the courts in particular, for taking such a lenient view of violence towards women.

The newspaper published her letter on Tuesday, 2nd October, 1888:-


“Sir, the wild beast who is running loose in Whitechapel is apparently a student of psychology.

By ordinary perusal of a newspaper, he has become aware that he has only to persevere in his horrible atrocities, and, as soon as they have ceased to be sensational by reason of their novelty, they will be thought of small consequence.

These frightful murders are no isolated events.


They are part and parcel of a constant and ever-increasing series of cruelties perpetrated on women, and regarded so lightly by the public, and treated so leniently by judges, that it must be a source of genuine surprise to a man when he finds that, by chance, he is going to be hanged for murdering a woman, or to be sent to a long-term of penal servitude for the attempted murder of a woman.

It is surely unfair that a man may not know what he is to expect, if he wants to kill a woman, or if he wishes merely to vent upon someone, too feeble to return or resist his violence, a savage gust of passion, careless whether his blows may kill or may only maim.

In perhaps five out of six cases of woman-killing, judges and juries find the crime to be not murder; how unfair it is that a man should not know beforehand whether he is to expect to be one of the fortunate five to receive a less punishment then he would do if he were driven by want to steal trifling articles and get half a dozen convictions for that – or whether he shall be the sixth on the list of woman-slayers with bad luck enough to be called a murderer, and even, it is just possible by chance, to be hanged as such.

How unjust, again, that a man should know that he may ill use a woman to an unlimited extent for a brief term of imprisonment (less than he would have for picking a pocket) if only she has the strength to live through it; while if the wretched creature completes her career of annoyances by dying there may be considerable fuss made about it.

Is it his fault if she have a poor constitution?


The Whitechapel murders, ghastly and terrible though they are in the light of the fact that the murderer is roving at large, are, in fact, commonplace and even merciful, beside some that judges and juries have, within the last twelve months, declared not to be murders at all.

Is it not worse to hack and mutilate a living woman’s sentient body than to kill and cut at the insensible corpse? Is it not a more Terrible Fate to be slowly beaten to death in instalments than to be sent from Earth by one Swift stroke?

Yet, week by week and Month by Month, women are kicked, beaten, jumped on, till they are crushed, chopped, stamped, bitten, eviscerated with red hot pokers, and deliberately set on fire – and this sort of outrage, if the woman dies, is called “manslaughter, ” if she lives it is a “common assault.”

Common indeed!


And men who would not themselves lay a hand on a woman except in kindness – men who themselves feel it the greatest satisfaction of their lives that they make some woman’s existence happy – are content to know that other men treat other women so, and that demoralised judges and magistrates throw the shield of the law and the authority of their office, not over the Victim, but over the crime.

Let us make an end of the pretence that women have full protection against murder and violence from the laws of their country. Let it be recognised and admitted that to kill a woman is not murder – no more in a sensational case than in a more common-place one. Let it be stated that the most brutal assaults on women are of little consequence, and let a limit – such as is now applied in practice – be set on the sentences that are to be given in such cases.

It is not fair to leave a man in doubt as to what his sentence is to be when he lets forth his fury on a woman, and it is not well to allow ordinary, decent-minded men to shelter their consciences behind the fact that the law theoretically protects women, while the “discretion” of judges and magistrates, and the cowardice or indifference of juries, makes the law’s protection a pretence.


May I briefly justify these hard sayings, that may seem too hard, if the facts are not brought to mind?

Before me lies a heap of newspaper cuttings, all taken within the last few months, showing only to sadly that I am not too bitter, not too extreme.

Here is Mr. Edlin, the Assistant Judge of the Middlesex Sessions, dealing with a case of burglary, cutting a watch dog’s throat, and stabbing the woman of the house in the throat when she resisted and attempted rape, cutting seriously both her throat and the hands put up to protect it – six months imprisonment!

This was something like the Whitechapel cases, except that the throat cutting was not so skilful, and, owing to interruption, it did not kill; but, on the other hand, the burglary has to be added in the scale.


Mr. Edlin gave a similar sentence in an almost equally outrageous case, a few weeks ago.

Nobody appears seriously shocked; for he has just received, as though in recognition of his services, the honour of a knighthood, nominally from the hands of the first woman of the realm – the Sovereign, who swore at her Coronation to protect her people.

Mr Justice Charles, a fortnight ago, had before him a miscreant who had inflicted months of acute agony and disfigured a poor girl for life by pouring vitriol over her face because she refused to live with him – sentence, eighteen months.

The same judge had a man who chopped a woman’s head open with an axe – sentence, nine months.

Mr. Edlin again had a case of a savage brute biting an old woman’s cheek through to her teeth, and “worrying it like a dog” – eighteen months; the next case, settled by the same “officer of justice,” being a burglary, with previous conviction proved, eight years.


The magistrates are not behindhand in their encouragement to brutality against women.

Here, a fortnight ago, Mr, de Rutzen:- a man biting a woman’s arm when her baby was a month old – six months.

Mr Chance:- for beating a woman with a ginger-beer bottle, and turning her out of doors in her nightgown – three months.


The country magistrates or even worse.

The Barnsley Magistrates, for a brutal assault with a brick, kicking and attempted rape, last week gave four months imprisonment.

The Whitehaven Magistrates, for breaking a woman’s jaw in two places and knocking out six teeth – six months.

The Kidderminster Magistrates, for a series of violent beatings, a fine of five shillings; their next case being against a tradesman for leaving a couch an hour on the footpath, fined ten shillings.

The Wolverhampton Magistrates, for cruelly assaulting a woman, two months; for striking a policeman one blow, three months; for cutting one of the Corporation seats, six months.


But I must end this catalogue, with which I might fill pages, and I have yet to give instances of woman-killing no murder.

Here is Edward Doyle, who, not content with breaking a woman’s ribs and scalding her with hot water, next thrust a red hot poker up into her abdomen, and let her lie dying for two days: manslaughter, fifteen years prison. He will be let out to go on again while still quite in the Prime of life; he is no murderer.

John Freshfield, tearing off his wife’s ear, breaking her breast-bone and also eight of her ribs on one side and nine on the other: manslaughter (Mr Justice Hawkins) eighteen months prison.

John Finnemore, stabbing his wife in the abdomen with a knife because his dinner, ordered for three, was not nice when he returned at midnight; manslaughter, twenty years.

T. Leyland, setting a woman on fire, with the express intention to kill her, by holding a lighted paper to her clothes, and then shutting her out in a high walled yard away from rescue; manslaughter, “recommended to mercy because he looked a soft sort of man!”

James Kelly, Edinburgh, fifty wounds on the head and elsewhere, the end of a long course of brutal usage; culpable homicide, ten years.

Jon Jones, a murderer described by the judge as “one for which we might search in vain amongst the records of barbarians to find a case so bad”; manslaughter (Mr. Justice Grantham), twelve months imprisonment.


I must inflict no more on you. These are only – alas! – specimens of a long long list.

What are men going to do now, when their consciences and their imaginations are aroused by the stealthiness and barbarous sequence of the Whitechapel murders.

I ask them, what are they going to do to check the ever-rising flood of brutality to women, of which these murders are only the latest wave?

Florence Fenwick Miller.”


Mrs. Fenwick Miller’s letter led to a flurry of letters being sent into the newspapers by women who applauded her “timely and courageous” letter, and applauded her for highlighting the scandal of the leniency with which society punished men who assaulted and even murdered women.

Several newspapers also published articles which, although not agreeing with her assertion that the lenient sentences meted out by the courts had paved the way for the Whitechapel murderer to carry out his barbarous reign of terror, certainly felt that she had hit upon a nerve in society::-

The Graphic, on  Saturday, 6th October, 1888, published the following response to her letter:-


“A somewhat vehement champion of woman’s rights has written to the papers to show that the Whitechapel outrages are in some way connected with the lenient sentences often passed on men who have been proved guilty of shocking cruelty to women.

It is not very easy to see how the connection between the two things can be established, for, however inadequate the punishments of brutal wife-beaters may have been, the monster of Whitechapel can scarcely have supposed that crimes such as his, if he were caught, would fail to be dealt with justly.


At the same time, it must be admitted that there is much truth in the complaint that cruelty to women does not always – or, indeed, often – receive the penalty it deserves.

It frequently happens that a man who steals a florin gets himself into more serious trouble than a vile fellow who tortures his wife almost to death.


One difficulty in the way of a more just system is that if a cruel husband is imprisoned for a long time his wife and children may, during his term of confinement, have no resource but the workhouse.

This often makes poor women try to conceal the full extent of their sufferings.

But why should not such cases be more summarily disposed of?


Is there any really sound reason why physical cruelty to women should not be invariably punished by means of the lash?

There is something revolting in the suggestion, no doubt; but we must remember that in the midst of civilisation there are human beings who are practically savages, and that when they are guilty of violent offences they ought to be treated in the way that is most likely to have a permanent effect on their conduct.

The ordinary ruffian, we may be sure, would think twice before beating his wife if he knew that indulgence in this luxury would be promptly followed by consequences of an extremely disagreeable nature for his own precious person.”