The murder of Annie Chapman

8 September 2012

The Illustrated Police News. Photo: British Library.

It was a dark and gloomy night in Whitechapel, and poor Annie Chapman, a forty eight year old woman who had fallen upon hard times found herself without enough money to pay for her lodgings and so glumly went out into the dark streets to earn enough to buy herself a bed for the night.

Her story was a common one at this time: born Eliza Ann Smith to then unmarried parents, she had been married at the rather advanced for the times age of twenty eight to a cousin, John Chapman and then settled down into an ordinary domestic life in West London, bearing three children and taking care of her home.

However, life soon took a sad turn when the couple’s eldest daughter died at the age of twelve and both Ann and John consoled themselves with alcohol, which prompted the falling apart of their marriage and eventual separation. Like poor Polly Nichols, the dissolution of her family meant that Annie was separated from her children and forced to leave the marital home.

By 1888, Annie was living in Whitechapel and was prematurely aged, suffering from lung disease, depressed and still, unsurprisingly, an alcoholic. She made a living of sorts by selling flowers, doing crochet work and prostitution but it was not enough to keep her from a miserable existence of walking the streets at odd hours and not knowing where she would be sleeping at night.

It seems to have been a vicious and unhappy life of homelessness and addiction, punctuated by brief relationships and squabbles with other women. When her body was discovered on the morning of the eighth of September, it was still marked with bruises from a fight she had a few days earlier over either a stolen bar of soap or the affections of a local hawker.

In the lore of the Five Women, Annie Chapman is generally regarded as an aggressive, argumentative drunk with a nasty streak a mile wide. Outspoken, mean natured and unattractive both in personality and looks. I think this is unfair. I think we have to remember that she began drinking when her daughter died and then ended up on the streets when her marriage ended and she was separated from her children. Who wouldn’t be soured by that and once again I’d like to remind people that her story was not an unusual one for the period, that the streets of London and every city in the country teemed with dispossessed and unsupported women – the natural consequence of a society without a proper welfare system in place and an almost fastidious disregard for the needs of the helpless and less fortunate.

Mortuary photograph of Annie Chapman. These now well known post mortem photographs of the Ripper’s victims were sent anonymously at the time of the centenary in 1988 and had not been widely seen prior to this. Photo: Records of the Metropolitan Police Office.

At around 2am on the night of Annie’s murder, she was ejected from the common lodging house at 35 Dorset Street, where she had been living on and off for about four months, for being too poor to pay the ‘doss money’ and so had determined to go out onto the streets again to earn some cash. ‘Don’t let the bed, I will be back soon,’ she told them as she went off towards Paternoster Row and then on to Brushfield Street.

At 5.30am on the morning of the 8th September, Annie was apparently seen by an Elizabeth Long on Hanbury Street, talking to a dark, foreign looking man. By 5.55am, her mutilated body had been discovered in the backyard of number 29 by its doubtless shocked owner, who recoiled in horror from the sight of the unfortunate woman, who had been throttled and had her throat slit before being disembowelled by the murderer that we all now refer to as Jack the Ripper. At her feet were arranged her few meagre possessions: a small piece of frayed muslin and a comb in a paper case, while by her head lay two of the pills she was taking for her lung condition, wrapped in a twist of paper.

Unlike the other Ripper victims, there exists a photograph of Annie Chapman as she was in life, sitting formally and rather sullen at the side of her husband. This awkward image, so Victorian in every way, serves as a reminder that the Ripper’s victims were real women, with real lives and real families.

Annie Chapman with her husband, John.

When I think of Polly Nichols, I think of her last evening when she went out in search of punters, convinced that her lovely new bonnet would bring her some extra trade. When I think of Annie Chapman, I don’t think of her as she was in death, I think instead of the unhappy wife sitting beside her husband, with a look on her face that suggests that she wishes she was anywhere else but at his side. I also, oddly, think of the police surgeon’s note in the midst of his cataloguing of terrible injuries and mutilations that ‘The front teeth were perfect as far as the first molar, top and bottom and very fine teeth they were.’

Hanbury Street, May 2012. Photo: my own.

Hanbury Street, where Annie’s body was found in the backyard of number 29 still retains something of its Victorian character in the tall houses that line the road. Number 29 is long gone but if you look down towards bustling Commercial Street, you can get a small sense of how it must have been in 1888. This road above all the others also underlines the risks that her murderer took when attacking his victims as it runs from Commercial Street to Valance Road and is intersected by vibrant Brick Lane before the spot where number 29 once stood. Even in the early hours of the morning this would have been a busy area with people hanging about on the streets either drinking, soliciting passersby or just because like Annie Chapman, they literally had nowhere else to go.

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