East London, September, 1888
It was a bleak era in the colorful canvas of London’s history. Widespread poverty and insufficient job opportunities forced thousands into Common Lodging Houses, two hundred thirty-three in the district of Commercial Road alone. Such establishments provided communal lodgings for the over eight and-a-half thousand homeless vagrants that daily flocked to their doors seeking shelter. And while rudimentary at best and lacking in even the most basic of hygiene amenities, the affordable rates somewhat compensated the glaring inadequacies and absence of physical comforts.
Street prostitution was rampant. In addition to the sixty-two brothels whose flagrant activities prompted chagrin amongst London’s elite, the industry had spawned a new variety of night walkers: widows, abandoned mothers and divorcees faced with certain indigence turned to the last remaining recourse for supporting their families. In some cases, alcohol abuse and vice were attributing factors in the ruin of these women. In others, sheer desperation to provide for their children drove them to their ignominious state.
Yet regardless of the origin of their destitution, the shame and degradation that marred the reputations of these unfortunate victims paled in contrast to the terror that had newly gripped London’s citizens.
The previous week a mutilated body had been discovered in a gateway of Whitechapel—the district most infamously known for its rampant crime and egregious immorality. The wave of shock and horror that deluged the city as dawn broke that fateful morning had not since died down.
And tonight was no exception. An eerie silence hung over East London as the moon slipped deeper and deeper into engulfing darkness. A chill wind gnawed through the streets, bearing on its putrid breath suffocating odors of decay and sewage from the rat-infested sidewalks and drainage ways. A blanket of fog almost tangible in density fused with the unforgiving night elements and served to further heighten the pang of dread that stung the city.
An echo of footsteps bounced along the decrepit stones lining the walls of the side streets of Whitechapel as a solitary figure weaved her way through the dark alleys. A shiver racked her spine and she clutched her shawl more tightly about her frame. Her steps quickened. It was not safe being out after dark. Not since him.
She started as a newspaper blew past. The newspapers. They had been first to latch onto the horrific details of the crime and effuse them relentlessly across their pages. As a result, the city was awash with conjecture, speculation, and wild gossip. The topic quickly became the staple of conversations at pubs, poker games, and most notably, the district’s brothels and Common Houses.
Who was the woman found dead and displayed in a manner so macabre? What was she doing in the alleyway that night? Who could have perpetrated such an act? And the question most puzzling of all, why?
'Breathe!' She told herself.
She could now see her house in the distance, the sparkle of a dim candle standing solitary on a table near the window emitting a soft glow through the cloudy glass.
'Not much further.' She sighed.
Lifting her skirts above her ankles she increased her pace to a near run but only managed a few strides before she felt a tug at her shoe as it caught upon a solid object on the ground. Trembling as her body pitched forward and a sting of cold brushed past her face, she shut her eyes tightly, instinctively throwing her arms out before her. But to her great relief she felt her body hit the ground without injury.
'I’m a pack of nerves tonight!' She sighed to herself and forced a chuckle.
Casting anxious glances about her and remembering that she dared not linger a moment longer in a street as notorious as this, she gathered her wits and prepared to stand. But something caught her eye: the transient glint of an object lying on the ground beside her, the object of her fall.
It was a moment before her eyes adjusted in full to the sight that now seared itself indelibly upon her mind. Still and lifeless, a body lay not more than a foot’s length distance. Arms flung to the side, legs spread apart and eyes whose blank stare mirrored the inky blackness above, it was the body a woman—a woman who had been savagely mutilated.
For a terrifying instant, her breath caught in her throat and a burst of panic coursed through her veins. Then a cry escaped her lips and she clasped her hands to her mouth, forcing herself to stifle the sound.
'I must not alert him to my presence!' She willed herself. 'He may still be here.'
But the fingers to her face brought an odd sensation.
'Bloody hell…' She mumbled, as confusion obscured her thoughts.
Straining through the darkness she studied her fingers dazedly. Then a wave of nausea washed over her as her worst fears were confirmed. Her hands were covered in blood: warm, fresh blood that dripped from her fingertips to her palms and down her cuffs.
For a moment the silence of the night was pierced with a shriek of unbridled terror. It carried over the terraced houses and along the hollow alleyways, its resounding cry seeming foreign to her ears. She screamed until her lungs collapsed and her knees gave way. Then the world went silent, black.