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London Letter

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London Letter

Post by Karen on Thu 2 Jan 2014 - 16:51

London Letter.
LONDON, October 20, 1891.

"American ladies have such queer tastes," said Mrs. Britannia. "When they come to London one of the first places they visit is the scene of the Whitechapel murders?" Naturally this surprised me. I never heard American ladies express any such taste. As an American lady myself I have none. I cannot endure Hogarth's cruelty pictures; I never yearned for the Wirtz museum; I never spent a sixpence for the Tussaud "Chamber of Horrors." Therefore in my heart I doubted Mrs. Britannia's assertion, and I asked her a question or two. By degrees she declined from the original assertion that all American ladies visit Whitechapel, upon the lesser one that she had known one large party which did. "I heard them say," she insisted, "that they must see Chelsea, Westminster, and Whitechapel!" A light dawned then upon that matter of the taste of American ladies. "They merely made the mistake of a name," I explained. "They did not mean Whitechapel where Alice Mackenzie lost her head, but Whitehall where Charles the First lost his!"
For all this, I, an American lady, have visited Whitechapel and the scene of Jack the Ripper's exploits, and I believe what I saw there of sufficient interest to write for Tribune readers.
I had been taking panoramic views of London street life from the tops of trams, a far more comfortable coign d'avantage, by the way, than one of our open cars. I caught sight of two immense rows of model lodging-houses which looked interesting, overflowing like beehives with their strange humanity, and I came down
from my eyrie to examine them. Quite unconsciously I wandered away into what I suddenly and with vivid interest discovered to be a "slum." I had never expected to go "slumming," and above all things, alone. I had never dreamed even to see a slum, except in print, and I felt in a certain sense very much obliged to this particular
slum for thus coming to meet me more than half way. It was a Jewish slum and a market was going on, for it was the Gentile Sunday, the day after the Sabbath of the Sons of Abraham. The market was in the narrow, open street, and upon coster carts, upon rough stands, often upon the bare ground. The goods were the very cheapest and meanest of manufactured things, a large proportion being second-hand (or tenth-hand) wearing apparel, mended old shoes, repaired old bonnets, etc. There were stands of coarse crockery, old and new iron-mongery, cheap bread, stale cakes, and fruit and vegetables in a revolting condition of unfreshness. There were rabbits which no persuasion will induce me to believe else than domestic tabbies, and which were chopped up by the penn'orth. Repulsive odds and ends of mutton and beef were heaped in penny piles. The odor of butter and cheese rose rankly to heaven. The din was hideous, and entirely unintelligible to me, being chiefly the clamor of Polish Jews.
Bad as the smell was where I entered, there was a badness which made it almost floral in this quarter where I held my breath amid ancient corpses of fish. I asked a squatting creature where I might be. She answered me respectfully enough, but her accent was foreign and I could not understand. Nobody took other than decent notice of me,
and I waited beside a stand of disreputable stage costumes and things that once were wigs, to take my bearings. I shall never forget those wigs for they gave me an unpleasant impression of scalps that had dangled long in sunshine and storm at savage belts. It is said that at the close of the market they are all cast into a huge bag and grabbed for at a penny the grab!
When finally an Englishwoman came, and I asked where I was, she answered "This is Petticoat lane, and you are in Whitechapel close to the place of the murders." I fancied an accent in her voice as if of pride that her district had so wide a renown, even though such a gruesome one. Nevertheless when I entered into conversation with her I found that her chief desire was to disabuse my mind of any idea that she was of the sort indigenous to Whitechapel, the sort for which her contempt was only second to her contempt for the Jews of Petticoat lane.
She was a woman of thirty-three. She had no front teeth, her husband having kicked them out. Her left hand was frightfully scarred from the gashes received in grasping the knife with which her husband attempted to stab her. She was bowed like a woman of seventy, and her pleasant face showed the miserable work of drink. She wore a skirt of cheapest brown velveteen, bought many "handed" in Petticoat lane. With it was a print jacket, with rolled up sleeves, and one of the extraordinary hats peculiar to the East End of London. On those hats dilapidated ostrich feathers rear themselves their full length toward the sky; the rearers supposed to be brought home by sailor lovers in the pockets of peajackets. This woman spoke with an accent other than of Whitechapel. She knew the place of her h's, and her conversation had nothing of the ribald slang without which the East End 'Arriet cannot express herself. Had she been an 'Arriet, native to those slums, she would have answered me blackguard wise, from sheer inability to do else. That the poor thing was an outcast, I knew, but she was one of them from whom one does not shrink with disgust, but toward whom the heart goes out in a longing pity. When she offered to show me the place of one of the murders, I quickly accepted, caring nothing for the place, but desirous of seeing more of this Whitechapel outcast who had been a close companion of one of the murdered girls, and who might herself have been Jack the Ripper's victim, had chance not given her fourpence that night to pay for a bed. "I will walk just a little behind you," she said, "and nobody will trouble you, thinking me your servant." That did not suit me, for I wished to learn what I could of poor Amy herself, so we walked side by side to Swallow Gardens, passing on the way a grimy doorstep upon which one of the victims, a wretched, foul old woman, was found with her pipe beside her. "Swallow Gardens!" what a misnomer for a dusky, sodden corner, shut off from the world by a railway wall, and accessible only under the arch beneath which Alice Mackenzie, Amy's friend, was found with head completely severed from her body. It was so dark under the arch that we could only dimly discern the signs by which the police have marked the exact spot. Something resembling a skull has been painted there, and a cross of wood, or metal, attached to the wall. At least thus they seemed in the dusk. "She was a good girl," said Amy. "She never fought or swore, even when she had a drop too much. When we both had a fourpence we took our beds together, and I knew her better than any body else. The last time I saw her alive she seemed dreadful low. She had had a brother drop dead just before, and she had been to see her poor old father in the workhouse, and hadn't but tuppence to take to him. I said to her "Don't be so low, Frances," (these women have many names), "I've got fourpence, come to the pub with me and I'll stand a drop." But she wouldn't, and left me saying, "There's no use in being alive!" The very next thing I knew of her the police came to our lodging at three in the morning to know if Alice Mackenzie was there, and told us that a body had been found without a head, which was said to be hers.
How terrified we were! I pulled my petticoats over my head and screamed. It was the ninth murder, and we all imagined we were murdered, too."
Dead Alice was less interesting to me than poor, living Amy, and I drew out her story, which is only that of many outcasts who are less the victims of their own characters than of bitter circumstance. Amy has not lost all pride. The indigenous creature of the slums never has any. Amy's better instincts are only clouded, the Whitechapel 'Arriet is born without such. Amy had the true English rustic's pride in a fine funeral. "Frances had as fine a funeral as any lady in the land," she said. "Breaks came from London full of people, and I went in a carriage, too. Her old father was taken out of the workhouse to ride at the head. I saw his old head shaking, and him looking as pleased as Punch." Amy was a Northumberland girl. "I married a mechanic," she said, "in a church. I had never gone wrong then. I had everything nice, even a chemise, (evidently one only, for the bridal). I had been confirmed, and was respectable. But when my husband beat me and I left him, I took to drink - as you would too, lady, if you were as miserable as we poor girls are. I have had two good situations and lost them because of a drop. Today I am cleaning a place after a Jew wedding. It is a nasty hole, and will take me all day, and I am to have sixpence. I can get a cup of tea for a penny at the Salvation Army Shelter, but today it is closed, being Sunday." When I said, "I will find a place and give you a tea," Amy answered cheerily, "I don't need it, I thank you, I have had a dinner today." The tone indicated that a dinner was rarest of occurrences for poor Amy, and that one meal was all she wanted in a day. She had only the clothes she wore. "I pay tuppence for a tub at the washhouse," she said, "and I walk about in my jacket and skirt until my clothes are dry. Usually I wash myself, too, in the same water. I have never had to walk the streets often all night. At my bedhouse they will give me credit for two nights, because they know I pay when I can. I never go wrong so long as I can get food and a bed without it. Sometimes when I am very low and have had no food for a long time I spend the very first money I get for drink, for then food cannot rest me, and a drop can."
Amy's husband has "another woman," and is living comfortably in Fulham Road with three children. "You would have done better to remain with him," I said. "I would rather be murdered under these arches," answered poor Amy. "One night," she said, "it was raining hard. I owed for two beds, and could not have one a third time without paying for the others. I had on a decent ulster and looked respectable, for the weather had been too wet for me to pop it. At three in the morning I met a nice policeman and asked him what I could do having only tuppence. "Stand under that doorway out of the wet," he said, "and I will watch for Jack the Ripper!" That didn't make me very happy, but I went and stood there till five in the morning. Then I could buy a penny cup of coffee and a roll. It was pouring rain, and I could not go to a pub, having no money, so I went over to the Tower and wandered about it till it shut up for the night. Then I came out and wandered about the streets again, but that night I had a bed!

M.B.W.

Source: The Cambridge Tribune, Saturday October 31, 1891, Page 6

***************************************
Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"
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