By Jarett Kobek
The most commonly accepted theory of the crimes attributed to the unknown Jack the Ripper is thus: the victims were attacked at random, with no link connecting them beyond their economic destitution and easy availability as prostitutes. Let us now vocalize one of Ripperology's unspoken assumptions: had the murderer chosen five different victims, the basic story of the crimes and the resulting furor would have occurred essentially unchanged. Accordingly, there has been little pressure to discover much of substance about the victims' lives. Aside from the needs of a few baroque and conspiracy-minded individuals, details of Mary Jane Kelly's activities in 1873 contribute almost nothing to the Great Quest and overarching question of Ripper studies. Namely, whodunit? (1)
What little information we do have about the victims is derived from the contemporary news reports that were issued in the days after the murders and from testimony at the women's respective inquests. By design, these sources focused on recent events, and their use as primary documents has created a series of near-sighted histories. Much has been established regarding the women's lives in the days and months immediately preceding their deaths, but any further back and the personal narratives become increasingly rough sketches. (2)
In this light, an article of particular interest is one that appeared in the January 1995 issue of the Black Country Bugle, entitled "'Kidney' Kate Eddowes …Jack-the-Ripper Victim Who Once Sold Penny Ballads on Bilston Market." (3) The Bugle is a weekly (once monthly) newspaper, offering "nostalgia" stories about a loosely defined area of England that includes Wolverhampton, the hometown of canonical fourth Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. The article at hand emphasizes the details of Eddowes's life in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. A good half of the copy describes Eddowes's relationship with her first known paramour, the probable pensioner, Thomas Conway (alias Quinn). It is best to quote the material most relevant:
…Catharine [sic] was turned out [by her Aunt] for becoming romantically involved with an Irish ex-guardsman who earned a precarious living by selling penny ballads in and around public houses in the town. …[Eddowes], young, headstrong and infatuated by the handsome and poetical Irishman, who signed himself Thomas Conway-Quinn… [Eddowes] moved with the street ballad writer to Birmingham where her good looks and bubbling personality were definite assets as she helped him sell rhyme sheets around the streets and pubs of the old Hardware capital. Hangings, in particular, made Conway-Quinn's creative juices flow and when executions took place, they often journeyed to Warwick, Worcester or Stafford to make a killing as crowds of people who gathered for executions were willing to pay a penny to obtain a rhyming memento of the occasion. …On one such trip to Stafford in January 1866 she experienced the trauma of seeing her own cousin, Christopher Robinson, hanged for the murder of his sweetheart at Wolverhampton - and then helping to sell copies of a scaffold ballad about him to the assembled crowd, estimated to number around 4000 persons on the fatal morning.
…They returned from Stafford in style, booking inside seats on Wards coach with proceeds from ballad sheet sales. It had been a profitable trip and after leaving the coach at Wolverhampton, the jubilant poet hired a donkey cart and set off with Catharine for Bilston where he ordered another 400 copies from Sam Sellman, the Church Street printer. …[Conway-Quinn] rewarded her with the price of a flowered hat from Woolley's in Bilston High Street whilst he waited in the Market Tavern for Sam Sellman to run off the extra order which would be on sale at their regular pitch on the following Monday.
If this passage is accurate, it provides more information regarding a single day of Eddowes's life than is known about entire years. This is a rather large if. The extreme specificity of the second paragraph raises suspicions. Two conflicting inferences may be made: either the Bugle's article is a rehash of another, older account, or some (if not all) of this information has been invented. Problematically, the Bugle's article is unsourced and repeated inquires with its editorial staff have gone unanswered.
Presuming that the information is authentic, the most probable sources are newspapers local to Wolverhampton. Such papers did publish articles after Eddowes's death that made note of her connection to the area. As the present writer is located in Los Angeles, he has been unable to freely consult the archives of these periodicals. A few potential avenues, namely the local Bilston paper, have yet to be explored.
Even still, some of the Bugle's details may be verified. Pages 18 and 19 of Neil Stubbings's invaluable pamphlet, Catherine Eddowes: Jack the Ripper Victim (2003), establish Robinson as Eddowes's blood-kin. In an article dated October 4th 1888, The Evening Express and Star states, "…[Eddowes] became associated with an old pensioner of the name of Thomas Conway… and left Wolverhampton with him. They went first to Birmingham, and subsequently travelled through many towns, gaining a livelihood by the sale of cheap books of lives written by the old pensioner." Page 118 of Melville & Co.'s Directory of Wolverhampton (1851) lists a "Sellman, Samuel, printer, stationer, and agent to the District Fire Office, Church st."
The crucial detail-the attendance of Eddowes and Conway at Robinson's hanging-is currently unverifiable. Arguing for their presence in the general area is the same October 4th article of the Evening Express and Star reading, "In the course of their wanderings they returned to Wolverhampton, where the woman gave birth to a child, and afterwards she betook herself to London with Conway." This birth is not any of Eddowes's three known children, Annie (b. 1863 in Norfolk), Thomas (b. 1868 in London), or Alfred George (b. 1873 in London). (4) In an interview published on October 4th, 1888 by the Daily News, Emma Jones, Eddowes's elderly sister, states the following: "I believe my sister had four children by Conway." (5) Considering the infant mortality rate of the Victorian era, there is the possibility that Eddowes may have returned with Conway to Wolverhampton and given birth to a child who did not survive. Even if Jones was mistaken as to the number of children, the dates and locations of birth of Annie and Thomas establish that any return to Wolverhampton by Eddowes would have occurred between 1863 and 1868.
Of the crowd witnessing Robinson's hanging, the Wolverhampton Chronicle of January 10, 1866 has this to say:
The number of persons present outside the gaol was estimated at about 3,500, about one half the number present twelve months ago, at the execution of Hall and Brough. The crowd seemed chiefly composed of residents in Stafford and strangers from Wolverhampton, Bilston, and Willenhall, with a few from the Potteries. It is gratifying to note that they conducted themselves with great decorum, and shortly after the drop fell the larger portion dispersed.
A few things may be learned from this passage. The mention of two previous hangings, the most recent-twelve months past-indicates the relative infrequency of such an event. (6) The presence of strangers in the crowd supports, at least, the plausibility of the itinerary given to Eddowes and Conway by the Bugle.
There is one further piece of evidence.
The present writer has identified in the collection of the Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies an anonymous one-sheet entitled, "A Copy of Verses on the Awful Execution of Charles Christopher Robinson, For the Murder of his Sweetheart Harriet Segar, of Ablow Street, Wolverhampton, August 26." There is not room enough to discuss here the history or function of gallows literature; it is sufficient to state that based on its title and form-a first person confession narrated by Robinson from the afterlife-these verses are a clear example of this long tradition. This one-sheet was undoubtedly sold at Robinson's execution. Unfortunately, it presents no author's marks, making it impossible to attribute the verses.
Certain facts do stand out. Eddowes was related to the murderer, Conway and she did peddle booklets, and they may have been in the area at the time. That there is a written account attributing authorship of Robinson-related gallows literature to Conway, and that such a ballad does exist, must be taken into consideration. In this writer's opinion, the odds are 50/50. If Conway did write and sell a ballad at the execution of Robinson, this is it. (7)
Each victim was killed at a low point, having turned to prostitution as a means of survival. Several were sick. Most were middle aged. This image, that of the aging and destitute East End whore, has become the common and overriding perception of the victims, blocking any view of the rest of their lives. Even the description-victims-is loaded. Did Mary Ann Nichols view herself as a victim?
In its modest fashion, the Wolverhampton one-sheet points towards a new and holistic sense of Catherine Eddowes. If genuinely by Conway, it is, along with the recently discovered photograph of Annie Chapman and her husband, one of the few physical objects establishing that the victims' existence was part of a sum total greater than their deaths. That Eddowes was involved, however modestly, in the manufacture and distribution of literature bespeaks a level of engagement with the world totally at odds with common perception. Surely Conway had the option of a better paying trade than the indigent peddling of cheap pamphlets; that he kept on with it tells of his devotion. Eddowes going along for the ride tells of a richness, and a patience, in her character that we otherwise would not know.
After one hundred and nineteen years, it's time to face certain hard truths. Barring a miracle, the identity of the Ripper will never be established. The time for middle class parlor games has ended. While we will never know whodunit, Ripperology still has much to recommend it: what other pocket of 19th Century poverty boasts as much catalogued minutiae as the Victorian East End? It is one thing to be able to identify the names of the attendants on duty at three different doss houses in August 1888. It is another thing entirely to have their census records.
Study of the Ripper has provided an intense and intimate view of individuals that otherwise would be long forgotten. Perhaps the efforts of Ripperologists would be better refocused on those areas where their work can, and does, achieve a notable good. There is no more noble place to begin than with the women whose stolen lives are the cornerstones of the whole enterprise.
Transcription of the Ballad
CHARLES CHRISTOPHER ROBINSON,
For the Murder of his Sweetheart, Harriet Segar,
of Ablow Street, Wolverhampton, August 26.
Come all you feeling Christians,
Give ear unto my tale,
It's for a cruel murder
I was hung at Stafford Gaol.
The horrid crime that I have done
Is shocking for to hear,
I murdered one I once did love,
Harriet Segar dear.
Charles Robinson is my name,
With sorrow was oppressed,
They very thought of what I've done
Deprived me of my rest :
Within the walls of Stafford Gaol,
In bitter grief did cry,
And every moment seemed to say
" Poor soul prepare to die! "
I well deserved my wretched fate,
No one can pity me,
To think that I in my cold blood,
Could take her life away,
She no harm to me had done,
How could I, serve her so ?
No one my feelings now can tell,
My heart was so full of woe.
O while within my dungeon dark,
Sad thoughts came on apace,
The cruel deed that I had done
Appeared before my face,
While lying in my prison cell
Those horrid visions rise,
The gentle form of her I killed
Appeared before my eyes.
O Satan, Thou Demon strong,
Why didst thou on me bind ?
O why did I allow thy chains
To enwrap my feeble mind ?
Before my eyes she did appear
All others to excell,
And it was through jealousy,
I poor Harriet Segar killed.
May my end a warning be
Unto all mankind,
Think on my unhappy fate
And bear me in your mind.
Whether you be rich or poor
Your friends and sweethearts love,
And God will crown your fleeting days,
With blessings from above.
1. There have been a few bright spots. The recent work of Neal Stubbings and Chris Scott deserve special mention. Individually, these Ripperologists have contributed mightily to an understanding of the victim's lives.
2. We exclude Mary Jane Kelly, whose life remains an almost total enigma.
3. This article is presently found in the Black Country Bugle 1995 Annual, available from the offices of the Black Country Bugle, http://www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk. It is accompanied by a facsimile reproduction of Eddowes's birth certificate, provided by Dave Froggatt, author of "Catherine Eddowes: Wolverhampton and Birmingham", (Ripperologist 6, June 1996) an early and notable exploration of Eddowes life in the West Midlands.
4. Although many sources give Annie's date of birth as sometime in 1865, pages 17 and 18 Neil Stubbings's invaluable booklet on Eddowes definitively establishes her birth as Catherine Ann Conway on April 18th, 1863 at the Yarmouth Workhouse in Norfolk.
5. It must be acknowledged that the same article has another of Eddowes's sisters, Eliza Gold, stating that Eddowes had two or three children. At the victim's inquest, Gold said that Eddowes only had two children. For comparison's sake, the Evening Express and Star of October 5, 1888 reports that Eddowes's uncle Thomas was living in Birmingham and had let Eddowes stay with him when she was eighteen. The article further reports that Thomas later "saw [Catherine Eddowes] frequently… and persuaded her to return to her parents, who were then living in London." It is a verifiable fact that both parents of Catherine Eddowes had died when she was fifteen. Once more we face the two great problems in study of the Ripper's victims: the complete unreliability of the popular press and the somewhat shocking ignorance of family members about the most basic comings and goings of their relatives.
6. Both Charles Brough, 24, and Richard Hale, 30, were hanged at Stafford on 27 December 1864. Brough and Hale were not accomplices, having committed separate murders. As only seven people were executed in Staffordshire throughout the 1860s, the rarity of a double event may account for the crowd 7,000 in number.
7. While almost nothing is known about the activities of Conway, there seems to be no argument that the man did make a living through the sales of his books. This raises the intriguing possibility that other county and local archives may well possess books, pamphlets, or ballads definitively written by the man.