30 August 1988
Robin F. Rowland
Mr. Rowland is an author and freelance writer living in Toronto.
The room in which Jack the Ripper killed and then butchered Black Mark Kelly hadn't changed much in four years. "In that room, the plaster was torn from the walls, the cheap mantel was dragged from its place and every sign of an awful struggle was apparent."
So wrote Kathleen Blake Watkins - the top staff writer of Toronto's The Mail and known to readers simply as "Kit" - when she visited the scene of the crime in February, 1892.
One hundred years ago, in the late summer of 1888, five women died brutally in the Whitechapel district of London's East End and their killer came to be known as Jack the Ripper. Four of the women were middle aged streetwalkers. The mutilated body of the first, Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, 42, was found on Buck's Row (now Durward Street) at 4 a.m. on Aug. 31. The last victim was Mary Kelly, who was 24 when the Ripper cut her throat on the morning of Nov. 9.
The Mail sent Watkins to England late in 1891 to write a series on the disappearing London of Charles Dickens. In one way, the Ripper was responsible. Immediately after the murders, London authorities and private charities began a program of urban renewal aimed at replacing the slum conditions believed to have contributed to the murders.
Watkins was 36, and had joined The Mail in the fall of 1890 to write and edit The Woman's Kingdom. She quickly broke with the practice of recipes, fashion and gossip to write on social issues and what she called "women's rights and wrongs." After she had finished following the trail of David Copperfield, Pip, Mr. Pickwick and Scrooge through London, she went in search of the Ripper in Whitechapel, a district crammed with 80,000 people, many of them homeless or living in fourpenny a night doss houses. Watkins spent little time on the sensation of the murders. It was the victims and the homeless she wrote about.
After crossing Buck's Row, she visited 29 Hanbury Street, where Annie Chapman, 47, had met the Ripper at 5.30 a.m. on Sept. 8, 1888. It was a "foul, stinking neighborhood where the children are stunted little creatures with vicious faces, old features, and where the women's faces would frighten one... Here we go through a cat's meat shop, into a narrow yard, in one corner of which another wretched victim was found murdered."
From there she walked to Dorset Street (now Duval Street) in Spitalfields to 13 Miller's Court, where the Ripper had killed Mary Kelly and taken the time to cut up the corpse and place body parts around the blood soaked room before disappearing forever into the London night.
"Miller's Court is reached by a narrow passage under an arch reeking with filth and crowded with women and
Eliza Prater, who lived above Mary Kelly on the night of the murder, was still there. She told Watkins how she had heard Mary crooning to herself through the night. Then there was silence, until the body was found in the morning.
(At the inquest Prater testified that she was awakened at about 3.45 a.m. by a faint cry of "Oh, murder." Asked about it, she said, "It's not unusual in the street. I took no notice of it.")
Prater then took Watkins downstairs to the room where Kelly had died - "a dark, narrow room with no communication with the upstairs part of the tenement." Its current occupant was a woman named Lottie. "I was her friend," Lottie said, speaking with difficulty because of a broken and battered nose given her by a kick from her husband's heavy boot. "I was living further up the court then."
"'Lottie,' she (Mary Kelly said, 'I'm afraid to go out alone at night because of a dream I had that a man was murdering me. Maybe I'll be next. They say Jack's been busy down in this quarter.'"
"She said it with such a laugh, ma'am, that it just made me creep."
"And sure enough, ma'am, she was next. I heard her through the night singin' - she had a nice voice - 'The violets grow on my mother's grave' - but that was all we 'urd!"
"The women seemed to have no repugnance to sleeping in the room," Watkins wrote, "although black stains on the walls and the mask of a man's head near the window were gruesome sights.
"Other women began to gather presently, and they grew voluble and seemed to gloat over the hideous details, like birds of prey. They had hard, hard faces, with an evil look on them - the demands for money for beer, the curses, the profane language, jests about the awful fiend who did his deadly work here; the miserable, shrew faced children listened eagerly; it was horrible beyond expression. There was a sort of apathetic, matter of fact wickedness about the women... The only sign of feeling was shown when beer appeared and they all clustered around to drink it. Gladly we made our way up the street past the crowded gin shop at the corner which was filled with 'gay' women and vicious men and awful child faces."
Watkins returned to Whitechapel, first to spend an eye opening night in a doss house. Within five years, most of these flophouses were replaced by "model dwellings," but many inhabitants ended up on the street - the rents were too high in the new six storey blocks of flats.
Another night she visited a Whitechapel hostel for homeless men run by the Congregationalist church - the first woman allowed to spend the night. And her last visit was to a decayed restaurant. "The principal customers were tramps and faded old women who lived in tenements and eked out a living by gathering gutter rags... Queer pieces of very queer fish floated in a thick grimy sauce and were weighed out on slippery scales in pennysworths and halfpennysworths - the customers generally wrapping their purchases in their rags or else squeezing them behind the linings of their caps and hats, thus carrying home their supper on their heads..."
In all, Watkins wrote four columns on her visit to Whitechapel. The first was part of a Tramps with the Genius of London series published by The Mail in 1892, which made her a noted writer across Canada. She wrote two follow ups in 1893 and 1896. She married for a third time in 1899 and became known as Kit Coleman, which is how she is remembered today.
Her final column on Whitechapel appeared in The Mail and Empire in October, 1909, when the news reached Toronto that a woman named Kitty Ronan had been murdered by a sailor in the upper room at 13 Miller's Court - the same room where Eliza Prater had heard Mary Kelly singing.