LONDON – The world is endlessly fascinated with Jack the Ripper — but what about his victims?
On Tuesday an online genealogy company published census information that casts light on the lives of the women murdered by the Victorian serial killer.
The company findmypast.com trawled records of Britain's 1881 census for information on the five women generally accepted as victims of the Ripper: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.
All were killed between Aug. 31 and Dec. 20, 1888, in London's East End, where they worked as prostitutes. Their bodies were horribly mutilated.
The firm said the census data — available on its site and elsewhere online — provides "a small window onto the past" and dispels an image some people may have of the victims as teenage streetwalkers. Most were formerly married women with children who resorted to prostitution when their lives took a turn for the worse.
There is no record of Nichols or Kelly in the census, taken on April 3, 1881, suggesting they may already have been working the streets at that time.
Stride was recorded as 37 and living with her husband, a carpenter. Eddowes was 38, living with her husband and two children, her occupation listed as "charwoman."
Chapman was 40, married but living with her parents. She later moved out of London to live with her husband, a stud groom.
The women appear to have turned to prostitution after their marriages broke up. According to newspaper reports of the time, none of the victims was living with their husbands at the time of their deaths.
"Some people treat the Jack the Ripper story as a bit of a game," said Alex Werner, a Museum of London historian who curated a recent Jack the Ripper exhibition. "It wasn't a game. It was against real people in the East End, people who had fallen on really hard times, who had gravitated to the East End as a place where they could earn some kind of living as a prostitute."
Newspaper accounts at the time, which helped the Ripper's fame spread, touched on the women's fall from respectability.
The Star newspaper's report on Sept. 27, 1888, on the death of Chapman, struck a sympathetic tone, describing how a woman who "had perhaps a happy and innocent girlhood, and was once a wife, had to turn out and seek the sale of her body for the price of a bed."
"A few hours later," the newspaper said, "she was found a corpse."
The murderer's infamy spread quickly around the world. London newspapers reveled in the gore, which was spread across the country and to distant lands by telegraph. The killer was dubbed "Jack the Ripper" after a man using that pseudonym claimed responsibility in letters to the media and police.
No one was ever prosecuted for the murders, helping to fuel speculation about his identity that continues to this day. Among the suspects identified at various times are Francis Tumblety, an American quack doctor; Sir William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria; Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor; and the artist Walter Sickert.
"My feeling is we'll never know for certain," said Werner. "We are too far away now to make sense of the different candidates."