This month, Laurie Graham follows in the footsteps of the most famous murderer in history, and takes a closer look at the lives of the women he hunted. Often lumped together as ‘The Ripper victims’, Laurie brings them to life as individuals in a book that is touching and often hilarious. Full of wonderful characters and the bawdy atmosphere of the Victorian music hall, The Night in Question is a warm, witty and ultimately tragic story of female friendship and resilience, set in one of the darkest chapters of London’s history. Join Laurie as she explains the inspiration behind the book…
I’m a sucker for True Crime stories, particularly unsolved ones, and the White chapel Murders of 1888 are possibly the most written about, dramatized, mythologised crimes ever. They’ve become a movie maker’s dream, set in foggy London streets against the rattle and grind of hansom cab wheels. Never mind that there was no fog on the nights Jack the Ripper did his murderous deeds, nor that hansom cabs would have been an unaffordable and rare sight on those wretched East London streets. Why let the facts get in the way of an atmospheric story? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because the truth is quite chilling enough without being embellished.
The aspect of this oft-told story that really attracted me was the women. In the never-ending theorising about the identity of Jack, his victims are so often dismissed as ‘prostitutes’. We’re supposed to call prostitutes ‘sex workers’ now, a politically correct nod acknowledging the undoubted importance of the service they offer. But Jack’s victims were hardly sex workers. They were women reduced to the very lowest level of destitution by illness, drink or sheer bad luck. They scrubbed floors or sold matches and in extremis would barter a hand job for the price of a glass of rum or a bed for the night. In 1888 there was no Social Security, no safety net.
So The Night in Question grew out of my desire to breathe some life back into those women and set the record a little straighter. They were rough, tough characters but every one of them had a story and in death every one of them left a gap in someone’s life.
Murder wasn’t an unusual event in East London in those days but, very much like today, violent attacks on women tended to be carried out by husbands or boyfriends. The notion of stranger danger wouldn’t have kept a desperate woman off the streets. The thing about Saucy Jack that shocked Victorian London was the speed with which he committed his horrific carnage. In minutes, and without a sound being heard, he killed and disemboweled his victims and then disappeared. Little wonder that people began to say he wasn’t a man at all, but a shape-shifting demon.
In truth we’re no nearer to identifying Jack than Inspector Abberline was back in 1888. There are as many theories as there are stars in the heavens, some plausible, some easily discounted. What struck me, as I researched the story, was the non-existence then of forensic science or of even basic police procedures. Police had no training in those days. They trudged all over crime scenes in their size 12s. There was no incident tape, no careful bagging of evidence. It’s easy for us to forget how recent are developments like DNA testing and crime data bases. A Leman Street bobby going out on his beat was lucky if he had a whistle and a lantern.
The mystery continues. I suppose it always will. Not that this has deterred me from drawing my own conclusions as to the identity of Jack the Ripper. As readers will discover, I have played my hand.
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