How the Victorian War on Women led to London’s First Serial Killer
“To please a man I did wrong first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayer and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die”
— Josephine Butler, “The Garrison of Kent,” Shield. 9 May 1870.
London, 1880. The city harbored upwards of six million people, most stacked one upon the other in narrow streets choked with yellow fog. Outbreaks of illness lingered during the worst weather; cholera from tainted water, recurrent epidemics of typhus and tuberculosis, and respiratory illness driven by toxic industrial fumes. Those could be escaped by the upper class, who fled to country estates, but not ever disease could be so easily eluded — or so quickly recognized. Roughly one third of the population suffered from a single debilitating disease. It could linger for long periods without any symptoms, contagious but invisible; it could be passed from lover to lover, mother to child, and would be responsible for birth defects into the next century; it had no cure. The disease was syphilis, but the public health crisis — and the hew and cry of both medical men and the legal system — centered entirely upon the body of the prostitute. She alone bore the blame for the canker spreading in every echelon of society. Medical professionals called her a vampire, a parasite, “corrupt and dependent on corruption […] a social pest, carrying contamination and foulness to every quarter to which she has access.” The law had answered these allegations by passing the Contagious Disease Acts, sanctioning the arrest and forced medical examination of any woman caught out alone after dark — not because she was soliciting (prostitution remained legal), but because her body was assumed a danger to the public. And then, in 1887, those same bodies began washing ashore in pieces.
Spring had been plagued by persistent cold, dry weather, and water levels of the Thames had dropped. On May 11th, a lamplighter on his rounds noticed something bobbing in the waves not far from Rainham, in the London Borough of Havering. A bundle of cloth, slightly…