Jonathan Salem Baskin

Repeat Violence

Today, repeat violence was commonplace.

At just before four in the morning in Whitechapel on this day in 1888, the body of Mary Ann Nichols was discovered laying in a pool of blood. Her neck had been sliced deeply from ear to ear, which had killed her almost instantly, after which her abdomen had been crisscrossed with jagged slices. Over the next two months, four more women would be be similarly murdered, some mutilated far more horribly. A frenzy erupted in the newly-liberalized and high-circulation tabloid newspaper market, prompted in large part by The Star, founded that year, which came into possession of a letter claiming that the murders had been committed by a single criminal who called himself “Jack the Ripper.”  Over a dozen papers tried to outdo one another in sensationalizing the crimes with gruesome hand-drawn recreations, detailed reports on the fatal wounds, and the incessant suggestion that a dark malaise was haunting the city.

The malaise had nothing to do with her death, however. Mary Ann was born on Dean Street to a locksmith father, though the area was filled with the indigent. A few neighboring buildings were rookeries, or places where the unemployed lived sometimes forty or more to a single building, sleeping in shifts in unventilated rooms. Some of the streets around Dean were unpaved, instead covered with a muddy mixture of polluted water filled with human excrement and offal. Mary Ann had married at 19, then became a prostitute and heavy drinker. Her husband divorced her in 1880, which meant that she’d have to live in one of those rookeries or workhouses, where the poor could be legally sent if they proved a public nuisance. Somehow, she survived on the streets for eight years, when she was discovered sleeping outside in Trafalgar Street  and committed to a workhouse in 1888. Even the gruesome details of her death were not uncommon, when considered in the context of public flailings, beheadings, and burnings that had been a part of popular entertainment for centuries.

The violence of her death didn’t hold a candle to the violence of her life, about which the London tabloids found little cause to champion.

Here’s the link to Today in the Histories of Social Media, and this is the latest edition of Histories of Social Media