Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Ghost of Mary Nichols

On the night of August 31st, 1888, a woman named Mary Ann Nichols was on her way to a boarding house after having spent the evening at a local pub. She discovered upon arrival that she lacked the money for a bed that night, and so went to work to make the money - Nichols was a prostitute and was aware that she would be able to walk the streets and produce the money in short order.

At 3:40 am, she was found by a local carter, laying on her back on Bucks Row (now Durward Street) with her legs stretched out and her skirt up. The carter didn't look too closely and didn't know if she was alive or dead. When the police finally arrived, it was found that she had been savagely attacked, and her head nearly cut off. Her murderer was never found, but in short order Mary Ann Nichols became known as the first confirmed victim of Jack the Ripper.

Since that time, people walking on the road at night have reported seeing a strange, green glowing figure of a woman huddled in the gutter of the street at the spot where the body was discovered.

Commentary: As I prepare for my trip to London, I decided to look up London ghost stories, and figured that there would be some related to Jack the Ripper - and I was not disappointed. In addition to the story of Mary Ann Nichol's ghost, there are also hauntings attributed to Annie Chapman, the second victim, and Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim. This isn't surprising, as Jack the Ripper has held the public imagination consistently since 1888. Given that the locations of the murders are well known, anything that seemed odd in these locations would be likely to be attributed to the ghosts of his victims, and it would be a shock if ghost stories weren't told about the murder locations.

What is both interesting and disturbing about the fascination that we have with these murders is what it says about our history, as well as our present. The murder victims were of the lower ranks of Victorian society, living in the slums, and working as prostitutes at the time of their deaths. Had the murders not been so grisly, it is possible that they wouldn't have gathered the attention from law enforcement that they did. That being said, some of the accusations thrown at the police force - that it would have captured the murderer had it been more concerned about the victims - are probably unfair to at least some degree. While it is likely that more effort would have been made especially early on if the victims hadn't been prostitutes, it is also true that this case grabbed such media and official attention that the police were being pressured to find the murderer, regardless of whether they were inclined to do so or not. So, while class politics likely played a role in the investigations, there is no reason to expect that the murderer would have been caught if middle-class or upper-class women had been the targets.

It is also worth considering that someone who is unknown, Jack the ripper, is the focus of the public fascination with the case. While the victims' names are known, all that most people know about them otherwise is that they were prostitutes. They are sometimes portrayed as victims made vulnerable by a profession that they were forced into, sometimes as outsiders whose "immoral" profession adds additional spice to an already wild story. The reality is rather different. Look here for a brief biography of Mary Nichols, and even in these few paragraphs, she appears neither as a wanton harlot nor as a faceless victim, but as someone with a rather more complex past who ended up where she was through a variety of circumstances, some forced upon her and others of her own making. This is worth remembering, as all of us (including, obviously, myself, based on the fact that I went looking for, and posted, a ghost story related to this) are prone to probing the sensationalism and forgetting that these were real people with real lives who were killed by Jack the Ripper.

One final note: Look through the sources. You'll notice that the cut-and-paste is once again present in them thar inter-tubes.

Sources: Mysterious Britain, Internet, Paranormal Database, Internet

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