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Forgotten story of Jack the Ripper's Wolverhampton victim

Hopeful journey from the Black Country to London ended in gin-soaked back streets at the hands of killer Jack the Ripper, writes Mike Lockley.

Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes

Scratch away the grime of Catherine Eddowes existence – a young life snuffed out in the gin palaces and ghettos of Victorian London – and the terrible tragedy can be seen and scrutinised.

And it is very much a modern day tragedy, a squalid tale of a life that once offered so much becoming lost in a sewer-smelling swamp of domestic abuse, addiction and red light exploitation.

Sadly, very few have studied Catherine’s story in depth. History knows her only as one of the handful of working girls butchered by Jack the Ripper. She is part of this country’s most mystifying “whodunnits”.

Conjecture over the identity of Jack the Ripper, a monster who attacked 11 women, killing five, continues to this day: he was a mason, he was even a member of the royal family, it has been claimed over the years.

There is no detail of Catherine’s descent to squalor. That’s partly because she led a twilight existence in the East End where she eked out a semblance of a living under the aliases Kate Kelly and Kate Conway.

Illustration shows police discovering the body of Catherine Eddowes, late September 1888

Yet, before The Smoke swallowed her, Catherine, from Wolverhampton, was bright, beautiful – tabloids at the time described her as “striking with flowing auburn hair”, vivacious, fiery and ambitious. She was once quick-witted. She craved to make money and, before booze blunted her, knew how to make money. Legitimately.

By the time of her death, at the aged of 46, poverty had stolen her looks, and gin – the spirit dubbed “Mother’s Ruin” – had driven her near mad. Hours before being barbarically murdered by the Ripper, Catherine had been arrested for flinging herself on a cobbled street and loudly mimicking the bells of fire tenders.

One lost detail highlights the depths that Catherine had sunk before being savaged. Her body was identified by a crude, botched tattoo scratched into the pale skin of her arm. She had been branded, in ink, with the initials “TC”.

Those two letters were evidence of the sex slave she had become.

In her twilight years, Catherine’s life appeared destined to end terribly, even savagely. It is hard to grasp the bestial nature of her demise.

She dabbled in prostitution, rather than walking the cold, unforgiving streets every night in search of punters. Perhaps looking to find funds for another bottle, Catherine chose the wrong place, at the wrong time, to sell her body.

Catherine Eddowes

History will tell you Catherine was mutilated in the smog-shrouded early hours of September 30, 1888, in Mitre Square. She was the Ripper’s second victim that evening.

Her mutilated body was discovered by Peeler Edward Watkins, who stared at the bloody mess of humanity at his feet and recoiled in horror.

Catherine’s neck had been cut from ear to ear, her stomach and body slashed and gouged. Her left kidney had been removed.

Elizabeth Stride – The Ripper’s first victim that night – had been spared such prolonged sadism. She had succumbed to a six inch slash wound to her neck. No other injuries were inflicted.

Police believed the psychotic killer had been interrupted and, desperate to satisfy his blood-lust, scoured the back alleys for another victim. He found Catherine.

For those who have studied The Ripper’s terrifying spree, that is where the Black Country woman’s story begins and ends.

Catherine Eddowes fell victim to Jack the Ripper on the streets of London

This is the untold story – this is the Wolverhampton story of Catherine Eddowes.

Catherine was born in Merridale Street, Graisley Green, one of 10 children raised by tinplate worker George Eddowes and wife, also Catherine. Her mother worked as a cook at the Peacock Hotel.

When she was one, Catherine’s family relocated to London, but she would return to Wolverhampton in 1857, following the deaths of her parents, and shared her aunt’s Bilston Street home.

She had trodden the same career path as many local women, gaining employment in a tinplate factory and marrying young. Ex-soldier Thomas Conway, from Birmingham, had taken her hand.

The future appeared comfortable, if non-descript, for Mr and Mrs Conway, yet they both craved more and struck on a series of schemes – some morally, if not criminally, questionable – to swell their bank account.

They were certainly prepared to graft.

At any Wolverhampton event guaranteed to draw crowds, Catherine and Thomas could be seen on street corners selling cheap books dubbed Penny Dreadfuls.

The pair would make a killing with their side-line at public executions, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Thomas was far from a raw boned, loutish factory worker. He had an artistic bent and added to the family coffers by writing music hall songs. Demand for his song sheets grew steadily.

Catherine encouraged her husband and it appears few topics were taboo when it came to his ballads.

She even seized on the Stafford hanging of her cousin Christopher Robinson as a way to make a fast buck.

As the crowds waited for the noose to be placed round Robinson’s neck for the murder of his partner, the Conways jostled their way to the front of the chanting throng and began selling the score for Thomas’s latest ditty, inspired by the crime.

From all accounts, the masses present could not get enough of 'On The Fatal Morning'.

With the cash raised during the morning, the happy couple hired a donkey cart to return to Wolverhampton. Back home, they bought another 400 copies of On The Fatal Morning from Sam Selman Printers and Catherine treated herself to a hat from a Bilston shop. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like the execution of a relative stand in the way of a good, old-fashioned knees-up.

Catherine and Thomas believed the good times beckoned and moved to London in search of musical fame.

In reality, leaving the Black Country sparked Catherine’s downward spiral to the gutter. The expected carnival was replaced by chaos and carnage.

There, her heavy drinking became a dependency and records show Catherine, now a mother-of-three, stumbled out of the family home in 1880. Stinking drunk for more hours of the day than sober, the streets beckoned.

There were to be only eight years of Catherine’s life remaining. They were troubled years.

She moved to Spitalfields, considered the epicentre of London's criminal underbelly, and shacked-up with a ne'er-do-well named John Kelly in 1881. They lived in lodgings in Flower and Dean Street.

Kelly was violent and shared his partner’s heavy drinking habits. Their relationship was strained and stormy.

During those last years, Catherine gained a reputation through her erratic, alcohol-influenced behaviour. She sang loudly – gin bottle swaying in her hand – from street corners.

On the night before the murder, she had attracted a large crowd in Aldgate High Street by loudly impersonating a fire engine.

She then lay on the cold pavement and fell asleep, was roused by the police and arrested for drunkenness.

After sobering up in the cells, Catherine was released from Bishopsgate Police Station, bidding farewell to the boys in blue with a cheery: "Good night, old cock."

Her body was found at 1.45am and local surgeon Dr George William Sequeira, who had been called to the crime scene, deduced that death had taken place only 10 minutes beforehand.

The grisly task of identifying the body fell to Kelly. Tellingly, his common-law wife died on Sunday, yet he didn’t approach police over fears Catherine was the victim until Tuesday.

That spells out their dysfunctional relationship. The couple had, Kelly told an inquest, last been together on Saturday morning when they pawned a pair of boots and immediately spent the half-crown on drink and food. He recalled supping in bare feet.

On October 7, 1888, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported: “On Tuesday night a labouring man, giving the name of John Kelly, 55, Flower and Dean Street – a common lodging house – entered the Bishopsgate Street Police Station, and stated that he believed that the woman who had been murdered in Mitre-square was his ‘wife’.

“He was at once taken by Sergeant Miles to the mortuary in Golden Lane and there he identified her as the woman, to whom he subsequently admitted he was not married, but with whom he had cohabited for seven years.

“In answer to questions, he stated that the last time he saw her – referring to her as Kate – was on Saturday afternoon. He left her, believing that she would return to him at the lodging house in Flower and Dean Street.

“He had told her to go and see her daughter, and to try and get ‘the price of a bed for the night’. ‘Who is her daughter?’ he was asked, to which he replied: ‘A married woman. She is married to a gun-maker, and lives in Bermondsey, in King Street, I think it is called, but I never went there’.

“Being asked why he had not made inquiries before relative to her absence on Saturday night and since, he replied that he thought she had got into some trouble and had been locked up.”

The grisly facts surrounding Catherine’s death debunk Ripper myths, yet add to the puzzle.

For a start, it presented detectives with a detailed description of the Ripper. Catherine was seen talking to a 30-year-old man dressed shabbily and sporting a peaked cap.

That account matched a man seen talking to Elizabeth Stride. Contrary to belief, officers knew what Jack looked like.

It has long been stated the killer possessed professional surgical skills. He did not.

At the crime scene, Dr Sequeira was adamant the butchery was the work of an amateur.

In death, Catherine gained the popularity and star treatment she had craved in life.

The publicity that followed the murder turned Catherine's funeral into an event. Thousands joined the procession, which included a wagon for relatives and a wagon for the press.

The polished elm coffin was placed in an unmarked grave in the City of London Cemetery.

Catherine Eddowes, lost for so long in the disease riddled backstreets of the East End’s ghettos, was finally loved by the general public. She had finally taken centre stage.

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