Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jack the Ripper

Mean Streets

This street is in the East End. There is no need to say in the East End of what. The East End is a vast city...a shocking evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on...gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair.

-Arthur Morrison, Tales of Mean Streets

The East End of London was, in Victorian England, a place outcast from the city, both economically and socially. Some nine hundred thousand people lived in this teeming slum. Here, the cattle and sheep would be herded through the streets of Whitechapel to the slaughterhouses nearby where they were bludgeoned, bleating with fear and pain. The streets were stained with blood and excrement. Rubbish and liquid sewage gave the area a horrible smell.

Police constables conducting a sanitary inspection
Police constables conducting a sanitary

Most of the inhabitants lived in tenement houses under deplorable conditions:

Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two. In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children, and four pigs! In another room a missionary found a man ill with small-pox, his wife just recovering from her eighth confinement, and the children running about half naked and covered with dirt. Here are seven people living in one underground kitchen, and a little dead child lying in the same room. Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who has been dead thirteen days.

-Andrew Mearns, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London

For the most part, the people who lived in this East End were the working poor, those who worked occasionally, those who did not work at all, and criminals. Most people lived on a day-to-day basis. More than half of the children born in the East End died before the age of five. Of those who survived, many were mentally and physically handicapped.

Prostitution was one of the only reliable means through which a single woman or widow could maintain herself. The police estimated that in 1888 there were some 1,200 prostitutes in Whitechapel, not including the women who supplemented their meager earnings by occasional prostitution.

There were over 200 common lodging houses in Whitechapel, accommodating almost 9,000 people. The sleeping rooms were long rooms with rows of beds, often infested with vermin and insects. If a woman had not earned enough money that day to pay for a bed for the night, she would have to find someone who would let her sleep with him in return for sexual favors. Otherwise she slept on the street.

A common scene, outside a Spitalfields boarding house
A common scene, outside a Spitalfields
boarding house

However, despite various urban renewal efforts and the improvement in environmental conditions brought about by the Jewish settlers, Whitechapel was still an area known for its poverty and crime. In the squalor of crowded tenements, narrow darkened slum streets and alleys, the Whitechapel murderer had found a perfect place for his work.

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