Of Thimble and Threat is a novel inspired by the life of Catherine Eddowes, a woman believed to be the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper.
I first became interested in the life of Catherine Eddowes after reading the police report about her murder, particularly the part that listed her articles of clothing and the possessions found on her person at the time of her death. Here’s the list from the police report:
• Black straw bonnet trimmed in green and black velvet with black beads. Black strings, worn tied to the head.
• Black cloth jacket trimmed around the collar and cuffs with imitation fur and around the pockets in black silk braid and fur. Large metal buttons.
• Dark green chintz skirt, 3 flounces, brown button on waistband. The skirt is patterned with Michaelmas daisies and golden lilies.
• Man’s white vest, matching buttons down front.
• Brown linsey bodice, black velvet collar with brown buttons down front
• Grey stuff petticoat with white waistband
• Very old green alpaca skirt (worn as undergarment)
• Very old ragged blue skirt with red flounces, light twill lining (worn as undergarment)
• White calico chemise
• No drawers or stays
• Pair of men’s lace up boots, mohair laces. Right boot repaired with red thread
• 1 piece of red gauze silk worn as a neckerchief
• 1 large white pocket handkerchief
• 1 large white cotton handkerchief with red and white bird’s eye border
• 2 unbleached calico pockets, tape strings
• 1 blue stripe bed ticking pocket
• Brown ribbed knee stockings, darned at the feet with white cotton
• 2 small blue bags made of bed ticking
• 2 short black clay pipes
• 1 tin box containing tea
• 1 tin box containing sugar
• 1 tin matchbox, empty
• 12 pieces white rag, some slightly bloodstained
• 1 piece coarse linen, white
• 1 piece of blue and white shirting, 3 cornered
• 1 piece red flannel with pins and needles
• 6 pieces soap
• 1 small tooth comb
• 1 white handle table knife
• 1 metal teaspoon
• 1 red leather cigarette case with white metal fittings
• 1 ball hemp
• 1 piece of old white apron with repair
• Several buttons and a thimble
• Mustard tin containing two pawn tickets, One in the name of Emily Birrell, 52 White’s Row, dated August 31, 9d for a man’s flannel shirt. The other is in the name of Jane Kelly of 6 Dorset Street and dated September 28, 2S for a pair of men’s boots. Both addresses are false.
• Printed handbill and according to a press report- a printed card for ‘Frank Carter,305,Bethnal Green Road
• Portion of a pair of spectacles
• 1 red mitten
Catherine Eddowes had spent each of the two nights before the night of her death in a different casual ward. The casual wards were part of the workhouse system, a place for the transient, the ill, or those known to be criminals to receive temporary shelter in what was considered at the time to be appalling conditions. Like many of the homeless today, she was wearing many layers of clothing. She carried over fifty personal items. It is likely she had everything she owned on her person.
With a sense of what her time and circumstances were, I found this pitiful list more compelling than anything I’ve read about Jack the Ripper, and I had the idea of seeing in a work of fiction how all those possessions and clothing came to her. Our possessions say a lot about who we are, and hers spoke to me about a hard-scrabble life and a desperation—not without hope—that made for good storytelling.
The story begins when she is thirteen years old and concludes at her tragic death at the hands of, what they might have called at the time, a fiend. We don’t say fiend much anymore. We don’t call the Green River Killer or BTK a fiend. It just sounds weak in the light of what we know about them. But that was strong language to describe a killer in Victorian London. I use it here to make a point—if I was going to transport readers to that time and give them a reasonable taste of what her life was like, I’d have to get the atmospherics right.
I would not be inventing her life out of whole cloth (an old expression that fits the theme of the story well) since there was much information about Catherine Eddowes, but to build the world in which she lived, Victorian England, I would have to commit to extensive research. The thought of it was so daunting, it took me over 15 years and finally a request by Cameron Pierce to write a novel for Lazy Fascist Press before I would seriously consider it.
Here are some interesting things I discovered about Catherine Eddowes:
• Her first common-law husband, a man named Conway, wrote gallows ballads and was a chapman. Catherine worked at this business with him and most likely contributed to the writing of the ballads. They made a living attending public executions where they sold their chapbooks for a penny apiece. These were composed of several broad sheets folded together that included a ballad and other written material about the life, the crime and trial of the criminal being executed. They did this at the execution of Catherine’s cousin, a murderer named Robinson.
• She went to the infirmary at the Work House to give birth to her children.
• While living with a man named Kelly, one of Catherine’s aliases was Mary Ann Kelly, an alias also used by the fifth victim of Jack the Ripper, Mary Jane Kelly.
• Two days before her murder, Catherine told friends she knew the murderer and would turn him in for the reward.
• The night of her murder, Catherine was arrested for public drunkenness and held in a cell where she slept for several hours. When she awoke, she said she could take care of herself and begged to be released. The police would not let her go without knowing her name. She gave it as Mary Ann Kelly. Within an hour of her release, she was found dead.
Here are some interesting slang expressions from Victorian London that I used in the novel:
• Cuttie or Nose Warmer—short pipe, mostly smoked by women.
• Billy—silk handkerchief.
• Bludger—violent criminal.
• Dollymop—amateur prostitute.
• Fakement—pretense for begging.
• Flag—an apron.
• Gulpy—gullible, easily duped.
• Lump Hotel—Work House
• Lumper—dock worker.
• Lushington—a drunkard.
• Muck Snipe—someone “down and out”
• Patterer—someone who has hawks using a recited sales pitch.
• Prater—conman preacher.
• Square rigged—soberly dressed.
Here are some interesting things I discovered about Victorian London and British culture:
• London Particular—A mix of pollution and fog, sometimes called pea soup fog for its yellow color, resulting from the extensive use of coal during the industrial revolution in England. The British government in recent years has admitted that the killer fog was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of its citizens.
• The Great Stink—A time in London, during the summer of 1858, when the amount of waste entering the Thames and hot weather combined to create a miasma so potent it nearly shut down the government and brought the city to a halt. Those who could afford to do so evacuated the city.
Phosphorism—A disease that was common among matchmaker (those who labored in match factories). Handling the chemicals used in the production of matches inflicted upon the laborer damage to the teeth and jaw, often resulting in the loss of some or all of the teeth and occasionally requiring the removal of the jaw bone.
• Godfrey’s Cordial—An opium and alcohol elixir used to keep toddles and infants quiet.
• Various Scavengers—Mudlarks (children who scavenge the river Thames, looking for anything of value), Toshers (those who scavenge in the sewers, often children), Bone Grubbers (those who collect bones to sell, either asking for them door to door or scavenging for them along the river).
• Night Soil Men—Those who muck out cesspits, the receptacles of human bodily waste in the basements of tenements and private homes.
• Pig Wash—Primarily the leftovers of a middle class to wealthy household, food that has been to the table too many times and has gone bad or is close to it. The rejected food is given to those in service to the household who have requested and been granted Pig Wash.
• Broxy—the meat of diseased sheep—a cheap source of meat for the poor.
• All Sorts—a drink composed of all the drinks abandoned on tables at a pub, gathered up by the barman or barmaids, and mixed together—a cheap source of alcohol for the poor.
In writing Of Thimble and Threat, my effort was not to create a character we would relate to as one from our time, but one whose words and actions were shaped by her environment and circumstances and whose driving emotions were seen as reasonable within that context. Victorian England, with it’s social structure, polluted environment, the quality of sustenance for its people, labor conditions, the state of scientific and medical knowledge in that period, the prevalence and pervasiveness of disease and the seeming ease with which people became ill and slipped quickly into death, was a very different world from the one in which I live. All these elements combined to create quite different priorities and concerns for the people of that time and place from what most of us experience today. The average person was most likely much more aware of mortality day to day since something as simple as a cut on the finger could easily become infected and lead to death. Choosing an occupation—if one were lucky enough to have a choice—was to choose between compromising one or another aspects of one’s health.
That’s not to say we don’t have these concerns today, but time and experience has led to systems which mitigate much of the extremes seen in Victorian London. Human beings haven’t truly changed—we experience the same emotions we always have. The stimulus for those emotions is what changes from environment to environment, generation to generation. We would certainly relate to those of another time, but having a conversation with someone from the 1800s would be an interesting and singular experience for someone today.
The possessions of Catherine Eddowes started that conversation with me, providing a glimpse of her priorities and concerns, and Of Thimble and Threat is my response.
—Alan M. Clark