Dec 20 2016 Christmas Ghosts: An Excerpt from Alan M. Clark’s A Brutal Chill in August

One of our favorite Christmas traditions, particularly popular in the Victorian era, is the telling of ghost stories. Something about the long nights of winter, the glistening of ice, and the clouds of breath that form as you step outside evokes the supernatural, the uncanny. Perhaps the most famous of these stories is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but other notable Christmas ghosts include Dickens’s “The Signalman,” M. R. James’ “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” Edith Wharton’s “Afterward,” and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival.”

With all that in mind, Word Horde is proud to present a new Victorian Christmas ghost story, in the form of this excerpt from Alan M. Clark’s stunning tale of Polly Nichols, first victim of Jack the Ripper, A Brutal Chill in August

Ross Lockhart, Word Horde Editor in Chief

A Brutal Chill in August by Alan M. Clark

A Tempting Choice

On Monday morning, December 20 of 1875, Polly hid away the tinplate toys she’d bought for the children’s Christmas stockings—a steamship for John, a train for Percy, a horse-drawn carriage for Alice. As she imagined the children’s faces when they received their gifts, a knock came at her door. She answered the knock to find Judith had arrived early. Dorrie wasn’t with her. The cold and windy air outside tried to push its way in. Judith didn’t respond when invited to come in, so Polly stepped out and pulled the door shut.

“At first I couldn’t decide,” the woman said, “but I have, at present. Dorrie will begin school in the new year. She’s with her grandmother now and during the holidays. No longer shall I come on Mondays and Fridays.”

Perhaps Polly should have seen the day coming, since Percy was the same age as Dorrie, and he had already begun at the infants school. Polly had happily let go of her daytime duties of minding Percy, especially since the discovery she was pregnant again. She hadn’t told Bill or Papa about the pregnancy. Although she loved her children, she didn’t look forward to having yet another so soon.

Her surprise left her struggling unsuccessfully to think of a way to change Judith’s mind. Finally, Polly said simply, “I’m not prepared for the change.” Straining against the chill breeze, she knew she looked as if she might cry. “Could we do it just a bit longer until I can make other plans?”

Judith appeared unmoved. “No, I shall not have a child to keep during much of the week and shan’t need your help. I have plans for Christmas to think about today.”

Indeed, she wasn’t a good friend.

Polly hung her head wearily. “You’re lucky you don’t have the quick womb I have.”

“Are you knapped again?” Judith asked with a frown.


“It’s not my luck,” Judith said. She grimaced slightly, then asked, “Haven’t you asked Bill to wear a sheath on his manhood?”

“He won’t.”

“Swaine does, and when that fails, I know how to end a pregnancy. There’s a woman can help you.”

“The Church tells us that’s murder.”

“Yes, well, a life unloved and spent in poverty,” Judith said, coldly, “what’s that?”

Polly had no answer. Judith started to turn away.

“Please,” Polly said, “I must have a drink today.”

“And that’s the difference between us,” Judith said. Shaking her head, she turned and walked away.

Polly stepped back inside, and slammed the door, shutting out the biting cold.

The woman’s abrupt manner aside, her suggestion about abortion made Polly uncomfortable because of the tempting option the procedure presented. She considered abortion wrong, and believed that if she took the option, she’d be guilty of murder. Apparently, Judith had chosen just such murders in the past.

Still, Polly believed the life in her womb would be better off if it never saw the world. With each child she’d had, her ability to provide for them, the time she had to share with them, her capacity for affection, and, yes, she admitted to herself, even to love them, had diminished.

What had Judith said? “A life unloved and spent in poverty.”

Perhaps if God knew how Polly felt, He would help. Yet, the Lord should know already what she held in her heart, even if the feelings were a jumble. Polly wanted the best for the three children she had, and if that meant she shouldn’t have another mouth to feed, another heart to soothe and love, then possibly He should take the infant in the midst of her pregnancy. The idea that she might have a miscarriage gave her a small hope which she knew must be dismissed, but which she clung to for fear that if she didn’t, God might not know her preference. The conflict within her turned to nausea. Although most likely mere morning sickness, the discomfort bore with it a chilling uneasiness.

She didn’t have time for such distraction, and tried not to think about the matter further. Her schedule for the afternoon required her to print a broadsheet that advertised a boxing match. She had the materials, including a nicely done woodcut of men preparing to punch each other while others in the background cheered. She needed to take care of Alice first. As she occupied herself, stoking the fire, cleaning the dishes and the pot used to prepare the meal from the night before, nausea and disquiet continued to hound Polly. Her hands trembled and her heart periodically hammered in her chest.

Finally, she promised herself that she’d find a moment to say a prayer for the infant in her womb and one for Judith. That did little to calm her.

She hurriedly fed Alice a midday meal of bread and butter, then placed her in the bed, wrapped in a faded red wool blanket, hoping the girl would take a nap. Before beginning work on her broadsheet, Polly found her moment for prayer. Alice had become quiet, and a calm came into the room, but not into Polly. The conflict in her heart had turned to an unaccountable foreboding. She voiced the words before she’d had a chance to think them through.

“Please O Lord, take this child now before it’s too late.” Polly regretted her plea immediately. While trying to persuade herself that God understood that she meant for the child not to suffer, she knew her true motive to be self-serving. After years of carefully avoiding any mention of herself in prayer, she’d found a new way to demonstrate her selfishness to God. She quickly said the penitent prayer from Mr. Shaw’s well-worn card, but she didn’t feel any better.

Polly couldn’t do her work. Feeling naked before the eyes of the Lord, she paced. When Alice began to stir, Polly knew she disturbed the child’s slumber. She had to get away.

Stepping outside, she had the intention of pacing the lane’s granite footway outside her door. Having traveled half a block up Trafalgar Street, she decided she should keep going. She imagined walking the two or more miles to the docks, and stowing aboard a ship headed to some land where people believed in a different god, one who would not know her so well.

Then, she remembered she’d left the front door open. She broke out in a sweat. Her heart moved uncomfortably as she thought of a stranger entering her room while Alice slept. She imagined John and Percy coming home from school to find nobody home, their confusion and sadness when they found out their mother had abandoned them, and so close to Christmas!

Polly turned and walked back the way she’d come.

Although the shame had become so large inside her that she saw little else, she knew that her children needed her.

* * *

Bill came home from work around noon. His foot had been hurting him for over a week after an accident at the offices of Messrs. Pellanddor and Company. He’d explained on the day of the mishap that a case of lettera heavy wooden box full of metal type—had fallen from a rack onto his foot.

He hobbled crookedly as he came in, using a cane he’d borrowed from a workmate. “I’m no good at work the way I am,” he told Polly. “Richardson sent me home. Says he’s tired of my curses. I must rest up and go back no sooner than the new year. I think a bone is broken and I should be much longer, though.”

He leaned against the wardrobe, removed his jacket, and unbuttoned his checked waistcoat.

“Alice, make room for your father,” Polly said. “Soon, you must get up and help me impose pages.”

“Yes, mum.” The girl smiled sleepily, and moved over to one side in the bed.

Polly helped her husband lie down. She pulled the shoe off his good foot, then proceeded to more carefully remove the other. He kept his lips tightly closed throughout the process.

“Have you eaten?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said with a strain in his voice. “I can wait ’til supper.”

Polly had missed some of her Monday excursions in the past, when Bill or her father had been ill and not worked for a day or more. On those occasions, with Judith’s help, Polly had always been able to look forward to a time when she’d have a day to herself again. At present, she didn’t know when she’d have another chance to have a drink. Her hands began to tremble as she thought about the problem.

“I’ll need a drink for the pain,” Bill said. “Go around to the Compass Rose and fetch a pint of gin.”

Polly concealed her excitement.

He pulled his purse from a pocket of his trousers and fished out a shilling. “I expect tuppence back.”

Polly took the silver coin. She might not have time to go for a single drink, but she could get a bottle of gin to have on hand at home for herself. Surely, a circumstance would arise in which she might have some secretly.

“Alice, don’t bother your father while I’m gone. He’s not feeling well.”

“Yes, Mum.”

Polly turned away, opened the wardrobe, and used her body to conceal her efforts as she retrieved a shilling from under the loose lining of the left boot of her Sunday high-lows. Pulling on her shawl and bonnet, she left, carrying a basket to hold her purchase. On her way up Trafalgar Street toward South Street, against the bitterly cold wind, she decided that if she ran the whole way, there and back, she’d stay warmer and have the time to drink a glass of stout when she got there. No, Bill might smell the alcohol when she got back.

Even so, she walked briskly. She smiled uneasily at the women she passed, but looked away from each man.

At the Compass Rose, she bought two pints of gin, placed them in her basket, and headed for home, again walking briskly. Polly hadn’t had anything stronger than stout for many years, and looked forward to getting the gin home and finding a chance to take a deep draft.

Bill might see that she had two bottles if she wasn’t careful. The basket held a couple pieces of coarse linen. She arranged the bottles so that each rested under its own piece of cloth. That also kept them from clinking together. When she got back, hopefully Bill and Alice would be asleep in bed. If not, she’d hurry to the larder, a set of shelves within a cabinet built into the wall to the left of the fireplace, set the basket down, and reach inside to take one bottle out. If they were asleep, she’d retrieve the second bottle and hide it away before awakening Bill.

But where?


Bill was awake when she returned home. Next to him, Alice still napped.

Polly offered a bottle of gin to her husband. He drank half the pint before lying back down on the bed. The remainder of the bottle, Polly hid with the tinplate toys in the back of the wardrobe. Bill might not need any more gin. If he forgot about it, the rest would be Polly’s.

Once he’d begun to snore, she pulled the second pint from the basket, stepped into Papa’s room, pulled the cork from the bottle, and had a gulp of the gin. Although Bill would not smell the drink on her after the lush he’d had, she risked her father noticing when he came home. John and Percy would be home soon, as well.

Putting the cork back in place, Polly returned to her room, having decided to hide the bottle behind the wardrobe. No, Bill could see her when she tried to retrieve the gin if she left it there. She thought to put the bottle in Papa’s room, but decided he knew his living quarters well enough that he’d notice anything amiss and easily find the gin. The eave above the door that led out back had a few broken boards. Perhaps she could hide the gin behind them. If the landlord came to fix the eave unexpectedly, though, he’d discover her bottle. He might well take the gin for himself. Worse, he could ask Bill or Papa about it.

The drink in her belly had created a warm spot that grew. Soon the warmth would enter her head and her worries would flee. She wanted to find a hiding place before that happened.

The privies! She thought that the bricks that lined the floors of the facilities measured a bit larger than the bottle she needed to hide. She grabbed a spoon, stepped out back, and entered the closest privy. Down on her knees, she pried up one of the bricks from the corner beside the door, and found the earth underneath tightly packed. Despite the distance from the seat, the soil smelled of old urine, and she briefly feared the odor might carry with it cholera or other diseases. Undeterred, Polly used the spoon to scoop out enough earth to create a space the bottle would fit into even when the brick was returned to its spot. Settling the bottle into the space, she put the brick back to see if it sat flush with the others. The hole required more digging. She tested two more times before the preparation looked right. Before placing the gin into the hole for storage, she tipped the bottle upside down, making certain the cork sealed well. Polly placed the gin in her excavation, returned the brick to its spot, and worked the soil on top so that the floor didn’t look as if it had been disturbed.

Returning to her rooms, she found Alice up and around. Polly resumed her work on the boxing broadsheet. She gave to Alice the printed pages of a chapbook job to fold.

John and Percy came home, and Polly instructed them to sew the edges of the chapbook pages.

Papa arrived two hours later. Somehow, he knew she’d been drinking.

“Yes, I had a nip after Bill took his fill,” she said, “but it wasn’t much.” She showed him the bottle. “He took half of it.”

“He’s not a drinking man,” Papa said. “He’ll be asleep for a while, then.”

Polly prepared supper and sat with her father and the children to eat. Thoughts of the bottle in the privy distracted her. She worried that one of her neighbors would find it. She worried that the cork would leak; that either the bottle would lose its contents or that the urine of careless visitors to the facility would somehow get into her gin.

The children occupied themselves through the evening with their grandfather, playing simple card games. By lamplight after dark, Polly completed the order of broadsheets for the boxing match. When she’d finished, Papa was asleep in his room with the boys, and Alice slept in bed next to her father. Although he had not completely awakened, Bill had grumbled and shifted a few times on the lumpy mattress. She knew that when he awoke, he’d be hungry.

Polly stripped and put on her nightclothes. She lay down next to Bill and tried to sleep. The gin still haunted her. She imagined exhuming the bottle and having a drink. Once she’d played through the scenario in her head, she couldn’t get rid of the idea, and so she seriously thought it through. Her father was accustomed to having her pass through his room on the way to the privy at night, and easily slept through the sounds of her tread upon the noisy floor. Even so, she feared that as soon as she tried to get to the gin, he’d sit bolt upright in his bed and ask what she was doing. No, he would take no notice of her. She’d go to the privy, dig up the bottle, have her dram, and no one would be the wiser. By the time they all awoke in the morning, the powerful smell would be off her. Polly tried to put the plan out of her head and go back to sleep, but couldn’t.

Finally, she rose, lit a lamp, and pushed her feet into her boots. As she made her way toward the back door, her heart leapt with each pop and squeak of the floorboards. She moved quickly, got to the door leading out the back, and opened it. Stepping through, she discovered bitter cold and frost clinging to everything outside. The full moon rode wisps of cloud, high in the clear sky. She scampered to the privy. The door opened easily.

Polly entered, set the lamp on the seat, pulled up the hem of her nightclothes, and knelt with her bare knees on the cold, hard floor. She found the brick frozen in place. Having forgotten her spoon, she clawed at the floor. Her breath plumed so heavily about her head, she had difficulty seeing. She scraped the skin off her finger tips before the brick finally gave a little. While her fingers stung, she worked at it. After a time, she got the brick loose.

The gin lay undisturbed. The glass that held the potent liquid gleamed like a jewel in the soft orange light. Polly lifted the bottle and pulled the cork. She leaned back against the gritty brick wall of the privy, put the mouth of the cold glass to her lips, and sucked hungrily. Half the contents were gone before she lowered the bottle to the brick floor.

Ignoring the icy chill, Polly closed her eyes and gave the alcohol time to wash over her in soothing waves of intoxication. As she savored the sensation, she lost awareness of the passage of time. Entering a state in which nothing troubled her, she relaxed and decided that if she were discovered that instant, whatever the consequences, she would not care.

She hadn’t had so much gin since she was a girl. The alcohol had a powerful effect. As her intoxication deepened, she had a desire to throw caution to the wind and drink the rest of the bottle. Polly searched with her hands until she felt the cold glass. The bottle rested on its side next to her. Raising the vessel into the light, she saw that most of the gin had drained out.

Realizing she didn’t have a good dose for later, the troubling loss quickly became a tragedy in her mind. As a moan escaped her throat, the door to the privy opened. In her haste she’d forgotten to latch it.

Bill stood in the doorway, supporting himself with the cane. “What are you doing down there? Are you hurt?”

“I—I—” she began, although she had no good answer. Despite her earlier sense that she would not care if she were caught, Polly cowered in fear.

Bill lifted her by the arm. The bottle fell from her lap upon the brick floor with a hollow clink.

Bill inhaled deeply. “You drank my gin?”

“No!” Polly said.

“Don’t lie to me.” Bill dragged her out of the privy as she clawed at the wooden threshold to get away. He threw her down and struck at her with his cane. Polly dodged out of the way and tried to rise. He swung again, and hit her shoulder, knocking her onto her right side. She held her tongue to keep from awakening the neighbors. He landed a solid blow to her ribs that forced a cry out of Polly.

“Quiet,” he said, and struck her in the face. “This is between you and me.”

As Polly got her feet under her, he brought the cane in low, using both hands to plunge the staff into her gut, and knock the wind from her in a great bellow. She fell backwards, striking her head on the cold, hard ground. Her skull seemed to ring like a bell and a taste of iron filled her nose and mouth.

She lay on her side, unable to move for a time, watching as the door to their rooms opened and Papa came out. He looked at her briefly, then spun on her husband and struck him in the face. Bill went down and Papa followed him. He crouched over Bill and struck him in the head repeatedly. Billowing vapor shot out of Papa’s mouth and nose with every angry breath.

As neighbors began to emerge from their rooms to watch, the back lane filled up with people.

Then, Cynthia Dievendorf, who lived two doors down, was cradling Polly’s head.

Gerald Guinn, who lived next door in the opposite direction, tried to pull Papa off Bill. Once her father allowed himself to be hauled away, Polly’s husband seemed a dark, lifeless lump, except for the light, rolling mist of his breath in the cold air. His blood ran black in the moonlight, giving off a lazy vapor of its own.

She knew nothing more until she saw warm daylight coming through the front window of her room. She lay in her own bed. Polly ached all over and didn’t want to face the world. She saw no sign of Bill. Cynthia sat in a chair that had been moved from Papa’s room to a position beside Polly’s bed. Alice sat in Cynthia’s lap.

Before they noticed her wakefulness, Polly closed her eyes and willed herself back to sleep.

While She Was Out

The Bonehill Ghost chased Polly for several days and nights through the empty streets of London. With the sun barely visible through the London particular, which hung heavily in the air everywhere, she had a vague sense of the passage of time. Unlike the incident in her childhood, when the demon had chased her with no goal but torment, she knew that this time he’d come to take something from her.

Polly called out for help as she ran. She saw no one and nobody answered. The sound told the demon exactly where to find her. As she tried to find her way home, he repeatedly thrust his devil face at her from out of the choking haze. Sometimes, she heard the slosh of the demon’s bottle, the rattle of its chain around his neck, and his rapid steps behind her. Other times, silently and with his powerful smell masked by the fog, he surprised her, leaping out of hiding with a chortling laugh and a flash of blue flame. To avoid madness, Polly turned away before her gaze and mind fixed on his red, glowing eyes. Mile upon mile of dank, abandoned thoroughfares, mired in horse dung and running with raw sewage, passed beneath her feet. Brooding brick buildings and rotten wooden houses with darkened windows loomed on either side, some leaning so far out over the street, she feared they would fall on her as she passed.

Although Mr. Macklin would have what he wanted, giddy with drink, he prolonged the chase for the fun of it. Polly wanted the pursuit to end, yet was too afraid to allow that for the longest time. Her bare feet became raw and bloody, her lungs choked with poisons from gulping the foul air.


Finally, exhausted, she stopped running abruptly. As she stood gasping for clean air and not finding any, Mr. Macklin dashed out of the yellow pea soup mist, his dark features pinched and twisted into a cruel grin. “You have something of mine,” he said. He didn’t use her father’s voice as he’d done on his first visit. Then he looked down at her gut.

Until that moment, she’d assumed he intended to take her soul. Polly realized too late her mistake. He’d come for something else, a thing precious indeed. She had only an instant of horror to react. Polly tried to turn away. He exhaled a blue flame that blinded her, and snatched the tiny child from her belly with rusted metal claws.

“The soul of you, a hole in you, as what your screams beseech,” he sang in his jeering Irish voice.

While the agony of iron penetrating her abdomen took away all thought, the plucking of the child from her womb brought an emotional devastation that eclipsed physical pain.

Polly awoke screaming and clutching at herself.

* * *

Cynthia Dievendorf lay across Polly, restraining her. “You’re safe,” she said repeatedly.

“My baby,” Polly cried. She bucked beneath the woman. “He’s taken my baby.”

Surprisingly strong for such a small woman, Cynthia held Polly against the straw mattress until the fight left her. The woman’s oily dark locks hung in Polly’s face. Cynthia’s features, at first frightening from the strain of exertion, became calmer. Her warm brown eyes gazed into Polly’s for a moment. Then, they retreated as the woman pulled away and got off the bed.

Polly’s head ached severely. A deep soreness in her muscles suggested she’d lain too long in bed.

She recognized her room. Darkness lay outside the window. The table had been moved from Papa’s room to a position beside the bed next to the chair. A lit lamp rested on the tabletop. A book lay open beside it.

“My baby,” Polly said again, her voice a croaking whisper. She tore open her night gown to look at her abdomen. Instead of claw marks and rent flesh, no more than a faded greenish-yellow bruise marred the smooth skin of her belly, no doubt from the strike of Bill’s cane.

“Lost,” Cynthia said. “I’m sorry. You had a miscarriage. You passed her on your second day in bed.”

Another girl, Polly thought. A sense of loss overwhelmed her and she wept. Cynthia held Polly’s hand.

Bill had no doubt killed the child when he’d struck Polly in the gut. The demon had come after the soul of the little girl, unless his visit had been nothing but a bad dream.

No, that my baby was lost in the nightmare, too, means it was more than a dream.

With her recent prayer gone so horribly wrong, Polly assumed the manner of the loss had been God’s answer, one meant to punish her. She’d turned her own husband into an unwitting child killer. When last she’d seen him, he appeared dead. Had she turned Papa into a killer as well?

I am responsible, O Lord. Please do not punish Bill, Papa, or my unborn for my sin. If the Bonehill Ghost has the soul of my little one, reclaim her spirit and comfort her in Heaven. I shall live in misery for what I’ve done. Amen.

Even as she prayed, she wondered why God would listen to her. Polly wept until her eyes stung from lack of tears. Even then, her sobbing continued.

Cynthia released Polly’s hand, stood, and put a kettle by the fire. “Tea will help.”

Polly gathered her thoughts and ceased to sob. At the first chance, she’d take Bill’s half pint of gin from where she’d hidden it in the back of the wardrobe and throw the bottle into the vault of the privy. She would never drink again. Although abstinence was the logical solution to the bulk of her problems, and she made the commitment without hesitation, she did so with doubts that she would not explore until she felt much better.

Cynthia returned to her seat, and held out a small mirror. Polly reluctantly took it. Cynthia nodded encouragement.

Looking at her reflection, Polly saw no fresh wound on her face. The scar on her forehead—the one she’d got at age thirteen from drunkenly bashing her head against the brick of the lodging house—appeared red and sore, but didn’t feel tender when touched. She’d received the wound on the evening of her first encounter with the Bonehill Ghost. Polly wondered if her second encounter with the demon had turned the scar red.

As the water began to boil, Cynthia returned to the fireplace.

“How long have I been here?” Polly asked.

“Seven days. A doctor came. He said if you didn’t awaken by Wednesday week, you ought to go to hospital. Today is Wednesday. Your father were preparing to take you in his barrow tonight.”
“My children—”

“—are with your husband.”

Polly had intended to ask about Bill next.

“I believe he has found a new home for you and the children,” Cynthia said. She measured tea into two cups.

So Bill had recovered enough from the beating Papa had given him to be out looking for a new place to live.

“My father?”

“He’s here each night—should come home in a few hours.”

Papa hasn’t been hauled to the drum and locked up.

Would Bill send her away with the children to live somewhere else? If so, where would he live? No doubt he wouldn’t want to stay with Papa.

Polly thought of the tinplate toys for the children, hidden away in the back of the wardrobe. “Did the children have Christmas?”

“I don’t know. They were away with Mr. Nichols. I believe he is with his sister.”

Bill hated his sister, Rebecca. Polly knew he must have truly wanted to escape to seek her help.

Polly choked back shame as she thought of how she’d spoiled Christmas. She didn’t want to think about the children’s disappointment. If they hadn’t received their toys, perhaps she might yet see the surprised delight on their faces. She supposed that depended on how much they knew about what had happened.

“You’ve been here—” Polly began.

“Since that night,” Cynthia said. Crouched on the hearth beyond the foot of the bed, she poured hot water from the steaming kettle into the cups. “I lost my baby boy the day before, and needed to do some good for my own heart.”

Polly watched a tear fall from Cynthia’s eye and catch the firelight. The woman quickly wiped the droplet away.

“I’m sorry,” Polly said. She knew Cynthia’s husband was away in the Orient with the Royal Army. “Thank you for staying by me.”

Cynthia smiled miserably.

The Lord might not hear me, Polly thought, but an unselfish prayer couldn’t hurt if it came from the heart.

She thought her words through carefully before beginning.

Loving God, help Cynthia’s heart to become whole again. Care for our infants, taken before they had a chance at life. Polly followed that with the penitent prayer.



A Brutal Chill in August is available now from Word Horde. Ask for it by name at your favorite local bookstore.



The sinking of the Spanish armada.

In chapter 15, after his adventure hopping, Jack London stayed with a husband and wife in a poor section of Maidstone. He described the woman as The Sea Wife, from Rudyard Kipling’s poem by that name, and suggested that she and her husband were perfect examples of the hearty stock of human beings—the English—that had colonized territories the world over. Some interpret the metaphor of The Sea Wife established in Kipling’s poem as being specifically Queen Victoria, but since she wasn’t the only queen to oversee the expansion of the empire, I interpret The Sea Wife as being England herself.

Strangely, though Jack London told us the man’s name, Thomas Mugridge, he never gave us the woman’s name. She represented for him a reflection of England, the mother of a great sea-going people. He learned that, indeed, Mrs. Thomas Mugridge had children in different parts of the world, some in service to Great Britain. In 1902 the British Empire was referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets.”  That had previously been said of the Spanish Empire. But the loss of the Spanish Armada in 1588 during an attempted invasion of England was such a set-back in Spain’s efforts toward global expansion that they never regained their former glory, and Great Britain became the dominant naval force in the world.

Jack London spoke of The Sea Wife’s offspring—the English people—as stern, capable, indefatigable, creative, and good, and he lamented the condition in which he found them. He wondered if they would go on as a great people or if they were ultimately doomed to failure and the abyss.

I find the author’s view of the poor of London as expressed in the book complicated, but perhaps only because I am used to people holding back their opinions for fear that others will come down on them for being unkind or unthinking. In earlier chapters, he had said, “And day by day I became convinced that not only is it unwise, but it is criminal for the people of the abyss to marry.” Now this is in a context of his describing that most had no hope of anything better in a time when too many human being vied for too few jobs and resources. With the horrors he’d seen in the East End he was of the opinion that no child should be born into such conditions.  I believe that is why he made the statement, though that isn’t exactly clear from the writing.

In chapter 14, in reference to the vagrants who traveled by the thousands to pick crops in Kent, he referred to the poor in this way: “And out they come, obedient to the call, which is the call of their bellies and of the lingering dregs of the adventure-lust still in them. Slums, stews, and the ghetto pour them forth, and the festering contents of slum, stews, and ghetto are diminished. Yet they overrun the country like an army of ghouls, and the country does not want them. They are out of place, as they drag their squat, misshapen bodies along the highways and byways, they resemble some vile spawn from underground. Their very presence, the fact of their existence, is an outrage to the fresh, bright sun and the green and growing things. The clean, upstanding trees cry shame upon them and their withered crookedness, and their rottenness is a slimy desecration of the sweetness and purity of nature.”

PaupersThat’s certainly not nice. But was it true?  It was what Jack London saw. Did it mean that he had revulsion and contempt for them, that he thought of them as malevolent and unredeemable, or did it mean that he was horrified by what had become of human beings, creatures he held in high regard? Throughout the narrative, I’ve found expressions of his outrage at what he’s found, but I’ve also found great compassion. Just because I might walk across the street to avoid a filthy street person who is ranting at passersby, doesn’t mean I hate that person and wish harm upon them.

In the last few stanza of  Kipling’s “The Sea Wife” I find a bitter tone.

Her hearth is wide to every wind
That makes the white ash spin;
And tide and tide and ‘tween the tides
Her sons go out and in;

(Out with great mirth that do desire
Hazard of trackless ways,
In with content to wait their watch
And warm before the blaze);

And some return by failing light,
And some in waking dream,
For she hears the heels of the dripping ghosts
That ride the rough roof-beam.

Home, they come home from all the ports,
The living and the dead;
The good wife’s sons come home again
For her blessing on their head!

Of course interpretations of the poem will and should vary. I hear the poet suggesting the English people have been mere fodder for the building of the British Empire, and that the good and noble men who went forth into the world to do England’s work remained stalwart to a fault.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Hopping3In Chapter 14, Jack London headed out of the city with a cobbler friend to see if they could earn a living wage as seasonal farm workers. They went to the Maidstone district in Kent, southeast of London to pick hops.

We’ve had migrant farmer workers in the U.S. just about as long as there have been crops. The work doesn’t pay well today and apparently it didn’t pay well in England in 1902 either. The poor of London needed work though, and tens of thousands made the trek to the fields to earn a paltry sum.

Fourteen years earlier, A few days before she was murdered, Catherine Eddowes, Jack the Ripper’s 4th victim, went with her common law husband, John Kelly, into the Maidstone district to go “hopping.” They worked for three days, but were broke again as soon as they returned to London, all their funds having gone to provide food and shelter.

American president George W. Bush referred to the picking of crops done by migrant farm workers, and much of the other work done by those in the U.S. illegally, as “work that Americans don’t want to do,” as if the pay for such work had nothing to do with it. Most of the migrant workers in the U.S. come from Central America. Most of them cross the border illegally to do the work. Being in the U.S. illegally, they are essentially in hiding, and if they are mistreated, they have no redress through our courts without revealing their illegal status and risking deportation. Such migrant workers seem to endure this situation, and the poverty wages that go along with it, because they still earn better than they can at jobs in their homelands. Along with the agricultural labor, those coming into the U.S. Illegally also work in construction, hospitality, food service, and production. Because they want to stay in the U.S. and remain hidden, the majority of them do very good work. Their existence in the U.S. drives wages down in various sectors of the economy which makes many Americans angry.

I believe it’s wrong that those in the U.S. illegally have become an under class that lacks the rights of the regular citizenry. Some American citizens, those who need scapegoats, many of them bigots, hate those in the U.S. illegally. Yet they should look more closely at their own leaders’ responsibilities in this issue. I think those here illegally deserve our sympathy and help because our government has allowed them to be lured here where they are vulnerable to abuse.

The majority of the leaders in the United States do nothing to end the situation because the existence of such a compliant work force benefits the agricultural concerns and industries that use them. I believe those concerns and industries lobby for nothing to be done, but I also think there are leaders who believe that having a ready scapegoat to gin up anger and fear is useful.

Perhaps I’m just cynical about it.

Hopping2In Kent, Jack London and his cobbler friend found that they could not earn a living wage picking hops. With the numbers of poor coming from London to do the work, it was a buyer’s market for those looking to hire pickers, which kept the wages very low. Jack London and his friend worked out their earnings to just over 1 penny per hour. They could not afford both food and shelter on those wages.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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LondonDocksIn Chapter 13, Jack London concentrated on the plight of one individual among the countless unfortunates within the East End of the city of London. Dan Cullen was a lumper by trade. Lumpers unload the cargo from ships. In America, we would call them dock workers or stevedores. Dan Cullen could read and write (self-taught), and because of that, his fellow dock workers called upon him to help them organize against the master lumpers and the system that kept wages at poverty levels.

While writing my first Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Of Thimble and Threat, I learned something about lumpers from an article written in 1850 by Henry Mayhew that appeared in Morning Chronicle. In it, Mayhew interviewed a lumper about the politics of the profession. The man he interviewed didn’t give his name and expressed several times during the course of the conversation that he feared that if he was identified after telling his tale, he’d become a marked man and have no work.

A gang of lumpers were organized by a master lumper through a local pub. Sometimes the master lumper was the publican who ran the pub. If the master lumper didn’t run the pub, he was paying for the right to organize there. To work for a master lumper, one was obliged to make purchases of beer from the pub through which he organized. Therefore, some of one’s pay went to supporting the pub. The master lumper would not give work to one who didn’t adhere to that obligation. Plenty of men not associated with any particular lumper or pub stood by to take whatever jobs became available, so the master lumper could always replace a man who didn’t fall in line.

At one point the man Mayhew interviewed referred to a week in which he’d earned 20 shillings, but his take home pay after buying the required drink in the pub was only 3 shillings. He said that he’d payed as much as 25 shillings on drink in a week at a cost 3 times that of what the man on the street would pay in the same pub. He said, “I must spend my money in drink some way,” which gives me the impression that he was either not capable of drinking all that he was paying for or that, with an eye toward paying his bills, he had to somehow find a way to set aside the funds required to buy all that drink. He said he had a wife and children, and that they barely got by. His wife sewed for a living.

He said that a master lumper who ran the pub through which he organized his dock workers could make his fortune within a few short years. If a lumper gave offense in any manner, if he failed to meet his obligations in any way, he would be refused work.

DockWorkersThat was 52 years before Jack London looked into the life of Dan Cullen, but no doubt the fundamentals of the master lumper system were still in place. Yet by 1902 socialists had begun to have some success in organizing workers. Cullen had joined their ranks. Unions were on the rise. Dan Cullen used his literacy to help his fellow dock workers to organize. For that, he was refused work and fell on hard times. Fellow dock workers could not associated with him for fear of losing their livelihoods. After ten years of little or no work, Dan Cullen died a lonely death in a squalid 7’x8’ room.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Coronation of Edward VII

In Chapter 12, we see a possible reason why the homeless were so harassed. Perhaps there was a desire to drive them out of the city, at least temporarily, because they would not look good during the coronation of King Edward which occurred while Jack London was in the city of London. I don’t have any real evidence that such a tactic was use, but the homeless had no where to go anyway, and did indeed make an ugly backdrop to the coronation. The contrast with the pomp, the power, and the wealth on parade in Trafalgar Square and surrounding streets was stark, and had to have provoked strong reaction against a class system that was really just beginning to crumble at the edges.

Much of what was on parade was military and law enforcement, and while that was intended to stir patriotic fervor, it was probably also meant to quash any desire upon the part of the citizenry to express dissent. As a response to the inequities of the class system in England, the widespread unemployment, and the increasing levels of poverty, socialists, communists, and anarchists had gained some friendly reception among the British populace. Those in power were well aware of that. I’m not suggesting that the people were on the verge of rising up against their leaders, but the ruling class were certainly wary and careful.

Socialists had caused quite a stir with demonstrations over the years. Fenians had succeeded in terrorist plots against the government. An anarchist had assassinated the U.S. president, William McKinley, less than a year earlier. New and frightening ideologies lurked among the populace.

If dissent had been expressed by members of the crowds watching the parading nobles, aristocrats, and military during the coronation, I suspect it would have been put down swiftly, probably with a show of violent force. Brutality of that type wasn’t uncommon in England of the time.

Fifteen years earlier on Bloody Sunday, also in Trafalgar Square, the Metropolitan Police and the British Army attacked socialists demonstrating against unemployment and coercion in Ireland. Including some policeman, 75 people were badly injured. It’s said that Mary Anne “Polly” Nichols, Jack the Ripper’s first victim, was destitute and sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square around that time, so she may have witnessed the riot. Bloody Sunday occurred less than a year before her death.

In the United States, we currently have a candidate from one of our two major political parties encouraging brutality against demonstrators who are against him. He says he disdains political correctness and pretends to be courageous for saying what he thinks. I suspect he just wants to create as much uproar as he can to continue getting free media coverage. If political correctness is bad because its all lies and promotes conspiracies of lies, the man is being particularly selective of what he condemns, considering the many lies he tells.

As night came on during the coronation of King Edward, the streets were filled with drunken celebration. Many of the homeless didn’t have the energy or wealth to join in, but instead took advantage of the distracted police and simply slept.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Photographic plate from THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS by Jack London.

In Chapter 11, Jack London, dead on his feet after a day and a night without sleep, waited with hundreds of homeless for a free breakfast offered by the Salvation Army. He refered to time he spent as a tramp, and told of having worked just to get his breakfast in the past. This past history accounts in part for his ability to get along with the homeless and for his compassion.

Jack London had worked at hard labor. He’d been to sea as an oyster pirate and sealer. While working in the Alaskan gold rush, he’d suffered plenty of extreme weather, hunger, and malnutrition that resulted in loss of teeth and damage to bodily joints. He’d come up rough and worked with and for a variety of men, and knew something of their character.  He also clearly knew something of the world. Much of this is found in his narrative. In 1902, he would have been 26 years old, young for so worldly a man. He would die at age 40 from kidney failure, probably due to an infection picked up while traveling in the Pacific.

Jack London didn’t like the attitude of the man in charge at the Salvation Army breakfast because the fellow seemed to enjoy threatening to withhold the food in order to keep those who had come for it in line. The author thought that the look in the man’s eyes and his manner indicated that he acted the way he did to be cruel. Jack London didn’t speculate on why a fellow like that would work for a charity that helped the poor. When after the meal was finished, the author tried to leave in an effort to do what a poor unemployed man would want to do, which was to go out looking for work, the Salvation Army staff tried to stop him because they weren’t through with him. They expected him to remain for the entire program. He had not been told he had to remain for the gospel portion program until he tried to leave. The berating he received before he was finally allowed to leave was full of the suggestion that he, being a homeless, unemployed fellow, had no where else to be, certainly nothing important; further, that if he thought there were jobs to be had, then he obviously could work to earn money to feed himself and so had no business seeking a free breakfast.

I suppose those particular staff members did their work purely for the absolutely hopeless. Should they have had someone to question the unfortunates that came for a meal? “Just how hopeless are you sir? Madam, do you have any ambition to better yourself in life?” Clearly they weren’t offering the “free breakfast” advertised. No, one was expected to listen to them preach in exchange for the meal. That was a small price to pay if you were truly hungry.

In an earlier chapter, the author spoke bitterly of those he’d seen with power over others using it with apparent selfish relish. He’d also referred to his pauper companions reacting to the hardships they endured by talking like anarchist, and throwing around hollow threats. The author understood their sentiments though he was not in agreement. A socialist, he believed that laws might be changed to help the unfortunates. He also believed in the power of unions to do workers good.

As an American, I am a socialist in that I am grateful to have benefitted from many socialist programs, such as those that provide public schools, public health, law enforcement, military defense, parks, museums, support of the arts, infrastructure, and a social safety net. With the latter, the only time I’ve personally benefitted was when my wife was out of work for a year and a half and received unemployment checks from the government that helped us a lot.

As an American, I am a Republican in that I want federal and state governments that spend tax dollars carefully, and a federal government that allows states to make decisions about their futures and a free enterprise system that allows for competition in the market place.

As an American, I am a Democrat in that I want to protect civil liberties, political and religious freedom and freedom of expression. I want regulations on business and industry to prevent those in a hurry to make a profit from creating situations harmful to the public, and I also want a social safety net.

I am a moderate. I believe most American are.


“Broken on the Wheel” copyright©2011 Alan M. Clark. Acrylic on hardboard.

I’m also like Jack London in that I don’t like seeing those with power dispense it in a purely self-serving manner. Some who seek power do that, and that’s always been the case. In 1902 London, brutality was more common, expressions of cruelty more accepted, especially across class, gender, and racial boundaries.

Not intending to truly defend politically correctness, but give me the PC society we have over that of brutal Edwardian England any day.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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"Homeless and Hungry" by Sir (Samuel) Luke Fildes. Oil on Canvas. 1874.

“Homeless and Hungry” by Sir (Samuel) Luke Fildes. Oil on Canvas. 1874.

In Chapter 10, Jack London slept rough to see what that was like for the homeless.
One can imagine that sleeping rough in a large metropolitan area with lots of parks would be something like going camping. If it was a nice warm evening, a sleeping bag (modern term) wouldn’t be needed. If it wasn’t raining—something unpredictable in a London summer—the nice soft lawn of a park would make a good resting place.

Except that the police, along their beats, checked the parks for those sleeping rough at night. So find some shrubbery and hide amidst them and doze off, right? No, the parks had guardians who patrolled them at night. They knew all the spots where the homeless tried to shelter. If they found someone, they alerted the nearest beat constable.

Okay, so no soft lawn, shrubberies didn’t work; parks in general were out. Perhaps the streets had something: alleys, doorways, sewer grates, culverts, railway bridges and viaducts. Unfortunately the constables knew their beats so well all likely sleeping spots were well-known and checked regularly.

Why weren’t the homeless allowed to sleep at night? Clearly, the law did not allow them to do so in public places. Jack London is similarly stumped by this. If the idea was to make the homeless life so uncomfortable that people would get jobs—assuming that any became available—the law or ordinance against sleeping rough at night worked against it. Obviously, a well-rested person who could actually perform labor during the day would more easily find work. Without that consideration, the effort to keep the homeless awake seems at best arbitrary, at worst a particularly cruel one.

Perhaps a notion about the lower class and poor that was carried by many from a higher station played a part; that unfortunates deserved what they got in life because they were inherently inferior and morally corrupt. They were all “choke artists” and “losers,” to use more modern terms. Implied in this thinking is the idea that evidence of the poor’s inferiority was the fact that they had landed hard on the streets in the predicament in which they found themselves. That’s circular thinking.

Trying to sleep rough in London at night, one might get 10 minutes of sleep at a stretch, 30 if lucky, but what was the quality of that sleep? It had to be spent in an environment full of vermin; rats, mice, flies, and scavengers; hungry humans, dogs, and cats.

In a time when the majority of travel that didn’t occur on foot was still powered by horse—hundreds of thousands of them in London of the time—the streets were mired each day in at least a thousand tons of horse dung and over a hundred thousand gallons of horse urine. That had to smell bad.

Much of the manure in London was gathered by scavengers and hauled away for use in agriculture and industry. London would have been totally mired in waste if not for the scavengers. While unemployment had become an increasing problem, the poor, both adults and children, scavenged and sold what they found. The pure finders scooped dog poop for tanneries. The bone grubbers collected bone for the makers of fertilizer. Toshers scavenged in the sewers. Mudlarks, many of them children, scavenged on the banks of the poisonous River Thames. Metal, stray bits of coal, leather, and cloth were all sellable.

Despite the army of unemployed scavenging for industry, much horse dung remained on the streets long enough for flies to breed in it.

I remember my father who was born in the 1920s talking about flies in “the old days.” One of the things he said was that before horses were gone from the streets in Nashville, Tennessee, there had been a lot more flies. “Flies everywhere,” he said, “getting into everything.” Of course that was Nashville, Tennessee when it was a small city in a county of a couple hundred thousand people, not the London of millions.

The average lifespan of a horse in London at the time was about 3 years. Flies also bred in the carcasses of horses, which were often left where they had fallen dead at least until rigor mortise relaxed to make dismemberment and carting away of the remains easier. The flies needed food, and visited every moist aperture they could find, spreading diseases like typhoid fever.

Here is an illustration from Punch Magazine that gives a sense of the poisonous environment of London. The illustration was published in 1858 during a bad cholera outbreak. After that, London had built the best sewers in the world to improve the situation. The river was much cleaner, the drinking water much safer, but filth on the streets had only increased.


“Thames Offspring” Punch Magazine 1858, Volume 35

Try sleeping in that environment. I’d want to cover my face for sure. To wear something over my mouth and nose might also have helped slightly to protect my lungs from the horrid air which was charged with soot particulates and sulfur dioxide from industrial and home use—heating and cooking—of coal burning. The poisons in the London air took the lives of thousands of people every year.

Then there were the human scavengers I spoke of, some desperate enough to take what they could off a sleeping man, despite the risks. Remember, leather and cloth were sellable. One might wake up without shoes or missing pieces of clothing. That’s assuming one woke up at all. Hungry children banded together to scavenge in groups, some of them, organized by adults known as kidsmen, were quite ruthless. Fagin in Oliver Twist was a kidsman.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the cats, but feral dogs…. Hmmm, my pup, Jasper, looks at me with a particularly sad expression when I consider writing about canines molesting sleeping humans, so I’ll just leave that up to my audiences’ imaginations.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Entering the Workhouse

In Chapter 9, we see that Jack London finally succeeded in entering the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward. He opened the chapter with an apology to his body for what he forced it to endure.

Again, engaging in conversation with the men sharing his predicament, he learned that many knew no better way to get on in the lives they had. The men told stories of their experiences in the various spikes (workhouses), some with happy endings, some with sad ones. They gave a warning of what awaited the infirm within the workhouse infirmary, the “blackjack” or “white potion,” they believed was given to hasten the departure of those who lingered in disease and had become a burden to the relief system. They shared knowledge of those who hated them, those who felt that the human beings who entered the relief system were barely human and deserving of no compassion. Those people frequently saw paupers as society’s pirates, conmen, selfish individuals not willing to do their share in life and who knowingly drag everyone else down. Some of the haters were those who worked within the relief system itself.

A conversation between Elizabeth and John Stride in Say Anything But Your Prayers helps to express some of the feelings. In this scene, Elizabeth is home in the evening after performing her daily labor of oakum picking at the Poplar workhouse for the out relief she and her ill husband are receiving:

In her second week of out relief labor, Elizabeth could not contain her complaints any longer. “I understand the workhouse guardians want the work to be a hardship so only the truly needy seek relief,” she said to John, “but why must they work us until we’re miserable?”

“For fear wages will suffer,” he said, “Parliament doesn’t want relief to compete with labor.”

“Jobs are so hard to come by, wages drop anyway,” Elizabeth said. “There are so many hungry people who’ll die without relief.”

“Some workhouse Guardians have good intentions. At least once a week, though, I read in the newspaper that some crow or another in Parliament is squawking about how those who bear the harsh treatment deserve it because they lack the moral strength to do better. You know that’s the common belief.”

Indeed, he was’t telling Elizabeth anything she didn’t already understand. When she’d worked in the coffee shop, she’d heard plenty of well-dressed people push such ideas about the poor. Most were careful not to sound too heartless. Working with Lettie at laundries and kitchens, she’d noticed the same sort of message was well received and repeated by many laborers who treated the poor as scapegoats, despite the fact that the workers themselves suffered low wages, long hours, and no redress with employers who had little regard for the needs of those they employed.


“Holding Back Tears” copyright©2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: SAY ANYTHING BUT YOUR PRAYERS by Alan M. Clark

John shook his head. “As long as people see the poor as mumpers, prigs, and sharpers, employers will do as they please.”

“I’m no thief or con artist!” Elizabeth said. “I don’t go to the workhouse because I’m not willing to do better.”

“I know,” John said, gently reaching to take her dry, cracked hands. “You’re a hard working woman.”

When she’d arrived for the first time in London so long ago, Elizabeth was alarmed by the large crowds and the abundance of activity. She’d thought of the city as a great, hungry beast trying to digest her. At present, she saw the workhouse as the London beast’s gastric mill, a gizzard full of hard knocks meant to grind the toughness out of those the city might have trouble digesting otherwise. She was determined not to let it beat her, but feared she would soon meet her limit.

The scene above takes place in the year 1877. The ranks of the homeless had grown exponentially and the conditions within the relief system had worsened immensely in the following twenty-five years. Jack London ate the bitter food of the workhouse, and stayed the night, barely able to sleep in a filthy hammock within inches of his neighbors and surrounded by men reeking of bodily neglect, noisy in their gastric and respiratory distress, and crying out in their sleep from nightmares. The next day, the labor he was given for the relief benefits he’d received was to help keep clean the workhouse infirmary. While doing so, he was exposed to the virulent and potentially deadly refuse of the sick and dying. The conditions being harsher than he’d imagined and figuring he’d got the sampling he needed to talk about the experience with verisimilitude, he decided at the end of the work day to flee through the gate that had been opened to admit the dead wagon, which had come to the workhouse to collect the bodies of five inmates. He was required by the system to stay another night or forfeit the right to apply for relief in the future. The author did not hesitate in making his decision.

Workhouse Infirmary

I spoke to a conservative friend about what Jack London was doing in writing The People of the Abyss. Her response was, “If he’d really been willing to know what it was like, he wouldn’t have set up the extra room as a retreat, and he wouldn’t have picked summer as the time to do the investigation.”

I thought that an extraordinary dismissal of the author’s effort.

Another, ultra-conservative responded similarly, but with more vehemence. “Jack London was a communist. The fact that he did it during warm weather and had a room to go hide in when things got tough shows he was just a bleeding heart. The poor were probably encouraged by communists. London has always had a lot of immigrants. The book is tripe.”

Hmmmm? Sounded to me like someone trying to apply 21st century right wing talking points to 1902 London. I know a lot of people, many of them brave and generous, willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, but I do not personally know anyone who has the guts to do anything like what Jack London did just to see how the unfortunates of the world suffered. I am certainly not the sort of person brave enough to do that.

Immigrants were the problem then too, huh?

Scapegoats are a-dime-a-dozen when people are scared that they will not have enough or that their world might have to change a little to allow for someone else. There are always those seeking followers, individuals willing to stoke those types of fears to gain and solidify power. We have so-called leaders in America today who use those tactics. It’s easy to follow such strong men, because they point out the best scapegoats, heap ridicule on them in a particularly clever way, and thereby provide a convenient target for unfocused anger.

The trick with scapegoats is not getting to know them too well. They must remain out of focus in order for their role to continue. Stick with stereotyping the scapegoat or suffer uncomfortable compassion and discover that a real human being exists under the heavy cloak of suspicion and turpitude they’ve been forced into. The soft people of the society to which I belong, and I include myself in this—with our myriad conveniences and comforts, with our television and internet-groomed perspectives and personalities, and our sated bellies and psyches—we should be very careful about what and how we learn about how the other half live. Sorry—my fraction of one half may be a little off.

Yes, sarcasm. I get petty and small at times.

Many of those Jack London met in the workhouse were those who fell on hard times through no fault of their own, had no family to help them, and could find no way out of their predicament. Some were merely too old to be considered employable in a job market with too few jobs in a society filled with eager young people seeking work. Some suffered damage from performing the work they were qualified to do and could no longer function in the field of their expertise. So many people died suddenly of communicable diseases, especially those living in the close quarters of the East End, that sometimes all but one member of a family had passed on. In that case, the entire family safety net for the individual remaining was gone.

When I hear conservatives and libertarians, especially those who will brook no compromises, talk about giving the markets freedom and deregulating, I think of the laissez-faire capitalism of Victorian England, which had in the time of Jack London’s investigation just spilled over into the Georgian Era. I think of the abuses against workers the system allowed. I think of the poisoning of the environment and consequently the poisoning of the citizens. I think of the ineffective safety net for the old and infirm. I think of the power of greed and wonder that so many willingly or cynically disregard that in their political calculations.

Some regulations are meant to help society. Some are meant to line the pockets of those who lobbied for them, but the problem isn’t one-sided. Where I live in Eugene Oregon, I have to have a smoke alarm in each room in my house. Clearly, someone wanted to sell more smoke alarms. There are also regulations to prevent my neighbors from allowing waste, raw sewage, and chemicals in the runoff from their property into the storm sewers. That helps preserve the life that depends on the flow of clean groundwater and helps keep the rivers that constitute our municipal water sources from becoming poisonous. So many people fish those streams and depend on them for commerce of many types. A fellow down the street from me was running a mechanic shop out of his home garage, working mostly on outboard engines and snowmobiles. He was shut down for allowing waste, including gasoline and old oil from his business to run into the street drains. He saw that as a great injustice.

My response to my conservative friend concerning Jack London making his investigation in summer and establishing a retreat in the form of a warm, dry room: “The author put himself and his health at risk in order to gain understanding and to share what he found.”

I’ll add to that response here for my ultra-conservative acquaintance: Jack London could have just written an adventure story. He was good at it, and the ability had earned him money and fame.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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People trying to get into the workhouse.

Having arrived too late to secure a place for the night in the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward in the previous chapter, in chapter 8, Jack London and 2 other men try to make it to the Poplar Workhouse—3 miles distant from the Whitechapel Workhouse—in time to find a place to rest for the night.

We learn about these men as the author does during conversations while they walk.  They are average, working class fellows, one a carter, one a carpenter. Jack London considers them old at ages 58 and 65 respectively, but I believe he arrives at his opinion based on context—the men are trying to survive in the city of London. Both men are unemployed and have no prospects because they are poor and considered too old for the job market.

The safety net in Great Britain at the time was the relief system of the workhouse.  For a bed and the most crude form of nutrition, inmates of the system were required to perform labor for many hours at such tasks as picking 4 pounds of oakum per day, or breaking at leasts 1000 pounds of rock with a sledge hammer in the same time period.  The breaking of stone into gravel is straight-forward enough, but picking oakum requires some explanation for modern audiences.


Women in the workhouse picking oakum.

Oakum, a product of recycled rope, was used to fill the gaps in the timbers and decking of wooden ships. The fibers were tarred and pounded into the gaps to make ships water-tight. The task was one, much like rock breaking, that was used in penal systems in America as well as in Great Britain, and other countries. I included a scene of oakum picking in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel about the life of Elizabeth Stride, Say Anything But Your Prayers. In the following scene, the character is receiving “out-relief” in return for daily labor. In her case, the relief constitutes a few shillings and a loaf of bread per week for her and her husband, John Stride.  He has been too ill to work for such a long time that the couple is destitute, despite the fact that Elizabeth has been competing for every job she can get, and has for the longest time only been able to find short term sewing and scouring work. The funds and the bread provided by the relief system are barely enough to keep the couple alive. She walks to the workhouse each morning to perform the required labor:

The Matron led Elizabeth to a work station in a high-ceilinged hall, reminded her of the prohibition against talking, and left. Elizabeth sat on a hard wooden bench with other inmates. Short partitions on the bench separated her from the women seated on either side. Nearby inmates glanced at her with little curiosity. A staff member, perhaps another inmate, dumped at Elizabeth’s feet a bundle of rope segments chopped into ten to twenty inch lengths. The densely spun brown sections, streaked with tar, were to be carefully unraveled and untangled, each fiber liberated from the others and piled together.

She made short work of undoing her first length of rope.

The work isn’t as bad as you feared, she thought.

As Elizabeth performed the task repetitively over the course of many hours, reality set in. Sitting for so long on the hard seat that had no backrest drove her hips and spine to agony. In short order, the labor became an abrasive insult to the flesh of her hands.

This next bit of description comes from my Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (Polly is living in the workhouse at the time):

Chaplain Emes gave the after-breakfast devotion. While putting her hands together in prayer, Polly gently rubbed the aching joints of her digits, careful not to crack open the painful whitlows at her fingernails that came from endless hours of picking oakum.

The men with Jack London are in a hurry to get to the workhouse, knowing full well what awaits them: The labor, a crude bed, a breakfast consisting of 6 oz of hard bread, and 12 ounces of bitter-tasting oatmeal or Indian corn gruel called skilly, 8 more ounces of the hard bread and 1 1/2 ounces of cheese that constitutes a midday meal, and the same for supper, but with the addition of another 12 ounces of skilly. That is more than these men have on the street, and they fear the coming of night; trying to find a hidden spot to “sleep rough” through the long hours of darkness; trying to stay warm and relaxed enough to doze off and get some rest while the police try to disrupt them at every opportunity. No doubt they would also worry about being molested in some way while vulnerable with their eyes closed, but they know they must smell like hell, and that others can clearly see they have nothing of value to steal. Still, in the London night there were feral dogs, plenty of hungry rats, and of course the vagaries of human behavior.

Though they hurry to the Poplar workhouse, along the way, they also scavenge without breaking their strides, finding and eating the discarded parts people have dropped on the footway of fruit; orange skin, grape stems, rotting apple cores. They pick up anything that might hold any nutritional value, pop it into their mouths, and swallow.

They act like starving dogs, yet are intelligent, well-informed human beings. They have discussions about politics and human nature. They advise Jack London, who has given his circumstance as that of an American seaman who ran on hard times in London and became trapped in the city, to flee the country ASAP.

The three men did not make it to the Poplar workhouse in time, but I will not spoil Jack London’s tale by telling what else took place in chapter 8.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Stalls for sleeping in the casual ward of the workhouse.

Jack London tried to shelter in the casual ward of the Whitechapel workhouse in chapter 7. While waiting in line, he learned about how a homeless veteran of the British Navy, one who earned the Victoria Cross, had fared over the years. The man, 87 years of age, said that he wished he’d drowned and died while in the navy years earlier because his life wasn’t worth living. “Don’t you ever let yourself grow old, lad,” he said to the author. The fellow had made the terrible mistake of striking a superior officer, and had served time in prison for that. Before that, he’d seen action in military engagements in several wars, and been an exemplary member of the navy, having won not only the metal, but three good conduct stripes.

He seems a long-ago reflection of what we see among homeless veterans today. We know so much more now about the damage to the psyche that seeing combat brings, and yet that knowledge seems to do little good for our veterans.

With the fellow’s age at 87, we can see that if one lived to become an adult, one had a chance to grow old, just as we do today. Again, it is the infant mortality rate that drove the expected lifespan down for those of London. Even so, 87 seems an unusually advanced age for one of his time and circumstances. Of course, the old veteran spent much of his life on the sea in the open air, not in poisonous London. Perhaps that helps account for the difference.

The casual ward of the Whitechapel workhouse as described by Jack London, sounds like an indoor facility, which is different from at least some of those of the time of Jack the Ripper. Catherine Eddowes, JTR’s 4th victim, spent the two nights prior to her death in the Mile End Casual Ward. The casual ward was a segment of the facility for those who needed a place to sleep but either didn’t want to enter the workhouse proper or were unwelcome, such as those who arrived clearly ill or criminals known to the workhouse staff. The inmates were given a stall with straw as bedding. Jack London describes sleeping in a hammock.

On the night of her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, Catherine Eddowes’s body was found at the crime scene to have, including clothing, over fifty personal items, many of them in pockets hidden among her skirts. She was wearing several layers of clothing. She probably had so many items with her because she was homeless, and while staying in the casual ward, she would have slept with all her possessions to prevent theft. She may have been carrying everything she owned on her.

Here’s the list of items found with Catherine Eddowes’s body (the list begins with her clothing):
-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

Finding and reading this list is what humanized Catherine Eddowes for me, and inspired the first novel within my Jack the Ripper Victims series, Of Thimble and Threat.


Study for the cover of Am Seidennen Faden: Ein Opfer von Jack the Ripper, which is the German language edition of Jack the Ripper Victims Series: Of Thimble and Threat. “Study for “Of Thimble and Threat” copyright©2012 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil on brown paper.

Her possessions are rather rudimentary by modern standards. She was missing the shopping cart and the plastic garbage bags, but otherwise, she seems familiar. Instead of the plastic bags, she had the pockets under her skirts. Considering the bag lady and the homeless veteran, then and now, clearly the more things change the more they stay the same.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, :

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