“Please sir! I want some more!”: The Horror of Victorian-era Workhouses

    …”Please sir, I want some more”.
    The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
    “What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.
    “Please sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more!”
    The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle…

While this might sound light-hearted and funny to us today in the 21st century, this exchange, taken from Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Oliver Twist’, was anything but. For thousands of impoverished children such as Oliver, ending up in a workhouse was a grim and terrifying reality, a world of forced labour, starvation, little food and water, mediocre medical-care, corruption and loneliness. This article will examine what workhouses were, how they operated, who used them and what eventually happened to the workhouse system.

The Workhouse Myth

We all of us, have a Dickensian view of workhouses as places as bad as, or even worse than, prisons. A place where people were punished for being poor, a place where, once you were in there, you were in there for life, a place of abuse, corruption, misery, hardship and loneliness, despite the fact that these were supposed to symbolise the humanitarian and social-welfare side of the governments of Victorian England. Popular culture will tell you that children as young as five were given boring, finicky jobs to do, for hours a day, to be fed tiny amounts of cheap, disgusting gruel and that husbands were separated from wives and that children were separated from their parents. The elderly were treated with shocking indifference and that workhouse masters and matrons were often abusive, thieving, corrupt people who picked pennies and pounds from the already meagre workhouse coffers to line their own pockets, disregarding the suffering of others.

But was this what workhouses were really like? Or is this just thanks to Hollywood and Mr. Dickens? Or is the truth more terrifying than we could imagine?

The Truth of the Workhouse

As much as we might like to kid ourselves, the fact of the matter was that workhouses were this bad. There were some, rare exceptions, but for the dozens of parish workhouses dotted throughout England, life for their thousands of inmates (not ‘occupants’ or ‘residents’ or ‘guests’…INMATES), was about as low as you could go. Not even prison was this bad.

Workhouses housed their inmates under such appalling conditions, fed them next to nothing and took such an indifferent stance to their suffering mainly because they didn’t have much choice in the matter. Workhouses were funded by the government and the government gave the workhouse masters absolutely tiny budgets to run institutions the size of prisons! In order to feed and clothe and house their hundreds of inmates, workhouse masters had to scrimp, save, stretch and squeeze every single penny for all it was worth. If this meant serving substandard food or providing barely-decent sleeping-quarters or if this meant not giving the inmates roast turkey at Christmas…that was what they did. The fact that the workhouse masters and matrons were not paid much for their depressing work only made them even more corruptable, and it wasn’t unknown for masters and matrons to dip their fingers into the cashbox and help themselves to the workhouse’s funds.

The Birth of the Workhouse

Given all these terrible conditions, why were workhouses created? What was their purpose? When did this system of housing the destitute and poor in such horrendous conditions begin?

The origins of workhouses go back several hundred years, all the way to the 16th century. Back then, relief and social support for the poor and homeless was messy and unorganised. Little thought was given to people who made up the dregs of society; they were something not to be spoken of, seen or attended to. Old clothes and leftover food was sometimes given to paupers who had no way of supporting themselves, but such gestures of humanitarianism were few and far between.

The workhouse system was born out of the Poor Laws; a collection of laws, rules and regulations passed by the governments of the United Kingdom to look after the needy, beginning in the 17th century. The laws were in place to provide shelter, work, food and clothing for the disabled poor, the young, the elderly and able-bodied paupers who had no homes, money or means of support. They were housed in large, prison-like structures called ‘workhouses’ where the inmates wore distinctive uniforms and performed menial, repetitive, dangerous and boring tasks for hours at a time, every single day.

The workhouse as we think of it today was born in the 17th century and each parish or county generally had at least one workhouse for the housing of its poor, homeless or disabled. However, ideas regarding social welfare were very different in the 18th and 19th centuries, to what we think of as social welfare today.

Living in a Workhouse

Workhouses flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, and these were considered their boom-years. The Industrial Revolution had brought all kinds of jobs to the United Kingdom, but the revolution also brought soaring crime-rates and desperate poverty and unemployment. The workhouse system was there to try and do something about all this poverty and unemployment, by giving paupers a place to live and work. But how did you end up in a workhouse?

People who ended up in workhouses were people who couldn’t support themselves and relied on the government to support them instead. This included such groups of people as:

– The Elderly (those who could not support themselves, or who were a burden on their families).
– The Young (children).
– The Infirm (disabled).
– The Unemployed (those who couldn’t find work, but were able-bodied).
– The Homeless (those who had no permanent address).

Orphaned children generally ended up in workhouses. Either their parents had died and they had no-one to look after them, or they were illegitimate children and nobody wanted to look after them. If parents were deemed unable to look after their offspring, the government took them away and put them into workhouses. Being sent to a workhouse was one of the most terrifying things that you could tell a Victorian child.

So, how did you get into a workhouse? And once in, how did you leave?

The Ins and Outs of the Workhouse System

First gaining an entry, and possibly later, an exit from a workhouse, was a lengthy and fiddly process, involving a Black Forest of paperwork. When you entered a workhouse, you had to fill in a personal-information form. This form had all your bog-standard ID questions: Name, age, occupation, place of residence, marital status, offspring and so-on. Once your paperwork had cleared, you were given a bath, a medical checkup and then you were issued with a workhouse uniform (wearing your own clothes was not allowed. They would be removed, to be placed in a locker or storage-room). You were then led to join the rest of the workhouse population. If you were found to be ill in any way, you might still be allowed to enter the workhouse, but you might have to serve a period of quarantine, first.

Workhouses were deliberately harsh to prevent people from relying on them. As I will explain in more detail further down, it was believed that if you gave the poor an inch, they’d take a yard for themselves. No compassion or luxury was to be given to them, as this was only to make them even lazier and more dependent on the state than they already were.

Once you entered a workhouse, you pretty much gave up all your rights and priveliges. Parents were seperated from their children, whether they wanted to be or not. Husbands and wives were seperated from each other and the aged from the young and so-forth. Strict segregation was rigidly enforced. Families who moved into workhouses were broken up on arrival. If you arrived at a workhouse as a family, it was assumed immediately that you were a bad parent and were unfit to look after your own children…so the State would look after them for you. This, despite the fact that you might actually have been a very good parent. Parents had no say in the matter and their children were taken away from them.

A diagram of a workhouse. You didn’t even have to go inside most workhouses to see the evidence of segregation

Workhouse hours were military-like in structure. You woke up early, between six and seven in the morning. You had breakfast, you washed, and then you started work. After several hours, you had a break to have lunch. Then, more work until dinnertime and then bed, which was 8:00pm, every night. Children were supposed to be taught their lessons and their routine might vary slightly, with boys and girls being taken to schoolrooms to be taught how to read and write, but workhouses which offered education-programs were few and far between. Children could be treated appallingly bad and they could be sold off like chattels or apprenticed out to tradesmen of questionable character, completely without their parents’ knowledge or assent. Business fat-cats who ran places such as cotton-mills would go to workhouses and buy little boys for a few pence each, take them away from the workhouse and put them to work in the mills, for which the children were not paid, but were provided with bed and board.

Leaving a workhouse was a fairly straightforward ordeal. You gave your notice, you filled out your paperwork (again), your clothes were returned to you, and off you went. Of course, if a family was in the workhouse and if one member (usually the husband and father) left, then the rest of the family had to go, too. Some people treated workhouses like cheap hotels, coming and going as they pleased, despite the lengthy paperwork. Paupers already inside the workhouse could be granted a temporary leave-of-absence to attend various events such as funerals, christenings, weddings and to attend to sick or dying relatives. Able-bodied inmates were permitted to leave in order to look for work. If they found steady work, then they would probably leave the workhouse to try and get a fresh start in life. In most cases, however, workhouse inmates stayed in the workhouse for months or years and in some cases, even decades. In one rare occasion, a report listed fifteen inmates who had spent over sixty years living in workhouses!

Workhouse Conditions

Living in a workhouse was about as far from luxury as you could possibly imagine. Its occupants were basically being punished for the horrible, unspeakable, ghastly and sinful crime of being…poor.

To understand why workhouses were what they were, one needs to understand Victorian morality.

These days, we accept and understand that some people, for reasons completely outside their control, are just not able to support themselves. Maybe they don’t have any money because they can’t find work, despite trying day after day after week after month. Perhaps their disabilities prevent them from making a living for themselves. Perhaps they’re too young or too old to support themselves.

But to the typical Victorian who lived in the mid 1800s, this was not their way of thinking. The Victorian mindset was almost the complete opposite to how we would think, now in the 21st century. Back in the 1850s, it was generally understood that poverty was caused by an inherent immorality that was ingrained in you and completely unchangable. If you were a homeless beggar, it was your own fault. The poor, it was believed, were habitually lazy and slothful and not to be treated with any kind of compassion. Why should they? They didn’t bloody deserve it! If they were really something, they’d go and find themselves a bloody job! No thought was given to WHY these people were like what they were, just that they were, that this was natural and that try as they might, “proper, upstanding Britons” would not be able to change that.

With this mindset, it’s probably not surprising to know that most people saw no reason to splurge money on the poor, since they saw it as a waste of time. If you gave the poor money, they would at once, piss it all away on booze, broads, drugs and gambling! If you showed the poor any compassion, it would only encourage them to become even more lazy and dependent on the State. It was for this reason that workhouse budgets were so incredibly small. Nobody saw the necessity or the reason to give them any more money than the absolute minimum needed to run an institution.

Life in a workhouse was gruelling at best. Medical care was almost nonexistent, as was privacy, decent food, clothing, bedding and anything else. Regardless of age or gender, workhouse inmates were generally treated appallingly badly. What workhouses that did have medical care often provided it to an incredibly substandard level. Nurses handling dangerous chemicals and medications were often drafted from the inmates themselves. With no medical training, no education and not even the ability to read the labels on the jars, these women were in charge of caring for their sick companions.

Education for children in the workhouse was often nonexistent. Eventually people understood that the only way to get the kids off the streets and out of the workhouses was to give them a chance to read and write. As the years progressed, structured teaching and schooling did make its way into some workhouses, but these children were generally the lucky few.

Workhouse Food

Workhouse food was very basic, although, as some research suggests, not as lacking in nutrition as some people might think. The staple of workhouse cuisine was ‘gruel’. If you’ve never had gruel, or never heard of it, you’ll wonder how the hell anyone could eat it! Gruel is basically a cheap, cheap porridge, generally made of oats or oatmeal. It wasn’t very tasty and not amazingly filling either. Paupers never got enough of it to fill themselves up completely, anyway. Given all these delightful characteristics, why was it served?

One word: Cheap.

A typical workhouse dining-room. Note the religious slogans on the walls. Workhouse masters and officials said that they were doing ‘God’s work’ and that therefore, the paupers, who often recieved appalling treatment, had no right to complain

Don’t forget that most workhouses had very small budgets. The Master of the workhouse was under great pains to make his provision from the government to stretch as far as he could. Despite this, though, the workhouse diet was fairly varied. Apart from gruel, inmates also ate meat (beef or mutton, usually), cheese, bread, frumenty (a dish made of boiled wheat, with milk, eggs, sugar, currents and a few nuts). Drinks allowed in the workhouse included tea and milk (generally for the young or the elderly). Most other people drank record-shattering levels of beer, from one to up to three or four pints of beer a day! And not just adults, but kids, too! While we might not understand this today, you have to remember that in the 18th and 19th centuries, water quality was generally very questionable. To guard against possible waterborne diseases, beer was offered instead of water, as beer uses no water in its production-process. Everyone drank beer, even the kids. They got beer with a lower alcohol-content, but it was still beer.

Workhouse Work

A workhouse was not a prison. It was not a boarding-house, it was not a boarding-school. It was not a homeless shelter or a work-camp…it was all of these things. And of course, in a workhouse, the main thing you had to do…was work! But what kind of work were you expected to do?

The main chores associated with workhouses were the picking of oakum, the breaking of stones and the grinding up of old bones, along with various other jobs. But…why, why, and…why? Mainly just to give the inmates something to do. They were a cheap, disposable form of labour which could be forced to do all the lowest and most menial of jobs which had to be done, but which nobody else but a completely down-on-his-luck pauper would ever do. But what kind of work?

Oakum Picking

All the jobs inside workhouses were incredibly boring. And repetitive. They might also be dangerous, but mostly, they were just boring. Oakum-picking was one of the most boring ever. It is also the most famous of all workhouse jobs. It’s really the stereotypical workhouse job, you might say. Long, boring, pointless…

But what is ‘oakum’ anyway?

Oakum is rope. Or more precisely, rope-fibres. If you were in a workhouse and you were given the task of picking oakum, you were given a hunk of old rope which once belonged to a sailing-ship, and you were told to ‘pick’ it. This meant ripping the rope apart, breaking it down from the cable to the rope to the yarn to thread, right down to the tiny, itsy-bitsy little fibres of hemp! While on the surface, this sounds pretty easy, it gets trickier the smaller you go, since you need to dig your nails into the rope-fibres to pull them apart. Once the rope was all broken down, you were given a new piece to start on.

Women picking oakum (the fuzzy stuff at their feet) in a London workhouse in 1902

The picked oakum was collected and then sent to the docks or the harbour. Oakum was a crucial material in shipbuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries; the oakum was hammered into the seams between the planks on ship’s hulls to fill in the gaps. The oakum swelled up when it came in contact with water, and so created a relatively watertight seal.


Stone-breaking involved smashing and hitting lumps of rock such as limestone, with sledgehammers and pickaxes. The stones were smashed, pummelled and whacked until they shattered into tiny pieces, each one about the size of a small to medium-sized pebble. The smashed rocks were used in roadbuilding and the smashed rock-fragments were passed through a mesh or a grille in a special storage-room in the workhouse, to determine whether the smashed rocks were of the correct size. If the pebbles didn’t pass through the mesh, they had to be smashed again and again until they did. Stone-breaking was a job performed by male inmates due to the physically demanding nature of the task. Vagrants and wanderers (travellers, in other words) might be forced to do stone-breaking in return for a night’s bed and board at a workhouse, on their journey.


Another common workhouse chore was bone-grinding or bone-breaking. Bones, typically from cattle or sheep, were delivered to the workhouse where the inmates smashed them up over and over and ground them up until they were a powdery consistency. The grinding and crushing of the bones was necessary because the ‘bonemeal’ powder was used to manufacture fertilisers for farmers to use on their crops. In one particular workhouse in Andover, England, in 1846, the mishandling of funds and the general brutality of the workhouse master had reduced many of the paupers to sucking the marrow out of the bones that they were supposed to be crushing for fertiliser. The master, a man named M’Dougal, was fired for his treatment of his charges. Bone-crushing was banned as a workhouse chore shortly after the Andover Scandal.


Before gas-stoves, before electricity, before central heating, firewood was essential to everyday life. This being the case, it’s probably not surprising that one of the other main jobs in the workhouse was the splitting and chopping of firewood.

Deaths in the Workhouse

Considering that workhouses were such depressing places, and also considering the fact that the infirm, elderly, sick or mentally-ill often made use of them, it’s probably no surprise that people died in workhouses. But what happened when they did?

If a person did die in a workhouse, their death was recorded in the usual manner, by filling out a certificate of death. If it was possible, the deceased’s family was notified and asked if they desired to hold a private funeral. If the family did not wish (or as was more often the case, was unable) to hold a private funeral, then the workhouse took care of the burial instead. Dead inmates were buried in local churchyards, in a churchyard of their choice, or even in the workhouse graveyard. Coffins were cheap and the graves were usually unmarked.

Changing Times

The workhouse system could not last forever, though. Although conditions had gradually improved over the centuries, from the 1600s until the early 20th century, changing social values and mindsets was what really changed things in the end. By the early 1900s, attitudes towards things such as pensions, the infirm, the homeless, the elderly and those unable to support themselves, were slowly changing. There was a time where people who had pensions were seen as lazy dregs and strains on society because they wouldn’t get a job. Similarly, people considered it an insult if they were offered charity, because it suggested that they were lazy and stupid. But eventually, the notion that some people simply COULD NOT support themselves, no matter what, began to seep through society and attitudes and social welfare changed with the times. Workhouse conditions changed dramatically and instead of being places of misery and sorrow and depression, began to resemble rest-homes or the homeless-shelters that we know today. Segregation of gender and age was gradually removed, but by then, the workhouse’s days were numbered.

The Abolishment of Workhouses

Despite lasting centuries and despite providing questionable care and refuge for the unfortunates, paupers and beggars in their communities, workhouses would not last much longer. The workhouse system which Charles Dickens made famous in Oliver Twist would eventually be abolished, although this did not finally happen until 1930.

Workhouse structures still existed, but they now resembled something more akin to an aged care home instead of a prison, a place where the elderly, sick, infirm or disabled could find a home and refuge and where the state would take care of them if they were not able to care for themselves.


The Boston Molasses Flood, and other Minor Disasters

The nice thing about history is that it’s full of all kinds of weird, wonderful, whimsical little things that nobody thinks about, knows about, cares about or reads about. Events of great interest and fascination which you’d only stumble across by accident and which, once you have, find incredibly fascinating or strange and unique. Here is just a handful of natural and manmade disasters which, though famous in their own times, in some cases comparable to 9/11, are barely remembered today…

The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

An early newspaper-report about the flood. The number of dead and wounded would soon rise to 21 and 150, respectively

The 15th of January, 1919 started out like any other in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, on the USA’s east coast. Paper-boys made their rounds, milk and ice were delivered, people went to work. But today, and indeed, the next four days, would be shaken by an event so catastrophic, so weird and so…sweet…that Bostonians still think about it today.

In the northern end of Boston’s downtown area were the facilities belonging to the Purity Distilling Company; a manufactury of alcohol and other, alochol-related products. One of the things that the Distillery produced was molasses, which was then the main sweetener in the United States, as opposed to honey or maple-syrup. On this particular day, the 15th of January, 1919, a 50ft (approx 16.5m) high tank of molasses collapsed, spilling its sweet ooze all over town. It is possible that the molasses was overheated due to the unseasonably warm January temperatures that day, which caused the rivets on the huge molasses tank to rupture. Passers-by who saw the start of the disaster described hearing the rivets ripping out of the metal sides of the tank like machine-gun bullets, followed by the intense vibrations of the collapsing molasses tank.

What followed was a tidal-wave of dark ooze, up to 15ft (4.5 meters) high and travelling up to 35mph (56km/h). The force of the molasses wave created widespread destruction throughout downton Boston. Twenty-one people were killed in the sticky surge and up to a hundred and fifty people were injured! The power of the wave destroyed buildings, swept people off their feet, flipped automobiles over like toys and laid waste to several city blocks!

The force of the molasses impact was such that it ripped out support-girders holding up a length of Boston’s elevated railway and even derailed a train travelling along that stretch of track at the time! A truck travelling along a nearby road was blasted off the street by the force of the wave, sending it flying into the nearby Charles River. When the wave of molasses was over, streets were drenched, cars were buried, people were covered in ooze and survivors and would-be rescuers alike, waded through waist-deep molasses up to three feet (1m) thick! People who died in the disaster were mostly drowned by the fast-moving molasses or were killed by debris which became speeding missiles, forced down the streets of Boston at terrific speeds.

The first rescuers on the scene were 116 cadets from the training-ship USS Nantucket, which was docked in the Charles River at the time. Under the command of Lieutenant-Commander H.J. Copeland, the cadets fanned out through the ooze, forming a human barrier to keep back the gathering crowds and to help organise rescue-efforts. The cadets were soon joined by members of the Boston Police Department, the American Red Cross, the United States Army and more sailors and personnel from other nearby naval ships docked around Boston. The rescue and cleanup efforts took several weeks. Doctors and nurses set up aid-stations and rescuers, from soldiers, sailors, Red Cross volunteers and Boston policemen combed the area looking for drowned victims. In a substance almost as black as ink, as thick as honey and up to waist-depth in the deepest areas…you can bet this wasn’t an easy task!

A photograph of the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Flood. Note the destroyed buildings and the rescue-cars and trucks parked in the lower half of the picture

Once all the survivors had been found and the bodies had been located, Bostonians started the long and sticky process of cleaning up the mess. Molasses was swept, pushed and shoved aside. Buildings were hosed down, cars were relocated, righted and cleaned and entire streets and sidewalks had to be scrubbed, scraped and hosed down to remove the sticky substance entirely. The environmental impact of the molasses flood was immense, and it took a full six months before the Charles River and Boston Harbor were cleared of the molasses.

The United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which owned the Purity Distilling Company, were found guilty in court and the company was forced to pay $600,000 in damages (1919 dollars. $6.6million today).

The exact cause of the disaster was never fully established and varies between the tank being overfilled to excessive fermentation that caused a buildup of gasses which exploded due to a stress-fracture compromising the tank’s strength. Another possibility was that it was the generally poor construction of the tank itself and that the rivets failed due to improper application.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

Widely considered one of, if not the biggest industrial disaster fire in the New York City Area, the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 showed just how dangerously ill-equipped most buildings in New York City were, to combat fires, and this disaster constantly reminds people to exercise and install proper fire-safety devices and equipment in their buildings and to have planned escape-routes in an emergency.

‘Shirtwaist’ is an old term for a woman’s blouse. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a company that occupied the top three floors (eighth, ninth and tenth) of the Asch Building in New York City, which was (and still is) located on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. In these three floors, the company’s main employees, immigrant women, worked in gruelling, sweatshop conditions. The rooms were hot and stuffy, filled with poor migrants who worked nine hours a day five days a week and seven hours a day on Saturdays, producing shirtwaists, cutting the fabric, sewing the blouses and stacking them up to be transported off to the warehouses and shops.

The 25th of May, 1911 was a Saturday and like all good people, the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory wanted to finish their work and get home. Knock-off time was five o’clock, but over a hundred of these women would never go home to their families.

Although smoking was illegal in the factory due to the highly flammable cotton fabric which the women worked with, it’s widely believed that an improperly-discarded cigarette set the building on fire. A worker is believed to have thrown her cigarette into a rubbish-bin under one of the work-tables without checking that it was properly extinguished first. The embers in the cigarette set the dry, flammable scraps of cotton on fire and soon, the entire table was up in flames. Newspaper journalists later theorised that an electrical fault was to blame, but this was never firmly established. Whatever the cause, the fire rapidly took hold in the stuffy and overcrowded workspace, filled with wood from the tables, sewing-machine oil and the cotton cuttings from the shirtwaists and within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the Asch Building was on fire.

At once, women began to panic. They rushed for the elevators, they broke windows, they ran down stairs and they tried to scramble out onto the fire-escape ladders, balconies and escape-stairs which New York buildings had to have secured to the sides of their structures, to provide an escape-route in the event of an emergency.

A bookkeeper with access to a telephone managed to contact the women on the 10th floor that the building was on fire, however, the lack of a proper alarm-system meant that it was impossible to contact the women on the ninth floor in between.

There were numerous ways out of the Asch building: There were two elevator-shafts, a staircase and a pair of fire-escape staircases on the outside of the building, one descending to Greene Street and one descending to Washington Square.

The Asch Building, shortly after the fire

Women charged towards the Greene Street stairs. Kicking down the emergency-exit doors, they rushed out onto the balconies and started heading down towards the street. In the panic, there was no-one to regulate the flow of human traffic and before long, the severely overloaded staircase (which was already probably in bad repair) twisted and collapsed under the weight of its escapees. The door to the Washington Square stairs was locked and women on the 9th floor had no way of accessing it. By the time they knew the building was on fire, the Greene Street stairs were already blocked off by flames and smoke. After finally gaining access to the other stairs via the roof, more women were able to get out that way.

The building’s two elevator-operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo operated their two freight-elevator cars as quickly and as efficiently as it was safe to do so. While the building still had electrical power, the two men rode their elevators up to the ninth floor, taking down packed lifts with each journey to the 7th floor where women could run down stairs to safety in the streets.

Eventually, though, the fire put the elevators out of action. Warped by heat and strained by the immense loads, the elevator mechanisms seized up until they became wholly inoperable, forcing the elevator-operators to abandon their posts after a total of just six journeys.

This horse-drawn fire-engine was photographed by a passer-by as it dashed towards the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

With the stairs impassable to all but the bravest women, with the fire-escape stairs either inaccessable or having collapsed and with the only two elevators within reach put out of action, there was little else that the other women in the building could do to escape. There was no water on these upper levels of the Asch Building for the ladies to fight the flames with. Some broke windows with furniture and jumped out of the top three floors, falling several dozen feet to their deaths in the street below.

The New York City Fire Department acted swiftly in the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster. Horse-drawn fire-engines were on the scene in minutes, with ladders, firefighters and powerful, coal-fired, steam-powered water-pumps. Despite their speed and efficiency, the firefighters were unable to combat the blaze effectively. No ladders that they possessed at the time, would reach beyond the 6th floor. In the meantime, more desperate women were jumping out the windows.

A rather poor photograph, but in all that pixelation are the bodies of just forty of the 146 victims that the fire claimed

While most of the 146 victims of the fire were women, witnesses say there were least thirty men who were killed in the fire as well. Deaths in the fire were caused by burns, smoke inhalation or blunt-impact trauma, suffered from the falls to the sidewalk. When the fire was over and the bodies had been cleared away, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were brought to trial. They were eventually acquitted at the criminal trial, but lost a civil suit in 1913. Mark Blanck and Isaac Harris, the company’s owners, were forced to pay $75 compensation to the families of each of the victims (which was a considerable sum of money in 1911). Mr. Blanck was arrested again a few years later for endangering the lives of his workers when he locked doors during working-hours, in another one of his factories, which the authorities considered to be wreckless and needlessly endangering lives. The American Society of Safety Engineers, whose job it was to check the fire-safety of all buildings, was formed shortly after the disaster on the 14th of October, 1911.

The Asch Building today

The 1945 Empire State Building Plane Crash

On the morning of the 11th of September, 2001, the world was shocked when two fully-loaded 747 jumbo-jet airliners crashed into thw Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing thousands of people.

But how many people also know that a plane crashed into another equally-famous New York City skyscraper over fifty years before?

It’s true! On the morning of the 28th of July, 1945, weeks before the end of WWII, a US Airforce plane, a B-25, crashed into the top of the Empire State Building!

A B-25 Mitchell bomber, the type of plane that hit the Empire State Building

At around 9:00am on the 28th of July, a Saturday, A B-25 Mitchell bomber was flying to New York City. Piloting the plane was Lieut. Col. William Franklin Smith Jnr. He had two passengers with him, who were on a routine flight from Boston to New York. The day was incredibly foggy and Smith had contacted LaGuardia Airport, requesting permission to land. Air-Traffic Control at LaGuardia warned Smith about the incredibly low visibility due to the fog over New York City at the time and advised him to wait, if he could, until the fog had cleared a bit. Smith disregarded this advice and headed to the airport anyway. Severely disorientated by the fog, Smith’s co-ordination soon went out the window…along with much else!

Trying to use the skyscrapers of Manhattan to navigate, Smith made a wrong turn after passing the Crysler Building and suddenly found himself heading straight towards the Empire State Building! Unable to stop or change directions, Smith crashed into the north side of the Empire State Building, hitting it on the 79th floor, but damaging not only that one, but also the 80th and 78th! The impact-time was 9:40am. Fourteen people were killed in the crash: Smith, his two passengers, and eleven office-workers inside the building at the time of the impact. The fire which resulted from the airplane fuel was put out forty minutes later while firefighters and paramedics attempted to treat the injured.

A photograph of the Empire State Building, taken shortly after the crash. Note the flames coming out of the windows on the upper floors

Now here’s a Guiness World Record…How far can you freefall in an elevator without killing yourself?

This dubious and terrifying honour goes to elevator-operator Betty-Lou Oliver. The impact of the bomber against the Empire State Building had severely damaged and weakened the elevator which she was in at the time of the crash. Unaware of this, rescuers tried to help the already injured Oliver out of the building via the elevator. The weakened cables snapped and Betty freefell 75 storeys to solid earth below! Although badly burned by the fire from the original crash and suffering horrible injuries from the impact of the elevator crashing into the end of the shaft, Oliver survived and was taken to hospital. She returned to work a few months later.


Iron Dragons: The Mystique and the Romance of Steam Trains

Steam wafts out and smoke blasts from the smokestack. A bell swings back and forth, dinging and clanging and a powerful steam-whistle lets out a deafening, farewell blast! Metal creaks and rattles and an enormous and majestic locomotive powers its way out of the station and off into history. On the platform, wellwishers, friends and relatives wave goodbye to the passengers lucky enough to ride on one of mankind’s most amazing inventions ever…the original ‘choo-choo’ train…the steam-powered locomotive.

For over 100 years, steam-trains have been objects of mystery, romance, amazement and awe. From the first quarter of the 1800s until the 1950s, these giant, fire-eating, smoke-belching, steam-pumping monsters have transported billions of people billions of miles across the countries of the world. Even though they’ve long since been made obsolete by the rise of diesel and electrical-powered trains, steam locomotives continue to capture the imaginations of millions of history-buffs, train enthusiasts and mechanical maniacs around the world. This article will look into the history, evolution and workings of the boyhood dream of thousands of fully-grown men: the operation and the working lives of the railroads and the original, classic…choo-choo train.

Before the Steam Locomotive

It’s hard to imagine the world without trains these days, isn’t it? Imagine going from Sydney to Melbourne, from London to Edinbrugh, from Chicago to Los Angeles…by car! A trip that would take a few hours or a couple of days by train, would take days or even weeks by car. But before even cars came along, you would have to make those same arduous, dangerous journeys with a horse and cart, which would take even longer. In the western United States, going from San Francisco to Chicago meant a long, dangerous and sometimes even deadly journey by covered wagons rumbling in convoy-formation over dusty, bumpy roads through the middle of nowhere. You were susceptable to breakdowns, starvation and Indian attacks. In both the US and the UK, travelling long distances was a matter of loading up a stage-coach and rumbling off down the road. Stage-coaches were so-called, because they completed their journeys in stages. You rode from point A to point B, but on the way, you had to stop at Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3 on the road, to change or rest the horses, to buy food or to repair damage to your coach or carriage. It was dangerous and long going…and you can bet it wasn’t very comfortable.

The Birth of Steam

Before steam locomotives came along, there were just steam ‘engines’. A steam ‘engine’ is simply a device, powered by steam, that performs a task, and which doesn’t necessarily move a train across a set of tracks.

The idea that the vapour from boiled water, pressurised and released at regulated intervals, could move machined parts to create a working contraption practical enough to have an application in the manufacturing or production industries, is an old one. People had been toying with steam-power for centuries. The first steam-powered machines were stationary ones: These steam-engines powered pumps which pumped water. Other steam-engines might provide power to looms or mills to make textiles or to crush grains to make flour. But sooner or later, someone was bound to ask: “Why can’t these engines move themselves instead of moving something else? Why can’t they move…people instead?”

The idea of using steam-power as a form of transport, which naturally led to the creation of the steam locomotive, was born.

Experimental Steam-Trains

If you want to be really finicky about terminology, a ‘train’ is a line of cars or carriages or trucks, shackled together. Like a wagon-train, or a semi-trailer train. The machine that pulls the train and which provides the power, is the locomotive. These days, a ‘train’ and a ‘locomotive’ are generally seen as synonymous, and for the sakes of convenience and understanding, they’ll be just that, for this article.

The first steam-trains arrived on the rails in the very early 1800s. An Englishman named Richard Trevithick was able to construct a steam-engine small enough to be seated on a wheeled platform. Using additional wheels and pistons, he was able to show that steam-power could move a wheeled vehicle and that this technology might one day be used to transport people. Previous to this, steam-engines were huge, stationery objects, much too large to power a moving vehicle. The metallurgy to create strong and compact-enough steam-engines simply didn’t exist back then. But Trevithick was certain that he had something going here. And over the next few decades, other inventors and innovators would examine his designs and add or improve on them, to develop the steam-train we know and love today.

The first steam locomotives were treated much like the first cars were, about a hundred years later. They were seen as novelties. Silly little machines for the wealthy, which would never gain a prominent place in society. Early steam-trains were little more than amusement-park rides, such as the ‘Catch Me If You Can’ miniature-railroad which existed as a fairground attraction in England in the early 1800s. This train ran around an enclosed, circular track, and Britons could marvel at this whimsical little machine which they never imagined, might one day transport them hundreds of miles in a day!

The first practical developments in steam-locomotive technology started in the 1820s and 1830s. Men such as Robert Stevenson, began to see potential in steam-power. The potential to transport people and goods long distances. But in order to transport things, steam first had to be harnessed in a way so as to move a vehicle reliably. A big problem with early steam-locomotives was that the steam-pressure was unreliable and the power-output was so variable that nobody thought it would ever work. Pioneers like Stevenson changed this by inventing steam-locomotives such as the Rocket:

Stevenson’s ‘Rocket’ locomotive

While today this kooky little tin can on wheels hardly travels at ‘rocket’ speed (its max was a mere 29 miles an hour!), Stevenson’s design and his improvements on Trevithick’s early, experimental steam-trains, showed the public what a steam-locomotive could really do, if people were willing to have a bit of belief and were willing to do a bit of experiementation and development. The era of the steam-powered locomotive had arrived.

The First Practical Steam-Locomotives

Daring designers and inventors such as Stevenson had proved to the world that steam-trains were a practical means of transport. When people began to see how useful trains would be in transporting them greater distances, they began to get really interested in this new technology, and by the late 1820s, regular steam-train lines were operating in England, followed closely by the United States.

The USA was the natural place for steam trains to develop and grow into powerful machines. This wide, flat country needed a quick, dependable and safe way of crossing its vast stretches of land which would take a wagon train weeks to cross, when a steam-locomotive could take just days.

The first steam-trains in the US arrived in the early 1830s. They were imports from England, since America did not have the facilities to produce its own trains at the time. The trains which the English gave to the Americans were called ‘John Bulls’, presumably named after John Bull, what was seen as the national personification of the United Kingdom (much like how Uncle Sam is the personification of the USA).

A painting of a typical ‘John Bull’ locomotive, the kind of steam-train that existed in the USA in the 1830s

By the 1840s, the permanence of steam-locomotives had been established. Although still clunky, noisy and of questionable practicality and even though they transported people in uncomfortable, wooden carriages which were generally open to the elements, even though they rattled and shook like castanets, they were here to stay. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, railroad lines spread across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, taking telegraph poles with them and linking up the states and counties of the countries which they were built in.

The Rise of the Railroads

Developments throughout the 19th century continued to improve and refine steam-trains until they more or less fitted into the idealised image that we have of them today. While everyone thinks that steam-trains burnt coal, the truth is that most early steam-trains actually burnt wood! Coal had to be mined and broken up. Wood just had to be chopped down and split into logs…something that people were doing all the time, anyway, so it was easier to get.

Locomotives started pulling longer and longer trains and passengers were beginning to enjoy the comforts and joys of train-travel. Journeys that took days by wagon now took a few hours by rail. You could leave one city in the morning, and arrive in your destination city by the evening. New communities and towns sprang up alongside railroads and people began to move around. Goods which previously were unavailable in one part of a country could now be transported cheaply and efficiently by trains, and commerce began to grow.

The American Civil War in the 1860s showed just how important trains had become. Steam-power allowed troops, ammunition, food and materials to be transported quickly to the battlefronts, and trains needed to become faster and more powerful.

The Transcontinental Railroad

Up until 1863, it had been a dream of American president Abraham Lincoln, to have a railroad that would lead from one end of the USA to the other. A big, strong, thread of steel that would sew the country up and bring it closer together. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, this dream was finally realised.

In a joint venture, two companies, starting at opposite ends, would build a single railroad line which would link Chicago and San Francisco. The Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad were those two companies, one starting in San Francisco, the other in Chicago, working east and westwards, respectively.

Building the transcontinental railroad, or the ‘Overland Route’ as it was also called, was a major engineering feat. To the Chicago-based Union Pacific Co., the going was pretty easy, most of the land they covered was flat and easy to work on. But the Central Pacific Co. had to hack its way through the millions of tons of rock that made up the famous Rocky Mountains. To do this, they employed thousands of Chinese labourers. The Chinese had come to California about a decade before, looking for gold, but now, they were going to be used to aid in the cause of mechanical progress.

The railroad was finished in 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, where the Chinese and American workers of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, in a ceremonial show of unified work, laid the last set of tracks together, and where the ceremonial golden rail-spikes were nailed into the ground, to signify the successful completion of Lincoln’s dream.

A photograph taken at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad

The Golden Age of Railroading

With entire countries and continents now linked up by threads of steel, the Golden Age of the Railroad had begun, and it was being powered by nothing more than flames and boiling water. It is this period in history which many people dream about, lust after and drool over, when they think about steam-trains. But what was it like back in the 1870s, until steam-trains finally became obsolete in the 1950s?

Driving a Steam-Train

Every little boy has probably grown up, wanting to drive a steam-train. They want to pull the levers, yank on the whistle-cord, shovel the coal and ring the bells. They want to hear the “Whoooo!” of the train-whistle as it clatters along at breakneck speeds! Like the boy in the ‘Polar Express’ movie, they want to yank on the whistle-cord and yell out over the clanking of the machinery, “I’ve wanted to do that my whole life!”

But what is it actually like, having to drive one of these great big, clanking metal beasts?

Everyone has a pretty rudimentary understanding of how a steam-train works, and really, that’s all you need, because they were very simple machines…in theory, anyway. They relied on steam-pressure, heat, fuel and water. This is how they worked:

First, the boiler was filled with water. A steam-train’s boiler could take hundreds of gallons of water. Once the boiler was filled, the fire in the firebox in the cab was lit.

Early steam-trains used wood to fire their boilers, but this was eventually replaced by coal, which remained as the mainstay of steam-powered locomotives until their demise in the mid 20th century. Coal was easier to toss into the firebox and it burned much hotter than wood, which made it more efficient. Once the fire was lit inside the firebox, it was the job of the fireman to shovel as much coal as he could into the firebox to build up the blaze to a blistering, white hot heat. This heat boiled the water inside the boiler and inside the fire and steam-tubes which surrounded the firebox.

Once the boiler was full and the fire was burning white hot, the fireman and engineer had to sit back and wait for things to happen. While they tapped their feet and checked their watches, the fire continued to burn. As it burned, it boiled the water which turned to steam. When the train wasn’t moving, the excess steam was vented through special safety-valves in the train. Failure to vent the steam could result in pressure building up too much and the entire boiler exploding!

When the train was ready to go, the engineer pulled on a lever which opened the valve in the ‘steam-dome’, one of the two humps on the top of the boiler. By opening the valve in the steam-dome, he released steam from the boiler down a set of pipes towards the pistons. As the steam-pressure built up, it forced the pistons forward, and this forced the driving-rods to move forward. The driving-rods were connected to the wheels, so when the rods moved, the wheels moved as well. At the end of this half-revolution, the steam switched positions in the piston-cylinder, thanks to a set of alternating valves, which forced the steam into the main pistons in the opposite end, forcing the piston back the other way, completing the rotation of the wheel, and forcing the spent steam out of the train through the smokestack at the front. When you see smoke coming out of a steam-train, half of that smoke is probably steam as well, spent steam coming from the pistons at the end of each revolution of the wheels. The distinctive ‘chuff-chuff’ sound that is synonymous with steam-trains, is the sound produced by the pistons with each revolution of the wheels and the exhaust of the spent steam.

Getting the train going was the easy part. What wasn’t so easy was maintaining speed and safety. Steam-locomotives required constant attention. There was no cruise control, no auto-pilot, no snooze-button. You had to keep an eye on everything. It was the job of the fireman to continually shovel coal into the firebox to keep it roasting hot so that the water would never stop being superheated and ready to produce steam. It was the job of the eingeer to do almost everything else.

Being an engineer was not exactly a cushy job. You had to keep your hand on the throttle, regulating steam-pressure all the time. Not enough steam-pressure and the train would stop. Too much, and the train either sped up, or it just blew up! You had to keep an eye out for obstructions on the tracks such as other trains, cows, people, fallen trees or landslides. You had to know when to speed up and when to slow down. Speeding up was pretty easy, stopping wasn’t. Most steam-trains did not have pneumatic breaks in the 19th century. These days, brakes are worked by air or oil-pressure. Back in the 1880s, they were worked by muscle and brawn.

If a train had to stop, the fireman and the engineer would have to stop the train by hand. Literally. They grabbed the brake-lever and they pulled for all they were worth! The lever operated simple wooden or metal brakes that stopped the wheels by friction.

The basics of steam-train mechanics changed very little from the late 1800s until the end of the era in the 1950s. There were improvements on steam-pressure efficiency, locomotive-design and speed, but how an engine got moving and how it stopped remained unchanged for over 100 years.

The famous and enormous ‘Challenger’-class steam-locomotive

The photo above, is of the famous ‘Challenger’-class steam-locomotive, which was built in the 1930s and 40s. You’ll notice that it has two sets of pistons. This was to make better use of the steam provided to the pistons from the boiler. The steam entered the rear pair of pistons first, moved those, and then the exhaust steam from there was fed into the front piston-cylinders which then turned the front wheels, providing more power for the same amount of steam. It was then ejected out of the engine through the smokestack. Double sets of pistons such as these, were just one innovation that designers introduced to steam-trains to make more efficient use of the steam produced by the boiler.

The Golden Age of Steam Trains led to all kinds of companies springing up. Nearly all of them had the word ‘Pacific’ in their names. Let’s look at them, shall we?

Central Pacific Railroad.
Canadian Pacific Railroad.
Union Pacific Railroad.
Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.
California Pacific Railroad
Missouri Pacific Railroad.

The list goes on and on and on.

But there were a few lines which didn’t have the hallowed word ‘Pacific’ in them, which made it big. One of them was the 20th Century Limited, also simply called the ‘Century Limited’, which ran from New York to Chicago on a daily express service between the two cities. The 20th Century Limited was designed to provide people with speedy, efficient service between two of America’s greatest cities, and it did just that, for over half a century, from 1902 to 1967. It is said that the term ‘Red Carpet Treatment’ came from the Century Limited, from its habit of rolling out the red carpet (literally) to their carriages on the platform, so that its passengers would know where to go!

This swanky, 1930s Art-Deco, streamlined steam locomotive was one of several which had the great honour of pulling the train known to thousands as the legendary 20th Century Limited

The Pennsylvania Railroad gave its name to the famous Pennsylvania Station and the even more famous Hotel Pennsylvania (that’s PE6-5000!) in New York City.

But few other railroad companies captured the grandeur and mystery and luxury and romance of steam-powered locomotive travel, than the famous and legendary…

Orient Express.

The Orient Express

The Orient Express. The very words conjour up thoughts of mystery, romance, escapism, the ultimate European holiday, espionage and horror! For over 100 years, since the service first started in 1883, an express train, belching steam and smoke, has always thundered across the railways of Europe, whisking people from Calais in nothern France, to Istanbul in Turkey in the east.

Over the years, there have been several lines which have called themselves the Orient Express. There have been five in total, running from 1883 to the present day. Although they were interrupted by the World Wars, which ripped Europe apart from 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, they have continued to provide romantic and stunning service to passengers who wish to recapture the glamour of riding the rails as so many of our grandparents did, back in the 20s and 30s.

Railroad Time

One aspect of steam-train travel which many of us are probably familiar with, through film and television, is the iconic scene of a blue-suited conductor standing on a platform with a gold pocket watch in his hands, calling out the words: “All aboard!”.

Railroad pocket-watches had to be incredibly accurate. Here, a conductor and an engineer synchronise their watches before their next journey

Keeping trains running on time during the golden age of railroad travel in the USA and Canada was literally a matter of life and death. Failure to keep trains running on time could result in devastating train-wrecks which could (and did) cost men their lives. To combat this, the top American watch-companies of the day produced pocket watches called railroad chronometers to keep all the trains on the track and on time. There’s no fun in having a steam-train crash into another one and sending boiling water and flaming coal all over the place! You can read more about railroad chronometer or railroad-standard pocket watches here.

Here’s my own railroad-standard pocket watch:

it’s a 1960 Swiss-made Ball railroad chronometer with a 10kt gold-filled case. Specs are:

21 jewels.
16 size.
6 Adjustments + temperature & isochronism.
Micrometric regulator.
Large, Arabic numerals.
Every minute and second clearly marked.
Lever-set, crown-wind.
Screw-on caseback & bezel.
24-hour dial (this last specification was mandatory only for Canadian railroads, on which this watch was used. It wasn’t mandatory in the USA).


Welcome to Starvation Heights: The Home of Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard

At the dawn of the 21st century, there’s all kinds of medical mumbo jumbo floating around. ‘Radical’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘amazing’ and ‘miracle’ cures and treatments, which claim to do everything from help you to lose weight, grow hair, tone the skin, increase the size of your…mental storage-capacity…among other things! But radical, ‘cure-all’ medical claims date back a lot further than the year 2000, with fitness fads and diet-pills and stuff like Tae Bo and Slimfast and free, 12-month membership to your nearest Jenny Craig or Lite’n’Easy diet-center.

Indeed, at the turn of the last century, a new kind of medical treatment was emerging; a controversial and dangerous treatment which many people in the medical profession at the time, saw as complete quackery, but which some people were willing to give the benefit of the doubt, anyway. It was called ‘fasting’, and Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard became the world’s first ‘fasting specialist’…in fact she had a medical degree in it, when she graduated from university and started active medical practice back in the early 1900s.

‘Fasting’ is the systematic and deliberate starvation of oneself for supposed ‘medical benefit’. By limiting food and drink to insanely small portions, the body was supposed to purge itself of all its ‘evils’ and ‘toxins’ and the patient would soon feel full of life and vitality again. That was the theory behind it, anyway. Unfortunately, there is next-to-no practical proof to back up this claim…something that people obviously forgot to tell Dr. Hazzard. In fact, by the turn of the last century, fasting had already been debunked as medical flipflop and not worth serious scientific study, but some people persisted, regardless. Dr. Linda Hazzard was amongst them.

The Hazzardous Doctor

Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard was a special woman. And she saw herself as a special woman. She saw herself as a pioneer in the area of medicine which she saw as her speciality: ‘fasting’. She was special because, in an era when most women entered the medical profession as nurses, she was a qualified physician who was doing groundbreaking research! She even wrote a book on the subject, it’s called Fasting For The Cure Of Disease, and it was published over 100 years ago, in 1908. In it, she claimed that fasting could cure everything from common aches and pains to something as serious as cancer. Did it? No.

“Fasting for the Cure of Disease” by Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard

Dr. Hazzard believed so strongly in the supposed virtues of fasting as a restorative or cure, that she even created her own sanitarium for her to carry out her treatments in. It was called ‘Wilderness Heights’ and it was located in the small, Washington town of Olalla. It was a place where her patients could come to, to be treated and cured, amongst the birds and bees, breezes and trees. In the countryside. Relaxing, huh? Or it might have been…for a while.

Starvation Heights

Dr. Hazzard’s HQ was her sanitarium called ‘Wilderness Heights’. It was advertised as a place for patients who were seeking natural therapies to cure their ills, to go to, to place themselves under the doctor’s care. Here, they would fast for a period of time, after which, according to Hazzard, their bodies would experience bursts of energy which would leave them feeling energised and full of life, ready to combat everything, with all her patients making claims like they do on TV these days, that this new treatment had left them ‘with more energy than I had ever imagined! I’m not drowsy or sleepy anymore, I don’t have cramps! Dr. Hazzard…wow! She’s a miracle worker!’.

Or at least, that was the theory and fancy. The reality of it was very different.

A common horror-movie or horror-story plot is the mad doctor who lives in a secluded spot in the woods, carrying out all kinds of weird experients and killing patients. If you thought this was all Hollywood mumbo-jumbo or the makings of a pen-pushing, doped up writer hunched over his desk…think again.

One of the few photographs of Wilderness Heights Sanitarium

Wilderness Heights was the archtypal ‘spooky hideout of a mad doctor’. It’s as if Hazzard went through a checklist of spookjoint prerequisites for her sanitarium. Let’s go through them together, shall we?

No telephones to call for help? Check.
No Way to contact the Outside World? Check.
Isolated and lonely and quiet? Check.
Near the forest, convenient for burying dead bodies? Check.
In the countryside where nobody can hear your screams? Check.
Near a quiet, sleepy, country town where everyone keeps to themselves? Check.

Everything was there, including the mad doctor herself!

Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard

The locals in the nearby town of Olalla called Hazzard’s home ‘Starvation Heights’, because of all the patients who starved to death there. All kinds of stories emenated from the house, including the one that Dr. Hazzard performed autopsies in her bathtub! (Which she did). But what was it like in Starvat…ahem…in Wilderness Heights?

Once a patient arrived in Wilderness Heights, they would be housed on Hazzard’s estate. They would then live there for anywhere from a few days to a few months, living entirely on vegetable broth, made of tomatoes and asparagus, occasionally supplemented by orange juice. And the patients didn’t get the broth whenever they wanted it, either. It was served in strict portions, only once or twice a day, and this was ALL that they ate, for up to a month.

it’s probably not surprising to hear that Hazzard’s patients didn’t last very long. Many starved to death. Hazzard was prosecuted a few times, but the charges were always dropped for various reaons, ranging from her not yet being a licensed doctor, to patients going to her of her own free will, and that she wasn’t held accountable if her treatments didn’t work. Almost invariably, death certificates listed the cause of death of Hazzard’s patients as ‘starvation’, unless Hazzard herself carried out the autopsies in her bathtub, whereafter, the cause of death was almost always written down as ‘cirrhosis of the liver’ or ‘cirrhosis of the kidneys’.

One exception to this was when police, while searching Hazzard’s Wilderness Heights estate, found the body of Eugene Stanley Wakelin. Wakelin’s body was found, badly decomposed and with a gunshot wound to the head. Originally, the police suspected suicide, but others believed that the Hazzards, both Linda and her scheming, no-good, bigamous husband, Samuel, had actually killed Wakelin after Linda somehow managed to get Power-of-Atttorney over him and his money. Despite that several people think, even though Wakelin was of artistocratic and noble birth (his father was a British lord), Eugene himself actually had very little money…so the Hazzards’ murderous actions against the young (26-years-old) Wakelin were for nothing.

As the years went by, more and more weird things started happening. People started going missing. If they were found, the police were unable to account for any valuables missing from the dead patients. Personal effects such as jewellery, pocket watches and chains, necklaces, money and other personal items were found either missing, or having been signed over to Dr. Hazzard. If Hazzard ever became really rich from her treatments, you can bet it wasn’t by her patients paying her their medical bills!

The Williamson Sisters

Dr. Hazzard’s shady doings of starving her patients, stealing their money, property and valuables and then saying that things went ‘horribly, horribly wrong’ during treatment, couldn’t last for much longer, though. People were getting suspicious and people were getting angry. The big problem was that the authorities couldn’t really do anything. As the people who died under Hazzard’s care had gone to see her of their own free will, the law was powerless to tell people that they COULDN’T go to see Dr. Hazzard, and the killings continued.

But it couldn’t last. And it didn’t, because in 1911, things came to a shuddering halt.

Two English sisters, Dorothea and Claire Williamson were in Canada on holiday from England. While in Canada, the two wealthy sisters who were diehards for all kinds of alternative medicines and treatments, heard about Dr. Hazzard and her amazing fasting cures. Without even telling their family where they were going (the Williamson family were already weary of their childrens’ constant seeking-out of weird and wonderful medical treatments), the two, thirty-something sisters headed off to Washington, USA, into the trusting and twisted arms of Dr. Linda Hazzard.

Only one of them would leave those arms alive.

Originally, the sisters stayed in one of the cabins away from the main estate, where they were placed under the care of a nurse, who fed them Dr. Hazzard’s prescription vegetable broth. Hazzard herself showed up regularly to give the girls massages and enemas and she made smalltalk with the Williamson sisters, digging into their financial backgrounds. Unlike the Wakelin boy, the Williamsons were rich, and this made Hazzard very happy. She probably told them a cock-and-bull story about how it might be dangerous when they moved to Wilderness Heights, with all the other patients around, and she got the Williamsons to entrust their jewellery (mostly their diamond rings) and their valuable paperwork, such as real-estate deeds and wills, to the doctor’s safekeeping, which she had locked up in her office safe.

On the way to the Wilderness Heights sanitarium, Hazzard further exploited the sisters gullible natures. By now, the sisters, weak and delirious from weeks of starvation, were convinced by Hazzard’s lawyer, to sign neat little pieces of paper. What did the pieces of paper say? Only that the sisters (or specifically, Claire), would leave Dr. Hazzard the sum of 25 pounds sterling, to be paid to Dr. Hazzard every year after her death, and that Claire’s body be cremated upon her death. This was supposedly Claire’s ‘dying wish’…in fact it was Hazzard’s. By having Claire sign the paper, she could burn Claire’s body to a crisp when she died, and therefore, hide all evidence of her crimes, saying that it was Claire’s wish to be cremated, and present the ‘proof’. In fact, when Claire signed the document, she was so weak, she could barely hold the pen, let alone write out a recognisable signature.

Help on the Way

So far, everything was going swell for Dr. Hazzard. She had two, rich, crazy ladies willing to give her all their money! But the big problem with rich people is that they’re invariably well-connected and tend to have even richer, and more powerful friends and relations, or even worse, for Dr. Hazzard, devoted and loving servants who have known their masters and mistresses since birth. It was this latter group of people who were to spell Hazzard’s doom.

The lady who came to the Williamson sisters’ rescue was a lady named Margaret Conway. Margie Conway was more than just the Williamson sisters’ friend, she had been their nanny since childhood! She had watched the sisters grow and develop from toddlers to teenagers, and she knew the girls like the backs of her own hands…which would probably come in useful in a few months’ time.

On the 30th of April, 1911, Conway, then living in Sydney, Australia, recieved a telegram from America, inviting her to come and see the sisters, saying that they were at the Wilderness Heights sanitarium. Today, this would be no problem for Conway. She could hop on a plane and be in Washington in a week. But this was 1911. It took Conway two months to reach Washington by ocean-liner and steam-train! By the time she got there on the 1st of June, it was almost too late.

By the time Margie Conway arrived at Wilderness Heights, Claire Williamson had already died from starvation. Dorothea Williamson was still alive, but just barely. Conway was shocked when she was asked to identify Claire’s body at the local mortuary, and she was even more horrified when she met her one-time ward, who was living in a ‘cabin’, a little more than a shack, on the Hazzard estate. Dorothea’s mental state had deteriorated rapidly and she wavered wildly between begging Conway to take her away, to telling Conway she wanted to stay.

Conway was shocked by everything that she saw. It soon became clear to the nanny that her darling Dorothea, along with other patients at Wilderness Heights, were bieng kept at the sanitarium against their will. She was furious! When she saw, to her horror, that Dr. Hazzard was even wearing some of Claire’s old dresses, the nanny became even more enraged. She threatened to take Dorothea away with her as soon as she could, whether or not Dr. Hazzard said that Dorothea was fit to leave!

Of course, the doctor said ‘no’, but Conway wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Even though she’d learned that Hazzard had attained legal guardianship of Dorothea and had stolen all her money, Conway still considered herself Dorothea’s nanny, and as such, she still had a responsibility to her charge, not to abandon her to a monster like Hazzard. Hazzard said that Dorothea had intended to live all the rest of her days at Wilderness Heights and that she wouldn’t leave without paying Hazzard at least $2,000, which was an astronomical sum of money in 1911!

Conway knew for a fact that she hadn’t the money. But she’d been working for the incredibly wealthy Williamson family for long enough to know who did. One evening, she snuck out of Wilderness Heights (which had no electricity, and thus, no telephone), and sent a telegram to Dorothea’s wealthy uncle. Appropriately so, Dorothea’s uncle wasn’t very happy about the news that his neice was being held to ransom! He bullied Hazzard into letting Dorothea go, which she finally did, for a substantially smaller price.

Free from the clutches of the evil Dr. Hazzard, Conway and the Williamsons started plotting the doctor’s downfall.

Dorothea Williamson, shortly after her departure from Wilderness Heights. Despite the poor quality of the photograph, the effects of Dr. Hazzard’s ‘fasting treatment’ are clearly evident

Arrest and Trial

Away from Dr. Hazzard and her starvation regime, Dorothea slowly began to heal and mend, under proper medical supervision and a proper diet. The Williamson family was enraged by what Dr. Hazzard had done, fasting specialist or not. The British Vice-Consul put pressure on the Washington state government to prosecute Hazzard for murder, but the government insisted that it didn’t have the money! Dorothea Williamson, now thoroughly recovered from her ordeal, said that she would gladly pay for the prosecution from her own funds, if the government would get off its backside and arrest Hazzard.

In August of 1911, Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard was arrested. Newspaper headlines screamed:

    ““Officials Expect to Expose Starvation Atrocities: Dr. Hazzard Depicted as Fiend.”
    – Tacoma Daily News, 1911

In court, Hazzard painted herself as a persecuted medical pioneer. People were attacking her because she was a *gasp*…WOMAN!! And nothing else! She claimed that she had perfectly sound reasons for everything she did. She even had her own defenders, ranging from former patients and even staff at her own sanitarium.

Despite everything, however, the prosecution won in the end. Or they sort of did. The jury returned with a verdict of ‘Manslaughter’. The newspaper media of the day widely theorised that Hazzard had escaped a verdict of ‘Murder’ purely because she was a woman and the jury refused to believe that a woman could do something like this.

The Aftermath

Despite the best efforts of Conway, The Williamson Family and the prosecution, Hazzard might as well never have gone to court at all, for all the good it did. Hazzard was sentenced to a mere two years in prison, after which she fled to New Zealand and started practicing again, killing even more patients. In 1920, she returned to Olalla. The Washington state government had pulled her medical license, so she couldn’t say she was a practicing doctor anymore, but that didn’t stop her from building another Wilderness Heights sanitarium where even more of her patients starved to death.

It all came crashing down in the end, though, in a way that almost nobody could imagine. In 1935, Wilderness Heights caught fire and burnt to the ground and Hazzard was forced to move out. Three years later in 1938, Hazzard was caught up in her own web of lies. She fell ill herself and attempted to use her own fasting-treatment to cure her illness, living mostly on her own prescription broth of tomatoes and asparagus. She died a few weeks later, presumably of starvation. In her roughly forty years of medical ‘care’, Hazzard is believed to have killed at least one dozen to as many as two dozen, or more, of her patients.


Elizabeth Bathory: The Blood Countess

Despite his small number of victims, Jack the Ripper is generally seen as the greatest killer in history, so great that other famous murderers pale in celebrity to this unknown, knife-wielding maniac. For example, have you ever heard of a lady called Elizabeth Bathory? Probably not. She was a noblewoman!…Still not doin’ anything for yah? Hmmm. Elizabeth Bathory is one of those obscure figures of history, you either know about her, or you don’t know about her. And if you know about her, you’d wish you didn’t.

The Blood Countess, as she was called, is proof that just killing bundles and bundles of people doesn’t get you on the ‘Top Ten’ list of famous killers. And believe me, she had a lot of fun doing what she did. And her score on the Super-Killers of History list would be right up there along with Mengele and Stalin and that kid who pours kerosene down anthills and lights them on fire. But enough about them, this article is about old Lizzie the Blood Countess…

Who was the Blood Countess?

In her native Hungarian, she was Báthory Erzsébet, or in English, “Elizabeth Bathory”. For the sake of convenience, I’ll use her English name in this article.

Elizabeth Bathory was born on the 7th of August, 1560, the daughter Gyorgy Bathory. In her childhood, she was taught German, Greek and Latin, and had an interest in science. The Bathory family was incredibly rich and very powerful. They had connections, through blood or marriage, to almost every other family worth knowing in 16th century eastern Europe. Her family had powerful and wealthy members who controlled entire countries, such as the lands controlled by Stephen Bathory. To Elizabeth, he was just ‘Uncle Stephen’. To everyone else, he was the King of Poland. Elizabeth’s own father, Gyorgy, was a prominent nobleman. Elizabeth’s husband, a warrior count, was a national hero in Hungary, after successfully fighting against the Turks. When they married, the count gave his wife a grand castle to call her home. And she did call it home. For her husband rarely did; he was often off on wars and battles, trying to stop the Turks from barging into Hungary again…and again…and again…

It got to the stage that Elizabeth got used to living without her husband. Incredibly rich and free to do as she wished as the wife of the local nobleman, she exerted her power and authority over the helpless peasants of her domain, who lived in the various villages around her husband’s several estates.

Elizabeth’s Victims

Women with husbands who do a lot of work and head out on business-trips all the time can sometimes find themselves lonely and doing weird things. Elizabeth was no exception. Only, her husband’s business-trips were liable to get him killed. With the absence of the local lord, the lady of the castle was able to do whatever she damn well pleased. And she did, too.

Starting in about 1590 at the age of 30, Elizabeth started capturing and arresting and imprisoning girls and young women. Teenagers and women in their twenties were swept off the streets of the villages around her castles and Elizabeth had them locked down in the dungeons. These girls became the countess’s servant-girls and slaves. But above all things, they became her beauty-lotion.

It is widely believed that Bathory killed hundreds of young, female virgins for their blood. Literally. She drained their bodies of their blood and bathed in it, believing that it would help her reclaim her youth. Some accounts say that she even drank blood. But Elizabeth didn’t get blood in any way that we would recognise today. She didn’t set up a neat little blood-bank and needles and hoses and syringes. No, she preferred to do it a bit more earthy-like. To get the blood that she wanted, she mercilessly tortured and killed hundreds of girls and young women, cutting them open, locking them in cages, flogging them to death or mutilating their bodies. There are stories of her forcing women to strip naked in the snow during the freezing Hungarian winters. Bathory would then have dozens of buckets of freezing water thrown over her kneeling victims until they quite literally froze to death.

Bathory got away with her crimes because of her position. When your uncle rules an entire country and your husband is a national hero, it’s unlikely that people are going to jump up making wild, murderous accusations about you, is it? Peasants were terrified of their demonic mistress and when another girl in the village went missing, people kept their mouths shut.

Elizabeth Bathory. The Blood Countess

Capture and Trial

Position or no position, however, social standards dictates that it’s bad manners to go around butchering your neighbours. Especially when your neighbours are sweet little girls. Word had travelled around Hungary that Elizabeth was doing all kinds of weird and questionable things. Some people suspected her of witchcraft, a crime which was punishable only by death in Medieval Europe.

Eventually, though, the other nobles decided that Elizabeth could not be tolerated. Her bloodlust was giving them all a bad name, and something had to be done. Oh, and think of those poor, poor peasant-girls…yeah…the girls. It could be said that Elizabeth was sought out by the nobles, not for justice and legal reasons, but more because she was blackening the Hungarian aristocracy. And the other nobles weren’t going to take it much longer.

Rumors had been spreading for a while, but one man, István Magyari (Stephen Magyari), was determined to make things known. Magyari was a Christian minister, and between 1602-1604, he complained to anyone and everyone who would listen, that something had to be done about Elizabeth’s butchery. By now, rumors had been spreading for at least the last decade, and Mr. Magyari was getting worried.

Eventually, his persistence paid off, and King Matthias of Hungary decided that enough was enough. Acting on Magyari’s information, the king appointed Juraj Thurzo to investigate these wild and ludicrous claims against the Blood Countess. Thurzo was the Palatine of Hungary, a position roughly akin to the Supreme Judge or the Prime Minister. Thurzo was effectively the second-in-command in Hungary, and his office was directly beneath the king’s.

Thurzo, in company with Magyari the priest and a bunch of soldiers, headed to Elizabeth’s castle. They had to tread very carefully here. Elizabeth might have been a monster, but she was a monster with very powerful connections. They couldn’t just barge in and arrest her…this had to be done carefully.

While Thurzo, Magyari and the soldiers were busy trying to figure out how to get at Elizabeth Bathory, King Matthias sent notaries to do some more investigating. The notaries’ reports were worrying…Elizabeth wasn’t just killing peasant women, she was also going after the young women and the daughters and young sisters and neices of people who were in fact…other noblemen! Attacking peasants was one thing, but butchering women of the noble classes was something that the king had not expected. A consultation was held with Elizabeth’s family, specifically her son Paul and her two sons-in-law. Execution of Elizabeth would cause a huge scandal. But she couldn’t go unpunished, either. Eventually, they reached a compromise, that Elizabeth would be placed under permanent house-arrest.

With these decisions made, Thurzo, Magyari and the soldiers moved in the for the kill. Or at least, the trap. This was a difficult thing to do. Castles, by their very nature and design, are hard to enter discreetly. Thurzo and his men didn’t want to raise any alarms and they wanted to capture Elizabeth alive and in the act. If Thurzo and his men were spotted, it could become awkward in a hurry. Not least because Thurzo, second-in-command to the King of Hungary, was Elizabeth’s…cousin! See? I told you she was well-connected!

Well you can bet that made things awkward. A family feud and a national crisis all rolled in one.

Eventually, Thurzo and the soldiers did get into the castle. Thurzo successfully trapped his bloodthirsty cousin in a room and locked the door on her, while the soldiers secured the castle. A message was sent to the king and King Matthias started organising a trial.

Of course, to have a trial, you need to have evidence. So King Matthias told his good man Thurzo, to start looking for some. Thurzo and his men didn’t have to look very far.

Buried all over the castle grounds, and even hidden inside the castle itself, were dozens, hundreds of corpses and skeletons, all bearing horrific injuries. Soldiers recalled corpses with no eyes, no arms or legs. Clothing and personal effects of the kidnapped girls were also found, and several graves were found, dug hastily around the castle grounds.

Even more damning evidence was given by the victims of Elizabeth who had survived, and who were found imprisoned in the castle. Elizabeth’s band of assistants: men and women who helped her in her grisly work, were all fighting with each other, all trying to be the first to spill the beans. Telling everything they knew was the only way to escape a sentence of death for being an accomplice to murder, or escaping painful interrogation under torture. By assisting the royal authorities in their investigation, they hoped against hope to gain clemency from the king, even if King Matthias was in no mood for being merciful at the moment.

The trial started on the 2nd of January, 1611. You can bet it wasn’t a happy start to the new year. Elizabeth’s family begged that she not be brought forth to give evidence and the king obliged, keeping her locked in her room in the castle, under house-arrest.

Amongst the people who testified and gave evidence in court were Elizabeth’s unfortunate servants, and her assistants in her torturous doings. The judges (21 in all) who sat in on these hearings were ruthless in their examination and cross-examination. They fired questions at everyone. Who were they? What did they do? Who did they kill? How? Who were they? Where were they from? What did the Countess do? How many did she kill? The questions went on and on for days.

One of Elizabeth’s servants, a dwarf named Ficzko, was asked to describe how the women were killed. He stated that:

    “They tied the hands and arms very tightly with Viennese cord, they were beaten to death until the whole body was black as charcoal and their skin was rent and torn. One girl suffered more than two hundred blows before dying”

Elizabeth’s nurse from childhood was brought forth to testify against her mistress. She stated that Elizabeth or her fellow torturers, used red hot pincers or pokers on her victims, breaking their victims jaws, burning their flesh, ripping skin off with burning pincers, slicing off their fingers, slicing away the webbing between their fingers, biting off their flesh or ripping their flesh off with their bare hands. And this was just the start.

As the trial continued and the judges continued listening to testimonies, they were soon appalled by what they heard. Letters between Palatine Thurzo and King Matthias indicated that Elizabeth’s bodycount was grusomely impressive. While officially, she was only tried for the murder of a mere eighty (that’s 80) victims, Thurzo and his companions believed, based on the evidence they’d found at the castle, that Elizabeth could have killed anywhere from three hundred to six hundred to even seven hundred young women.

Ultimately, the fate of the Blood Countess came down to that of King Matthias of Hungary, and you can bet that old Matty didn’t have an easy job to do. As king, he could, of course, do whatever he wanted. But he had to tread carefully. Do the wrong thing, and he could have a national disaster on his hands. Personally, he wanted to have Elizabeth executed and done with. He would not let such a butcher live in his country and destroy his terrified subjects like this. But as was pointed out by his advisors, having the Blood Countess executed would mean a whole heap of paperwork. Her royal immunity would have to be removed from her and they would need a special law enacted just to have her executed. Elizabeth’s cousin Thurzo begged with his liege that Elizabeth was not in full possession of her faculties and would his Majesty consider acquittal on the grounds of insanity? The king refused, citing the evidence that Elizabeth had deliberately kept several implements of torture near at hand and that she clearly enjoyed her sadistic little games. She had to be punished…somehow.

Crime and Punishment

If Elizabeth was executed, if she was stripped of her noble title and her rights, it meant that her fortune, her estate, her titles and everything else that went with them, became the property of the king. Ordinarily, this would have suited King Matthias just fine. However, it was brought to the king’s attention that Elizabeth had children. If she was executed, her children would inherit nothing. Her husband died in 1604, so he wouldn’t get anything. It either all went to Elizabeth’s children, or it all went to the king.

Matthias decided that Elizabeth’s children had nothing to do with this and were therefore innocent. Plus, they surely had families of their own to provide for. It was decreed that Elizabeth therefore be placed under house-arrest for an indefinite length of time. She was bricked up in a small suite of rooms in her castle, with all the windows bricked up and the doors locked. One small hole was permitted, for the passage of food and drink, but that was it.

Paul Bathory, Elizabeth’s son, wrote to the king begging for mercy, but Matthias refused. On the other hand, Paul’s older sister and Elizabeth’s daughter, Anna, was appalled at her mother’s crimes. She vowed never to see or speak to her mother ever again. And she forbad her children from ever visiting or speaking about their grandmother.

As for Elizabeth herself, she remained confined in her small suite of rooms in her castle, never to be released. She eventually died on the 21st of August, 1614, at the age of fifty-four. Throughout her life, from her arrest to her death, she insisted that she was innocent of her crimes and that her victims died of various ailments and accidents and certainly NOT by her own hands. These protestations fell on deaf ears. King Matthias was in no mood to listen and her family had all but deserted her. King Matthias eventually died in 1619, at the age of 62.

King Matthias of Hungary, the man who finally ordered for Elizabeth Bathory to be held accountable for her crimes against his people


Whodunnit? The Crimes of Jack the Ripper

WARNING: This article contains photographs and diagrams of a graphic and disturbing nature.

Footfalls on an empty street. Gas streetlamps with their open flames fill the air with dim, flickering yellow light. Thick, white, smokey fog. The distant clatter of hooves and cartwheels. A bullseye lantern shining weakly through the misty gloom of a poorly-lit public thoroughfare. Suddenly, a pause, followed minutes later, by the loud, desperate ‘chreeep!’ of a police-whistle! The alarm has been sounded! From all quarters, officers run to the scene of a ghastly crime, to witness the work of a madman, and so begins one of the most famous cases in criminal history.

The year is 1888. Queen Victoria is on the throne. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is making a name for himself with a little-known private detective named Sherlock Holmes; in the United States, the Great Blizzard of ’88 paralyizes the eastern seaboard under several feet of ice and snow. And in the district of Whitechapel in the slums of London, a man known as Jack the Ripper starts one of the most famous series of crimes ever known to mankind…

Who Was ‘Jack the Ripper’?

To begin at the beginning, the Ripper’s identity was never firmly established. For over 120 years, the name, likeness, the mindset and the motivations of the Ripper, have remained a complete mystery to everyone but him. But suffice to say that Jack the Ripper has remained one of the most, if not the most famous serial-killer in recorded history. But who was he, and what did he do that makes him so famous? Why is it that there are documentaries and films and books and tours of London all centered around a guy who we know Jack-all about? Surely, to have lasted over a century at the top-spot on the Top 10 Most Famous Murderers List, he must’ve done something real fancy, like sliced open a screaming baby and cooked spaghetti and meatballs with its innards, right? And then stuffed the carcass and turned it into a pie! Yeah that’s it…Right?


Officially, Jack the Ripper killed only five victims, and none of them were babies. But then again, why? There have been murderers in history who butchered, tortured and killed dozens, even hundreds of victims, and yet their names are lost to history. And yet a Victorian-era nobody who no living person has seen since 1888, remains king of killers. Why?

It is because the Ripper represented the ultimate ‘whodunnit?’ mystery. No witnesses, no clues, no convictions…nothing. It is because, despite the frantic efforts of everyone from Queen Victoria (literally) down to ordinary London citizens, he managed to escape capture and was never brought to justice for crimes that would make Ed Gein look like a chef chopping up veggies for stew. It is because, for four months in 1888, Jack the Ripper terrorised the citizens of London with a series of crimes so gruesome and grisly, that he remains famous today as one of the greatest killers in history.

Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, London

The Ripper’s hunting-ground was a seedy, dangerous, impoverished, working-class neighbourhood in London’s East End, called Whitechapel, in the borough known as Tower Hamlets (due to its close proximity to the Tower of London). These days, Whitechapel is still a working-class neighbourhood with many warehouses and industry-buildings there, but it is a shadow of its former self, for the Whitechapel of 1888 was something akin to Hell on Earth.

The East End of London was always the industrial end of town. It was here that there were docks, slaughterhouses, brothels, opium dens, drinking dens, public houses, doss-houses (cheap boarding-houses), tanneries, paint-manufacturies, warehouses and other establishments and industires bound to make the air stink and the people poor. The Industrial Revolution had brought thousands of people to London and many of the poorest thousands ended up crammed into the East End. People in Whitechapel were especially poor, living in overcrowded, filthy tenements, often cramming as many as nine people into each room. And this was just for those who could find a cheap room. For those with no money at all, they literally ended up on the streets, often entire families were shoved out the door with the clothes on their backs. If they were lucky, they ended up in workhouses. Life was cheap, wages low, and unemployment rampant. Murder was not an everyday occurence in Whitechapel, but it wasn’t something that happened once in a blue moon, either. The residents of the neighbourhood were used to finding corpses of people who had been killed by one way or another. But the Ripper blew that nonchalance and indifference away like a fan against a candle.

When the Ripper murders started, the already longsuffering people of Whitechapel, troubled by unemployment, crime, poverty, starvation and widespread alcoholism, had yet one more life-shattering thing to worry about, thrown into the storm of their unhappy existences: The crimes of a homocidal maniac.

Whitechapel was a poor suburb. Streets varied from wide thoroughfares to narrow alleyways, large, open crossroads and obscure courtyards and squares. At night, the streets were poorly lit by dim, gas-fired lamps. The darkness gave the Ripper the perfect setting to carry out his grisly crimes, away from the prying eyes of the public. It’s probably little wonder that people started feeling as scared as they did.

The Victims and the Crimes

All streets and addresses mentioned in this part of the article are correct to 1888. The current names of any streets renamed since 1888 will be provided in brackets.

The unknown serial-killer known as Jack the Ripper officially killed only five victims, although some people have theorised that he may have killed up to a dozen people. His victims were East End prostitutes in their forties; women who were destitute, impoverished, almost certainly homeless and who had to sell themselves to make a scraping of a living. His five, official victims were, in order of death:

Mary-Ann Nichols (‘Polly’ Nichols).
Annie Chapman.
Elizabeth Stride (‘Long Liz’).
Catherine Eddowes.
Mary-Jane Kelly.

Friday, 31st August, 1888

Two men, Charles Cross and Robert Paul, are on their way to work. Cross finds the body of Polly Nichols outside the locked gates to a slaughterhouse in Buck’s Row (Durward St), Whitechapel. The time is 3:40am. Cross calls to Paul and together, they casually examine the body. Nichols’ skirts had been pulled up, and the two men pull them down again to give her some decency. Mr. Paul examines the body a bit closer and checks for a pulse. He thinks he feels a weak heartbeat. The two men leave the body, determined to notify the first policeman that they find.

Shortly after the men leave, PC John Neil, out on his beat, comes through Bucks Row. He spots the body by the light of his lantern and raises the alarm with his police-whistle. He is soon joined by PC John Thain, and shortly after, by PC Jonas Mizen, who had already been alerted to the presence of the body after meeting Cross and Paul on their way to work. A doctor is summoned to examine the body and remove it from the scene of the crime.

While Neil and Mizen stay with the body, Thain leaves to find the nearest physician, Dr. Rees Ralph Llewellyn who lives nearby. Llewellyn examines the body and declares death to have happened only a few minutes ago.

In the nearest mortuary, an inventory of Nichols’s posessions is taken by Insp. John Spratling, and a postmortem examination is performed on Nichols by Dr. Llewellyn. He determines that…:

    “Five teeth were missing, and there was a slight laceration of the tongue. There was a bruise running along the lower part of the jaw on the right side of the face. That might have been caused by a blow from a fist or pressure from a thumb. There was a circular bruise on the left side of the face which also might have been inflicted by the pressure of the fingers. On the left side of the neck, about 1 in. below the jaw, there was an incision about 4 in. in length, and ran from a point immediately below the ear. On the same side, but an inch below, and commencing about 1 in. in front of it, was a circular incision, which terminated at a point about 3 in. below the right jaw. That incision completely severed all the tissues down to the vertebrae. The large vessels of the neck on both sides were severed. The incision was about 8 in. in length. the cuts must have been caused by a long-bladed knife, moderately sharp, and used with great violence. No blood was found on the breast, either of the body or the clothes. There were no injuries about the body until just about the lower part of the abdomen. Two or three inches from the left side was a wound running in a jagged manner. The wound was a very deep one, and the tissues were cut through. There were several incisions running across the abdomen. There were three or four similar cuts running downwards, on the right side, all of which had been caused by a knife which had been used violently and downwards. the injuries were form left to right and might have been done by a left handed person. All the injuries had been caused by the same instrument.”

    The Times newspaper

While at the mortuary, this photograph was taken of Nichols’s head

Mary-Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols was buried on Thursday, 6th of September, 1888.

Polly Nichols’s death certificate

Saturday, 8th September, 1888

Just two days after the Ripper’s first victim was laid to rest at the age of 43, his next victim was found brutally murdered. Her name was Annie Chapman, called ‘Dark Annie’ by some of her friends. Her body was found in the back yard of a common lodging-house at 29 Hanbury Street, Whitechapel, by a carman called John Davis, who lived on the third floor of No. 29, with his family.

At 5:30am, on the morning of the 8th of September, Albert Cadosh, a carpenter who lived next door at No. 27, came outside into the neighbouring back yard, which was barely any larger than the one next door, to relieve himself and answer a call of nature. While so-doing, he heard noises next door at No. 29. He heard one word: “No!”, and then the sound of something hitting the fence between the two houses, said fence being only five feet tall. Cadosh thought nothing of it, hitched up his pants and sauntered back inside. This was the only time when someone might possibly have spotted the Ripper. All Cadosh had to do was walk over to the fence and look over the top, and he would’ve seen Jack the Ripper. Shortly before six in the morning, Davis came into the back yard of his tenement to find the body of Annie Chapman. Her injuries were described as follows, by Dr. George B. Phillips:

    “The left arm was placed across the left breast. The legs were drawn up, the feet resting on the ground, and the knees turned outwards. The face was swollen and turned on the right side. The tongue protruded between the front teeth, but not beyond the lips. The tongue was evidently much swollen. The front teeth were perfect as far as the first molar, top and bottom and very fine teeth they were. The body was terribly mutilated…the stiffness of the limbs was not marked, but was evidently commencing. He noticed that the throat was dissevered deeply.; that the incision through the skin were jagged and reached right round the neck…On the wooden paling between the yard in question and the next, smears of blood, corresponding to where the head of the deceased lay, were to be seen. These were about 14 inches from the ground, and immediately above the part where the blood from the neck lay”

After Davis discovered the body, he left some men to guard it, before running to the nearest police-station in Commercial Street to alert the authorities. At approximately 6:30am, Dr. George Bagster Phillips arrived, to examine the body.

Phillips believed that the Ripper may have some knowledge of human anatomy. The knife used was long and thin, possibly a surgical knife. Phillips estimated that the time taken to kill and butcher the victim could have taken anywhere from fifteen minutes to nearly an hour, working in the dark, pitch-black, with no light, and without making a sound.

Chapman’s body was taken to the mortuary and a postmorten examination was carried out. A photograph of her face was also taken at this point:

Chapman’s body was laid to rest on Friday, the 14th of September, 1888.

Sunday, 30th September, 1888

It’s 1:00am in the morning. Jewellery-salesman Louis Diemschutz is driving along Berner Street, heading towards The International Workers’ Educational Club, of which he is a member. At the end of Berner Street, he turns into a space called Dutfield’s Yard. At the entrance, his horse is spooked and refuses to move forward. Diemschutz dismounts from his cart and heads into the pitch black square by himself, holding his whip out in front of him to feel the way. He finds the body of Elizabeth Stride, the Ripper’s third victim. At first, he thinks that Stride is drunk or asleep. He strikes a match to examine the body…and then runs into his clubhouse for help.

Men return with lanterns for better illumination and Diemschutz takes them to the body. Stride’s body is still warm, indicating that the woman was killed only a few minutes ago. It’s widely believed that the Ripper was still in the yard when Diemschutz entered it with his horse and cart, startling the Ripper and causing him to hide, leaving him unable to mutilate the body. When the corpse is discovered, he flees westwards…

Dr. Fredrick Blackwell of 100, Commercial Road, is summoned to examine the body and pronounces death at the scene. The constable on the beat is summoned and police backup soon arrives. The body is taken to the mortuary and examined. The injuries, as recorded by Dr. G.B. Phillips, who conducted the last few postmortem examinations reads as follows:

    “The body was lying on the near side, with the face turned toward the wall, the head up the yard and the feet toward the street. The left arm was extended and there was a packet of cachous in the left hand. The right arm was over the belly, the back of the hand and wrist had on it clotted blood. The legs were drawn up with the feet close to the wall. The body and face were warm and the hand cold. The legs were quite warm. Deceased had a silk handkerchief round her neck, and it appeared to be slightly torn. I have since ascertained it was cut. This corresponded with the right angle of the jaw. The throat was deeply gashed and there was an abrasion of the skin about one and a half inches in diameter, apparently stained with blood, under her right arm.

    At three o’clock p.m. on Monday at St. George’s Mortuary, Dr. Blackwell and I made a post mortem examination. Rigor mortis was still thoroughly marked. There was mud on the left side of the face and it was matted in the head. The Body was fairly nourished. Over both shoulders, especially the right, and under the collarbone and in front of the chest there was a bluish discoloration, which I have watched and have seen on two occasions since.

    There was a clear-cut incision on the neck. It was six inches in length and commenced two and a half inches in a straight line below the angle of the jaw, one half inch in over an undivided muscle, and then becoming deeper, dividing the sheath. The cut was very clean and deviated a little downwards. The arteries and other vessels contained in the sheath were all cut through. The cut through the tissues on the right side was more superficial, and tailed off to about two inches below the right angle of the jaw. The deep vessels on that side were uninjured. From this is was evident that the hemorrhage was caused through the partial severance of the left carotid artery.

    Decomposition had commenced in the skin. Dark brown spots were on the anterior surface of the left chin. There was a deformity in the bones of the right leg, which was not straight, but bowed forwards. There was no recent external injury save to the neck. The body being washed more thoroughly I could see some healing sores. The lobe of the left ear was torn as if from the removal or wearing through of an earring, but it was thoroughly healed. On removing the scalp there was no sign of extravasation of blood.

    The heart was small, the left ventricle firmly contracted, and the right slightly so. There was no clot in the pulmonary artery, but the right ventricle was full of dark clot. The left was firmly contracted as to be absolutely empty. The stomach was large and the mucous membrane only congested. It contained partly digested food, apparently consisting of cheese, potato, and farinaceous powder. All the teeth on the lower left jaw were absent.”

The death certificate of Elizabeth Stride

The night of the 30th of September, 1888, was going to be a memorable one. Not only was the Ripper nearly caught in the act, but because this was the only time that he killed two people in one night.

The Ripper’s fourth victim, and second on the night of the ‘Double Event’, was Catherine Eddowes.

While everyone’s attention was drawn to the death of Elizabeth Stride, the Ripper headed west, until he reached a small square called Mitre Square, in the City of London. Here, he kills Catherine Eddowes, whose body is discovered at 1:45am by PC Edward Watkins.

The interesting thing about Eddowes’s death is that she might very well not have been killed at all that night, if not for the actions of the police, who released her from a holding-cell at the Bishopsgate Police Station.

At 8:30 on the night of the 29th, Eddowes was arrested by the police for drunk and disorderly conduct. She was taken to the nearest police station at Bishopsgate and was locked up there from 8:50pm until 1:00am the next day. After sleeping off her drunkeness, Eddowes is released from the station and sent off on her way.

Sometime before 1:45, she meets the Ripper. He takes her to Mitre Square, where he kills her, rips her apart and leaves the body to be found by the police. Despite the fact that it was an enclosed square, nobody heard a thing. The people living in the houses around the square heard nothing. A poiceman and his family living in a house just a few yards away, heard nothing. Not even PC Watkins, whose beat took him right through the square, heard anything. The Ripper must have worked very fast, because Watkins passed through the square every fifteen minutes. At 1:30am, Watkins entered Mitre Square to find nothing out of the ordinary. When he returned at 1:45, he found a disemboweled corpse in the corner of the yard.

Eddowes’s body had been brutally butchered, almost hacked to pieces. These photos show the sheer extent of the Ripper’s damage:

Eddowes’s body, before she was…ehm…reassembled

Her body, sewn up, upon the completion of the postmortem examination

Dr. Fredrick Gordon Brown was called to the scene of the Eddowes murder. His report is shown below. Its sheer length is a testament to the Ripper’s savagery:

    “The body was on its back, the head turned to left shoulder. The arms by the side of the body as if they had fallen there. Both palms upwards, the fingers slightly bent. The left leg extended in a line with the body. The abdomen was exposed. Right leg bent at the thigh and knee. The throat cut across.

    The intestines were drawn out to a large extent and placed over the right shoulder — they were smeared over with some feculent matter. A piece of about two feet was quite detached from the body and placed between the body and the left arm, apparently by design. The lobe and auricle of the right ear were cut obliquely through.

    There was a quantity of clotted blood on the pavement on the left side of the neck round the shoulder and upper part of arm, and fluid blood-coloured serum which had flowed under the neck to the right shoulder, the pavement sloping in that direction.

    Body was quite warm. No death stiffening had taken place. She must have been dead most likely within the half hour. We looked for superficial bruises and saw none. No blood on the skin of the abdomen or secretion of any kind on the thighs. No spurting of blood on the bricks or pavement around. No marks of blood below the middle of the body. Several buttons were found in the clotted blood after the body was removed. There was no blood on the front of the clothes. There were no traces of recent connexion.

    When the body arrived at Golden Lane, some of the blood was dispersed through the removal of the body to the mortuary. The clothes were taken off carefully from the body. A piece of deceased’s ear dropped from the clothing. I made a post mortem examination at half past two on Sunday afternoon. Rigor mortis was well marked; body not quite cold. Green discoloration over the abdomen.

    After washing the left hand carefully, a bruise the size of a sixpence, recent and red, was discovered on the back of the left hand between the thumb and first finger. A few small bruises on right shin of older date. The hands and arms were bronzed. No bruises on the scalp, the back of the body, or the elbows.

    The face was very much mutilated. There was a cut about a quarter of an inch through the lower left eyelid, dividing the structures completely through. The upper eyelid on that side, there was a scratch through the skin on the left upper eyelid, near to the angle of the nose. The right eyelid was cut through to about half an inch.
    There was a deep cut over the bridge of the nose, extending from the left border of the nasal bone down near the angle of the jaw on the right side of the cheek. This cut went into the bone and divided all the structures of the cheek except the mucous membrane of the mouth.

    The tip of the nose was quite detached by an oblique cut from the bottom of the nasal bone to where the wings of the nose join on to the face. A cut from this divided the upper lip and extended through the substance of the gum over the right upper lateral incisor tooth. About half an inch from the top of the nose was another oblique cut. There was a cut on the right angle of the mouth as if the cut of a point of a knife. The cut extended an inch and a half, parallel with the lower lip.

    There was on each side of cheek a cut which peeled up the skin, forming a triangular flap about an inch and a half. On the left cheek there were two abrasions of the epithelium under the left ear. The throat was cut across to the extent of about six or seven inches. A superficial cut commenced about an inch and a half below the lobe below, and about two and a half inches behind the left ear, and extended across the throat to about three inches below the lobe of the right ear.

    The big muscle across the throat was divided through on the left side. The large vessels on the left side of the neck were severed. The larynx was severed below the vocal chord. All the deep structures were severed to the bone, the knife marking intervertebral cartilages. The sheath of the vessels on the right side was just opened.

    The carotid artery had a fine hole opening, the internal jugular vein was opened about an inch and a half — not divided. The blood vessels contained clot. All these injuries were performed by a sharp instrument like a knife, and pointed. The cause of death was haemorrhage from the left common carotid artery. The death was immediate and the mutilations were inflicted after death.

    We examined the abdomen. The front walls were laid open from the breast bones to the pubes. The cut commenced opposite the enciform cartilage. The incision went upwards, not penetrating the skin that was over the sternum. It then divided the enciform cartilage. The knife must have cut obliquely at the expense of that cartilage. Behind this, the liver was stabbed as if by the point of a sharp instrument. Below this was another incision into the liver of about two and a half inches, and below this the left lobe of the liver was slit through by a vertical cut. Two cuts were shewn by a jagging of the skin on the left side.

    The abdominal walls were divided in the middle line to within a quarter of an inch of the navel. The cut then took a horizontal course for two inches and a half towards the right side. It then divided round the navel on the left side, and made a parallel incision to the former horizontal incision, leaving the navel on a tongue of skin. Attached to the navel was two and a half inches of the lower part of the rectus muscle on the left side of the abdomen. The incision then took an oblique direction to the right and was shelving. The incision went down the right side of the vagina and rectum for half an inch behind the rectum.

    There was a stab of about an inch on the left groin. This was done by a pointed instrument. Below this was a cut of three inches going through all tissues making a wound of the peritoneum about the same extent.

    An inch below the crease of the thigh was a cut extending from the anterior spine of the ilium obliquely down the inner side of the left thigh and separating the left labium, forming a flap of skin up to the groin. The left rectus muscle was not detached. There was a flap of skin formed by the right thigh, attaching the right labium, and extending up to the spine of the ilium. The muscles on the right side inserted into the frontal ligaments were cut through.

    The skin was retracted through the whole of the cut through the abdomen, but the vessels were not clotted. Nor had there been any appreciable bleeding from the vessels. I draw the conclusion that the act was made after death, and there would not have been much blood on the murderer. The cut was made by someone on the right side of the body, kneeling below the middle of the body.

    I removed the content of the stomach and placed it in a jar for further examination. There seemed very little in it in the way of food or fluid, but from the cut end partly digested farinaceous food escaped. The intestines had been detached to a large extent from the mesentery. About two feet of the colon was cut away. The sigmoid flexure was invaginated into the rectum very tightly.

    Right kidney was pale, bloodless with slight congestion of the base of the pyramids.

    There was a cut from the upper part of the slit on the under surface of the liver to the left side, and another cut at right angles to this, which were about an inch and a half deep and two and a half inches long. Liver itself was healthy.

    The gall bladder contained bile. The pancreas was cut, but not through, on the left side of the spinal column. Three and a half inches of the lower border of the spleen by half an inch was attached only to the peritoneum. The peritoneal lining was cut through on the left side and the left kidney carefully taken out and removed. The left renal artery was cut through. I would say that someone who knew the position of the kidney must have done it.

    The lining membrane over the uterus was cut through. The womb was cut through horizontally, leaving a stump of three quarters of an inch. The rest of the womb had been taken away with some of the ligaments. The vagina and cervix of the womb was uninjured. The bladder was healthy and uninjured, and contained three or four ounces of water. There was a tongue-like cut through the anterior wall of the abdominal aorta. The other organs were healthy. There were no indications of connexion.

    I believe the wound in the throat was first inflicted. I believe she must have been lying on the ground. The wounds on the face and abdomen prove that they were inflicted by a sharp, pointed knife, and that in the abdomen by one six inches or longer.

    I believe the perpetrator of the act must have had considerable knowledge of the position of the organs in the abdominal cavity and the way of removing them. It required a great deal of medical knowledge to have removed the kidney and to know where it was placed. The parts removed would be of no use for any professional purpose. I think the perpetrator of this act had sufficient time, or he would not have nicked the lower eyelids. It would take at least five minutes. I cannot assign any reason for the parts being taken away. I feel sure that there was no struggle, and believe it was the act of one person.

    The throat had been so instantly severed that no noise could have been emitted. I should not expect much blood to have been found on the person who had inflicted these wounds. The wounds could not have been self-inflicted.”

The Double Event of the 30th of September sent Victorian London into Red Alert. Everyone was scared, even the people who didn’t live in the East End! Queen Victoria herself stated that:

“This new and most ghastly murder shows the absolute necessity for some very decided action. All these courts must be lit, and our detectives improved. They are not what they should be”

The police were frantic now. They followed up each and every single lead to the best of their ability. They did doorknocks, speaking to every single person (almost literally) in the East End. In some cases, every single house in a street was doorknocked by police, and officers interviewed every single person they could find, for information about Jack the Ripper.

For the whole of October, nothing happened, although exhaustive public and police-efforts to track down the Ripper continued. Vigilante organisations were set up, rewards were offered and every single suspect was checked, shadowed, interviewed, arrested, released, checked, checked and rechecked. Every single clue and lead, no matter how stupid or irrelevant, was followed as keenly as if the murder-weapon had just been laid on the evidence-table.

By the end of October, people started relaxing. The killer had gone underground. He was in hiding. He was dead. He had fled the country. He had done something that meant he wouldn’t kill again.

Or so they thought.

Friday, 9th November, 1888

It was the great misfortune of Mr. Thomas Bowyer, on the 9th of November, the Lord Mayor’s Day, to go around collecting rent. He headed into a small square known as Miller’s Court where he intended to call on Mary Jane Kelly. Finding the door locked and receiving no answer to his knocks, Mr. Bowyer went around the side of the building to peep into the room through a broken window. Pushing aside the curtains to reach for the door-handle of the door (the room was so small that it was perfectly possible to do this), Bowyer caught the remains of Mary Kelly lying on the bed in the corner of the room. He was so horrified at what he saw, that he ran to find the police as soon as he could.

The last murder of Jack the Ripper is unique in many ways. To begin with, Kelly was a lot younger than the other victims. Nichols, Chapman, Stride and Eddowes were all in their forties. Kelly was just twenty-five. Kelly was the only victim to have a permanent address (13 Miller’s Court, Whitechapel). She was the only victim killed indoors, and her body was the most mutilated of them all. Kelly’s body was the only one of the Ripper’s victims to be photographed as she was found, where she was found.

When the police arrived, they opened the door and entered the room. What greeted them was a scene of absolute carnage. Mary Kelly had literally been ripped to pieces. Chunks of her body lay all over the place and blood was everywhere. The Ripper had really gone to work on her, slicing and cutting and gouging away so much flesh that her skull was exposed. Her face was so badly mutilated that it wasn’t even recognisable. Her entire body had been sliced open like a French roll and her innards pulled out and her organs were heaped on the bedside table. The official report stated that the heart was ‘absent’. A fire had obviously burned in the room overnight, and it was one of such intensity that the tea-kettle hanging over the hearth was partially melted from the heat.

Mary Jane Kelly’s body, photographed as found by police

Kelly’s death and subsequent butchery sent shockwaves of an unprecedented scale through London. Sir Charles Warren, commissioner for the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), resigned in disgrace on the same day. On the 10th of November, the Home Office issued an official Royal Pardon from Queen Victoria herself, for “anyone but the killer” who might come forth with information leading to the Ripper’s apprehension.

Death cetificate of Mary Jane Kelly (written here as Marie Jeanette Kelly)

The postmortem report by Dr. Thomas Bond, a police surgeon, on the condition of Mary Jane Kelly’s body, reads as follows:

    “The body was lying naked in the middle of the bed, the shoulders flat but the axis of the body inclined to the left side of the bed. The head was turned on the left cheek. The left arm was close to the body with the forearm flexed at a right angle and lying across the abdomen. The right arm was slightly abducted from the body and rested on the mattress. The elbow was bent, the forearm supine with the fingers clenched. The legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk and the right forming an obtuse angle with the pubes.

    The whole of the surface of the abdomen and thighs was removed and the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds and the face hacked beyond recognition of the features. The tissues of the neck were severed all round down to the bone. The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus and kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side and the spleen by the left side of the body. The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table.

    The bed clothing at the right corner was saturated with blood, and on the floor beneath was a pool of blood covering about two feet square. The wall by the right side of the bed and in a line with the neck was marked by blood which had struck it in a number of separate splashes. The face was gashed in all directions, the nose, cheeks, eyebrows, and ears being partly removed. The lips were blanched and cut by several incisions running obliquely down to the chin. There were also numerous cuts extending irregularly across all the features.

    The neck was cut through the skin and other tissues right down to the vertebrae, the fifth and sixth being deeply notched. The skin cuts in the front of the neck showed distinct ecchymosis. The air passage was cut at the lower part of the larynx through the cricoid cartilage. Both breasts were more or less removed by circular incisions, the muscle down to the ribs being attached to the breasts. The intercostals between the fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs were cut through and the contents of the thorax visible through the openings.

    The skin and tissues of the abdomen from the costal arch to the pubes were removed in three large flaps. The right thigh was denuded in front to the bone, the flap of skin, including the external organs of generation, and part of the right buttock. The left thigh was stripped of skin fascia, and muscles as far as the knee.

    The left calf showed a long gash through skin and tissues to the deep muscles and reaching from the knee to five inches above the ankle. Both arms and forearms had extensive jagged wounds. The right thumb showed a small superficial incision about one inch long, with extravasation of blood in the skin, and there were several abrasions on the back of the hand moreover showing the same condition.

    On opening the thorax it was found that the right lung was minimally adherent by old firm adhesions. The lower part of the lung was broken and torn away. The left lung was intact. It was adherent at the apex and there were a few adhesions over the side. In the substances of the lung there were several nodules of consolidation. The pericardium was open below and the heart absent. In the abdominal cavity there was some partly digested food of fish and potatoes, and similar food was found in the remains of the stomach attached to the intestines.”

Letters from the Ripper?

One of the most famous elements of the Jack the Ripper case was the number of letters sent to police-officials and newspaper-editors throughout the duration of the crimes. Many were considered to be hoaxes, but a handful were believed to be genuine. Here they are, for you to read:


    25th Sept, 1888

    “Dear Boss,

    I keep hearing the police have caught me, but they won’t fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about leather apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and won’t quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with, but it went thick like glue and I can’t use it. Red ink is fit enough, I hope. Haha! The next job I do, I shall clip the lady’s ears off and send to the…

    …police officers just for jolly; wouldn’t you? Keep this letter back ’till I do a bit more work. Then give it out straight. My knife’s so nice and sharp, I want to get to work right away, if I get a chance.

    Good Luck,

    Yours Truly,

    Jack the Ripper

    Don’t mind me giving the trade name.

    Wasn’t good enough to post this before I got all the red ink off my hands, curse it. No luck yet. They say I’m a doctor now.Ha ha

This card was sent after the “Double Event” of September 30th. It reads:

    “I was not codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip, you’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off. ha not the time to get ears for police. thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again.

    Jack the Ripper”

    From hell.
    Mr Lusk,
    I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman and prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer

    Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk

This last communication did indeed contain half a human kidney which was widely believed to have come from Catherine Eddowes, however, medical science at the time was not able to say this definitely.

Catching the Ripper

Trying to catch Jack the Ripper was like trying to bail out a sinking ship with a sieve. The police simply couldn’t do it, no matter how hard they tried. Even today, capturing serial-killers takes months, years, in some cases, even decades of investigation. These days we think it’s easy, it’s just a matter of blood, DNA, fingerprints and skin-flakes. However, we have to remember that in 1888, none of these things were available to the police of the era. The Scotland Yard of the 1880s, although advanced for the period, had only rudimentary scientific investigative techniques. Fingerprinting had existed as a form of identification before then, but it would not be used in criminal investigations until the turn of the century. DNA and blood analysis did not exist and criminal profiling and modern criminal psychology did not exist.

At the time, a frustrated young doctor named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing of a detective named Sherlock Holmes. Holmes solved crimes through delicate, careful observation and meticulous examination of EVERYTHING in a crime-scene, no matter how trivial it was. If the police had followed Holmes’s lead of applying observation, deduction, analysis and inference to their investigations, maybe they would have gotten somewhere, but in 1888, when Holmes’s reputation was still being established, no right-minded policeman was going to follow the investigative techniques of a fictional detective!

Victorian-era CSI and investigating crimes in general, was thorough, but generally inconclusive. It was customary to try and clean up crime-scenes as quickly as possible, not to photograph it, measure it or collect evidence. This is one of the things that made the death of Mary Kelly so unique. She was the only Ripper victim who was photographed EXACTLY as she was found. Officers did not have a rogue’s gallery of known criminals to pour through. If they wanted information, they had to go out and find it. They had to hammer on doors and take down witness statments (which were rarely helpful) and they had to be incredibly alert. In most cases, the only way to apprehend a criminal was to literally catch him in the act. Rewards were sometimes placed in newspapers for information leading to the recovery of stolen goods, or information leading to the arrest of a wanted criminal.

Clues in the Ripper case were few and far between. The only clue that the Ripper ever really left, was a scrap of cloth, ripped from one of his victim’s aprons, which he used to clean his knife. Above the spot where the scrap of apron was found, was a piece of grafitti, which read:

    “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing”

Whether it was ever written by the Ripper, or whether the presence of this grafitti even means anything, is uncertain. It was never photographed and exists now, only in the handwritten copies of the police-officers who saw fit to write it down.

The Ripper’s success in eluding the police, despite the very energetic efforts of two police-forces, thousands of men and investigation of everything down to the tiniest and most absurd detail, makes Jack the Ripper one of the most successful serial killers in history. Ripper suspects number in their dozens, ranging from relative nobodies, to His Royal Highness, Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria. Theories have floated around for over a hundred years, as to who the killer is. It was generally believed by the police at the time, that one Aaron Kosminski was the killer, but he was never brought to trial because as a Jew, fellow Jews refused to testify against him. He was eventually confined to a lunatic asylum, where he eventually died. Did authorities capture Jack the Ripper in Kosminski? Or did the real Rpper escape justice? Nobody will ever know.


The Feudal System in Medieval Europe

From about the year 1000 until the end of the 1500s, the people of Europe lived, worked and died by a social and governmental system known as ‘Feudalism’. Most people have a weak idea of what feudalism is, but we often forget about it when we watch movies, which portray the Medieval period as romantic, exotic, exciting and amazing. In truth, there was every little romance about living in the Medieval period and living by the Feudal System. It was hard work, sacrifice, slavery and most likely an early grave for anywhere from 70-90% of the population of Europe.

What was Feudalism?

Feudalism in its simplest form was a pyramid of power. At the very top was the king. Below him were barons (noblemen), below them were knights, below them were the peasantry. The peasantry was the largest chunk of the pyramid, right at the bottom, and it could make up to three quarters to nine tenths of the entire population. Amongst the peasantry, the classes were even further subdivided into Freemen, Villeins, Cottagers and Slaves.

The king was at the very top. He ran the country, he decided who got what, he settled disputes, he allocated land and he reigned supreme over his subjects. In theory, the entire country belonged to the king and people couldn’t live there without his personal say-so. Of course, in particularly large countries, it was impossible for the king to see what was going on around his country all at once. To help him do this, he appointed barons or noblemen to be his eyes and ears. The idea was that the king gave a nobleman, a person who had proved himself worthy, a plot of land. In return for the land, the nobleman was expected to govern his part of the kingdom and was expected to pay taxes and provide the king with knights in the event of a military conflict. The land which noblemen could have could be immense, and to protect their royal presents, many noblemen built castles (for which they needed royal permission and funds). Noblemen could set their own laws and taxes within the lands which they controlled.

Below the king and his barons were the knights. A knight was an elite soldier, trained, almost since birth, to kick medieval butt. You can find out more about knights here. The local lord was expected to have a group of knights ready and waiting for the king, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, in case of a war. Most knights were rather run-of-the-mill and ordinary. However, if you were really brave and ballsy, you could actually make a pretty good living as a knight, and some stood a chance of becoming wealthy and powerful noblemen themselves.

Below the knights were the common masses, subdivided, as I said, into Freemen, Villeins, Cottagers and Slaves.

The Peasantry

Under the Feudal System, the peasantry was the lowest class of people. They were more-or-less disposable slave-labour. With so many peasants, it’s probably not surprising that there were various classes of peasantry, free and unfree peasantry. Free peasants being called Freemen and unfree peasants being called serfs, the latter bieng further subdivided into various groups.

Freemen, as the name implies…were free. Free to do more or less as they wished. They were tenant-farmers, who rented land from the local lord and who could grow their own crops and do as they pleased. They paid lower taxes than most other peasants, so if they played their cards right, they could make a fairly decent living for themselves. However, freemen in Medieval society were generally few and far between.

Next came Villeins. Villeins were the biggest chunk of the peasant workforce. Despite the fact that life was hard for them, they did manage to make a living and they did have various rights and rules which governed their lives, much like the more lucky freemen above them. Unfortunately, what rights and priveliges they had couldn’t always fill their bellies and they were expected to work hard on the land to get their food. If food was scarce, they might turn to crime. ‘Villein’ is the medival word which we get the modern ‘Villain’ from. What rights they did have must’ve seemed like royal luxuries to the people below them. Villeins were able to own houses, or at least rent them, they might, or might not be allowed their own land. One unpleasant condition (amongst several) of their existence was that they could not leave the land of their lord without permission. The only other way to leave your lord’s land and servitude was to marry a freeman, who had his own house and grounds. One, less than legal way to escape servitude was to run away and live in town for a long enough period that you could earn your freedom. In order to earn this freedom, you had to live in town for at least a year, though. Considering all the things that happened in towns, and the possible lack of employment, surviving your first year there could be very tough.

Next on the social ladder was the Cottager. As the name suggests, a cottager lived in…a cottage. Unlike Freemen or Villeins, cottagers had no land to call their own. Freemen had their own fields or land around their homes. Villeins might be given a neat, ‘house-and-land’ package from their landlords, but cottagers got nothing. They were expected to work the lord’s fields, for the lord, every single day. In return for this servitude, they were given small huts or shacks (‘cottages’) and a small percentage of the harvest which they worked so hard to produce.

The very last and lowest rung of the medieval social ladder was the Slave. Slaves had almost no rights at all, if they were lucky in the first place, to have any given to them. Slaves worked exclusively for the lord and were paid in food. Unlike Freemen and Villeins, they could not own land and they generally survived on donations given to them by wealthier people.

Life as a Peasant

As you can probably guess, peasant life was incredibly hard. If you didn’t work every single day of your life, you wouldn’t survive another day. To many peasants, regardless of class, life generally meant backbreaking field-labour. Under medieval law, the king owned everything. What the king gave to his lords was stuff which the lords had to pay rent on. For that rent, anything within the lord’s land belonged to him. This ‘everything’ included the crops, the people, the animals, the wood, tools, clothing, mills…everything. In theory, the very clothes that the peasants wore, belonged to their landlord.

Away from the watching eyes of the king, landlords were free to wield their not-inconsiderable power. Landlords were allowed to set their own laws and taxes, and did so freely. Peasants were often exploited, but those were careful and attentive could climb the social ladder. Villeins and Freemen could actually amass a comfortable level of wealth if they knew how to trade their goods and services correctly and they might be able to buy their freedom, or move away from the lord’s land and start new lives elsewhere.

The things that peasants could, or could not do, were many and varied. Villeins were not allowed to leave their lord’s land, but they could be allotted a small amount of their own land to farm for their own purposes. Peasants could not hunt on the lord’s estate, and lived mostly on bread and cheese and fish. Lords could dine on such delicacies as game birds, pork, beef, chicken and wine. Peasants had to tend to their lord’s land before they tended to their own and they were allowed to take wood from the lord’s land only if it was already dead (so that means no cutting down live trees for firewood).

Peasants who owned land were allowed to farm what they desired on their land, be it wheat, corn, barley…anything that would grow. However, wheat was a constant. Taxes were paid in wheat, and so a crop of it always had to be available. As I mentioned in my articles on castles, peasants expected to be allowed to seek refuge in their lord’s castle or fortified manor-house in the event of danger to the land. The local lord was also expected to give charity and alms to the poor or impoverished on his lands, and to take care of his peasants in the event of a famine, drought or other natural disaster.

Serfdom, or the system of peasants existing as unfree labour to a landlord, lasted for a surprisingly long time. Although the Feudal System collapsed in the 1600s with the rise of armies, the end of knights and the establishment of permanent towns and cities as places of home and business, serfdom itself existed for a long time, well into the 19th century in some places.