From the author: London, November 1888. A young police officer volunteers for a novel undercover role, one for which he is uniquely suited. Thus disguised, he witnesses Jack the Ripper’s last horrific crime — and glimpses the high-level cover-up that drew the curtain over the killer’s identity.
"Hoy there, pretty Judy!"
Puryear snickered as I took a turn about the hall, swishing my skirts. I came to a stop beside the burly plainclothesman and smacked him on the arm with a worn kid glove. "That would be 'Inspector Judy' to you, Sergeant."
Laughter all round. "Starritt, it’ll be the devil getting you back into uniform," came a growl from the back.
Like most of the men in the drafty muster hall at Scotland Yard, I was dressed tonight for undercover work. That said, I was the only member of Central Investigations wearing an actual dress: an elaborately flounced deep blue silk with padded bustle and a tattered petticoat peeking out beneath the hem. A brown wool jacket with worn velvet trim at the wrists completed my ensemble. Not the latest London fashion for autumn of 1888, but, then, Whitechapel was hardly Kensington. And Whitechapel was where we'd be going.
When Inspector Abberline strode through the door, he pretended to ignore the whistles my costume was attracting.
"For the grace of God," the inspector muttered as I hurried past him to a front-row seat. I belatedly thought to totter a bit in my high-heeled boots, demonstrating an unfamiliarity with ladies' garb that only I knew to be an affectation.
More than three dozen constables and plainclothesmen from the CID and H Division were crowded into the hall for Abberline's briefing. Some sat on chairs or perched on battered desks. A few latecomers, hastily shoving pipes and tobacco pouches into their jacket pockets, stood against the walls.
Abberline consulted a sheaf of papers on the table beside him. He appeared in no hurry to begin. Then, abruptly, he straightened up and smacked a copy of the Times on the table. I saw the word "Ripper" in the broadsheet’s banner headline.
"I can't say I fully approve of what we're about to do," the inspector began, glancing over at me. "But, gentlemen, we find that our backs are to the wall."
Abberline paced as he talked, occasionally gesturing toward the large map of Whitechapel behind him. I found it hard not to fidget. We’d heard much of this before.
What the press called the "Ripper" investigation had been tossed back and forth between the Metropolitan Police Whitechapel CID and Central Office at Scotland Yard as if it were a hot potato. And plenty of fingers were getting singed. They'd put a Chief Inspector from Scotland Yard over Abberline to "coordinate" the inquiry. Gents from the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee were bumbling around in the streets with some private detectives they'd hired. Add to this a pack of baying journalists, led by a scoundrel named Bulling. There were even rumors that Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective, had taken an interest in the case.
You couldn't help but feel sorry for Abberline, by all accounts a career desk man. Tonight he stood pale but determined before us and attempted to rally the troops.
"This madman has been at work since August," he was saying. "He's claimed at least five victims and now taunts us through the press as 'Saucy Jack.' When I met with Sir Charles today I assured him that we could stop this depraved scoundrel and restore the reputation of Scotland Yard. Gentlemen," Abberline paused. The man looked exhausted. "Gentlemen, we will find Jack the Ripper!"
Shouts rang out, with much stomping of feet, nodding of heads and muttering of affirmatives. Abberline gave a short nod. He turned, said a few words to Inspector Lashley, and left the hall.
Lashley, a grizzled old-timer, lumbered to the front and rapped the table for order. "You heard the Inspector. We’ll nab this Ripper fellow—even if it takes sending out one of our finest—" he waved a great paw in my direction "—as a ladybird."
Laughter rippled through the room and less elegant sobriquets for my role were offered. But in truth we were all anxious to put the plan into action. We’d already spent five weeks on the streets disguised as gamblers, drunkards, and con men—in short, precisely the types who'd be expected to be roaming Whitechapel, scene of the grisly Ripper murders, in the wee hours. For two weeks I'd been playing the role of an inebriated toff. Last Friday, as we straggled in at dawn to change back into our own clothes, someone joked that we should set out a woman as bait for the killer.
All eyes had turned to me: slim, clean-shaven, and at five feet, five inches, one of the smallest men on the force. I'd shrugged and allowed that I’d be willing to give it a try. I’d borrow an outfit from my landlady. I didn't feel it necessary to mention that I was already in possession of a chignon wig in a becoming shade of chestnut.
Now here I stood in my getup. The handsome brown wig was topped by a suitably cheap and garish hat Puryear had borrowed from his aunt, a shopkeeper at the Baker Street Bazaar. Liberal applications of rouge and pearl powder completed my disguise.
"They don't much care if we catch this fiend or kill him," Lashley told the room. "Our job, lads, is to get Jack off the street and out of the newspapers."
He brandished the copy of the Times Abberline had left behind. "'Gripped By Fear,' that's what they're saying."
He tossed the broadsheet back on the table. "Well, they've got that much right. Aren’t any of those Judies wanting to meet this Ripper. They’ve taken to going about their business in pairs. Which means that a lone woman—our Inspector Starritt—will be tempting."
Lumbering over to the wall map, Lashley took us through the evening's plan. Nineteen men in plainclothes would stroll the streets and keep an eye on the pubs, gin houses, and street corners. Ten uniformed constables would make their customary rounds. Everyone would be on the lookout for me—they all turned to mark my costume—as I walked a route that crisscrossed Commercial Road. Whenever possible, I'd be discreetly tailed by two of the undercover men.
On our way to the armory, Puryear fell in beside me. "What madman could resist you, darling?" he said, giving me a wink.
I laughed, but stared straight ahead and quickened my pace. I wondered how much Puryear knew of my life outside working hours. After all, his brother, a member of my dressing club, was the friend who'd told me about the opening with Scotland Yard five years ago.
I shook my head, the hat plumes bobbing. No time to worry about what Puryear knew about my off-hours proclivities. I had plenty to occupy my thoughts tonight. They were sending us out armed to the teeth. I tucked a regulation Webley pistol into my beaded reticule and a silver whistle into my jacket sleeve. A 6-inch knife went inside a special leather sheath I'd sewn into the bodice of my gown, giving an unpleasant new meaning to the word "cleavage." God knows we'd seen enough cleaving recently.
Despite my arsenal, I had no plans to go hand-to-hand against the Ripper, by all evidence a man of unusual strength and savage determination. The expectation was that I’d lure him to attack, sound the alarm, and leave his capture to my comrades.
For the past two days, I'd been conducting quite literal dress rehearsals to get a feel for Whitechapel from a streetwalker's viewpoint. No question but that my feminine costume was believable; at dusk last night I was already being followed by prospective trade. But, more importantly, I'd gotten to know the women who gathered at the Blue Dog, a gin shop with a reputation for cheap drink and a warm hearth. Any resentment the women might have had about a new girl working their streets was muted by their fear of the Ripper. They'd known his victims, and immediately set about telling me the revolting stories. I heard how Martha Turner (or Tabrum, depending on who you asked) had led a client into a tenement in George's Yard for a four-penny quick one, only to be stabbed 39 times.
"Two different blades he used," put in a young Irish girl in a tatty pink dress.
Later that month Mary Nichols had been found on Bucks Row with her throat cut open.
"Still warm, she was, when the constables got there," came a voice from the back of the room. The speaker, a blowzy older woman, shuddered and turned back to her tumbler of gin.
The Ripper's next victim had been "Dark Annie" Chapman. Many of the women at the Blue Dog knew her from Crossingham's on Dorset Street. Annie had done crochet work and paid 8 pence a night for a shared bed. Short a few pennies for the room, Annie had gone out late to turn a trick. She never returned. Her body was found the next morning sprawled in the back yard of a Hanbury Street tenement—minus the innards.
The latest had been the double murder. First was "Long Liz" Stride, her throat cut near Dutfield's Yard. While the police rushed to the scene, the Ripper was just around the corner at Mitre Square, dispatching Catherine Eddowes. "Kate" was discovered in a pool of blood, skirts pulled up to her waist.
"Did her in her right under their noses," the woman beside me whispered. "Much good them coppers do." My confidante was a statuesque woman I judged to be in her late 20s, with abundant red hair pinned up in an elaborate coiffure. She introduced herself as "Ginger Mary." She dandled a little boy, feisty as a terrier pup, on her knee, introducing him as "my nevvy, Beau." She even treated the child to a sip of gin.
To my surprise, many of the Judies brought their children with them to the Blue Dog in the afternoons. The little ones would be dropped off with friends or family before work began in the evening. Despite their fascination with the gory details of the Ripper murders, most of the woman continued to work the fog-shrouded streets of Whitechapel. Quite simply, they needed the money.
When I inquired about a place to doss down, Ginger Mary suggested that I pay for a share of a bed in her rented room on Miller's Court. I didn't let on that I knew the place, which was often described as the most dangerous street in London. As we approached the grim tenement, I recognized the building as the very rooming house where Jack's first victim had put up for a while. I'd interviewed the tight-lipped landlady, a Mrs. McCarthy, early in the investigation. Fortunately, she showed no signs of recognizing me, in day dress and bonnet, as a copper. I paid for a week's lodging and told Mary I was going round to my cousin’s to pick up my bag and would be back later that night.
I returned just before 9, dressed for the evening and carrying a small carpetbag containing a towel and some toiletries. Ginger Mary sat at a small table in the shabby, much-painted room, using a mirror propped against the wall to apply her rouge. With a tip of her head, she indicated that I should put my bag under the sagging bed.
"About the rules," she said, squinting at her reflection and fussing with a pale blue hair ribbon as she talked. "They say we can't bring a gent in the room. But if you have one wants his privacy? They'll look t'other way long as you slip 'em a tuppence."
My red-haired roommate was, at a distance, a handsome woman. But on closer inspection, she was missing an eyetooth and her breath was acrid with gin. I tried to imagine how drunk or desperate a man would have to be to select her for a bit of fun, but my imagination (which I've been told is quite lively) flagged at the challenge.
When Ginger Mary had finished her toilette, we strolled out together along Dorset Street. It was now quite dark, and the sounds of carriages and an evening crowd could be heard in the distance. At the corner of Crispin, we passed two raucous drunks whom I recognized as officers Thompson and Varner. Varner honored us with an exaggerated bow that got him a perfunctory offer from Mary.
When he turned her down, a shadow crossed her face. "Pity," she said. "He seemed a nice one."
I coughed and nodded. "Very dapper."
"I need some business tonight, or else it's back to Cardiff for me," she said, confirming the Welsh background I'd suspected.
"You'd be safer in Cardiff."
Mary shrugged. We walked on in silence for a while. Then she spoke up. "I knew two of the girls killed by him—that Ripper fellow. One of them aways over there."
She pointed north towards Hanbury Street where Annie Chapman had been killed. I gave a sympathetic shudder.
"But not to worry, dear," she went on. "Everyone says he's moved on to Gateshead now."
I sighed. That rumor had been planted with the press. There was no truth to it, whatsoever.
As we approached a brightly lit pub, Mary brightened. "What say a bit of gin to warm us?" She turned to me, lips pursed in a smile, eyes twinkling, and you could see her charms. "There's often a good sort in there that'll buy you the drink."
I declined, but wished her luck. She hurried into the pub, leaving me to my first night on the streets.
I'd dressed often as a woman, but I had gone out in public only in a discreet manner, taking a cab to and from private parties, usually in the company of another "dressed" friend. You know the arrangement: Two young gentlewomen on their way to a private dinner.
Finding myself alone at night, dressed, in a part of town as decadent as Whitechapel, was both stimulating and disturbing. I’d always enjoyed playing the part of a demure society woman; it had never occurred to me to dress as a prostitute. And a woman alone on the grimy streets of Whitechapel at night could be nothing but.
For years I'd prided myself on the ability to pass so well that no one detected anything out of the usual as I tripped up the stairs to a friend's home. Now there was no possibility of going unnoticed; men with eyes burning with drink and drugs examined me frankly. The slow smiles on their lips assured me that they saw me as woman.
I was at first amused to note that I responded in character. I found myself swaying along the narrow streets, returning their smiles and indulging in a broad flirtation.
"They'll have you on the boards at the Old Vic next week, Starritt," mumbled a drunk (I recognized him as Inspector Crosby) as he stumbled past me.
"Damn you, Crosby." My husky voice was, as always, the weak point of my disguise.
We were well into November and the evening was cold. My wool-and-velvet jacket, though lined, was flimsier than I'd realized. I observed others of my new profession clutching thick woolen shawls around their shoulders and wished I'd thought to bring one. Tomorrow night, I told myself. Unless, of course, we caught the Ripper tonight. I shivered again, and it wasn't entirely from the weather.
By mid evening, Whitechapel had the air of a late-season country fair transported to the city. People crowded past on Commercial Road: Couples arm-in-arm, groups of young gentlemen laughing as they hurried into the gambling dens, pairs of confidence men who clearly knew their way about, and sometimes a lone man whose elaborately casual stroll and darting eyes marked him as a shopper for the local goods. Occasionally a sharp glance revealed the man as one of my fellow officers. Once or twice I felt a particularly hard and appraising stare from a man who passed too close. Before I looked away, I wondered if I were meeting the gaze of Mad Jack himself.
Whenever I turned onto a side street the crowds thinned and the city fell surprisingly silent. Streetlights were few. Weak light came from the open doorways of tenements where women gathered on the staircases in twos and threes, and restless children could be heard playing above them on the landings. Often a pile of refuse against a wall would stir, revealing itself to be an unfortunate. I'd see a hand reach out, or hear the muffled rattle as a bottle fell against the cobblestones.
The evening wore on. Each time I crossed Commercial Road, the voices of the crowds were harsher, the lighting more garish. I stumbled over the cobblestones and cursed softly. My delicate, high-heeled walking boots were rapidly losing their charm. It occurred to me that much more of this assignment might spoil my pleasure in dressing.
Early in the evening men had favored me with flirtatious glances but now one or two of them made so bold as to grab my arm. One gentleman proved particularly difficult to disengage. I caught only the flash of a silver tooth as he dragged me, struggling, toward a side street. I was as relieved as he was surprised to find his other arm grasped firmly by a uniformed constable who led him away.
Puryear appeared at my side. He spoke in a low voice. "Time to go in, Starritt my dear. It’s nearly 2."
Although exhausted, I shook my head. Puryear chuckled.
"Heh. I'm taking you in, miss," he said, this time in a mock-official tone. I thought the better of it and went along.
The next night was more of the same, only worse. By now my boots were ruined—likely beyond help from the cobbler, and how could a lady explain this kind of wear?
I glanced at my wristlet watch and saw to my relief that it was close to midnight. I'd become vaguely aware of a man walking quietly behind me. I could only hope it was one of my colleagues—or the Ripper, closely followed by my backup. I drifted down a side street, trying not to limp in the cursed footwear, and stopped to strike a pose under a gaslight.
It was then, through a veil of fog, I caught sight of a woman I thought might be Ginger Mary. She was in negotiations with a slight, dark man in a well-tailored topcoat. I fiddled with my reticule, adjusted my hat, and continued to watch them. Sure enough, it was Mary. She took the fellow's arm, and they headed in the direction of our room at Miller's Court. On a hunch, I stepped out of the light and followed them, staying close to the buildings.
As they passed beneath a streetlight I saw that the man carried a Gladstone bag. My heart jumped—we expected the Ripper to have just such a case for transporting the tools of his gruesome trade. When the fellow cast a look back over his shoulder, I pulled my skirts close and ducked into a foul-smelling doorway. A moment later, I stepped out into the street again, and did my best to drift along behind the couple. I could only hope that my colleagues were, in turn, following me. I glanced back several times, but saw no one. Thicker fog was tumbling in from the direction of the river.
Now, oddly, there was another man up ahead. A tall fellow dressed in the shabby garb of a laborer was shambling along behind Mary and her John. I wracked my tired brain. Was this one of ours?
I tiptoed around the corner from Dorset Street just in time to see Mary and her customer opening the door of our doss and stepping in. The door closed behind them, and a moment later a light appeared in the window. The roughly dressed man who'd been following them walked past the door and vanished into the fog.
Alone now, I stopped and looked around for my backup. Nothing we knew about the Ripper suggested that he took any intimacies with his victims, so I had to assume that if it were he, he'd be getting right down to business with his knives. I crept up to the door and listened. Nothing. The window was covered with a heavy blanket; all I could see at one edge was a sliver of flickering candlelight.
Still no sign of my backup. This meant I'd have to use the whistle to summon them. And if the Ripper bolted when he heard the alarm, if he came to the door, blade in hand, it would be up to me to hold him until the others arrived. Far from ideal, but it was the best plan I had. I reached into my sleeve for the whistle, searching in the lining and lace. Damn. I checked the other sleeve. Then the first one again.
Had I heard a moan from the room? Again I patted both sleeves: Nothing. No whistle, no way to summon backup. Seconds ticked by.
I reached for the Webley and was startled to find myself without my holster. But of course, the gun was in my reticule! I dug hurriedly in the beaded bag, brought out the pistol, and prepared to kick open the door and confront Mary's assailant. I took a step back, and that's when he grabbed me from behind.
"Don not move."His voice in my ear was low, the tone cultured—and oddly familiar. I struggled but found myself held tight. A knife at my throat stifled my instinct to shout.
"The man. In there. Is the Ripper," the low voice said.
I held very still, aware of the sharp blade against my skin."And I’m a police officer," I said in an equally low tone.
"Damn." My captor withdrew the knife, spun me halfway around by the shoulders, and peered into my face. "So you are."
Despite the elegant diction, I recognized my tall assailant as the man in laborer’s garb. I opened my mouth to shout for help, but he clapped across it a damp cloth. I struggled, unable to avoid inhaling the perfumed ether. I felt myself lowered to the cold, hard cobblestones. My hands and feet went numb. As I lay there, paralyzed, fighting the chemical the scoundrel had used, I heard voices. Two men. Arguing. Someone closed the doorway of the doss and I strained to listen.
"We must go," I heard my assailant say. "Now."
"No, no," said the second voice, high-pitched and agitated. "I still have so much work yet to attend to."
"Your work's done, my lord," said the first voice. There was the sound of scuffling. Footsteps sounded on the cobblestones by my head, then faded. Despite my efforts, blackness consumed me.
A constable found me struggling to raise myself on my elbows. He shrilled his whistle while I tried to speak.
"In there." My throat yielded a ragged croak. "The Ripper."
My skull felt as though it were about to split. I rolled onto my knees, cursing the high-heeled boots and the tangle of skirts and petticoats. Puryear and two others had arrived, and he pulled me to my feet. The other man pushed open the door, peered inside, and emerged hurriedly, turning aside to vomit. Puryear whistled, again and again, for backup. I tottered over to the doorway.
"Starritt! No! You don't want to look." Puryear threw out an arm to block my way. I pushed past him. What I saw in the room was beyond anything I could have imagined.
You've seen the pictures from the files. Ginger Mary lay on her back, stripped naked, one leg bent at an angle. The Ripper had gutted her, neck to thigh. I was told later that flesh and organs removed were found beneath the bed. But what I saw that morning was her face, slashed again and again until it was quite featureless. I hoped for a moment that it was another woman, but I recognized, surrounding the gore, her lovely ginger hair and the pale blue hair ribbon.
I didn't dare step closer. The floor was pooled with blood and marked with footprints I hoped would be saved as evidence. While Puryear and the others roused the landlady and neighbors, I gathered my filthy skirts above my boots and limped back to the armory.
Abberline came from behind his desk and motioned me to a chair. The room looked like a banker’s office, devoid of personality. The inspector sat down in a chair across from mine, looking as if he’d been up late closing the books. In a manner of speaking, he had.
"Inspector Starritt, I trust you have recovered from the injuries you sustained last week."
"Yes, sir. And I have submitted my report."
"I’ve read it."Abberline tapped his fingers on the file on his desk. After a moment, he got up and walked slowly to his window. It overlooked Whitehall Place, crowded with carriages and pedestrians in the dark winter afternoon. A fire burned in the hearth, but the old glass exposed the room to the chill winds.
I shivered, and told myself again that I wouldn’t be giving up much in leaving the force.
"Inspector, you omitted something from your report," Abberline said.
"You recognized the man who attacked you."
I answered carefully. "Sir, I don’t believe he was the Ripper."
"Indeed he was not," Abberline said. "I don’t think you saw the Ripper. I think you saw—"
He left the sentence hanging.
I shook my head. There was no way that I could explain how I'd recognized the man who’d gently but skillfully rendered me unconscious. Who'd led the Ripper from the appalling scene as if leading a recalcitrant child from a playfield.
Abberline's mouth twitched as he turned back to face me. Was it a grimace or a fleeting smile? "Inspector Starritt, you saw someone who shares your...skill in disguises. I’m sure that’s how you knew him."
With relief, I nodded. I could give him that much. I was leaving the force, after all. I believed Abberline was a fair man.
"This will go no further than my office," he said.
I gave in. "I'd seen him at parties. Dressed sometimes as a woman. Other times, he escorts other men who are dressed. I think it’s a fascination of his... But, really, I don’t know his name. Or why he’d be in league with Ripper."
"In league? Hardly." Abberline gave a dry laugh that ended in a cough. "Your compatriot apprehended the Ripper—yet another one of his services to the Empire." Abberline leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Mad Jack turns out to be someone with powerful connections. Thanks to your friend’s intervention, the Ripper has been put away somewhere where he’ll never walk the streets of London—or any other British city—again. Our work is done. And as for your friend, he's been acknowledged, once more, in the highest circles."
Services to the empire. Acknowledged in the highest circles. I was beginning to realize the identity of my fellow dresser.
Abberline continued, "Your own role in this case has been recognized, I believe, quite fairly?"
I nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Abberline stood up, signaling the end of our interview. "My thanks to you as well, Inspector, and my very best wishes to you on your retirement."
I was married in June 1889 to Margaret, who knew and understood my interests and was, in fact, an amateur thespian and a superb costumer. We moved to Brighton, bought a small hotel, and soon became part of a social circle where there were dressing events perhaps once a fortnight.
It was at a private party there, perhaps a dozen years later, that I saw the man who'd caught Jack the Ripper. Of course, he was not wearing his trademark hat and long Inverness coat. He was dressed that night as a wealthy dowager, resplendent in a costume of black widow's weeds and jet that complemented his long jaw, hawk nose, and severe features.
Our eyes met, and we nodded to each other from across the room.
It went no further.
- END -
This story originally appeared in The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories.