There were a myriad of challenges involved in incorporating the historical case of the serial killer Jack the Ripper into the Mrs. Hawking saga. One of the big ones was how to depict the women who were killed by him. Very often, they are reduced to indicators of the horror, meat for the grinder of the lurid narrative. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do better, to make them more present in their own story, which is usually overshadowed by the specter of the Ripper.
One of the reasons the case seemed so perfect for our story is the nature of the victims. The killer targeted the poorest and most disenfranchised women in London, not only suffering under conditions of poverty and disease, but often despised even by those of more acceptable places in society. This fits in perfectly with Mrs. Hawking’s mission— and with addressing one of the big problems with typical Jack the Ripper narratives.
We are using the common modern consensus that there were five known victims that can be credibly attributed to this murderer— Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. To popular imagination, they were all prostitutes, as they were referred to in the news reports of the times. This lifestyle and likelihood to go off alone with strange men served as a source of blame for their vulnerability to the killer. But deeper digging into the statements made by people who actually knew them suggests that some of them weren’t, instead put in danger by ill health, addiction, and unstable housing. And of even those were sex workers, the lack of social support for those suffering extreme poverty exposed them in a way more fortunate people were not. This interpretation was greatly inspired by the research of Hallie Rubenhold in her recent book “The Five.”
A goal of this story is to bring back the human face to these women, who have been somewhat anonymized time and the looming reputation of their killer. I bet there are not many in the Western world who haven’t heard the name Jack the Ripper, but I doubt a fraction of them could give any of the victims’ names. So instead, we are focusing on embodying the victims and women like them. We want to demonstrate something of the reality of their lives, and how much social rejection and stigma did to make them vulnerable to a predator. Even our heroes— explicitly dedicated to helping the women who have nowhere else to turn —have to get over their classism and prejudices borne out of the standards of Victorian morality.
This narrative bears the burden of so many others that subject sex workers and impoverished women to violence. Our hands are bound by history if we are to tell this story. But if we are to borrow from these real people’s tragedies to create drama, we wanted to show them some respect in the process by not leaving them as mere props in a murder mystery. We are working to embody and acknowledge their humanity. I even hope that we are able to inject a little agency, something that is often erased in people are victimized. Perhaps that can do a little honor to their memory.
Polly Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Catherine Eddowes. Mary Jane Kelly. As one of our characters will urge during the course of the show— “Don’t forget.”
Catch Mrs. Hawking in MRS. FROST and the all-new FALLEN WOMEN this January at Arisia 2020 in Boston, MA