Nearly everyone has heard about the infamous “Jack the Ripper”; the killer who murdered prostitutes in Whitechapel. Stabbed them, mutilated them and left them for dead. Those of us who were there knew him by other charming nicknames, the Whitechapel Murderer, Leather Apron, but if you refer to him like that to someone outside of Whitechapel, they look at you like you just grew another head.
Though he’s known throughout the world, people still don’t know who he really was. Over the years, people have come up with different theories; he was a homeless beggar, seeking fame, a high ranking official trying to ‘clean up the streets’, and most absurd, he was Queen Victoria’s private surgeon. I hate to inform you, but all these theories are false. Every time I hear people discussing him and who they think he was and why he did it, I smile to myself. Truth is, he wasn’t anyone famous or even someone looking for fame. How do I know?
I knew him.
He killed someone very close to me and I set out trying to find hi, to bring him to justice. He took everything from me, my family, my best friend, and my innocence. He was an evil man, hell bent on revenge and causing mayhem. His voice made you shiver all the way from your head to your toes. They say people are not really evil, and that they are mainly acting out based on their surroundings. Specialists say that no one is really evil, they are just products of their environment or how they were raised.
I beg to differ.
This man was the living embodiment of all things evil and unholy. He was the worst sort of person you could ever hope to meet. Although, it would be better if you didn’t meet him.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Like all stories, it works better if I start at the beginning. Long before I came face to face with Jack the Ripper, I was a happy little girl with a home and a family, but all that changed when I turned eleven.
I grew up in a traveling circus. Sounds like fun, right? At times it was. I played with children who came to the circus but they never stayed more than a few hours. We would play, laugh, and then their parents would whisk them away to their beds and warm dinners. I never minded all the moving, I met so many interesting people. By the time I was six, I had travelled all over England, Scotland, and even some places in France. My mother and I travelled all over with the circus.
It was just Mother and I, you see. My mother was Cora Bowler. She named me Edith after her mother who had died when she was young.
My Father died before I was born. Mother said he was killed in an accident. She never spoke about it much. Mother was a fortune-teller and told people their fortunes and read their palms. She was very good at it. When I asked her how she always knew what was going to happen to people, she would always say, “the spirits, Edith. The spirits know all!”
“The spirits speak with you?” I would ask.
“They speak to all of us,” she would reply. “It’s just a matter of whether or not you choose to listen.”
Then she would ask if I understood. I always said that I did, but truthfully, I had no idea what she was talking about. I always hoped that I would be able to speak to the spirits when I got older. Mother always told me that we were the decedents of great fortunetellers and spiritualists.
“My mother could speak to the spirits,” Mother would tell me. “As could her mother and her mother before that. If you practice and truly believe you can communicate with them, then you will be able to make contact.”
I tried and tried but I was never able to speak to any spirits. I figured the gift would come to me when I got older. Mother said she was able to hear the spirits when she was about ten years old.
Mother was beautiful. She said I took after my father, as we looked nothing alike. She was blessed with beautiful mahogany hair while I was stuck with mousey brown. She was small while I was tall. Her skin was the colour of coffee that had a splash of milk in it. I was pale and people often though I was ailing. Mother always smelled of peppermint because she use to carry around a peppermint stick in her apron pocket and nibble on it when she was thinking really hard about something. I hated the taste of the things, but the smell was intoxicating.
Mother was never a caring woman. She loved me, that I was sure of, but she never showed me much affection. She would pat my head on occasion and call me her ‘pet’, but she never hugged more or kissed me. I loved her dearly and wanted more than anything to please her.
Mother and I lived at the Baggly Brothers Circus. The circus was started in 1809 by the current Baggly Brothers great-great-grandfather. They were well-known throughout England and in parts of Eastern Europe. Back in the day, the Baggly Brothers Circus performed for European royalty and the higher classes of people. When I was born, the circus was turning out small lumps of money and performing for anyone who crossed our threshold.
Mother had been with the Baggly Brothers Circus since she was ten years old. Her parents had died from pleurisy within weeks of each other and she had nowhere to go. Back in those days, people living in England would enter a workhouse as a means of shelter and nourishment. Mother always said that she would rather have died than go into a workhouse. I had heard awful things about them, terrible places they were. Mothers being separated from their children, husbands and wives never seeing one another as the days turned into months. Workhouses were a means of helping those less fortunate, but in reality, they were made to crush the spirits of the desperate. One of the clowns, Fred, had a great aunt who lived in the workhouse for a number of years. He said she use to be a midwife, but once she developed a cataract in her eye, she had to quit working. Destitute, she had no choice but to enter a workhouse. Fred said after three weeks of living there, she stopped talking and eventually wore away to nothing. Fred said that’s what the workhouses were designed to do; crush the people’s spirit so they wouldn’t leave.
Even after the workhouses were shut down, there were thousands of displaced people who lived with the haunting memory of those soul-crushing places.
Mother had two choices; try to live on the streets or join the circus. Mother said that the streets are no place for young ladies so her mind was made up there.
“What if they wouldn’t have let you join the circus, Mama?” I would ask.
“Then I would have headed for Whitechapel,” she would reply. “We have family up there. Going to them would have been my last option.”
“Why not go there to begin with?” I asked. “Surely living with your family is the best option?”
Mother would scoff and toss her beautiful hair over her shoulder.
“I would have tried to live with them, but I would have been driven to madness,” she would say. “My mothers family has always been stuck up, rich, snobs. They never approved of your grandmother marrying your grandfather. They said he was beneath her and then they shunned her! Cut her off without a farthing! I would have done anything to get into the circus.”
Her mind made up, Mother packed up a small bag containing a second dress, half a shilling, a chipped teacup, and half a loaf of bread, and then headed to the circus. She had heard that they were performing in the next town over, so she set out to find them.
When the Baggly Brothers asked Mother what she could do that would qualify her to be a performer, she told them she had “the gift” that allowed her to speak to spirits. She produced the teacup from her bag and offered to read the owners tealeaves. Mother confessed to me that she had no idea how to read tealeaves and made up his fortune on the spot.
“I see you suffering from a terrible illness,” she lied looking into the cup. “But you will recover and make a fortune!”
The owner, Mr. Baggly, merely laughed and waved her away.
“He said that it was a good trick, but that I should run home to my parents before I got in trouble,” Mother had told me. “Lucky for me it started raining. I wasn’t about to sleep out in the rain! I crawled under one of the carriages and fell asleep. The next morning, I went back to Mr. Baggly and was going to demand that he take me on as a fortune-teller and tell him about the spirits. When I got to his carriage, his brother told me that Mr. Baggly was terribly ill. The healthy Mr. Baggly looked terrified and asked me if I had been telling the truth about his brother recovering.”
“What did you say, Mama?” I would asked eagerly.
“I was very nervous, but plucked up all my courage and told him that his brother would be fine,” she replied.
Lucky for Mama, Mr. Baggly became well again within a week and they hired her on. Ever since then, Mama was the fortune-teller for Baggly Brothers Circus.
Mother told me that she found a book in an old shop that taught her how to read tealeaves and palms as well. The Baggly Brothers use to say that Mother was the second best act they had, following the bearded lady, Lucinda. Visitors loved to watch her brush her long thick beard and do daily things like read the newspaper or put on lipstick. It was a good act, but us in the circus knew that Lucinda was really a man named Simon dressed up in women’s clothes. I use to ask Mother if that was wrong. Mother said that we were in the business of making money through entertainment. As long as the customers were enjoying themselves and having fun, then what harm could the lie do?
I thought it made sense. Mother lied to the customers as well. She use to dress up in a braided scarf and put on these very large gold hoop earrings when she gave her readings. Our train carriage was covered in hanging herbs and stars on the ceiling. When we stopped to perform, Mother and I would set up a tent for her to do her readings. Once she was dressed and ready, she would wave her hand and I would start letting customers into the tent.
“Place your money zee the table, and let Madam Pavlovich tell you your future,” she would say in a thick Russian accent.
Mother wasn’t Russian, of course.
“People will think it’s more convincing if you give them a little story,” Mother would say putting on her extravagant earrings. “A little flare never hurt anyone.”
Before performing, Mother would dress in frivolous costumes. Long flowing dresses with wild prints and pointed leather shoes. She tied a bright green scarf around her head and applied bright red lipstick to her lips. Her jewelry rattled against her skin when she walked over to her table and made her look like she had more money than the rest of the circus combined. In truth, the jewels were just made of glass and gold paint.
Rumors went around that a duchess from the Russian Royal Family was giving palm readings with the circus. Mother told her visitors that she was driven out of Russia because the scandal that occurred with her ‘gift’ of speaking with spirits.
“I came to inkland for safety and better life,” she said in her fake accent. “I am not persecuted here like Russia! I try and help people but vey say I am crazy lady.”
I never knew if the customers believed her, but they gave her the coins and she was happy. I was happy too, because if Mother made enough money, the Baggly Brothers would give us some. Mother usually spent the money on tealeaves, herbs, or old books, but sometimes she would buy me something nice. On my eighth birthday, Mother got me a square of chocolate. It was my first time trying the delicious treat and I nibbled it all afternoon, trying to make it last as long as possible. A few weeks later, Mother gave me a green scarf, like the one she wore during her performances. I use to tie it around my head and pretended to be Mother giving a performance.
When Mother was doing her readings, I was forbidden to go near the tent.
“You’ll distract me, Edith,” she would tell me setting up her cups and cards. “When I am speaking to the spirits, I must concentrate fully.”
While Mother did her readings, I would wander around the circus. I would play with children who were vising the circus and sometimes they would give me a piece of their toffee or other sweets. When their parents realized their children were playing with a performer’s child, they would rush forward and whisk them away.
“She could have all manner of diseases!” they would hiss to their children.
I would just stick my tongue out at them and watch their horrified look.
When there were no good children to play with, I would wander around the circus and see if any performers weren’t busy. There were always a number of acts performing, so I was never bored. Baggly Brothers Circus boasted in being the only circus with a set of fat people, Annie and Albert. The Baggly Brothers said that Annie and Albert were siblings who spent years being force-fed by savages in the jungles of New Zealand. The guests use to eat up every word, but I knew that the whole tale was a lie. Annie and I were very good friends, and told me that she had never met Albert until she came to the circus. She also told me that neither her nor Albert had ever been to New Zealand. But, like Mother said, it’s more convincing if you give the audience a little story to go with the act.
Lorenzo the Strong Man was another good act. He was in his late twenties and was as big as a redwood tree. He would invite men onto the stage and have them try and lift his enormous weights. When the men tried and couldn’t move the weights, he would laugh and raise them up with one hand, causing the crowd to irrupt in cheers and the men to wander back to their seats, humiliated.
Other acts included clowns, acrobats, jugglers, and a menagerie of various animals. Children loved to stare at the exotic animals, but it always made me sad to see such magnificent creatures caged and stuck with us. The zebra would wander around in circles all day in their enclosed spaces, bored out of their minds. The five horses were kept in such cramped conditions they had no room to turn around. I had seen pictures of horses running wild in books and to see them cramped up made me feel terrible. Lions, monkeys, and even a wolf were kept locked up in their cages on the train until the time came for them to perform. Although the horses lived in deplorable states, watching them perform was mesmerizing. Several acrobats would leap into the air and land neatly on the horse’s backs. When you watched the acrobatic act, it was as if the horses and performers were sharing the same mind. The performers easily leapt through the air and balanced on the horses backs as if they were born to do that. The horses would jump over one another with ease and run gracefully around the ring.
When I was seven, Mother suggested that I help her with her performances. She put a small crate out front of our tent and I would stand on top of it, saying, “Come one, come all! See the long lost relative of the Russian royal family speak to spirits long dead! Only half a shilling! Come one, come all!”
Mother instructed me to then listen in on her customers waiting outside her tent.
“Listen to them speak to one another, Edith,” she would say. “And tell me if you hear anything about their loved ones they want me to contact.”
“Do you really speak to their dead family members, Mama?” I would ask.
“If their family members are able to make contact with me,” she replied.
“Have you ever spoken to Father?”
I would ask Mother this, always hoping that she would say that she was able to make contact with my father. I must have asked her at least ten times in my short childhood. Every time I asked, she would say no and then change the subject. If I pressed her, she would yell and tell me to stop asking idiotic questions. Mother never spoke about my father and eventually I learned to stop asking.
I remember when I was nine, Mother was speaking the spirit of a wealthy widows former husband. She had come to Mother begging her to try and contact her dear husband, Elmer. Mother ushered into her tent and had her sit opposite from her.
My curiosity burning, I opened the flap of the tent a crack and watched Mother and the widow.
Mother handed the widow a cup of tea in a china cup while the widow daintily blew her nose into a handkerchief.
“Now drink,” Mother instructed in her Russian accent. “And let zee leaves show me your future.”
“I don’t want to know my future,” the widow said crossly. “I want you to speak to my husband’s spirit! Elmer has been dead for thirty years and I want to know if he’s here or did he pass on?”
Mother smiled at the widow. “But if I don’t know future of you, how can I know past of husband?”
I frowned, confused. Why was Mother trying to figure out her future when she wanted to speak to the spirit of her husband?
The widow, who looked as confused as I did, drank her tea in a few quick gulps. Mother took the cup from her and turned it around three times.
“Hmm,” she said peering into the cup. “I see dog in future. Does dog mean anything to you?”
The widow nodded. “My husband use to have hunting dogs his whole life. When Elmer died, I stopped keeping pets. Does this mean that I’m going to get more dogs?”
Mother shrugged. “It is the future of you. Not future of Madam Pavlovich.”
Mother picked up the cup and swirled the leaves around. “Children will fill your house. You have small children in house?”
“My husband and I have six grown children,” the widow said. “The boys have been fighting over Elmer’s land. He inherited a large country manor house and large plots of land from his grandfather shortly after we married. My children, Harry and Arthur are saying that they should be entitled to the land where my house is, but Ralph, the youngest is fighting with them too! I have four grandchildren who stay with me here in the city during the summer months. Can I expect more grandchildren?”
Mother shrugged again. She picked up the cup again and swirled the leaves again. “Ma’am, you vill be going on long journey. Does ma’am travel lots?”
The widow nodded. “I go to my home in the countryside during the winter months. When Elmer and I were younger, we would bring the children with us when they were home from boarding school during the Christmas holidays. The boys went to Eaton, just like Elmer did when he was a lad.”
Mother nodded and smiled at the widow.
“Ma’am, I vill now try and contact husband,” Mother said. The widow’s face lit up. Mother blew out some of the flickering candles, leaving only the ones on the table lit. The tent was cast in an eerie glow. I was giddy with excitement, for I had never seen Mother speak to the dead before. I was eager to watch her demonstrate her gift first hand and maybe even see a spirit myself.
Mother instructed the widow to close her eyes and place her hands upon the table. The widow placed her small handbag on the floor at her feet and placed her hands down on the middle of the table. Mother began muttering some words I couldn’t understand and the widow became tense.
Suddenly, Mother opened one of her eyes. Without breaking her chanting, I watched her lean forward and grab the widow’s handbag off the floor. She quickly dug through it and nodded to herself. Quickly as she had grabbed it, she put it back on the ground at the widow’s feet.
Suddenly, Mother stopped her chant and slumped her head on the table. The widow pulled her hands back in shock.
“Madam Pavlovich?” the widow muttered. Suddenly, Mother jumped up with a wild look in her eyes.
“Maude?” Mother said in a deep hoarse voice. “Is it you, Maudie?”
The widow looked startled.
“Elmer?” she asked reaching out to Mother. “Is it really you?”
“Oh Maudie,” Mother said in her manly voice. “How I’ve missed you, my dear. How are the children? Are the boys still fighting over everything?”
The widow covered her mouth in surprise. “Elmer, the boys are fighting over our land again.”
Mother shook her head. “Those boys have always been stubborn and greedy. Have they tried to take the bracelet I gave you on our twentieth wedding anniversary? It’s pure silver, you know.”
The widow clutched her chest. “Oh Elmer, you haven’t forgotten. I still have it, I keep it hidden at all times from those children of ours.”
“Tell the boys not to sell the house in Brighton,” Mother said in her manly voice. “It has been in my family for generations, and I will not have Arthur sell it to pay off his gambling debts!”
The widow started crying, “Oh Elmer, is Arthur still gambling our money away? That boy never learns! Oh but, Elmer, tell me, are you happy where you are?”
Mother nodded. “I am, my dear. I’ve been watching over you and our children for years now. I won’t leave until I know all of you are doing well. Tell me, why have you stopped keeping my dear dogs?”
The widow looked shocked. “Elmer, I-I. You know I don’t care for dogs and with you gone, I thought that-
“No! Maudie, you must keep dogs in your home! They can keep you safe and I will be more inclined to visit you.”
The widow nodded and reached for Mother’s hand.
“Of course, Elmer,” the widow said with tears in her eyes. “Elmer, I have to ask you something before you go. We’ve been struggling financially, Elmer, I have to ask you, where did you hide our families jewels?”
A look of fear flashed over Mother’s face but she quickly composed herself.
“Maudie, didn’t I tell you?” Mother said in her manly voice. “I hide them down in the-
Suddenly, Mother slumped forward onto the table. The widow quickly shook her shoulder and Mother looked up with a sleepy look on her face.
“I am sorry,” Mother said in her Russian accent. “Did I fall sleepy?”
The widow looked surprised at Mother.
“Elmer?” she asked.
Mother looked confused, “Elmer? Your husband? Is he here?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Remember what?” Mother asked confused.
“Madam Pavlovich, you were just inhabited by the spirit of my dear Elmer! The widow cried. “Don’t you remember?”
Mother shook her head. “I am sorry, I do not remember. Vhen I speak vith zee spirits I am not in my own body. I join zee spirits zemselves.”
The widow smiled and reached into her handbag. “Thank you, Madam Pavlovich. I’ve been to dozens of mediums before and none of them have ever been able to make contact with Elmer.”
“From what I saw, husband is happy,” Mother said pushing a bowl towards the widow. “Husband vill be vith you always.”
The widow put her bag back on the floor and embraced Mother who smiled and handed her the bowl. The widow dropped some coins in and left the tent, dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief.
Mother smiled and pocketed the coins. I opened the tent flap and went inside.
“Edith dear,” Mother said with a smile, her fake accent gone. “I made a good profit on that customer. What do you say, bread with jam to celebrate?”
Mother picked up the candles and started clearing everything away. She started putting plates down on her table when I felt the need to say something.
“Mama,” I began nervously. “Did you trick that woman?”
Mother put down the rusty knife she had been holding. “What ever do you mean?”
“I watched you, Mama,” I said nervously. “You tricked that woman into telling you about her life. She drank the tea and you asked her questions. She gave you information about herself and then you told her that her husband was speaking to her through you. And you dug through her handbag. Did you steal anything? Mama, can you really talk to spirits?”
Mother smiled and handed me a slice of stale bread. “Edith dear,” she began. “If I couldn’t speak to spirits, would I claim that I could? I was merely looking through her handbag to learn a little about herself, to learn about what she would have wanted to ask her husband, that’s all. I asked her those questions because I need to know who exactly I was channeling. How many kids he had, what he was like, that’s all. Of course I can speak to spirits, you saw me speak with Elmer just now.”
“Enough Edith,” Mother said reddening in the face. “I don’t want you to ever doubt me or my gift again, do you hear? My gift provides for us, do you understand? If my own daughter starts questioning my gift, then what would the Baggly Brothers think? We would be fired, let go from the circus. Do you want that, Edith?”
I shook my head sadly. “No, Mama.”
“Good. Now let’s put the matter to rest. Oh no!” Mama ran over to the table and picked up the widows handbag. “She forgot her bag! Quick Edith, try and find her and return her bag.”
I took the bag from Mama and ran out of the tent. I did eventually find the widow, who was glad to have her handbag back, but before I gave it over to her, I couldn’t help but look inside.
Inside her handbag, the widow had a bracelet, a photo of a large house with “Brighton” written on the bottom, and a piece of paper that said “Arthur owes the Windsor debt collectors seven thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven pounds.”
It was then I learned that my mother wasn’t able to speak to spirits or see the future. She was just a very good actress.