Pitfalls and surprises of researching a lost story

When will I learn?

After all the tricky stories I’ve had to research, you’d think I’d realise by now that the internet isn’t very useful when you want to bring a story to life. To really make a story live, you need to speak to people who  live and breathe the subject- ideally someone who holds a different view to yourself!

But I only had a few weeks to research the story of ripper “victim” Catherine Eddowes. So online it was.

I knew I wanted it to be a happy story, not a tragedy. When I heard that Eddowes’ partner reported that “she wasn’t a prostitute” I seized on that comment as an opportunity to present a person who was happy and successful with good relationships- I really wanted to smash the stereotype.

Hastily with only a few weeks to go before the performance I pieced together a happy story about Eddowes from the scraps of info on the internet. Apparently there was a book which went into more detail but it was very rare and pricy. Then…

An expert on Twitter challenged my historical accuracy.

We got into a series of direct messages and he offered to share the information in that rare out of print book. (Neal Sheldon’s  “The Victims of Jack the Ripper”. )

“I suppose it will be quite useful” I thought, “but I already know the basics- I’ve researched the story online.”  However the contents of this book were completely different!

knew the book was painstakingly researched, it was the internet which was wrong… my story was all wrong and arrgghhh! now I had just two and a half weeks to re-fashion the story!

Even more seriously, the book punctured my rosy vision of Eddowes. There was now no doubt she was a diehard alcoholic, sold sex and was a danger to her own children. This same expert on Twitter put me in touch with other people who were interested in Eddowes, including experts Trevor Bond, Jackie Murphy and Paul Begg. Their generous contributions really opened my eyes.

I’m ashamed to say this but I wasn’t expecting Ripperologists to have anything useful to contribute to my story. I’d decided that I wanted to tell a counter-narrative- a “happy story” and I had this idea that they were only interested in the blood and guts. But the more I spoke with them the more I realised that a) Ripperologists are thoughtful and knowledgeable! and b) to do the Eddowes story justice, I needed to be honest.

If I whitewashed the alcoholism and casual selling of sex, what kind of message was I really giving? That Eddowes’ actual life wasn’t good enough to care about?

I put together a new story which I hope is as near to a poetic truth about Eddowes as is possible. Although she had an incredibly hard life, in some ways she was lucky. She was spirited and funny and kind. She loved and was loved in return. She had a positive outlook on life, seized moments of joy wherever she could and shrugged off difficulties. As I went deeper into her life, I started to feel that I knew the real Catherine- not someone I’d make up to serve my own storytelling purposes- but a real person.

The spookiest moment came when I was honoured to speak with Eddowes’ great-great-great granddaughter, Tracey. She was kind, down-to earth and cheerful. Strangely, she’d worked in a nursery in Whitechapel for 30-odd years before she found out about her famous fore-mother and she’d walked past the site of the murder every day. The more I spoke to her, the more I got the spookiest sense that she had inherited many of the good qualities of the woman I’d got to know… it was really like talking to another, happier, gentler version of Catherine Eddowes.

Then she said she’d love to come to the performance but it fell on the day she was getting married!

On the 8th July at 7.30pm I will be joined by John Constable and Stick in the Wheel  for a little bit of history and a chance to celebrate the lives of the women who were killed in 1888. If you would like to join us on the 8th, send me an email (vanessa@londondreamtime.com ) and I’ll add you to the list. It’s Pay what you can. Other info on my calendar page.