(©Veronica Randolph Batterson)
The darkness of the night was coal black, created by a dense fog that enveloped the air suddenly and without warning. It was difficult to make out figures before one’s eyes but the sounds of the evening were keen and crisp. The creatures of the night had emerged and with them the raucous sounds followed. Bellicose laughter and loud propositions rang out, along with drunken swearing and then the shrill whistles made by police officers. A piercing female scream shattered the blackness and then silence. Immediately, the quiet was followed by shouts, which seemed to emanate from every direction. Shivering, I drew my cloak around my shoulders and returned inside, shutting the door firmly behind me.
The following morning brought the usual rituals that greeted servants of London’s upper class. Yet an uninvited twist marked the atmosphere with dread and expectation. Mr. Dalton returned from his morning walk, face flushed and out of breath, with a newspaper tucked under his arm. All eyes turned questioningly toward him, and all he did was slightly nod to no one in particular and avert his own eyes, affirming what we already knew. Trembling, I spilled some tea as I poured it into Madame’s cup, but she said nothing. She was as distraught as everyone else and her silence at my clumsiness betrayed her distraction.
“It is time we moved, Richard,” Madame said tensely, as Mr. Dalton removed his cap and tossed it carelessly onto the sideboard. He sat down next to Madame at the dining room table and his breakfast was placed before him. His traditional early morning meal was devoured heartily as usual, and his ever-widening girth portrayed a person who enjoyed good food.
“Evelyn, in good time we will move. I had my eye on a place further in the city but it was snatched up before I knew it,” Mr. Dalton said, snapping open the newspaper with a jerk of his wrists, displaying the disturbing headlines of the day.
“In good time might be too late,” Evelyn cried. “We’re much too close to those horrible Whitechapel events! We must move, Richard, the sooner the better!”
I cleared the dishes carefully, praying I would not drop a cup or saucer as any broken dishes would come directly out of my wages. Usually I was calm in the tensest circumstances, but the recent events involving a madman calling himself Jack the Ripper was too close for comfort. The china clattered together as I held each dish tightly to my body, glancing nervously at the blaring headline raised in front of Mr. Dalton’s face.
Routinely, I completed all of the morning work required of me and retreated to my room. I had been in the employ of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton for many years and while Madame could at times be gruff, she was actually a kind person. As long as things were done in a proper manner, she generally would not get agitated. I thought she was fond of me in her own way and found her very generous with gifts and wages. Mr. Dalton was kind-hearted to a fault. Too often he was taken advantage of by individuals with less than honest intentions. Madame was always chiding him for his gullibility. By all respects, I was fortunate to have respectable employment and to have maintained it for as long as I had been in London. I shuddered, thinking of those poor souls and their line of work, falling victim to a faceless monster successful in eluding authorities.
Reaching underneath my pillow, I retrieved the letter. It was addressed to me in the still childlike hand I would recognize anywhere as being that of my younger brother. Fortunately, no one else had seen the letter as I received the post on the day it arrived. I still had not read it. Something about its arrival coinciding with the current tragic events blighting the city made me uneasy. It was an unwelcome premonition. Still, I was curious about its contents and opened the letter.
The note was brief and to the point. My brother had arrived in early March after completing his studies in the medical field. He said he finished training in Edinburgh and found work assisting a physician at a clinic in the city, and he hoped to see me soon. It was signed, “Affectionately yours, Jack”.
My hands shook and my palms were cold. It had started again. The same unfortunate events, which occurred in Edinburgh, and now what I feared the most, had followed me to London. I left Scotland ten years prior, with speculation and mystery running rampant as to some unsolved murders occurring in the area. Authorities never discovered the person behind the crimes, yet how could they? What would possibly lead anyone to suspect a young boy from a good working-class home and with no criminal past? But I knew. Too many hints, too many stolen glances and far too many unexplained stories and disappearances pointed right to my dear adored sibling.
Each time a murder occurred, Jack suddenly acquired a trinket or two. Often a pocket watch or piece of jewelry materialized in my brother’s possession. He was always mysterious about the circumstances surrounding those acquisitions, but I knew. I could not face the truth and fled, leading no one to believe, not even my mother, that I suspected Jack. And now, he was in London and had arrived shortly before the new batch of crimes started.
I felt a rush of panic and knew I must find Jack and confront him. I would threaten to go to the authorities, anything to cease the violent sprees wrecking havoc across London. The following day I would have a few hours to myself and I was determined to locate my brother, yet how to go about it would prove a great obstacle. He was not specific as to where he was working, so finding him would not be easy. But ultimately, the search was not mine. Jack found me.
As I made my way down the front walk the following day, I inhaled the morning breeze, still thick and acrid smelling. It was a rare day in the city to experience clear fresh air, as the soot and smog blanketed the atmosphere, choking all who ventured outdoors unprepared. Some days it was necessary to cover one’s mouth and nose with a handkerchief to escape the heaviness, which seemed to fill a person’s lungs to the point of asphyxiation. The sensation of suffocating was often a common experience when greeted with the stifling air.
“Hello, Penelope,” a masculine voice said from behind me. It was deep and smooth and had always reminded me of what honey and dark cocoa mixed together might sound like. I knew it to be Jack without turning around.
“You have not changed a bit,” he continued, as I turned to face him. Neither had he. My brother was still as beautiful as ever, with neatly trimmed dark hair and eyes that penetrated to the soul. His features were delicate and feminine looking, yet he stood tall, towering over his average male counterpart. Women had always been attracted to him. Jack, with his charm and good looks, knew how to take advantage of that fact. It was in his nature to use anything to his benefit, even if it meant sacrificing his own family to further his gains. Our mother too often fell victim to his trickery, believing all he said and holding him accountable for nothing.
“Jack, you startled me! I have not seen you since Papa’s funeral.” It was all I could say to him as I regarded my own brother with suspicion and trepidation.
His eyes did not waver from my face, and so intense were they that it felt as if he were reading my every thought. Could he tell I believed him a cold-blooded criminal; one so heartless as to commit murder? Did he know? It seemed impossible to discern what was truly in the heart of this man who was connected to me solely by blood. A stranger stood before me who I had known since his birth, someone who had shared my parents and my childhood, yet I knew very little of him.
“I brought you a gift,” he said unexpectedly, handing me a small box tied with a white ribbon.
Inside was a brooch containing a large red stone resting in the center, surrounded by smaller, green ones. I did not think it of any value as the stones held no luster and were glass-like in appearance. I wondered why he had given it to me. As if to answer my thoughts, he said it had been our mother’s and he thought I might like to own it. I recalled she had very little jewelry and I did not recognize it as being hers. But I did not express this to my brother. He seemed to be waiting for my reaction, his intense eyes searching my face with amusement. When I did not provide him with a response he wanted, he grew impatient with me.
“Look, Penelope, the least you could do is thank me. After all, our dear mother passed away last year, and you failed to even show up to give your respects. I have made a decent effort to come by and visit with you and give you something of your own Mum’s, and you treat me like this! Might as well just say my goodbyes then,” he said, looking at the ground, but making no move to leave.
“Jack, thank you for the brooch. It was very kind of you to bring this to me. I am sorry I missed the service for Mother. I hope you can forgive me,” I said, a little too humbly, I thought, but perhaps he would believe it sincere.
Again, the intense scrutiny. It seemed he was playing a game. He was trying to bait me into revealing my thoughts to him. Then without warning, he would use those reflections to his advantage even if that meant against me. There is no doubt he wondered why I left abruptly after Papa’s funeral ten years ago. There had been the occasional letter sent to Mother, but never had I corresponded with Jack at any time over the years. It struck me that perhaps I was too secretive for his comfort. That would certainly be true if in fact Jack were guilty of those heinous crimes, as I believed him to be. It occurred to me then that maybe I should be concerned with my own safety.
“Well, Jack, I really should get on with my day. It has been good seeing you and thank you again for the brooch,” I said, gathering my cloak around me and stepping a little farther from him. “By the way, where is it you are working?” I remembered to ask.
The amusement returned and with a twitch of his lips he replied, “Over in Spitalfields, not too far. Take care of yourself, Penelope.”
Touching the brim of his hat, he turned and left, just as quickly and quietly as he had appeared. I watched his retreating form slowly disappear into the pedestrian traffic along the street. The encounter left me uneasy and I had not done what I had intended. It was one thing to think someone guilty of murder; it was certainly something else to verbalize the accusation. Perhaps the police would like to hear my theory, but without proof I was not sure I had a leg to stand on. It was a frightening prospect to actually formalize my suspicions about Jack. What if I happened to be wrong? It would mean the authorities investigating an innocent man who would no doubt be furious with me. But the brutal attacks on innocent victims outweighed the inevitability of my brother’s scorned pride.
Without knowing where I was going, I suddenly found myself standing in front of Scotland Yard.
The inspector had heard it all before and sat across from me with eyes glassy from lack of sleep, and a weary expression displayed on his face. He was middle-aged and wore his spectacles low on the bridge of his nose as he wrote down the information I gave him. His disheveled appearance indicated to me he had been working around the clock on this case; and his lack of enthusiasm for what I had to relay suggested I was giving him nothing new. I gathered every other citizen of the city had already been in, offering opinions, suggesting leads and implicating neighbors or distant relatives due to some odd behavior or unexplained activity. Nothing I said about my brother or my suspicions created any interest from him. After he finished jotting down the last note, he readily dismissed me.
“Well, I think that is about it, Miss, er,” he began, looking again at his notes to recall my name.
“Miss Thornbury,” I said, “Penelope Thornbury.”
“Right, Miss Thornbury. Thank you for coming in and we will keep in touch.”
I gathered my belongings about me and wondered if I had done the right thing. The inspector did not take seriously my account and probably thought my brother posed no threat. I made my way through the sea of people trying to find the corridor, which would lead me outside, while someone was hurriedly trying to get my attention.
“Excuse me, Miss Thornbury?” a male voice asked.
“I am Inspector Sedgwick,” he continued, “I overheard your conversation with Inspector Brindle and I wondered if you had a moment.”
He was younger than the other officer and possessed a friendlier disposition, which led me to eagerly recount what I told Inspector Brindle. Inspector Sedgwick appeared very interested in my brother and what had happened in Edinburgh. He asked many questions, writing notes as he did so. I noticed too he was attractive in a comfortable looking way, with fair hair and an easy smile. He readily put me at ease.
“So, may I call on you if I have further questions?” he asked, ending our interview.
I thought about my situation and how it might appear to Mr. and Mrs. Dalton. Under no circumstances could I afford to draw attention to myself with respect to these matters, and an inspector from Scotland Yard inquiring of me at their home would do just that. I explained to Inspector Sedgwick the reason for my hesitation and he was quick to offer a solution.
“I will just send around a note first. Then perhaps you might meet me somewhere. Would that work?” he asked.
I assured him it would and left feeling as if I had done the right thing, yet experiencing tremendous guilt at betraying my brother. The best thing that could happen would be proof of Jack’s innocence, but innocent or not, I knew that he would be very angry with me. I did not know to what extremes he might express his fury. It made me feel very uneasy.
It was not long before another horrible crime was committed and the household was once again on edge. Madame fretted more so about moving and Mr. Dalton patronized her with promises of a better place as soon as something became available. I had heard nothing further from Jack and wondered if Inspector Sedgwick followed up on my story. It seemed certain that Jack would have called on me if he had been questioned.
Two days later, Inspector Sedgwick sent a note asking if I might meet him. He set the time and place and told me if I did not appear, he would assume I could not get away. Fortunately, I was able to sneak out that afternoon. Madame had taken to her room, a habit that was increasing in frequency. I welcomed the interlude and the thought of Inspector Sedgwick caused me to take a little more care in my appearance. As an afterthought, I grabbed the brooch Jack had given me and tucked it inside my pocket. It had not occurred to me to show the inspector the jewelry when I first met him. I thought it best to do so as I could not remember my mother owning that pin. Perhaps it could prove relevant to the case somehow if Jack were involved.
Inspector Sedgwick was waiting for me in the park where he said he would be and seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I wondered though if that was my imagination as I was happy for some reason to see him, and hoped he felt the same. There was no reason to assume he had a personal interest in me, but I did. I knew the meeting to be purely professional and relating to the case, yet secretly I took pleasure in meeting him if only for a brief amount of time.
“Inspector Sedgwick, have you seen my brother?” I asked.
“Honestly, no. Are you sure he said he was working in Spitalfields?”
“Yes, but he didn’t give me a specific place.”
He looked tired, as if the pursuit of the phantom killer haunting the streets of London preyed upon his own dreams, robbing him of much needed sleep. I felt the sudden urge to touch his hand in reassurance, but restrained myself, not wishing to appear forward or revealing feelings that might not be reciprocated.
“I’m afraid I can not find anyone in Spitalfields who has heard of your brother. I do recall those events in Edinburgh, but it seems nothing was ever officially reported. Apparently, it was hushed up by someone. Can you tell me about your father, Penelope?” he asked.
The fact that he had called me by my given name was not lost on me. I explained to him that my father had been the rector of a small parish and a well-respected man in the church. Both he and my mother doted on Jack. I recalled that my father would not allow us to mention those horrible events and shortly after the last murder, Papa died quietly in his sleep. I suspected my brother of the crimes, but I did not know if my father had. Shortly after my father’s funeral, I left with very little money and found myself in London, and quickly under the employ of the Daltons.
I remembered the brooch and handed it to the inspector, telling him I had not remembered my mother wearing such a piece of jewelry. It was possible however that she acquired it after I left Edinburgh. He looked at it closely, turning the pin over in his slim hands, examining the back as thoroughly as the front. Was it possible Jack had taken this item from one of the victims? I could not ask but I knew Inspector Sedgwick wondered the same thing. I shuddered at the thought.
“Were there any suspicions concerning your father’s death?” he asked.
“No, although I knew Papa and Jack had argued quite violently a few days before Papa’s passing. But I did not know the reason for their argument. I had my own suspicions when Papa died, but no one else did. Perhaps Papa doubted Jack’s innocence as well,” I said.
He handed the piece of jewelry back to me and clasped my hands together in his own. “You must take care and never find yourself alone with your brother if he seeks you out again. It could be very dangerous.”
I noticed the look of concern on his face and oddly it comforted me. I barely knew the man standing before me but I took solace in his words. No one had ever truly cared about my safety. It pleased me to know he did.
“I must get back, Inspector Sedgwick. Mrs. Dalton will be wondering about me,” I said.
“Please call me Martin,” he said. I nodded and turned away, knowing he was watching me as I walked. I did not have to look to be certain. I just knew.
November 1888 seemed to bring the last round of escapades brought on by Jack the Ripper, at least any that were publicized. Little was mentioned of the maniacal atrocities in the press from that point on. But unsolved murders of similar origins continued to occur and most concluded it was the work of the same madman. No suspects had yet been arrested nor had I seen my brother again.
I did, however, receive another gift from Jack. Wrapped in plain brown paper, the parcel arrived early one morning. Immediately, I recognized Jack’s handwriting and went to my room to open it. Inside were a pair of earbobs, each containing one small black stone. Upon closer inspection, I noticed one of the stones was chipped on the edge. There was no note accompanying the package and I quickly rewrapped the unwanted delivery. It would be turned over to Martin, I thought, along with the brooch and samples of Jack’s handwriting. I wanted nothing more of my brother, yet I feared there would be more in years to come.
Martin Sedgwick had become a strong comforting force in my life. Without knowing the particulars, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton welcomed his presence in their home, even though his visits were with me. They felt safer, as I did, in his company. So Madame did not question me about any unfinished work when he chose to drop by to see me. During the troubled times known to our city, he was happily received with open arms, due to his occupation on the Daltons’ part, but on a personal level for myself.
Perhaps it was too coincidental to think my brother would use his actual name when leaving his mark on the poor victims of those unsolved crimes. Yet it was like him, really, to taunt the authorities and think himself invincible and far too clever to be caught. It was clear to me that Martin highly suspected Jack as well. Fortunately for me that suspicion led to him being part of my life permanently.
Martin Sedgwick and I married quietly at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in May 1889. It was a small service with very few people in attendance. As we left the church on an unusually glorious and clear morning, a man approached me holding an envelope. He was unkempt and dirty and smelled of liquor, with a sneer of his lips that belied the contempt he held for anyone who had better fortune in life. Saying he was paid to deliver the message, he handed it to me and limped away.
I opened the letter and all that was written in the childlike hand was, “Stay safe, Jack”. If it had a double meaning, Martin and I certainly took notice of it. Taking my hand in his, he led me to the waiting carriage and said, “You will be safe, with me.”
(©Veronica Randolph Batterson)