A gamekeeper’s daughter, the eerie night-time call of an owl caused Caroline Woodrow no fear – but the wolf whistles and jeers of evening city-dwellers caused her heart to quicken. Frightened, she hurried down the street, swinging her head from side to side, as she desperately surveyed her surroundings.
She tried to remember when she had last seen William. She recalled him serving beers, cheerfully telling her that his shift was nearly over. Closing time was coming and he’d walk her back to her lodgings, but then William, her favourite little brother, had been distracted. His fiance, Charlotte had arrived and all thoughts of anyone else had dissolved in her radiant presence. Caroline had felt the bile of jealousy rise in her throat, like the acid of heartburn. She’d swallowed it, and tried to be happy for him. It was not his fault that everyone besides herself was either dead or married now – but then, if William hadn’t have been so enthralled by Charlotte he’d have taken better care of Caroline. Now she was alone and lost. She pressed her frozen fingertips to her temples, as if the pressure of her pressing would stop her rising panic. What was she going to do? Where was she? For weeks now the papers had reported nothing but murder, the gruesome vivisection of Whitechapel’s poverty-stricken women. Jack the Ripper. The name was on everyone’s lips. His depravity infamous. Caroline shuddered; she shouldn’t be here, east of the river, walking the same roads as the Ripper’s victims. She was alone in the dark. Her eyes darted to the pitch-black doorways as she scurried past, half expecting the demon to leap out at her at any moment.
By British Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On and on Caroline walked, following twisting streets, and winding alleys. She was desperately lost. A dank damp fog hung in the winter air and seemed to push down upon her. The scantly positioned gas-lamps cast a sickly, anemic light over the dingy surroundings. Looking up, she yearned to see the bright smiling face of the moon, which had so often illuminated her path in the countryside. It’s face though was hidden, as if it were being slowly suffocated by the blanket of London smog.
This neighbourhood, if you could call it that, stank of rotten food, stale urine and human excrement. The houses had smashed windows and broken railings. The sheer number of buildings made Caroline feel claustrophobic. Her corset felt far too tight, as if it were squeezing her lungs. She tried to take deep breaths and fought the strange urge that seized her, the desire to rip off her old whalebone and sling it into the darkness. The thought made her giggle a little hysterically. The sound echoed in the gloom, unnerving her. The window’s of the buildings became the large eyes of a monster, and her laugh was it’s laugh – cruel and mocking. Caroline bit the fleshy part of her hand, trying to use the sharp pain to drive away the images caused by her frenzied imagination. For a moment she stopped and tried to catch her breath, slowing her ragged panting. Panic was making her dizzy and the edges of her vision blurred.
By Police photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Source: www.casebook.org The image was first discovered in 1966 or 1967 by en:Donald Rumbelow in the City of London Police photographic archive (Evans, Stewart P.; Rumbelow, Donald (2006), Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0750942282, p. 183).
Suddenly, Caroline felt herself yanked backwards, hard and fast. As her feet scrambled for purchase beneath her, she craned her head back, twisting her neck, to see behind her. Dirty thick fingers, curled into a fist grasped a handful of her bustle – and tried to pull her back and down. She felt her breath catch and her lungs constrict. Any moment she’d topple backwards and the owner of that terrible hand would be upon her. Her skin turned to goose pimples, fear engulfed her and her mouth formed a perfect O in horror. She tried to scream but she was mute with panic. She strained with all her might against the hand that gripped her skirt. The tight fingers still clasped at the fabric, and now there was another hand, and she thought she saw with it, a flash of silver. A knife? Mercifully, all of a sudden, her voice returned and she found herself screaming. Her hands flew behind her and she clawed at the fist, digging her nails into it as she struggled to rip it off her dress. She was shrieking, an awful, wordless, animal noise.
All at once it was over. She fell backwards, eyes screwed tightly shut, her head banging against the frost-hardened ground with a loud thud. She winced, pulling her arms around her torso to protect her body against the sharp pain of a knife, that surely she would feel at any moment. But the pain never came. Whoever had held her had gone. She had been screaming so loudly that she had not heard the answering call – the firm authoritative shout, and the whine of the whistle.
Crop of original group photograph taken of H Division at Leman Street police station in London c.1886. Source: Wikimedia
After ascertaining to his satisfaction, that she was not badly hurt and not a whore or a lunatic – the Police Constable had taken her, not to her lodgings, but to William’s rooms. He’d seemed to enjoy giving William a stern lecture. Had he not read the papers? Caroline huddled in a corner, her hands trembling. Her fear now mixed with anger at her brother’s thoughtlessness. She had always loved him so tenderly, mothered him as only an elder sister could, and in return he’d abandoned her to walk home alone on the very streets that the Ripper stalked. Was this a foretelling of Caroline’s future? Unmarried, when she was old there would be no grown-up children to care for her, and would she really be able to rely on the kindness of her brothers? They were, after all, just men, and what man really understood the plight of an elderly spinster?
William had his arm around her now, tears in his eyes – distraught at his own stupidity. Babbling an apology. She could barely hear him. Her ears were full of the sound of her own screaming, the noise haunted her – and she thought that perhaps she’d never stop hearing it.
Caroline never made her brother’s wedding. She’d returned home the morning after her terrible fright, back to the familiar lanes and hedgerows of the countryside. But even week’s after “her fright”, she still found it difficult to leave the house. Memories of her terror would sneak upon her at the strangest of moments. Laying the cutlery for dinner she’d remember the flash of steel she’d seen in the hand of her pursuer. She’d never seen his face, and somehow this made it worse – he could be anyone and anywhere. Long after everyone had stopped asking her if she was alright, she’d still woken to find her pillow wet with tears from half-forgotten nightmares. The sympathy of others waned and everyone began to talk about how she’d always suffered from an anxious constitution. She became delicate Caroline, poor Caroline. Sad little Caroline who’d really always been a touch ‘different’. A bit too fragile. Spinster Caroline, unmarried and childless. Future-less Caroline with the touch of hysteria.
Two years had passed and Caroline woke with a smile. In her head she counted the months. Six months since they’d met. Two weeks since he’d proposed. She grinned as she went about her chores, tried to concentrate on her sister’s words as she prattled on about her business. It was no use, her thoughts were far away, imagining all that might now come to be. She had her own little secret. A love affair to envy those of her siblings. As she smoothed the sheets on her bed she thought about how she would be leaving it soon, for another bed in her own home. The future seemed to stretch out before her. Perhaps it might even be possible to have a few children? She was in her 30’s but her mother’s last baby had been born when she was 42, perhaps it wasn’t too late for her after all. Hope fluttered in her chest.
It was over. There would be no wedding, no children, no future. She’d spend her life as the old Aunt, passed around her family members, an unwanted guest. Oddly her tearful outbursts, and trembling fits, had not returned. The seething heat of her emotions had turned cold and quiet. Most days she felt very little at all, no hysterics, no joy, no crying and no laughter. Quiet, calm, cool, dullness. A deep ache rather than a sharp pain.
On Thursday Caroline had called for the doctor. She’d sat before Mr French’s familiar wrinkled face and complained about stiffness in her neck. She’d nodded to his instructions as he’d prescribed her a bottle of lotion to be rubbed on the area. Not for internal digestion.
Caroline was glad she’d chosen a Sunday. She’d attended church and made peace with the God that she felt had abandoned her a long time ago. She stood by her bed and peered out the widow, watching her last sunset. It seemed poetic enough, a good enough ending. A sharp pain gripped her, and she called out for her mother. Not urgently, just a quick shout, as if she were calling her up to tell her some trivial matter about the housework. She stumbled over to her washstand, overcome with nausea. She was retching loudly when her mother entered the room, “what’s wrong Caroline?”. In answer, Caroline threw her arms up, “I have taken poison” and pointed to the small bottle on her bedside, “I have emptied it, I have taken it.” Caroline’s mother’s arm slipped around her tiny waist, as she guided her to her chair. Caroline watched emotionless as her mother flew out of the room. She heard her mother’s feet racing down the stairs. Silently, Caroline toppled off the chair and fell to the floor.
Someone must have fetched Mr French. Caroline was dimly aware of men’s arms around her, as her father and the doctor struggled to pick her up and lay her on the bed. She moaned just once, but her body seemed a long way away from her now, she was not really there. There were no last thoughts or last sensations. One moment she was alive, and then she was gone.
To read a “true” account of the suicide of Caroline Eliza Woodrow I have transcribed a precis of one the newspaper reports here:
Kent and Essex Courier – 23rd September 1891
“Singular Suicide at Groombridge: On Wednesday afternoon Mr R. Preston, one of the Deputy-Coroners for Kent, held an enquiry at New Park Lodge, Groombridge, touching the death of Caroline Eliza Woodrow, who committed suicide at that house on Sunday evening….In addition to the facts contained in the evidence, it may be stated that about three years ago, whist deceased was staying with her brother in the East End of London, she received a very severe shock, which seemed to have affected her considerably for some time after. It appears that whilst deceased was out rather late one night she was startled by a man laying his hand upon her. Its being the time when several of the “Jack the Ripper” murders had taken place in that neighbourhood, she was naturally very frightened; more so, in fact, as she alleged she saw a knife or something of the sort in the man’s hand. She screamed and the man ran away; but she was very ill for some time after, and had been subject to fits ever since.
Mrs Caroline Woodrow, mother of the deceased, was the first witness called, and deposed that she was the wife of Robert Charles Woodrow, gamekeeper. Witness saw the body of deceased…and she identified it as that of her daughter, whose age was 35, and she was unmarried. Witness last saw her on Sunday evening, about seven o’clock, when she saw her wretching at the washing-stand in her bedroom. Noticing something unusual was the matter, witness enquired what is was. Throwing her hands up, her daughter replied, “I have taken poison,” and, pointing to the bottle (produced), said, “I have emptied it, I have taken it.” Noticing what the poison she said she had taken was…[she] told her father, who at once started for the doctor. When she got back indoors she helped her daughter to a chair…Witness then left her…and went outside to see if anyone was coming. When she got back her daughter had fallen out of the chair, and was lying on the ground.
The Deputy-Coroner: Was she senseless then, or could she say anything? Witness said that deceased did not say anything as far as she knew after she fell, but she moaned a good deal, which witness took as a sign that she felt easier…The doctor came soon afterwards, and deceased was just alive when he came in. Her husband and the doctor lifted her on the bed, and they heard one moan – that was all.
Being questioned…as to her daughter’s previous life, witness said that she had been engaged to be married, and everything was prepared about 12 months ago, but she was deceived. She never told witness any of her trouble, however, but kept it all to herself. Witness had not noticed that her daughter was at all depressed, but she had appeared dull…Deceased had always been very delicate…
Dr. French…deposed that he was consulted by the deceased on Thursday, as she had stiffness in the neck. Witness prescribed a lotion for her, containing aconite, belladona, and soda linement. He did not hear anything more about her until about half past seven on Sunday night, when…he received the message to go and see deceased. When he arrived at the house he saw her lying on the floor, and upon examining her found that she was quite dead…
It was clear that they must return a verdict that deceased died by suicide whilst in a state of unsound mind.”
Special thanks to Paul Chiddicks for proof reading this article. You can follow Paul on twitter @chiddickstree or visit Paul’s fantastic site at chiddicksfamilytree.wordpress.com