Emma Smith died on 4th April, 1888 in London Hospital. At the time of her death, she was known to be working as a prostitute. She slept in a lodging-house at 18 George Street (now Lolesworth Street). Like so many of the women of Whitechapel (reports suggest at least 1200 prostitutes plied their trade on the streets of the district, and another 62 brothels operated in the area), she walked the streets, seeking men who would trade a few pence for her wares. Like those women, she walked in desperation – lodging-houses like hers charged rents by the night, and without those few pence, she would be forced to walk the streets until the following night brought her another chance at earning a night’s rest.
Emma Smith’s life was a harsh and desperate one. Investigations in to her past, however, showed that she might, at one time, have lived quite differently. Acquaintances commented that she spoke with a touch of refinement and with an accent that was much softer than the harsh voices of Whitechapel. They also said, however, that none of them knew anything about her past – she never spoke of it, never made any reference to it at all except to say that she was a widow and that she had left her husband and family many years before. Police investigations showed that she had a son and daughter living in Finsbury Park, but it did not appear that she had any contact with them.
According to reports at the time, she was attacked by a gang of men at the corner of Osborn Street and Brick Lane in the early hours of 4th April. Two or three men beat her, raped her, robbed her and left her in the street. Her injuries were horrific – she had been penetrated with a blunt object that ruptured her peritoneum and had sustained numerous other cuts and bruises to her face and body. Confused and bleeding, she staggered back to her lodgings, where she told the deputy keeper of the attack. Clearly unaware of the extent of her injuries, she initially refused to seek medical treatment. The deputy, Mary Russell, and another lodger, Annie Lee, finally prevailed on her, and she was treated by Dr Haslip, the surgeon on duty. Despite his efforts, however, Emma Smith slipped in to a coma and eventually passed away around 9 AM. In the hours before she slipped into unconsciousness, she gave another account of the attack to Dr. Haslip, but was unable to or refused to name her attackers.
Investigation by the duty surgeon, Dr Hillier, showed the extent of Smith’s injuries, and the police were called in to perform an inquest on 6th April. The coroner for East Middlesex, Wynne Edwin Baxter, took charge of the inquest. Mary Russell and Dr Hillier gave evidence, and the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder by person or persons unknown. The Chief Inspector for H Division Whitechapel took up the investigation, but no witnesses came forward and Smith had been unable or unwilling to provide accurate descriptions of her attackers. No one was arrested despite an extensive investigation in which the police questioned hundreds of people, from locals who might have witnessed something to sailors and soldiers who might have frequented the area.
Emma Smith’s murder opened the file on the Whitechapel Murders, but most scholars believe that she was not a victim of the same killer who would later be labelled as Jack the Ripper. It seems much more likely that she was attacked by a gang for purposes of intimidation. They may have been acting as pimps or merely as bullies, but there had been other reports of similar attacks in the area before her death. Because of the brutal nature of her death, however, she would ultimately be linked to the other victims of the Ripper in the press. Her death foreshadowed the period that would come to be called the Autumn of Terror.