Seven Stars: A Vision Most Unwelcome

Profile portrait of Frances Coles
Portrait of Frances Coles

In the Shadow of the Seven Stars

Related song: The Boneyard

Albert hadn’t imagined a crowd of this size would be traveling in mass to the funeral. As he scanned the street, he realized there must be thousands in the procession, which primarily consisted of a menagerie of curious East Enders who were acting more like vacationers on a holiday than mourners on their way to an interment. Adding to the circus-like atmosphere were curbside vocalists singing patriotic songs for the passersby and street merchants doing a brisk trade in “In Memorium” cards. If nothing else, the scavengers of the East End knew how to turn a small profit from a tragedy. As the crowds passed through Mile-End, Chief Inspector West and his large staff of police were keen to make their presence known. They could not afford to have another incident so close to the murder.

The weather was dismal, punctuated by an unfortunate mix of rain and fog, but most of the crowd seemed oblivious to this fact. Some brought umbrellas and seemed more or less prepared for a wet afternoon, but the majority were not minding the weather at all. Although it was still early in the afternoon, many of those closest to Albert were obviously drunk and appeared to be reveling in the macabre opportunity to play a part in the latest chapter of an ongoing local tragedy. Even though his killing spree had ended over a year earlier, Frances Coles’ murder had rekindled rumors of the notorious Jack the Ripper.

Elizabeth Stride grave at the East London Cemetery
Elizabeth Stride gravesite at the East London Cemetery

The killer of at least five local women in the summer and fall of 1888 had neither been positively identified nor arrested and, because of this, the man (or men) people now called “Jack the Ripper” appeared cleverer to many than the detectives whose job it was to bring him to justice. In fact, there were those who still believed he lurked amongst them ready to strike again at a time of his choosing. For that reason, the Coles’ murder seemed to present concrete evidence that this concern was more than just idle speculation or local superstition.

Contrary to popular opinion, most city officials believed that Jack had either moved away from London or had been locked away in prison or maybe even an asylum for some unrelated offense. The inspectors each had their pet suspects and had formed their own theories about the murderer’s current disposition and situation. Some even believed he had committed suicide after the Mary Jane Kelly murder or that he had died in some other unfortunate manner. After killing so many so quickly, the murderer had stopped his spree abruptly and he had not resumed killing for more than a year. That simple fact was all they needed to know on the subject and, therefore, for most of the investigators in the Metropolitan Police, the case was closed on the Ripper killings. Any new homicides in the East End were necessarily unrelated. Yet, in spite of all of their postulations, the fact was that no one, not even Scotland Yard, had a consistent theory about who the killer might be or what had become of him.

Dorset Street in Spitalfieds
Dorset Street, Spitalfields, London circa 1902

As the procession reached the junction of Burdett and East India Dock roads, they were met by even larger numbers of people who had congregated for the remainder of the journey. It was the midway point in their six-mile pilgrimage from Whitechapel to the East London Cemetery in Plaistow and Albert’s shoes were already covered in mud. His feet and back had begun to ache in the ill-fitting footwear he had chosen for the event. Albert hoped that once they crossed the iron bridge onto Barking Road the crowds would thin out so that they could travel more quickly to their destination.

Albert knew in his heart that he needed to pay his last respects. Aside from the night of her murder, he had not seen Frances for several years. He had often wondered what had become of her. Of course, he knew all of the shop talk that Frances had taken to the streets and had become one of the many unfortunates living in squalor in the doss houses of Spitalfields. He supposed he had chosen to ignore this talk as the idle chatter of warehouse workers.

Although it was honest work, he that knew Frances did not enjoy being a laborer. The work was hard and the hours long. Even at her young age, Frances was quickly wearing away the joints in her fingers putting stoppers in bottles all day long at the chemist’s warehouse. She had told him as much during their brief courtship. In those days, she was a mere nineteen and a lovely vision for a bachelor like Albert who spent most of his time arranging for shipments with the hard-faced men working at London’s docks or negotiating with the shrewd and calculating businessmen who made up most of London’s burgeoning merchant class.

It only took a few weeks for Albert to realize he fancied watching Frances as she worked. He had tried to disguise his attentions as he discovered more reasons to attend to the operations in the warehouse. For her part, Frances knew enough of the ways of men to understand that Albert’s attentions to the particulars of the warehouse operations were unwarranted. The warehouse manager did not remain unaware of the situation for long, either, and he soon warned Frances about further soliciting the attentions of the management no matter how flattering or innocent they may seem.

Needless to say, Frances did not heed her manager’s admonition but, for a time, she did have the sense to conceal her desire to entertain Mr. Beardsley’s advances, as awkward and indirect as they seemed. Like a cat and mouse they toyed with each other’s concealed desires, casting furtive glances at each other and positioning themselves in the narrow aisles such that they might encounter one another as they moved about the warehouse.

Albert got a jolt of excitement each time one of these encounters occurred. As they brushed past one another, he found reasons to place his hands on Frances’ shoulders as he squeezed behind her to reach for stock he now inventoried twice as often as he once had. Soon enough, however, Albert felt the need for something more. He had kindled a desire for Frances that was well beyond any other he had felt in his adult life.

All of the women who had been presented to him to previously during his mother’s desperate attempts to arrange a courtship for him had felt passionless and cold by comparison. As a man who was now approaching his 30s, he had to endure the same interminable courtship rituals year after year. His mother had not yet given up on him and, as a consequence, she continued to create ample opportunity for her aging son to find a suitable partner to marry.

Until recently, however, Albert had been too caught up in his studies to pay much mind to the decorum of Victorian courtship. A romantic at heart, he longed for something more organic, unfettered and passionate, and in his flirtations with Frances, he believed he had found just that.

To Frances, Albert represented a unique but rather unlikely opportunity to alter her own circumstances. She had been born to James William and Mary Coles in Bermondsey, South London. Her father James, now a widower, had been a master boot maker but had more recently fallen on hard times and was now an inmate at the Bermondsey Workhouse. Her sister Selina had met a similar fate. Only twenty-one, she had worked as a servant for most of her life but was now imprisoned at the St. Olaves Union Workhouse in Southwark until she could work off her debts. Frances did not wish to meet this same fate but saw few opportunities to avoid it if her body was not up to the rigors of long hours in the warehouse.

In theory, of course, Albert was both aware of and sympathetic to the lives of the destitute in London. He and his mother had always supported causes for the betterment and education of the poor. Albert did recognize, of course, that his own warehouse staff was made up of the laboring classes, but he did not equate their circumstances with the dire situations he read about in the papers and in the pamphlets distributed by churches and public welfare organizations. To him, Frances seemed a bright, vivacious and God-fearing woman in spite of her lower station, and he sincerely believed that she would do well for herself in spite of it all. He held a firm belief in the upward potential of anyone wishing to attain a better life than the one they were assigned at birth. He also believed that he was in a position to raise Frances out of a life of difficult labor and poverty if he could only gain her heart.

Albert had clearly not given much thought to the effects of his recent behavior toward Frances. In the recent weeks, he had been living as if in a dream, imagining only possibilities for the two of them that suited his pent up need for female companionship. He did not have the wherewithal to imagine this situation in the reverse; he was not a man who was much practiced in imagining life from any other perspective than his own. He found the thoughts of others intrusive and preferred to dictate what he wanted to others and have them carry out his demands. He didn’t desire input from anyone, not even from the chemists who employed him. They had entrusted him with the success or failure of their operations, and he made sure that he was the master of that domain. To that end, he did his job very well and was compensated more than fairly for his efforts.

As the crowd approached the cemetery, Albert’s reverie was broken by the reality of the moment. He could now see rows of headstones in the distance as the throngs filed into the cemetery grounds in front of him. However, as he reached the gates of the cemetery, he noticed that something was amiss. The group just in front of him had stopped moving and they were beginning to mutter and curse in dismay. Word had just reached them from the front of the procession that the funeral had been rescheduled for Wednesday due to the weather. The long journey to Plaistow had been in vain. Instinctively, Albert moved away from the crowd and entered the grounds to walk among the graves. He needed some space from the others who had begun dispersing from the scene.

Mortuary photo of Frances Coles
Mortuary photograph of Frances Coles

Like the others, Albert was disappointed but he had a lot to think over and didn’t necessarily mind the time to clear his head, which had been filled strange thoughts and emotions since the night of the murder. Why hadn’t he risked his own life to save Frances? Surely, he knew it was her. Moreover, he had been close enough for her to know it was him as she looked beyond her attacker for help from the stranger who stood in the shadows nearby. Yet he was no stranger. He had seen the clear look of recognition in her eyes. How had it come to pass that he was in that very spot at that very hour? He kept spinning that same thought over and over in his mind.

Was he meant to be present at the end – the very one who had cemented the downward trajectory of Frances’ young life? Was God so vindictive that he would put a man like Albert in such a position? Perhaps. The Bible was filled with stories like this, but never it seemed to concern individuals as singularly unworthy and insignificant as Albert. He found he couldn’t reconcile himself to a logical conclusion that could clear himself of responsibility for both the crime and his role in creating the circumstances for Frances’ precipitous fall from grace.

As Albert meditated on these thoughts, he became aware of a vision in the distance. Through the mist and rain, he could see a woman. She appeared to be dancing without a partner to a waltz he could not hear. As she spun slowly amongst the headstones, he believed he saw her stealing furtive glances in his direction – the kind that Frances had given him when they first met. As he watched the somber dance unfold, the apparition began to move toward him with an imploring look on her face. It made Albert recall the uncomfortable moment in which he had stood by helplessly as Frances’ life was taken from her.

As the apparition glided across the cemetery, Albert suddenly became very frightened. Was he losing his mind or was he about to have an encounter with the ghost of the deceased? He did not wait around to find out. It may have looked strange to the others still circulating through the cemetery to see a man running through the graves in the rain. At the moment, Albert did not care. He ran until he was fully out of breath and had lost all sense of direction.

When he finally stopped to take stock of his surroundings, Albert felt disoriented. He was not sure where he was in the city. The streets were unfamiliar to him, but he was certain he was still north of the river and most likely heading in the general direction of Whitechapel. He kept walking. As an hour turned to two, dusk settled over the city. Albert began to grow anxious, wishing for himself to be in more familiar environs. He turned south as best as he could reckon. If he had guessed correctly, the road would eventually bring him to the docks along the river before long. These were not exactly safe places for a man like Albert to be walking alone at night, but at least he knew the area and how to get home from there.

Albert eventually regained his bearings as he neared Whitechapel High Street. He crossed the thoroughfare intending to find a cab to make his way to the Tower Bridge and eventually back home to Walworth. As he walked the streets of Whitechapel, he realized he was retracing Frances’ last known steps as they had been brought to light during the inquiry into her murder. He turned from Leman Street to walk down Chamber Street toward the railway arches where Frances had been killed. As he approached Magdalen Passage, a narrow alley that emptied into Chamber Street, he encountered a group of locals gathering for a night watch.

After the murder, the local vigilante committee had resumed walking the police beats in Whitechapel and nearby districts at night in the hope of catching the murderer in the act. As Albert passed into view of the men who gathered for the night’s vigil, he noted the look of suspicion on their faces at the arrival of a complete stranger in their midst. No one said a word to him but he could feel the entire group watching him intently as he moved toward the tunnel entrance and the very spot where he had witnessed Frances as she lay in the mud and rubble only seconds before the arrival of the first officer on the scene.

Albert dare not look down as he passed the ground where Frances’ blood had stained the earth. With a few more hasty steps, he walked through the opening on the other side of the arch. He felt a palpable sense of dread as he made his way to the Crown and Seven Stars where he ordered a shot of gin to calm himself before returning home. He found a corner of the pub that felt safe and out of the way. He ordered himself another and then another as he imagined the very walls of the pub filled with a pestilence that he could not help but breathe into his lungs. Eventually, the gin began to do its work and Albert felt the warmth of its spirits in him. The terror he felt earlier began to slip further and further into the recesses in his mind as he finally gathered enough courage to continue his journey home.

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