On Saturday night I ventured out from our quiet, leafy suburb in North London for the first time since the lockdown first started. I hadn’t been further than a few miles away from our flat in months and I was nervous about going on the tube. Luckily it was pretty empty and those that were travelling were all wearing masks. By the time my husband and I reached King’s Cross, I had forgotten my fear (and what Harry Potter fan doesn’t get a little thrill when they reach King’s Cross station?). But we weren’t there to catch the Hogwarts Express. No, we were switching train lines in order to head to a much darker place than a school of witchcraft and wizardry. We were heading to Whitechapel, East London, to follow in the footsteps of Jack the Ripper.
Whitechapel has never had the best reputation, and though it’s a heck of a lot better than it was in 1888 when the Whitechapel murders occurred, it still has a rough edge to it. There are dingy back streets and many buildings are shuttered and tagged with graffiti. The locals are ambivalent about the many tourists and the parks dotted around the area have an unkempt, neglected air about them. Despite this, Whitechapel has clearly profited by this most unsavory slice (and dice) of history, with businesses capitalizing on the infamous killings, multiple plaques and murals, as well as over 20 Jack the Ripper Tour companies.
We’ve all heard the story of Jack the Ripper. In the autumn of 1888, six women working as prostitutes on the streets of London’s East End were brutally murdered in just over a month. The woman were left with horrific injuries to their bodies, and often had internal organs removed. These murders took place on the streets of an overcrowded area of London (with the exception of the last victim, who was killed in her rented room, leading some to not consider her one of the Rippers victims) and under the noses of two separate police forces. The murderer has never been identified. Or has he?
Being a fan of true crime (my husband is convinced I’m trying to figure out how to knock him off and get away with it), I was very excited to go on a tour. We booked with The Jack the Ripper Tour, with Ripper Vision and we couldn’t have picked a better tour! Our tour guide was a man named John Chambers and he did not disappoint. Over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes, John took us to the site of each murder and explained (in proper gory detail) each killing. One of the benefits of this particular tour is Ripper Vision, in which our guide projected crime scene photos and newspaper clippings from the day. Many of the buildings that stood in 1888 were destroyed in the Blitz during WWII, so seeing the photos of the area in 1888 really helped to put things in perspective.
But to me, it wasn’t the gory details or photos that really made the tour. For me it was John’s extensive knowledge of the victims, who they were as people, where they had come from and how they had come to find themselves in the unenviable position of selling themselves on the streets. John painted a picture of Victorian England, with all of its class issues and poverty. In a thoroughly modern London, we were transported back to over 130 years ago.
The Whitechapel of the Victorian era was a cesspit of crime, starvation and disease. Women were second class citizens and the only option for many was either back breaking toil in a workhouse or prostitution. Many of these women had no permanent dwellings and had raging alcohol addictions to feed. If they were lucky, they might find a ‘bed’ (a pile of dirty rags on the floor) for four pence per night. A step down from there would be paying one pence to sleep hung over a rope tied from one end of a room to another, this is where we get the term ‘hung over’. These accommodations would have been crawling with lice and vermin, but at least there was a roof over their heads. If a person couldn’t afford either of these options, they would be left to bed down in a church yard or on the hard cobbles of the streets. Not an appealing thought during a London winter, and so to the streets women would go to make money for a safe nights rest. It was under these bleak circumstances that the victims of the Whitechapel killer met their sad ends.
Police resembled the Keystone Cops in their attempts to capture the killer. At first the Whitechapel murderer was known as ‘Leather Apron’, because the bodies had near surgical quality cuts. Whomever the killer was, he was either a skilled surgeon or possibly a butcher, both of which would have worn a leather apron.
Unfortunately most of the doctor surgeons in the East End were Jewish, and they became the target of public hate. The day after the fourth and fifth murders, letters began to arrive at the central news agency, at the home of the leader of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee as well as at police headquarters. The letters were written in red ink, contained details of the murders, and were signed ‘Yours truly, Jack The Ripper’. This is the name that has stayed connected to the case throughout the years.
There are many theories as to the identity of Jack the Ripper. One is that Prince Albert Victor, grandson to Queen Victoria, fell in love and married against his grandmothers wishes. The murdered ladies are supposed to have witnessed the wedding and therefor must be eliminated (the 2001 film From Hell is based upon this idea). Another theory is that businessman James Maybrick was the murderer, and that his wife discovered his heinous crimes. The distraught wife murdered Maybrick with arsenic. In 1992 Maybrick’s diary, confessing to the killings, was supposedly discovered in Liverpool. Yet another theory is that Polish Jew, Aaron Kosminski, was responsible. To be sure, Kosminski was known for his violence against women as well as mental illness (he later died in a mental asylum). In 2014 it was put forward that Kosminski’s guilt could be proven using mitochondrial DNA evidence from a murder scene. This theory has recently been called into question by some prominent scientists. My personal favorite (and absolutely ridiculous) theory is that Jack the Ripper moved to America and became the infamous killer H.H. Holmes. But in truth, no one knows, and this is a mystery that will likely never be solved.
Following the tour my husband and I went with John to the White Hart, one of the oldest pubs in the East End. There we met with some of John’s friends, all Ripperologists and highly dedicated to the case. Ripper Vision tour guide Mick Priestley has written a book called One Autumn in Whitechapel (available on Amazon), that I picked up. It’s excellent! John is also an author and has a book titled A Load of Old Monarchs coming out next month. What surprised me about this group was that they weren’t all about Jack the Ripper. He wasn’t really the focus for them. Here’s what John had to say about it:
‘Don’t focus on Jack the Ripper. Don’t just think about the Whitechapel Murderer. Remember the victims. They had families and lives and they didn’t deserve what happened to them. Remember Martha Tabram. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Catherine Eddowes. Mary Kelly. Remember them.’
Sidney Fraser is an American transplanted to a new life in London, where she explores fannish and geeky places, events and creations, which she relates in the continuing True and Proper Adventures of Sidney Fraser.