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On the trail of Jack the Ripper

On the day after Boxing Day, I found myself at Tower Hill tube station at 7:30 in the evening, by a surviving section of the old City Wall that dates back to Roman times. The reason? It is the starting point of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ walk organised by London Walks. Our guide was Shaughan, described by the company leaflet as ‘a distinguished and stylish actor’ as well as being a Blue Badge holder.

Our walking tour took us from the Tower to Spitalfields Market, via a series of sites on the boundary of the City and the East End which are indelibly linked with a string of brutal murders of prostitutes that took place between August and November in 1888, shocking Victorian Britain with their brutality and gruesomeness. The murders were described at the time as being “unique in the history of our country” by no less a person than Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. This was the first instance of a serial killer at work, and coming at a time of a burgeoning sensationalist press it gripped the nation, and indeed the wider world, like nothing before or since.

The fact that the murderer, known to history as Jack the Ripper, was never caught means that the Whitechapel murders still fascinate over a century later, to the extent of being taught in some schools; when I did my teacher training it was a special project for one of the GCSE History classes that I taught. We were meant to go on a walking tour then but never did. Since then, I’d always intended to go on the walk and with some friends visiting from Canada this seemed like the ideal opportunity. We were not disappointed.

The venues may have changed in appearance – much of this part of London was destroyed in the Blitz – but Shaughan’s vivid descriptions and recitals of the letters apparently sent by the killer helped to bring the events of 1888 to life. He himself admitted that he’s had over a dozen people faint on his tours over the years, and his gory descriptions of the state of the victims’ bodies are not for the faint-hearted.

Shaughan told us a lot not just about the Ripper murders but also about the history of that particular part of London; the Whitechapel and Spitalfields areas are today a centre of the Bangladeshi immigrant population (which is why Brick Lane is the best place to go for a curry in London), but their proximity to the docks means that they have always been areas of immigrant settlement, from the Huguenots in the seventeenth century to the Eastern European Jews in the nineteenth. This was the poorest part of London, a place where prostitution was rife; according to Shaughan, in 1888 the going rate for sex was the same as the price of a place to sleep in one of the area’s many doss-houses (fourpence), one could purchase enough gin to get drunk on for a penny and there were streets where policemen only ventured in groups of four.

What I found fascinating was that the walk took us past the modern-day office block where I work on Middlesex Street (formerly known as Petticoat Lane). London is of course teeming with history but I had not realised just how close some of the murder locations were to my place of work!

As well as describing the murders in great detail (although not all of the sites were visited – there’s no pattern in the way they are spread out over the eastern edge of the City and the East End), Shaughan also touched on the identities of some of the suspects, such as Montague Druitt and Aaron Kosminski.The former’s suicide shortly after the last murder provides an explanation as to why the killings ended when they did, while the latter was actually identified by a witness, although it is possible that this was a case of mistaken identity.

I found that one man who was conspicuous by his absence from Shaughan’s narrative was Frederick Abberline, the detective inspector who investigated the murders with the limited means available to the police of the late nineteenth century. Also missing from the narrative was the man Abberline himself suspected of being the Ripper – a man later arrested, tried and hanged for a series of murders that bore very little resemblance to the Ripper murders (poison being this particular serial killer’s weapon of choice).

What he did mention, though, was an unusual take on Commissioner Warren’s order to remove the graffiti which was found on Goulston Street on the night of the ‘double event’ (30th September 1888, when two of the victims were killed) – which it turns out can be seen not as a well-meaning attempt to prevent an anti-Semitic backlash (tensions were already running high in the area) but as part of a Masonic plot, although this hinges on whose version of the spelling one chooses to believe (what was controversial about Warren’s decision was that he ordered it to be cleaned before the police photographer arrived, and the police officers’ accounts of what the graffiti said are contradictory) or indeed whether the proximity of the graffiti to a blood-stained piece of apron linked to one of the victims is coincidental.

The Masonic theory was popularised in the 1970s by a book – one of many books on the subject of Jack the Ripper – which proposed that the murders were a means of covering up a secret marriage between HRH the Duke of Clarence (‘Prince Eddie’) and a working-class Catholic woman. This is the theory that has the Royal physician, Sir William Gull, killing the victims in a horse-drawn carriage and then depositing the bodies at the locations where they were subsequently found. Although widely discredited now, this theory brings the Royal family and Freemasonry into the Ripper story and as such remains a popular one, and has influenced film adaptations such as Murder by Decree (in which Sherlock Holmes, played by Christopher Plummer, goes on the trail of the Ripper), the 1988 TV series Jack the Ripper (with Michael Caine as Inspector Abberline) and the 2001 movie From Hell (Johnny Depp as a highly fictionalised version of Abberline).

Perhaps overplaying the Royal/Masonic theory, Shaughan explained to us that it was propagated on the evidence of one Joseph Gorman, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of the artist Walter Sickert (who was acquainted with the Royal family through his work and had a fascination with the murders). He (Gorman) later confessed that he’d made it up, but for supporters of this theory this can be explained as part of an ongoing cover-up. What Shaughan didn’t say, surprisingly, was that Sickert himself was named as a suspect by the crime novelist Patricia Cornwell. Well, there are so many theories about who the Ripper was that it would be impossible to list them all over the course of a two-hour walk.

Incidentally, one of Shaughan’s fellow-guides is Donald Rumbelow, widely considered to be the leading Ripper expert. His book was certainly invaluable to me when I needed to read up on the case prior to teaching it!

At one point, a police car sped by, lights flashing and siren wailing. “They’re still trying to catch him,” quipped Shaughan.

Our tour ended with a few more theories – the notion that the Ripper also killed abroad, that ‘Jack’ was in fact ‘Jill’ on the grounds that the victims would have been more trusting of a woman than a man and so been off their guard (this was a pet theory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and that he was actually a doctor who apparently confessed to being the Ripper just before he was hanged for another series of murders.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure – and that is the main reason why Jack the Ripper still fascinates us 124 years later.

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