In the realm of research devoted to Jack the Ripper, there supposedly have been a number of specific phases. It started with the first wave of international coverage at the time and evolved through a variety of speculations about the Ripper’s identity. Some have been pretty wild.
Collectively, the people who devote themselves, heart and soul, to this case have been dubbed Ripperologists. They run websites, debate facts, produce scholarship, and dismiss theories that are not their own. It seems like a new book speculating about Saucy Jack’s identity is published every year.
I’ve reviewed a few of these tomes on this blog. I wouldn’t call myself a Ripperologist, but when I contemplated taking a Ripper tour in London, I realized that I could probably skip the official tour and figure out the route for myself. I also wanted to see things that might not be on the road most travelled, as it were.
So, last week, with a small group, I ventured out.
Hardly anything exists for Ripper fans today in its 1888 form. I found that my endeavor was something of a scavenger hunt. Streets and buildings were poorly marked, and streets were anything but straight. Still, it was fun to make discoveries.
The number of Ripper victims, by official records, is five, but Ripperologists disagree on many counts, even on whether some of the official victims should be included. However, most experts agree that the murder spree began in 1888, probably August. Officially, it ended that November, but could have gone on for a couple more years—or even in other places.
I’m not going to recount who the victims were, or what happened to them. You can find that in other places. My purpose is to describe my experience walking the streets of London's Whitechapel area and add items that tours might overlook.
We began at the Aldgate East Tube Station, where Whitechapel High Street meets Commercial. That area was confusing. It was a busy intersection, with little clarity as to which street was which.
I saw on a map where Commercial cut away in a sort-of zigzag, so I followed it. This brought me to a street with a different name than it bore in 1888, which led to a school ground. Ah! I’d found the site of one of the Ripper killings—Elizabeth Stride. This meant I was close to something else I was looking for.
I had read that on certain days (and not always), one could visit a free medical museum located in the crypt of St. Phillip’s Church. Inside were exhibits related to the Elephant Man and Jack the Ripper, along with 19th century surgical tools and a history of nursing in London.
So, I found my way from one street to the next until I saw the London Hospital. One non-official victim had died here in 1888, and a Ripper suspect was said to have checked himself in here for an ailment during the course of the rampage. Across Whitechapel Road from this hospital was the former Working Lads Institute, where several victim inquests took place.
We made our way past a long line of market stalls before we figured out which building it was. Very high up, we could just make out the faded words, “Working Lads Institute.”
Back to the museum. It was on the other side of the hospital, off Newark Street. We stopped at the top of some stairs that went below ground. We weren’t sure, but then we saw a sign. And the museum was open!
This proved to be a real find! Elephant Man Joseph Merrick’s skeleton was in there, along with the hood he’d worn and a number of other items related to his sad story. Not far away was the forensic medicine exhibit that features the Catherine Eddowes murder (the fourth official Ripper victim). It had a map, copies of alleged Ripper letters, a newspaper article from 1888, and some drawings of Eddowes’ butchered body.
After visting the museum, we went on the north side of Whitechapel Road to wind around on the twisty back streets to look for sites of other Ripper victims, Polly Nichols (#1) and Annie Chapman (#2). Neither spot resembled the 1888 scene. Nor did the former Miller’s Court, down Commercial Road, where Mary Kelly had been butchered for approximately two hours, supposedly exhausting the Ripper’s fury and ending the murders. This place is now a multi-story car park. Rather disappointing.
However, before you get there, Commercial Street does offer the Ten Bells Pub, which is similar to how it was in 1888. This is where Mary Kelly had her last drink and possibly where her killer spotted her. It’s worth entering just to see the wall murals.
We then cut over to Bell Lane, which turned into Goulston Street, where Catherine Eddowes’ ripped and bloody apron was found. Then it was back onto Whitechapel High Street. At this point, we could have gone right or left. We chose right, to find Mitre Street. Up this street was Mitre Square, where Catherine Eddowes was killed and cut up in the southwest corner. It’s now a quiet area with a bench and a flowerbed where people come to smoke and talk on their "mobiles."
Retracing our steps, we found the narrow alley, formerly George Yard, where Martha Tabram was killed. She is likely a Ripper victim, but is not on the official list. This alley shows what the streets were like in the Ripper’s day. It was the best example we found.
I was surprised to discover the lack of merchandise shops in Whitechapel for Ripper items. There was one seedy store near the Tube entrance that had some T-shirts, but no Ripper earrings, necklaces, mouse pads, pot holders, pens, capes, backpacks, clocks, snowglobes, or baseball hats. It seems like someone could make a real killing with a place like that.
Aside from the tours, Whitechapel has seemingly forgotten its most famous residents. You could walk on these streets and never know what had happened on some spot you just crossed. I was glad we at least found some items in the little museum.