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Into Hell: Walking across Jack the Ripper’s London

I first learn about it from a poster—a Jack the Ripper tour, advertised on a small standee in London. It sat beside a few garbage bins at Tower Hill tube station, right by the East End.

Jack the Ripper. I haven’t heard the name in years. Though here, right where the murders happened, I suppose it’s impossible to forget.

And if you haven’t heard about him at all, here goes: Jack the Ripper is the infamous serial killer of Whitechapel, believed to have murdered and mutilated five women in the autumn of 1888. Five too many, if you ask anyone.

But here’s the thing: he was never found. Not then, when the police staged an extensive manhunt; and not now, when DNA testing has remained inconclusive. It’s the world’s greatest murder mystery, and perhaps the most horrifying. Going into Jack the Ripper’s London? It’s a whole other kind of history lesson you won’t see in the museums. I decide to give it a go.

The Jack the Ripper tour poster in Tower Hill tube station.

The poster asks you to be at the station at 6:40. It’s a little past that now, so I make my way to the small group of people assembling by the entrance. There are a number of Jack the Ripper tour operators in London, apparently, and this one’s run by Strawberry Tours. Not the one I saw on the poster, but one is as good as any, I think.

“Are you here for the tour?” a tall, stylish man with a huge strawberry-print umbrella asks me.

“Yes,” I answer. “Yes, I am.”

I sign up on his iPad and we all walk towards a small park near the tube station. After everyone gathers, he introduces himself as Mark.

Mark, he isn’t an Englishman. He was born in Ireland, left when he was 17, and moved to London. He’s studied architecture, designs for exhibitions, and in the evenings, plays cabaret on the piano with drag queens and burlesque performers. But tonight, he’s a tour guide.

It’s the world’s greatest murder mystery, and perhaps the most horrifying. Going into Jack the Ripper’s London? It’s a whole other kind of history lesson you won’t see in the museums.

He spends a few minutes briefing us and says if we ever lose him, he can’t help us, because he’s impossible to miss. Then he points at that massive strawberry umbrella of his. Everyone has a laugh at that. But as we all start walking and the tour actually begins, no one’s laughing anymore. 

We head into the Whitechapel district. This is where everything happened, all within a mile of each other. Back in 1888, most of the area was made up of narrow alleyways, and the first thing you discover from Mark is just how squalid everything was.

He describes the place as very dirty, overcrowded, with lots of social and racial issues. Back then, the area was filled with people from all sorts of cultures. With all of them existing side by side, there were bound to be some misunderstandings.

“Most of the people in the East End would have been homeless,” he says, though it’s not the kind of homeless we know today. It was a very common thing back then, and what it meant was that they didn’t have permanent accommodation. What they did have, though, were small lodges call doss-houses where you could rent space from day to day. And I say space because some people would have to share a room, some could only afford a bed on the floor, and others would have to settle for sheets tied between two beams. This was the reality of the Victorian London poor.

Still, people were desperate to get into them, and would do anything to earn enough to stay in one for a day. Because while the doss-houses were crowded and unsanitary, the streets were far more dangerous.

One of the last surviving women’s dormitories from the Victorian era.

Without a lot of employment going around, some women turned to prostitution, and it was mostly from them that the Ripper would take his victims. Nearly a dozen women were murdered in the streets in the autumn of 1988, and of those, five are believed to have been his work.

On August 31, the murders began, Mark says. At least, the ones believed to be the Ripper’s. While the newspapers rarely reported on these incidents, this one was different. It was marked by a brutality so extreme that it left the victim mutilated. I’ll spare you the details, you can look them up if you really want to know. But for the media to have singled out a murder in a particularly bloody autumn, it’s enough to know that this one was especially gruesome.

Her name was Mary Ann Nichols, and she was the first. She was last seen standing around Whitechapel after being turned out of a boarding house for not having enough money. Still, Nichols had said she could easily make more than enough to cover it, because of the new bonnet she’d just bought. In the early hours of the morning, her body was found on the ground with multiple cuts.

It happened on Durward Street, though back then it was called Buck’s Row. Whitechapel in 1888 was a place of cramped alleys, cobblestone roads, and dank corners. Today it’s mostly made of parks and gardens, cafes and boutiques. But being here, walking in a place that’s existed for so long, you can imagine how it must have felt like. And this was only just the beginning.

There were quite a few initial suspicions, and one of them was that this belonged to a series of gang-related incidents that began earlier in the season. None of the other killings involved violence on this scale, though, so it was eventually ruled out. Some papers also published descriptive stories about a killer named “Leather Apron,” while other publications disagreed.

On September 8, it happened again. Annie Chapman was found disemboweled in a yard in Hanbury Street. By this time, it was clear that these were no ordinary murders, and the investigations continued.

The police eventually arrested a shoemaker known by the nickname “Leather Apron.” He was allegedly extorting money from the local prostitutes. But later, Leather Apron was released because the evidence pointed elsewhere.

Now the entire city was at a loss. There were no real leads, no name for the killer, and no telling what would happen next. But something did, and the autumn 1888 would take a turn for the worse.

We follow Mark down the street and he leads us to a place called Mitre Square. This was where one of the next two killings would occur, and they both happened on the same day. Mitre Square, like the rest of the Whitechapel area now, doesn’t look like it could have been the scene of a murder. It doesn’t look like it could even have been stricken with poverty at all, flanked by a school and an upscale modern building.  

But on September 30, the body of Elizabeth Stride was found with her throat slit in nearby Berner Street. The curious thing about it was that blood was still flowing from the wound, leading investigators to believe that the murderer wasn’t able to finish mutilating the corpse as he did the others. 

On the same day, less than an hour later, Catherine Eddowes was discovered lying face-down in the southwest corner of Mitre Square. The killer had been more thorough this time, damaging Eddowes’ face and ear as well.

The outrage that followed was immense. People demanded answers, and no one was able to give them any. And because of the way the murders were committed, suspicions fell on butchers, surgeons, doctors, and slaughterers. This was because they had the anatomical knowledge to cut out the organs, but also because of the era’s distrust in the medical field.

The police went door-to-door, investigating the scant leads that there were. Still, Victorian forensic technology wasn’t going to be enough. This was a new kind of menace, and despite the claims and rumors that the killer had been found, the truth behind them was questionable.

Just days before the twin murders, the Central News Agency received a letter from someone claiming to be the killer. Though it was mostly thought of as a hoax, the agency decided to forward it to the authorities, anyway. In the letter, the murderer was anxious to begin the spree again, mentioning that he would cut off the ear of his next target. This forced the police to take the letter seriously. It mirrored what was done to Eddowes, whose ear and been cut.

The day after the double murder, they finally made the letter public. It was distributed in handbills and the papers even published some of its contents in the hopes of discovering a lead. Later, people began calling it the “Dear Boss” letter, because that was how the first line began.

Today, no one is sure whether the letter is authentic. But what’s clear is that this was how the killer got his name. It was the first to be signed “Jack the Ripper.”

The “Dear Boss” letter gave Jack the Ripper his trade name

Soon, the Leather Apron moniker was forgotten. The killer had supposedly chosen his own name, and this was a name that was echoed throughout the press.

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Then, the letters started pouring in, all claiming to be the Ripper. And while there were quite a few of these, most of them were considered hoaxes, written by people who wanted to keep the controversy going.

Only three are even considered to be possibly authentic: The Dear Boss letter, a postcard sent after the double murder, and a letter sent to George Lusk, who was the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee.

That last one came with half a kidney, the other half having been eaten by the sender, as the letter says. It began with “From Hell,” though it was not signed “Jack the Ripper.” Still, it has been the subject of books, films, and articles, including a graphic novel by Alan Moore.

So, the killer had a name, and was also still on the loose. But right now, Mark is guiding us to final part of the tour, and possibly the most horrifying one yet. It’s still not quite dark out as we march from Mitre Square to Spitalfields, where the story ends, but the light does little to keep the dread away.

By the time we get to Spitalfields, we learn the name of the last woman: Mary Jane Kelly. She had been renting a room in the area, and her situation was unique among the other victims. It was the first time that the Ripper had committed the act indoors, and it was also the most ghastly. Mark offers to show a photo to the group, but only if they wanted to see it. I think about it for a while when he turns to ask me, and then I nod.

I regret it immediately, turning away from Mark’s plastic clear book. Even if I had known Kelly before, it would not have mattered. The photo was barely recognizable as a person. She had been mutilated so thoroughly that she no longer had a face.

This was Jack the Ripper at his most debased. Given the time and the privacy, he had done his worst.

In the investigation that followed, the police found burn marks across the room, from clothes that were set on fire. It was thought that the Ripper had started burning clothes to see more clearly in the darkness.

The Ripper murders stopped after that night, putting an end to his Whitechapel rampage. It’s supposed that he left London, or died of illness, or was finally caught. But’s that all they are: suppositions.

To date, nothing is still certain. You might say that the investigation is still going on, though now made by people from around the world, amateurs and experts both. The bloody autumn of 1888 has spawned a series of movies, books, investigations, and reports. None have come close to finding the truth.

Christ Church at Spitalfields

The name behind the murders? Nobody knows. At least, not for sure. It’s been speculated that Jack the Ripper could have been an aristocrat, a doctor, a butcher: anyone, really.

What we do know is that it happened. That it’s one of London’s worst crimes, one the greatest murder mysteries of the Victorian era. Probably still is.

But as long as these tours remain, as long as people remember, there’s hope yet. There’s a chance that Jack, or whoever he really was (if it even was a he), may yet be identified. And maybe it will give us a clue about what was behind the murders, maybe it will give us a better understanding of what drives people to commit them, maybe even give the women’s descendants a small amount of peace. More than a hundred years too late, but something. At the very least, it would finally close the book on one of London’s darkest chapters.

Across the street, Mark points towards a building. It is a dull, stone-colored women’s boarding house—one of the last ones standing from the Victorian era. It looms above Spitalfields, perhaps as a reminder, maybe as a warning.

I say my farewells to Mark and take his photo. I’m going to write a story about it, I tell him. He gives me a few more details to help out. But what I remember most is that this story should be told and retold. Not to make the Ripper even more famous, not to give people any sort of romantic notions about him, about the mystery. But because this is the sort of thing that should never happen again.

Right now, with the evening getting deeper, the boutiques in the area have long since closed, and the lights of the pubs and restaurants seem brighter against the dark. There are no working women that walk the streets anymore, no doss-houses or dark alleyways. But I walk on the side that seems brighter, anyway.

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