London is a city of contrasts – known for its pomp and prestige, but also a gritty, occasionally macabre past (I’m looking at you, Tower of London). One of the most disturbing and simultaneously fascinating stories of London’s past is that of Jack the Ripper. The yet unidentified serial killer terrorised the impoverished area of Whitechapel in the late 19th century, murdering at least five prostitutes – and possibly responsible for the death of many more victims found later.
The mystery of Jack the Ripper continues to draw tourists to the spooky lanes of Whitechapel, which is definitely the right adjective to describe the night I took part in a walking tour of the area. It has been more than 120 years since Jack the Ripper committed the atrocities that began in 1888, but when you walk the quiet, foggy streets of Whitechapel on a cold February night you could be forgiven for thinking he might just strike again.
We met just near Aldgate East Underground Station, where our well-informed guide began with some background and by warning us that the tour would be somewhat graphic. It’s not exactly an ideal activity for children.
The meeting point was on busy road but we immediately turned off and found ourselves on a dimly lit street, on which we saw maybe one or two pedestrians. Aside from out little group, it was eerily quiet – but a perfect setting for the subject of the tour.
We stopped at various places important in the case; mainly the locations where victims were found. At each, our guide told us all the gory details, including exactly which body parts were removed and other such rainbow-and-sunshine details. She had pictures of all the victims as they were found, which were passed around to gasps of horror.
All of the stories were naturally horrifying and, as is quite possibly always the case with such things, the fact that the victims seemed so close to being saved added to my dismay as I listened. Several victims were found on the street, making it clear that if anyone had walked past they might have lived. Indeed, one victim was not subjected to the level of mutilation seen in the others, leading investigators to believe the killer was interrupted. Another was killed in her apartment so close to a major street that it seems impossible no one could have heard, but apparently they did not.
We learned all about how police built a profile of the killer – actually the oldest surviving criminal profile – based on the methodical murders, concluding that he was either a surgeon, doctor or possibly a butcher. The butcher theory was believed to be one that was quite likely due to the fact that hardly anyone would notice someone of that profession walking the streets in a blood-covered apron.
Many clues relating to the identity of the killer were found in letters sent to newspapers, and it was from one of these letters that the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’ came. The fact that all the murders took place in the Whitechapel area on holidays or weekends led to the belief that the killer lived or worked locally, but no one was ever apprehended, and the mystery lives on – and has resulted in a fascinating, though gruesome, tour very popular with visitors.
Our tour lasted for roughly 90 minutes to two hours, during the course of which we walked a fair distance through the grimy streets of Whitechapel, pondering the fate of these unfortunate women on whose behalf justice will never be served. Our guide seemed convinced that the killer was a butcher, but reading other accounts it is clear that there is no one suspect – in fact, the list that has been added to by historians now tallies over 100 names, with no firm answer.
Our tour finished with our guide dropping us off at a different Tube station, from where some headed on for hot comfort food as recommended by our guide. Whenever I have visited Whitechapel since, it has been difficult to keep the memory of those poor women out of my mind, not to mention the mystery of who was responsible for the fear that once overshadowed those streets. If you can handle the gore, it’s a history lesson I would highly recommend.
Courtney Gahan is an Aussie serial expat, traveller and freelance writer who has bartered with Moroccan marketeers, seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat and elbowed her way through crowds on NYE in NYC. Currently based in Amsterdam.