The East End of London was haunted between August and November 1888 by the savage murders of several prostitutes, all displaying a similar signature of postmortem mutilation. It is critically accepted that there are five canonical victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – though many historians believe the earlier murder of Martha Tabram to have been committed by the same unidentified individual. The mystery surrounding the identity of the killer has enthralled enthusiasts for over a century. The name Jack the Ripper – adopted by the media after authorities received a hoax letter at the time of the murders – has immortalised the man behind the murders, transforming him from monster into mystery.
There are numerous Jack the Ripper walking tour companies in the East End, catering to ghoulish groups with more than a passing interest in this macabre mystery. This Ripper-enthusiast was lucky enough to attend the ‘original terror tour’, established in 1982 as part of Discovery Tours and Events Ltd. Hosted by noted Ripper historians, all published authors on the subject, the tour dispels the myths generated by Hollywood to reveal the facts behind the murders and what little we know of the man himself.
For £10, constant crowds are guided around notable sites around the East End associated with Saucy Jacky and his victims for a hefty two hours – sensible shoes advised. From the Ten Bells public house, supposedly patronised by both Annie Chapman and Mary Jane Kelly, to the doorway of the Wentworth Model Dwellings where the only clue left by the Ripper was found, a piece of apron – stained with blood and faeces – belonging to Catherine Eddowes, sightseers are immersed in the rich history of London in the 1880s.
The tour takes visitors to the majority of the murder sites, not necessarily in chronological order due to the geography of the city and the set duration of the tour. Similarly, due to travel timings, we were unable to visit all of the sites but our enigmatic guide, with a flair for the dramatic, captivated the group with a descriptive and comprehensive commentary, complete with visual aids.
The ever-changing London landscape has eradicated some of the original buildings while others have been repurposed. It was fascinating to see comparative photographs of the famous sites we were standing in, both then and in recent years, highlighting the seemingly organic development of the metropolis. The photographs proved invaluable when imagining the geography of 19th Century London and the location of the bodies, especially where we were unable to access the immediate area where the victims were discovered.
The photographs also revealed that our group was especially fortunate to be guided by Philip Hutchinson. A fountain of knowledge, warm and receptive, Hutchinson answered questions on a variety of subjects not limited to the murders, which included a fascinating aside on the damage to the area during the Second World War. A Ripper historian who has published several books, appeared in numerous documentaries, and lectured at international conferences on the subject, Hutchinson is recognised amongst his peers for his acquisition of unpublished photographs relating to the case: the Whitby Collection – amateur criminologist John Gordon Whitby’s photographs of the murder sites, taken in 1961 – and the only known photograph of the location of Elizabeth Stride’s murder. Hutchinson published these significant findings in his book, The Jack the Ripper Location Photographs: Dutfield’s Yard and the Whitby Collection. Along with The London of Jack the Ripper: Then and Now (co-authored by Rob Clack), this is a critical source text for anyone interested in the murders and the seemingly ceaseless conversion of the city.
Whether one is an authority or amateur on the subject, the tour caters to all audiences. Sweeping through the history of the East End, Hutchinson’s storytelling was an accessible summary for those unfamiliar with the details of the crimes and peppered with plenty of facts and information to engage enthusiasts. No matter what you have read or seen on the subject, nothing compares to the experience of standing in the same streets as Jack the Ripper, walking through history alongside the mystery, the myth, the man.
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