Dead ends in London

Laura Billings reports that despite its grisly details, a grisly Jack the Ripper tour only enflames her fascination with the 19th-century English murderer.

By Laura Billings
Published February 7, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The windows of our wood-paneled station wagon are down, and the sea salt in the breeze makes our hair stand stiffly on end when we slow for pit stops at the Texaco. Dad is behind the wheel, Mom is riding shotgun and trying her best to interest us in scenic New England. "Look, guys, see the covered bridge?" she says brightly. "You missed it," she sighs again.

It is 1976 and my parents have taken my brother and me on a whistle-stop journey through the bicentennial East. They've filled an "activity box" with a stunning array of games, books and Mad-libs designed to appeal to the gifted and talented children they fervently wish we would be, but all that holds our attention are pages 575 and 576 of "The People's Almanac." Poring over the "Unsolved Mysteries" chapter with heads together and lips in motion, we read and reread every grisly misdeed attributed to Jack the Ripper -- or simply Jack, as we call him, as we would a favorite uncle. Even when we are forced to shut the book and get out of the car to ride the Maid of the Mist to Niagara Falls, to see the Lincoln Memorial, to pose for pictures tossing fake tea into Boston Harbor, Jack's grim specter follows us.

"When Jack ate that hooker's kidney," my 7-year-old brother asks, "do you think he fried it or baked it?"

"Neither," I offer, like the 9-year-old wit I am. "He made a kidney pie."

I can still hear my mother groaning.

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I'd nearly forgotten my Jack the Ripper obsession (I once memorized the dates and details of each of the five unsolved murders attributed to him, but it never proved useful in real life), until I found myself in London recently, looking for something to do on a Sunday night. I picked up a brochure from the Original London Walks tour company and discovered that Donald Rumbelow, a former member of the City of London police force and "an internationally recognised expert" on the so-called Whitechapel Murders, was leading a walking tour through Jack the Ripper's East End stomping grounds. "You want to go to this?" my boyfriend said, a little incredulously. "He killed girls, you know."

I know. In fact, some theorists have even proposed that the Ripper was a girl -- "Jill the Ripper" -- though, as my brother and I concluded 20 years ago, a woman probably wouldn't have had the upper body strength to slit a woman's throat straight to the spine. For that you had to be a surgeon, a meat-cutter, an adrenalized whack-job or, at very least, an NFL running back. I looked forward to discussing the various conspiracy theories (Was it Queen Victoria's fey grandson, the Duke of Clarence? Did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have any inside poop?) with our guide, assuming that we'd be joining a small group of mystery buffs and perverts. But when we arrive at the Tower Hill tube station we find Rumbelow, a ruddy-faced fellow in the standard-issue waxed cotton coat taking money (4-and-a-half pounds each) from more than 100 other tourists: Japanese with video cameras, American kids in fraternity sweat shirts, ripely aromatic Germans, English ladies in tweed skirts and sensible shoes.

How can a serial killer who did his best work in 1888 still cast such a spell? I wonder. Or are all the hot plays just sold out?

The tour starts about a quarter-mile from the Tower of London at one of the
remnants of the old Roman wall that once surrounded the City of London. In
August of 1888, any misbehavior within the wall (or imaginary wall, since much
of it had crumbled away) fell under the jurisdiction of the City of London
police force; crimes on the other side were in the domain of Scotland Yard. No love was lost between the two department heads (think: Simone and
Sipowicz vs. the feds). By leaving bodies on both sides of the wall, Rumbelow
explains, and pitting rival forces against each other, the murderer managed to
avoid detection. His other stroke of genius was murdering five lowly
prostitutes in the worst part of London before the advent of fingerprinting
and DNA testing. None of us would be here, after all, if he'd been caught. And
judging from the number of ladies present, I'd guess a good number of us
wouldn't be here if Michael York hadn't once been cast as the elusive

Rumbelow refers to these crimes as "the Jack the Ripper murders," but he has
such a deliciously stentorian British accent that it comes out as "the Jahck
the Rippah murrr-dahs." The creep show pronunciation makes us huddle a bit
closer against the setting sun. He warns us that we may have been a bit
misled by the media treatment Jack the Ripper has received (particularly the
"Star Trek" episode in which the Ripper's evil spirit takes root in Scotty,
who beams down to a peace-loving planet and goes on a murder spree). For
instance, contrary to the notion I had conjured as a kid, his victims were not
milk-fed beauties in pastel silks who danced on pub tables and tossed back
whiskey shots with saucy abandon. Instead, they were hopeless women, bloated
from drink and bony with disease. They wore all the clothes they owned at
once, skirts piled upon skirts, their hems dragging through mud and dung. They
had very few teeth.

Which makes it all the more pathetic that his first
victim, Polly Nichols, had just several hours before her death been heard
boasting that her "jolly new bonnet" was sure to lure many new customers. I
realize with a shiver that this is the first time in my long association with
Jack that I'd spent more than a moment thinking about what he really did to
these women. Somehow I'd always been more riveted by the notion that he came
out of the shadows and sank back in again, undetected, an evil genius, a
modern-day Dracula. I wasn't thinking body count.

As the tour starts, my cohorts and I seem to be viewing the events from a
comfortable distance. We laugh when Rumbelow describes a victim named
Catharine Eddowes, who had drunk so much the night of her death that she was
seen racing around a traffic circle and imitating a fire engine ("as one
does," our guide adds, his comic timing dead on).

But as we move deeper into
London's East End, and as the darkness falls, the evening grows grimmer. In
Mitre Square, an old patch of cobblestone now limned with corporate high-rises
and parking structures, we stop on the spot where Eddowes was found, the tip
of her nose sliced off, her intestines tossed over her right shoulder. "God, I
didn't expect this to be so, like, gross," I hear an American exchange student
tell her British boyfriend. As the bloody narrative builds ("Here the victim
was found like the others, ripped from the breast bone to the vagina!"
Rumbelow shouts over the car traffic), I notice that some of the other women
are looking just as uncomfortable as I feel, and we acknowledge each other
with grim little smiles. At the old doss house where at least one victim was
turned away the night she met up with Jack the Ripper, several Miss Marple-esque English ladies line up to take flash photos of themselves in front of
the women's dormitory. "Barb, smile!" instructs one. "Just take the picture,"
Barb hisses.

Jack the Ripper tours have become so commonplace in this neighborhood
(another tour group of two dozen trails behind us all evening) that the locals
make sport of our puerile pastime. Near a brick doorway where the killer once
scrawled a clue in chalk, an apartment light turns on and a young man who
stands silhouetted against the window pantomimes a knife across his neck, and
drops to his knees. Pub crawlers join up at various intervals to share their
own theories ("I know who did it!" slurs one. "It was me!"), but our guide
tells us tonight is pleasantly uneventful. He says he is often trailed by a
blue-faced glue-sniffer who wants to hold his hand.

To give us an impression of the murky dark of 1888 London, Rumbelow leads us
down a one-horse-narrow street with a single flickering lamp, then through a
dark garbage-filled brick passageway behind the doss house. ("Oh, this is
authentic all right," jokes one woman. "That smell is genuine human piss.")
Having accounted for the violent deaths of the first four victims -- Polly
Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Catharine Eddowes -- we arrive at
Millers Court, the site of a flat belonging to a sometime prostitute named
Mary Kelly. Jack the Ripper was her last customer, and though some neighbors
heard a scream, no one came to investigate. In the morning, when the landlord
sent a boy to collect her overdue rent, Kelly's body was found eviscerated in
such cruel detail that when Rumbelow recounts it, several men and women
cover their ears.

This leaves a bad taste in our mouths, one that Rumbelow suggests we wash down
at the Ten Bells pub down the street, thought to be a favorite watering
hole for at least two Ripper victims, and possibly the murderer himself. The
pub celebrates the association (it was once renamed "The Jack the Ripper") by
creating a mini-murder museum with laminated newspaper clippings of the Ripper
murders, and an appropriately maudlin hand-painted placard detailing the women
who were killed and the dates of their deaths. Rumbelow quickly sets up behind a
table and begins selling copies of his out-of-print book "The Complete Jack the
Ripper" for 8 pounds a pop, and the barkeeps do a brisk business selling silk-
screened T-shirts of a top hat resting above devilish eyes.

The marketing is
fascinating to my boyfriend. "OK, you've got about 120 people who pay about
8 bucks for the tour, and then if you sell about 50 books for about $15 apiece," he says, wondering if there is an equally grisly tour we could lead
back home in Portland, Ore., to supplement our income. "How about a tour
called 'The Trailer Parks of Tonya Harding'?" he offers.

But as I sip my pint of stout and look around the room, it becomes clear
to me that this is the most ghoulish thing I've participated in since
attending junior high school. The sound system is filling the small smoky
room with eerily mournful celestial voices. The tourists who buy Rumbelow's
book flip directly to a grisly police photograph of Mary
Kelly's mutilated body. High school girls in platform shoes and pigtails take
turns snapping each others' pictures on the sidewalk where Kelly is said to
have looked for customers, and several men hold their fists up in the air,
gripping imaginary knives, and aping the incisions the Ripper once made on
their delighted female companions. I feel I am in the presence of that weird
mechanism that makes girls write letters to convicts, and cry when Ted Bundy
got the chair. That makes us root, just a little, for Hannibal Lecter.

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I wish I could tell you that that evening in London's East End cured me of
this morbid fascination. In fact, it had just the opposite effect. A week
after I got home, I found myself in the public library, sitting on the
carpeted floor of the reference section, again poring over the "Unsolved
Murders" chapter in "The People's Almanac." I ordered Rumbelow's book (which
cost twice as much as it would have if I'd bought it in the pub). I spent a
few dark and stormy nights reading through the suspect files and weirdly
fascinating Web page Casebook: Jack the Ripper. I went to Blockbuster for a copy of
"Murder by Decree."

Last week a very sensible friend called to find out how my trip had gone, and
I confided to her the weird guilt I had been feeling since I'd resurrected
this morbid childhood hobby. She told me to cut it out, and I promised I
would. She hesitated for a minute. "But I'm just curious," she asked, "what do
you think he did with that kidney?"

Laura Billings

Laura Billings previously wrote for Salon Wanderlust about buying a Turkish rug.

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