Chasing Jack the Ripper Through the Streets of Modern London

From certain corners of Commercial Street in East London, a busy thoroughfare that runs through the heart of where Jack the Ripper killed five women more than a century ago, the city can look like it did in 1888, with narrow alleys snaking their way between Victorian-era buildings.

Go down the street, though, and the views turn unmistakably modern: skyscrapers, glassy office buildings lit up with workers eating dinner at their desks, a Peloton store and expensive apartments.

The changed landscape and tall buildings do not deter hundreds of people on most nights from taking guided tours that follow the killer’s footsteps through the neighborhood known as Whitechapel. And much like the city around them, the stories they’re told in 2023 about those murders can feel at turns modern, and unchanged since 1888.

First, some quick history: Jack the Ripper was a serial killer — sometimes described as the first of the modern era — in Victorian London. He was never caught or even identified. Historians agree that he killed at least five women — Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly — over 10 weeks in the fall of 1888. Some suggest there may have been more.

Journalists and other curious onlookers started flocking to the area almost immediately after the murders in 1888, and they’ve not really let up since, fed by more than a century of books, movies, television shows and other reimaginings.

These days, the Ripper economy is still flourishing in Whitechapel. There’s a barbershop called Jack the Clipper. A fish and chips restaurant called Jack the Chipper. And, night after night, the tours, most of which cost around $20 and run up to two hours. Interest is especially high during late summer and fall, with mild, dark nights and Halloween around the corner.

On a recent September evening, several tour groups with dozens of people set off around 7:30 p.m. from the same meeting spot on Whitechapel High Street, stacking up as they waited their turn at key spots in the busy neighborhood. During one stop in the courtyard of an otherwise generic office building, voices from other tour guides echoed against the glass as they all spun their own version of the same tale.

While the tours aren’t new, some attitudes have changed along with the surroundings, said Richard Jones, who has been leading tourists through the area since 1982, when the neighborhood was still “derelict.”

He cited the #MeToo movement as well as the 2019 publication of “The Five,” a book that delves into the lives of the Ripper’s victims, as contributing to the change. “The Five” refutes the popular belief that all of the Ripper’s victims were prostitutes and introduces them as mothers, wives and three-dimensional individuals who fell on hard times.

“There’s been a shift toward victimology,” Mr. Jones said. “When I started, everyone wanted the gruesome stuff.” Now, the gruesome stuff competes with tours with names like the Feminist Jack the Ripper Tour and Whitechapel Women.

Hallie Rubenhold, the author of “The Five,” considers the tours ghoulish, even amid a subtle shift in some of them brought about in part by her book.

But she doesn’t expect them to go away as long as people’s fascination holds up. “It’s a mistake to stop natural curiosity,” she said, “but what it needs is a kind of redirection or correction.”

“There’s a lot of gore peddling,” she said. It’s important, she added, to remember that “the people killed were real and lived real lives.”

Almost since the first victim’s body was discovered, early in the morning of Aug. 31, 1888, Jack the Ripper’s murders have seized the collective imagination. Newspapers, both in London and abroad, sensationalized the crimes and printed letters purporting to have been written by the killer himself, taunting the public and the police. Readers ate it all up in real time, and the lack of an identified suspect ensured that the mystery would endure.

Once Hollywood got hold of the story, Jack the Ripper took on the form we recognize today: a man in a top hat (which he probably didn’t wear) and a long coat (ditto) disappearing into a thick fog (the nights seemed to have been clear, historians now say).

But it’s also a story about what life was like in the poor East End neighborhood, said Mr. Jones, the tour guide. “It’s not just a murder mystery,” he said. “It came to be about social change.” The area included slums, homelessness and an influx of migrants in the late 19th century.

All those topics can be explored through the story of Jack the Ripper, Mr. Jones said.

But faced with the tension between the macabre and the modern, not every tour guide in Whitechapel has embraced the more sensitive telling of Ms. Rubenhold’s book. Some say the main thread — and the part that seems to draw people to the tours in the first place — is the killings themselves and their particularly disturbing details.

Mick Priestley, a self-proclaimed Ripper expert, has been giving Jack the Ripper tours for a decade and says he wants people to enjoy them without leaving them feeling disturbed. “There’s a line I don’t cross,” he said after a recent tour, adding that he didn’t want the tours to be “some super disturbing ghoul fest.”

But he does end his tours with a picture presentation (or, as he called it, “epic projector action”) that culminates with the worst photo about this history: a black-and-white picture of the mutilated body of Mary Jane Kelly. And he defends the choice to do so, noting that while it sometimes upsets people, the image is also widely available on the internet.

“You can’t talk about the Jack the Ripper story without that picture,” Mr. Priestley said. “I do warn you. But that’s the worst picture on the tour.”

Alex Borjesson, a 38-year-old tourist from Sweden, was on Mr. Priestley’s tour that night. It was his second Jack the Ripper tour, after his first on a visit to London in 1998. One of the victims — Elizabeth Stride — was Swedish, and Mr. Borjesson said he might go to her grave in East London to place some flowers. “Being a modern man,” he said, “I think there should be more focus on the women.”

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