In London, Jack the Ripper still slays them
Tours of grisly murder sites mark the 125th anniversary this fall of the murders.
The New York Times
Just before 9 p.m. on a recent Thursday in London, five guided tour groups, about 150 people in all, converged on a nondescript courtyard on the eastern edge of the central financial district. Some tour guides wore 19th-century top hats and long, dark cloaks. Others grasped photographs of mortuary corpses. And each guide jostled for the best spot: Near the tiny flower bed in the far corner where, in 1888, Jack the Ripper murdered a prostitute named Catherine Eddowes — slitting her throat, slashing her face, pulling out her innards and walking off with her uterus.
This fall marks the 125th anniversary of the Whitechapel murders, carried out by Jack the Ripper, perhaps the world’s most infamous serial killer. So many years later, interest in the Ripper endures. “It’s probably the greatest whodunit in the history of crime,” said Richard Cobb, a beefy northern Irishman who operates the Jack the Ripper Tour, a histrionics-heavy production.
The demand for, and supply of, these tours have increased in the lead-up to the anniversary. And the competition between tour operators has intensified. With about 15 companies in the game, novelty is no longer a sufficient customer draw. One operator boasts that its guides are “all retired British Army and Royal Marine Sergeant Majors.” Cobb has trademarked something called Ripper-Vision: essentially, a handheld projector that flashes grisly mortuary photographs onto the pavement.
“It’s become a big business,” Cobb said. “Loads of companies looking to make a fast buck ... trying to get up with the big boys.” Every night in what is now hipster-vogue East London, between 7 and 9 p.m., a gore-drenched battle for tourist dollars rages.
In 1888, things were not looking good in the East London district of Whitechapel. Even as Queen Victoria’s empire was marinating in riches, the slums in London’s East End were overcrowded. Ladies of the night roamed the cobblestone streets. And then Jack the Ripper struck. His heinous murders, five prostitutes in 12 weeks (the victim count is sometimes disputed), drew the world’s gaze. He was never caught.
Today, many tour guides compete on the strength of their in-house “Ripperologists,” often published authors with blogs and YouTube channels and contributions in the Britain-based Ripperologist magazine. Richard Jones, founder of Discovery Tours, has led Ripper tours since 1982.
“I’ve probably done about 9,000,” he speculated.
A former postman, Jones now publishes Ripper history books and articles and appeared in an informative DVD accompanying the 2001 movie “From Hell,” which cast Johnny Depp as the Ripper.
Donald Rumbelow of London Walks is another Ripperologist — though he bristles at the designation.
“I have a lot of other interests,” he said over a noontime glass of wine at the Ten Bells, where Annie Chapman was reputedly seen boozing before her murder. “Jack pays for my pleasures, as it were.”
Rumbelow is a retired police officer who used to patrol Mitre Square, where Catherine Eddowes met her fate. He prides himself on his bare-bones tour guiding: no photos, no hyperbolic hushes, “and I won’t dress up.”
New rivals now bring flash and frill — and turf wars. “I’ve had a lot of run-ins,” Cobb admitted. Stylistically, he opts for the big personality — costumes, actors and “CSI crime scene-style descriptions” of limbs askew and organs littering the streets.
These days, gaggles of tourists pay 8 pounds to 10 pounds ($12.50 to $15.50, at $1.55 to the pound) to spend about two hours retracing Jack’s steps. Popular stops include Dorset Street, where Mary Kelly had her skin peeled off in the early hours of Nov. 9, and Wentworth Street, where the Ripper scrawled a cryptic note on the wall in chalk.
All this has been tough on residents who, year round, find their vintage shop- and cafe-studded neighborhood transformed into a circus. But Kathryn Olivarius, 24, a Ph.D. student who lives above one stop on Gunthorpe Street, often listens to the tours from her balcony, over a glass of wine: “I just hope people remember that these women who Ripper killed were real people who lived extremely hard lives.”