May 6, 2001
The Times Picayune
LONDON — More than 100 years after Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s East End, crime buffs are still trying to determine the identity of the man who wielded the deadly knife.
Dr. M.J. Druitt was a prime suspect, an unmarried man who had the skills to slice as the Ripper did and who conveniently committed suicide a few months after the killer had claimed his last victim. A royal pedigree did not make one above suspicion, as the Duke of Clarence, the eldest son of the future King Edward VII, is still mentioned as the possible killer. Even “Alice in Wonderland” author Lewis Carroll had his name sullied by rumors.
It’s a mystery that will probably never be solved, but budding students of Ripperology can learn more about London’s most infamous slasher by taking a tour with Donald Rumbelow, a former police officer and one of the country’s leading Ripperologists.
Rumbelow, who works for London Walks, knows his subject: He’s written a book on the topic, and his tour is so popular that the company’s Web site specifically lists the times he’s working. As an added credential, note that actor Johnny Depp took a private tour with Rumbelow to prepare for his Ripper flick “From Hell.”
For five well-spent English pounds (about $7.50), Rumbelow leads a two-hour guided tour of the Ripper’s old playground, complete with detailed descriptions of the victims, the investigation and life in the slums of Victorian London.
The Ripper’s oeuvre isn’t as horrible as some of today’s infamous undiscovered killers. During the so-called “Autumn of Terror” in 1888, at most he tallied seven victims. More likely, five died from his knife. It’s not the “Unsolved Mysteries” aspect that pulls people in: The never-caught Green River killer has been blamed for the deaths of as many as 45 women in Washington and Oregon. Los Angeles’ Southside Slayer is believed responsible for 17 killings there.
But the Ripper’s legend lives. One reason for this is the terror he inspired. Jack killed strangers, brutally mutilating their bodies and leaving them out for the world to see. Londoners of the era were more accustomed to a civil murder now and then amongst friends or lovers. The idea that anyone walking on the street after dark was a potential victim sent the multitude indoors into hiding.
Jack’s acts were also well-documented, as newspapers chronicled the murders for an increasingly literate populace. The Ripper — or someone using his name — teased them even further by communicating with the papers by letter, including one signed with his now-famous moniker. As one “ripperologist” noted, “The press was also partly responsible for creating many myths surrounding the Ripper, and ended up turning a sad killer of women into a ‘bogey man,’ who has now become one of the most romantic figures in history.”
The tour starts outside the Tower Hill Underground stop, near the Tower of London, a site famous for its own share of murders.
Rumbelow quickly dispells the Hollywood-created image of prostitutes as incredibly good looking young women with “fancy underwear and high heeled shoes.” The working girls in the East End were older women “with their faces swollen from too much gin” who would satisfy a customer’s needs for “three pennies, two pennies or a stale loaf of bread,” he says. Many were homeless and wore all of their clothing at once, layers of dresses that were dirty and stiff with grease.
And so the walk begins.
We see the spot where victim Polly Nichols was last seen modeling the new hat she’d bought on Aug. 31, 1888, her last day alive. There’s a pause outside the Church of St. Botolph, which was once known as the prostitutes’ church because the women displayed themselves by circling the building. Another victim, Catherine Eddows, was arrested here on the day she died for drunkenness but was released hours later. The tour also stops at “Ripper’s Corner,” a non-descript patch of grass in a parking lot surrounded by buildings in 2001 where Eddows’ body was later found on Sept. 30, 1888.
There’s a break in the midst of the Spitalsfield market, where Annie Chapman was seen haggling with her last customer on Sept. 8, 1888. A passerby heard the man ask, “Will you?,” to which Chapman replied, “Yes.” The entrance to the courtyard of Mary Jane Kelly’s home still stands. Kelly was killed inside her rented room on Nov. 8, 1888, the only victim to die inside. Someone heard a woman scream “Murder!” in the middle of the night, but ignored it because such shouts were common in the area.
London’s East End is no longer a labyrinth of dark, narrow alleys, but Rumbelow makes sure his visitors get a taste of the past by leading them down some suspicious alleys. He warns his visitors that some of the area has maintained a shady reputation, and they shouldn’t be surprised if they’re approached by “drunks and glue sniffers” willing to reveal the Ripper’s real identity for a coin.
Rumbelow’s reputation has spread: On a recent Sunday during the tourist off-season, about 75 people faithfully followed in his footsteps, including two teen-age girls, who continuously looked at the tour guide with the adoration most teens reserve for pop stars. The size of the group can be a problem. Rumbelow’s story is so engaging that it’s annoying to have to wait for the next chapter while people drag themselves into position.
Rumbelow ends his tour at The Ten Bells, a pub “where a lot of the prostitutes used to drink in 1888. It’s where a lot of the prostitutes like to drink in 2001,” he said. The decor is “Complete Ripper,” with lists of the killer’s victims and copies of old newspaper front pages on the walls and Jack souvenirs (A pencil! A T-shirt!) for sale behind the bar.
At The Ten Bells, Rumbelow answered questions and signed copies of his book “The Complete Jack the Ripper,” which removes itself from the category of light-hearted beach reading with lines like this on page 39: “This second incision, about eight inches long, had cut the throat back to the vertebrae.”
So who was Jack the Ripper? When asked, Rumbelow lists the suspects, but refuses to pick a favorite. He predicts that someday, he and the other Ripperologists will meet all of the suspects in heaven and ask the real Jack the Ripper to step forward. And when he does, Rumbelow says, “we’ll turn to each other and say, ‘Who’s that?’ ”