Via EDP24 News (24 May 2008):
With gore tours all the rage -- and near-permanent queues outside the revolting London Dungeon, our very own theme-park chamber of horrors -- it was inevitable that the East End should finally capitalise on its most despicable attraction. So a big welcome to jolly Jack the Ripper.
The Museum in Docklands, distant satellite of the wonderful Museum of London, has struggled to win big audiences to date. But all that is about to change with the blockbuster exhibition "Jack the Ripper and the East End." And quite beyond the thrills for those who enjoy being chilled, this saga remains a compelling story and in the new museum survey it is very well told.
Inevitably dramatic, the Ripper show puts the East End centrestage -- and, truth to tell, that can be even more shocking than the gruesome facts of the Whitechapel murders between April 3, 1888, and February 13, 1891. Although at least seven other murders and violent attacks on women have been connected to Jack the Ripper by various authors and historians, only five victims are universally attributed to a single serial killer: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelley -- the degree of mutilation becoming more marked with each cutthroat killing.
With exhibits such as Charles Booth's meticulously drawn poverty maps, previously unseen photographs of late-Victorian Whitechapel, and oral history recordings from local residents growing up at the time of the murders, the Museum in Docklands display shines a piercing light into East End slums and the grim lives of their inhabitants. It also reveals how the sensation of the murders shocked public opinion and galvanised politicians into finally doing something about the hellish slums in the shadow of the world's richest city.
We follow the tale through police files, newspaper reports, and letters from members of the public both well-intended and malicious. Before our forensic era -- and with such things as criminal profiling and fingerprinting poorly understood or else unknown -- the detective hunt used a range of pseudosciences, philosophies, and superstitions, including spiritualism. The scapegoating of immigrants, and Jews most particularly, was a dire diversion in an investigation that famously saw no killer, or killers, convicted. In view of the diligent savagery of the knifeman (or men), lunatics, medical students, doctors, and butchers were also targeted. Bloodhounds were brought in, but the police still had a great deal to learn.
The media too was in serious need of reform, with fierce competition between newspapers producing flights of fantasy that would shame even today's tabloids. The name of Jack the Ripper was signed on a letter sent to the Central News Agency, one of many thousands received by the police and the papers. Many were well-intentioned, but some were deliberate hoaxes. The worst letter "From Hell" contained half a kidney and the claim that the other half had been fried and eaten. Just such an organ was missing from the corpse of poor Catherine Eddowes. DNA testing would have solved that macabre mystery.
While "Jack" has been identified variously as a deranged member of the royal family, a Blackheath medic, and now, thanks to American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, the painter Walter Sickert, he exists in the same legendary world as Jekyll and Hyde and Sherlock Holmes. The new show splendidly sorts horrible facts from some frightful fiction.
"Jack the Ripper and the East End" is at the Museum in Docklands until 2 November.
Shown here: An illustration from Le Journal Illustré (13 February 1891) depicting the murders of prostitutes by Jack the Ripper in London; image: Museum in Docklands.
Casebook: Jack the Ripper
"The Enduring Mystery of Jack the Ripper" (Metropolitan Police Service)