Why was I wandering the mean streets of London’s East End approaching strange men with the plaintive query of, “Are you Richard?” Settle in, people, and I will tell you why.
It began innocently enough. My traveling companion, to whom we shall refer as the Trained Observer, and I wanted to take a “Jack the Ripper” nighttime tour following in the footsteps of the still-unknown serial killer who terrorized the Whitechapel area of London in 1888. So we booked tickets with an outfit that promised the ultimate in touristic terror and off we went.
First hitch, the designated meeting point, Exit No. 3 at the Aldgate Tube station. Guy manning the entryway had never heard of Exit 3. Some aimless wandering around commenced and the Trained Observer was just about to fall in with my suggestion that we give up on the tour and murder a couple of pints instead when someone had the bright idea of walking over Tower Bridge since it would “only take five minutes.”
Five minutes my arse.
As we walked towards the bridge we saw not one but five groups of what were obviously J.T. Ripper tours. One was led by a Scot describing the gruesome “merrrrders,” another was led by a fellow in a cap, a third was guided by a plummy-accented professorial type and a fourth by a young man in a Harry Potter-style cape and a bowler hat. (The fifth group was led by a young woman who was clearly not our quarry since we were looking for a guide named Richard.)
So began the “are you Richard?” quest. All denied it so we tagged on to Scottish guy’s tour, which was the closest.
In case you need a primer, the Jack the Ripper murders are one of the great unsolved mysteries. There were 11 murders in Whitechapel from 1888 to 1891, but five of them, taking place from August through November 1888, are widely considered to have been the work of the Ripper. The crimes are notorious because the victims, all women, had their throats slashed and their corpses mutilated with, in some cases, organs removed, The fifth victim, Mary Kelly, was skinned. There are various suspects ranging from a penniless immigrant to a lawyer/schoolteacher. (And conspiracy theories go a lot further..) You can find a fairly dispassionate history of the case here.
The East End has been refurbished and is no longer the seething stew of poverty and despair it once was, which gives a piquant sense of surrealism to tours of the Ripper’s haunts. It’s a little jarring to visit the doorway where a victim’s bloody apron was found and find it’s now the takeaway counter of the Happy Days fish and chip shop.
Still, there remain narrow, red-bricked alleys that can conjure up a little of the foggy mystery of the 19th century, and I was taking photographs of one of these when the second hitch developed in my tour; I looked up to see my group had vanished, along with the Trained Observer, who apparently had not observed my absence.
Did I mention that I had forgotten to bring my cell phone? And did I further mention that it was 124 years to the day that the so-called Double Event, a pair of murders on the same night, had taken place. To the day, friends.The two murders were called the “double event” in a message written in red ink on a postcard that was sent to police by someone who claimed to be the perpetrator and called himself “saucy Jacky.”
Just then the overhanging sign of the (deserted) Duke of Wellington pub began to sway gently in the windless night emitting a spine-tingling “cree-eak.”
Admonishing myself sharply to “Pull yourself together, girl,” I walked briskly along for what seemed like ages looking for sight or sound of the group. I saw Professorial Guy who had finished with his tour and who walked swiftly around the corner when he saw me. I found an entirely new, German-speaking Ripper tour. Then I saw Cap Guy who also had finished his tour. He veered away sharply at my approach but wasn’t as nippy as the professor and I was able to corner him and inquire if he knew where “the group led by the gentleman from Glasgow” went. He allowed that it could be in front of us, so we started walking to Spitalfields Market.
“How was your night?” I asked. “Good, but I had a girl faint on me, my fourteenth so far,” he said.
“The part about the skinning?”
He nodded and added, “luckily she wasn’t hurt. It’s a real problem if they fall on their heads and are injured, I have to stop the whole tour and call an ambulance.”
He could have been shining me on I suppose, but he seemed very matter-of-fact about it and I was inclined to believe him. Who knew the life of a “ripper-ologist” was so fraught with hazard?
Sadly, my group was not at the market, but as I turned away I saw Cape and Bowler Hat Guy leaning up against a wall and having a quiet cigarette.
“Listen,” I said, “I’m not stalking you, but do you know where the Scottish guy’s tour usually ends?” A look of guilt crossed his face as he said, “Oh, you were the one looking for Richard?”
“Actually, Richard’s my boss, I should have explained that to you.”
“Yes, you should.”
He started to babble about how I could call the office for a refund but I cut him off with an imperious wave.
“I’ve moved on,” I said, “took a different tour, lost my group including my traveling companion. I’m tired, I don’t have a phone, my feet are killing me and I just need to find the Scottish guide’s group so I can find my friend and go home.”
“Take Toynbee Street, turn right then left and you’ll find him,” he said,
In retrospect, I suspect he was just trying to get shot of Annoying American Lady. But the joke was on him. I took Toynbee Street, I turned right, turned left and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the Trained Observer.
I waved my arms joyfully in the air with happy cries of “Trained Observer! Trained Observer!”
“Oh, there you are,” she said calmly.
I know you will be relieved to learn that — thanks to my iron self-control — the Double Event did not become a Triple
What: Nighttime tours of Jack the Ripper’s haunts in London’s East End.
Where: Numerous tours to be found online, but despite the Richard debacle www.rippervision.com appears to be a good choice.
Don’t miss: The eerie thrill of getting separated from your group. But do have a cell phone handy.