Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Whitechapel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael @ 23:29

Thankgiving is once again just around the corner. And as we have been doing for the last six (or is it seven?) years, we will be celebrating with our friends P. and K. (My speciality is the preparation of the turkey. That will be the subject of another post.) For the second time, that means traveling to London. We want to see some of the city so we will be spending an entire week there this year.
While there we plan to visit the Whitechapel district in the East End. In 1888 Whitechapel was the scene of a most horrendous series of murders. Though the identity of the murderer is still not known, he does have a name: Jack the Ripper.
Last year we went into the city for a day and did go to Whitechapel. But I was unprepared and had no idea where exactly the murders occurred. So this year, in preparation, I have been reading “The Complete History of Jack the Ripper” by Philip Sugden. I also purchased a map of the area as it was in 1888 and a contemporary street atlas and have been comparing the two in order to plan a walk that takes us to the murder sites.
Weird perhaps but we will be but two more in a parade of thousands, tens of thousands, that have walked those streets to see where five, maybe more, unfortunate women lost their lives to the notorious Saucy Jack.
So, why are the Whitechapel murders still so fascinating for so many people? Certainly the murders were sensational at the time. The ferocity of the killings set them apart from the “normal” violence of a big city slum. But I think they were destined to attain legend for a couple of reasons.
First, of course, is that the culprit was never identified. At the time, police investigation was entering what seems to me to be its modern phase. Excepting, of course, DNA testing, criminal profiling and other relatively recent advances, police work then was actually not all that different from now: determine motives, interview witnesses and people who may have been associated with the victims, search for evidence, etc. The people in Whitechapel expected the murderer to be caught.
But here was violent crime without apparent motive and little or no evidence other than the victims themselves. The newpapers of the day both praised the police for their obvious diligence and criticised them for their lack of results. Articles and even books were written in the immediate months and years after and that helped to keep the murders in the collective consciousness.
And that is my second point. The murders occurred at a time when the press, too, was entering its modern phase. The murders were good copy and the press was there with sensational headlines and salacious details within hours of each incident. Think about the press coverage surrounding a serial murder spree today. Or even the ongoing news surrounding the Jon Benet murder. That is a better example, perhaps, because like Jack her killer hasn’t been caught.
Because there was a police force in place to investigate and a press to sensationalize and because he killed and faded into shadow Jack became a legend, the first “serial killer”. And in many ways the investigation and press coverage continues. “Ripperologists” still comb through police reports, inquest transcripts, news articles, whatever they can find, looking for clues. And there has been a regular stream of books, magazine articles and specialized journals over the years expounding this theory or that.
OK, that still doesn’t really answer the question: Why the interest? And why a walking tour of Whitechapel? I really don’t know. Even at the time, people came from miles around to see the murder sites and point to the cobblestones where a victim had lain. I hope the weather is good.
— Michael
(For information about the Whitechapel murders and JTR, I can’t think of a better place to start than http://casebook.org/. Happy sleuthing.)

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