London is a city constantly involved in the process of reinventing itself. Construction is everywhere, which is nothing extraordinary for a big city, but the reinvention I’m referring to goes deeper than that. Scoured time and again by fire, civil war, disease and Nazi bombs, there are surprisingly few structures remaining from the deepest strata of the city’s long history. Sure, there’s a Roman wall here and there, the occasional Tudor building with the distinctive wattle and daub façade, and of course Westminster Abbey and the Tower, but a good deal of the city would be unrecognizable to Sir Christopher Wren, who did so much to rebuild the place after the 1666 fire.
Despite the constant change, London is a city very much aware of its past, almost as though the city is a living thing possessed of a memory. It is impossible to walk its streets without picking up on the echo of so much previous human activity, and I think the reason for this stems from the hivelike nature of London’s streets. A careless turn around a corner can take you from a bustling business district into a cramped, cobbled alleyway with dark old houses leaning over you, throwing your way into shadow. In that maze of dark streets it’s not hard to imagine history coming up behind you, putting a cold hand on your shoulder.
That is why every true Ripperologist out there owes it to him or herself to visit London and walk the streets of Whitechapel. And, of course, a good guide always helps…
Cop and Historian
Enter Donald Rumbelow.
Bundled up beneath a long dark coat, thick woolen scarf, and felt hat, Rumbelow has the gentle bearing and easy smile of a college history professor out for a casual night walk. He wears his gray hair just a tad long, and his thick black eyebrows are immediately noticeable behind his glasses. The man is infectiously friendly, and his gentle bearing and prodigious knowledge of London and its history are immediately apparent.
What you don’t see – at least right away – is the veteran cop who has become the world’s leading authority on Jack the Ripper. Many have taken a stab at the Ripper, and many have tried to pass themselves off as the final word on the subject (most recently, and most embarrassingly, the novelist Patricia Cornwell, whose 2002 Portrait of a Killer represents a new low in self-serving egotism and sloppy scholarship) but the title of top dog always comes back to Rumbelow. Since the 1975 release of The Complete Jack the Ripper, fully updated and rereleased in 2004, Rumbelow has been consistently recognized as the best, and most objective, Ripperologist of them all.
The former Curator of the City of London Police Crime Museum and a fully authorized Blue Badge and City of London Guide, Rumbelow convenes his famous Ripper Walk (given three nights a week, all year long) just outside of the Tower Hill Tube Station. After collecting his charges, he takes them to a crumbling section of the London Wall and begins an unflinching description of the daily life of a fin de siecle East End prostitute.
Hollywood, Rumbelow intones, has taught us that the East End prostitute was a beautiful Helen Bonham Carter lookalike who spent her time dancing on tables with a tankard of beer in hand, singing raucous tunes of how wonderful it is to be an East End prostitute.
He pauses as his audience laughs.
But the reality, he then adds, was anything but gay. These women wore the only clothes they owned. Most were essentially homeless. Alcoholism and disease were omnipresent. A blow job went for a penny. For two you could stick it anywhere you wanted.
By comparison, a stale loaf of bread would cost you three pennies.
The lives of the prostitutes, he says, were held in low regard. Their poverty was the dirty little secret Victorian England tried so hard to ignore. Life for an East End prostitute was hard, nasty and short. And Whitechapel chewed them up by the thousands.
It is a frigid March night with an icy mist in the air, but nobody moves. Rumbelow has our undivided attention now. He then walks us through a brief summary of the autumn of 1888. He is quick to point out that he believes in the canonical five victims when it comes to the Ripper chronology, beginning with Polly Nichols and ending with Mary Kelly. He gets the occasional heckler from the group, and sometimes a passing drunk will stop to opine on the Ripper’s true identity, but these are mere distractions. Rumbelow calmly waits for the blowhards to wind themselves out, and then he resumes, his speech bolstered by the weight of reason and thorough research. There is an unimpeachable air of authority about him that instantly deflates the half-baked theorists in the peanut gallery.
But that is the historian in him. As I mentioned, the cop is still there, and the black humor that is the trademark of good cops the world over is just waiting to bust out.
Someone in the group points to the London Wall (a crumbling stone edifice built by the Romans, and later enlarged by Medieval workers) where we’ve been standing for the last ten minutes and says, “So, what happened here?”
We all grow silent. The question has been on all our minds.
Rumbelow smiles sheepishly. “Well,” he says, “I just gave a lovely introduction…that’s what happened here.”
The crowd laughs.
And with that, Rumbelow moves us out. The East End awaits…
But his joke about the introduction aside, Rumbelow’s choice to begin the walk at the London Wall is a smart one. Today (and in the Ripper’s day, as well), London is a sprawling metropolis, home to nearly ten million people.
But there is a fine point here that you have to see firsthand to completely understand.
You see, the City of London (the part of the city that we mean when we speak of “The City”) proper is really no more than a square mile in size. The London Wall, or what’s left of it, marks out the boundaries of that square mile.
As London grew, smaller communities around the City were absorbed, though those smaller communities have always been, jurisdictionally speaking, separate from the City of London…even though the whole place is called London.
Clear as mud, right?
Suffice it to say that the City of London is a city within a city. It has its own government, its own laws and traditions, and, most importantly for our purposes, its own police force.
In the autumn of 1888, the Ripper would have been up against two different police forces: the City Police, who patrolled the City of London, and the Metropolitan Police, who patrolled everything else.
At the time, these two jurisdictions were commanded by ex-military men who jealously defended their autonomy from each other. All the Ripper had to do to avoid capture was to cross over the invisible line that separated these two police forces. Jurisdictional pride and zealously pursued self-interest did the rest.
The main reason Rumbelow starts his walk at the London Wall is to illustrate this point. He takes special care to show his charges where the dividing lines run, and he explains how the Ripper successfully navigated these lines.
I remember standing in the crowd, listening to Rumbelow’s tour, and thinking to myself that the debate as to whether or not the Ripper had some sort of medical knowledge is really incidental. A more important debate, at least to my mind, is whether or not the Ripper had knowledge of the jurisdictional restrictions of the two police forces. In the days before multi-jurisdictional task forces, like that used to capture the D.C. sniper, such knowledge would have made all the difference in remaining free to kill again and again.
And to illustrate the point, all we need to do is look at the case of Catherine Eddowes, one of two women killed on September 30, 1888…
An Opportunity Squashed
On Saturday, September 29, 1888 a police officer arrested a prostitute who was passed out drunk on the sidewalk of Aldgate, a not all together uncommon occurrence. She stayed in the Bishopsgate police station until about 12:30 am, when she announced that she was sober enough to leave on her own two feet. The destitute were frequently released under such circumstances. It was judged a humane act, when it was clear to all that they couldn’t afford the fine that would come from the matter proceeding to the courts.
Her name was Catherine Eddowes, and she was, later that night, to become the Ripper’s fourth victim.
Sometime around 1:30 am she made contact with the Ripper. The two went into Mitre Square, which at the time enclosed several houses (including one owned by a policeman and his family) but is today a parking lot. There were several people milling about the Square, and a pair of nightwatchmen who were, very likely, napping in a nearby warehouse doorway.
Nobody heard a sound.
The killer knocked Eddowes to the ground as he choked her, and then proceeded to slice her from the rectum up to the breast bone. He also sliced her across the face, lopping off part of her ear and her nose. A kidney and part of her dress were removed, and then the killer disappeared into the night. A policeman discovered Eddowes’ still warm body moments later, and the manhunt began.
But here’s where the tragedy crosses over into the ridiculous. The Ripper ran to a nearby series of flats, where he wiped down his knife and disposed of the soiled remnant of Eddowes’ dress.
He didn’t flee the area right away, though; he paused for a bit of graffiti. He wrote the following message, in chalk, on a passageway wall that ran through the five story building:
The Juwes are not the men that will be blamed for nothing.
There are a lot of negatives contained in that one small sentence, but the message does seem to suggest something unpleasant about the Jews.
Is it anti-Semitic?
Perhaps. Maybe even likely. However, the issue here is not anti-Semitism, but sloppy police work stemming from jurisdictional pride.
You see, Catherine Eddowes was the only Ripper victim killed in the City of London. The City Police were eager to put their cuffs on the Ripper, and when the hue and cry arose, their officers joined in the chase. They now, officially, had a stake in this manhunt. A City detective named Daniel Halse was part of that chase, and he followed the trail to the five story flat where the cryptic message was written. Aware that he was out of his jurisdiction, Halse nonetheless insisted on waiting with the evidence until morning, when there would be enough light to photograph it.
So far, so good. Halse’s conduct at the scene was appropriate. A modern investigation would proceed much the same way.
However, he was not alone.
The Metropolitan Police had their own detectives at the scene, and they were not happy to have a rival sitting watch over an incident within their jurisdiction. They argued that the message should be erased immediately, lest it incite an anti-Semitic riot.
The result, in modern parlance, was a pissing match.
The Metropolitan detectives went for their boss, Sir Charles Warren. Warren was incensed over the presence of the City Police and went to work immediately. He ordered the crucial piece of evidence erased.
Later, when his bosses at the Home Office angrily demanded that he explain himself, Warren stated that he feared the destruction of the house by anti-Semitic mobs. However, it seems far more likely that his actions amounted to little more than petty jealousy. After all, even if the fears of anti-Semitic demonstrations were valid, the graffiti could easily have been concealed by a sheet until it was ready to be photographed.
It is extremely unlikely that the Ripper counted on this kind of dickering to ensure his escape, but it is apparent that it worked in his favor nonetheless.
And while Peter Ackroyd’s assertion that the city itself was complicit in the Jack the Ripper murders may seem like hyperbole, there is nonetheless a touch of truth there.
So Who Did It?
That’s the question everyone wants answered, right? That’s the real reason why drivel like Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer gets published.
Montague John Druitt looks good. So does Francis Tumblety.
But what does Rumbelow think?
During our Jack the Ripper tour with Donald Rumbelow, somebody put the question to him point blank. You’ve spent a lifetime studying this case. Who did it? Who was Jack the Ripper?
Rumbelow lowers his eyes. Here the historian in him wins out. He’s not afraid to admit that he doesn’t know.
In fact, he doesn’t think anybody has yet to hit on the real Jack the Ripper. When confronted with the laundry list of suspects, Rumbelow believes the most likely culprit is some as yet unnamed local man.
Perhaps, he says, the real Ripper will never surface.
And this means, at least for serious scholars like Rumbelow, that the investigation in and of itself will have to be the only reward they ever see for their efforts.