It’s rather ironic and appropriate that it is a dark and rainy day as I write about the Jack the Ripper Tour that we took while we were in London. It was a Friday evening at the end of a week in which the sun had shone gloriously on us every single day. We had seen so many of the treasures that make the city so remarkable and had enjoyed good food in spite of rumors that the cuisine often leaves something to be desired. Everything about our visit had been picture perfect, so it was only right to have a threat of rain as we boarded a double decker tour bus in search of the infamous places where five women were brutally murdered by a killer who was never found, but came to be known as Jack the Ripper.
We used our age and the fact that we were the first to arrive at the bus station to be the first in line to enter the bus. This advantage gave us a seat at the top of the bus that had a cover so that our enthusiasm was not the least bit dampened by the chilly precipitation that was moving over the city. A gifted movie director could not have created a better backdrop for the tale that our guide was about to unfold. His thick Scottish accent only made the experience seem somehow a bit more sinister.
I suppose that I had thought that a visit to London’s east end and the Whitechapel area would have taken me back in time to a place where the clock stood still. I did not expect to instead see modern buildings and signs of great progress that cloaked the poverty and want that had once defined the area. The story that we were hearing was of people whose existences were so dreary that they had often lost hope. In particular the women whose lives were so brutally taken were victims not just of a murderous rage, but of a society that had thrown them into the trash heap long before they were killed.
As I listened to the circumstances of each woman who met such a merciless ending I felt that the real tragedy lay in the way that they were perceived by a society. They were attempting to survive in a world so cruel that they had little hope of finding a semblance of peace. These ladies were sometimes abused by men, spurned as being somehow indecent, and left to their own limited resources to get from one cruel day to the next. As our journey through their nights of horror progressed I found myself pondering the sadness of their fates, and seeing them as vivid examples of the societal problems that have challenged women throughout history.
There was one victim who had come from Sweden to learn the housekeeping trade. At some point she became pregnant without benefit of marriage and was thus spurned forevermore. Left alone in a city that was foreign to her with no support systems of family or friends she had to turn to any means possible just to have food and a place to stay at night. She was at the mercy of people who viewed her as a fallen woman and her opportunities for a decent life were forever gone.
Another of the victims had been thrown out of her home by her husband, a situation that was quite common at the time. She ended up in a poor house lodged in a building that is still standing to this very day. There she had a bed and food, but few prospects for a better future. Eventually she left to be on her own, only to somehow encounter the man who murdered her.
There have been hundreds of theories about who Jack the Ripper might have been. Some believed that he got away with his crimes because he was a man of influence, perhaps a royal personage or someone who worked in law enforcement. Others considered that he might have been a doctor, a barber or a butcher because of his seeming skill in ripping the bodies of his victims apart. The saddest aspect of his crime spree is that he was almost operating in plain sight, but because his victims were at the bottom of the societal pecking order his actions seemed to have gone unnoticed. He was simply one of many men who preyed on the hopelessness of women caught in untenable situations.
Our group became rather quiet by the end of our journey. Somehow we were all thinking less on the idea of whodunnit and more on the sadness of the five women’s lives. In an ironic twist they are now remembered and even mourned. We fidgeted as we thought of their how awful they were treated not just by the killer but by all who saw themselves as more decent. They lived in the darkest shadows of a city where status was parceled out with a punishing stinginess. Simply by dent of birth they were relegated to unimaginable hardship. The true crime was the way in which they were shunned so cruelly by people who never took the time to know them.
At the end of the tour we were left at the Sherlock Holmes Pub where I suppose we were supposed to enjoy some merriment and a few laughs after our evening’s entertainment. Somehow instead we felt the need to just go quietly back to our hotel where we said little about what we had seen. Each of us were left with our own thoughts, and mine we steeped in great sadness with a touch of anger that anyone would ever have to live as the five women did. How many more like them were there? How many more like them live in fear even now? What must we do to ultimately end the cruelty that reduces the status of little girls and leads them into lives of domination and hurt? What will it take for us to make keeping them safe a priority no matter where they may live? That is a more important question than solving an old crime.