The cold evening chill against my face only added to my already heightened sense of anticipation. Slayings, subterfuge, and the sinister story of London’s first recorded serial killer was only moments away. How was I so certain? This was at least my fifth walking tour of the killing grounds of Jack the Ripper.
Standing on the pavement awaiting the guide, Aldgate High Street bustled with activity. I looked across the road, back towards The Hoop and Grapes where I had earlier enjoyed a pint after discovering that this ancient drinking den, built in 1593, had been the only pub to survive the great fire of 1666. The old and the new fused together often effortlessly, yet occasionally awkwardly too, typified no more than by a seemingly modern office block hosting a huge illuminated sign that simply proclaimed, “White Chapel.” The killer had been referred to as the Whitechapel murderer prior to the media frenzy following the publication of the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, received by the Central News Agency of London on 27th September 1888, and latterly the “From Hell” correspondence. Sent to George Lusk, chair of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee on 15th October 1888, this letter was accompanied by half a human liver.
As I awaited the arrival of my guide I became frustrated. He was late. I called the tour number only to discover that the error was mine and I was an hour early. Was this a lack of attention to detail on my part or further evidence of how this story had gripped me? To kill some time I had another beer in the nearby East India Arms, built next to the once goliath of overseas trading, the East India Company. The intimacy of most of the East End boozers I had previously frequented was elegantly reflected in this example. Cramped, yet with small booths that allowed a degree of privacy, no doubt enabling yesteryear traders to seal the deal, and nowadays, adulterers and fraudsters to fashion their crimes. Or alternatively space for reflection. I decided that following this tour, I would set myself three targets: identify why I had been compelled to tread this route so often; what could I discover about the early lives of the victims – simply labeling them all as prostitutes was a gross injustice; and as an ex-cop, identify my prime suspect. As I delved into the scientific descriptors of human curiosity I was surprised by the conclusion of Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Hayden of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Center for Visual Science, University of Rochester, New York, “Curiosity is a basic element of our cognition, but its biological function, mechanisms, and neural underpinning remain poorly understood.”
Would the answer to my first issue elude me? Nonetheless, and with my criminal justice pedigree supporting my personal quest, I continued my investigation. Psychologist Daniel Berlyne is perhaps one of the most important contemporary contributors to a consensus on curiosity, describing it as the driving force behind the human desire to explore. No wonder the words of Captain JeanLuc Picard of the Starship Enterprise (Star Trek: The Next Generation) held such personal reverence, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” But this synopsis still left me wanting to know more. I had trodden this particular London terrain on several occasions and had explored every conceivable conspiracy theory. What kept me coming back for more? Then Goldilocks provided a hint. Not the character in the classic fairy tale, created by the English author Robert Southey, but the psychological principle. In essence, we are attracted to situations holding just about the right level of challenge for the moment we are in. Like Goldilocks, who after tasting three bowls of porridge chooses the one that is not too hot, nor too cold, but just about the right temperature. The theory, according to author Laura Grace Weldon, is, “Something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold the player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments.” Laura had nailed it – I was captivated by the story but needed to reach a better understanding. In other words, of the hundred or so suspects mooted by Ripperologists ever since the last murder of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November 1888, it was necessary for me to pronounce my verdict. My final personal objective would, hopefully, provide some assurance on this matter, yet my second goal had primacy. As with many other notorious criminals, the Ripper’s victims routinely remained anonymous. Statistics. Footnotes. Afterthoughts. All five victims were at one time optimistic, spirited, and ambitious. All enjoyed loving relationships, and some had children. Whatever their final circumstances none deserved the brutality inflicted upon them by the cowardly murderers – the plural is deliberate since I believe Jack the Ripper had an accomplice, but more of that later. “The Five” by Hallie Rubenhold, a most incredibly written book, is a compassionate and comprehensive account of the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. Furthermore, it paints an uncompromising and chillingly accurate landscape of Victorian Britain that arguably had its most catastrophic epicenter in London’s East End. During the Ripper’s reign of terror, Whitechapel – about the size of two hundred football pitches – was home to a quarter of a million people living in the most appalling and squalid conditions.
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