Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be there. Technically, I had snuck into the Jack the Ripper tour. But I didn’t care. I really wanted to do something “creepy” for Halloween.
You see, the BU London History and Literature Programs include many extra trips and tours. Zoe is in the History Program and told me about how they were going on a Jake the Ripper tour. It being near Halloween, I thought it would be cool to see if I could tag along. Luckily, since they weren’t taking attendance at the tour (so they didn’t know who was going to show up and who wasn’t), I was able to easily insert myself into the group without notice.
We met outside the Whitechapel Gallery. The night was chilly and damp. Little wisps of rain continually fell on our heads, and we shivered in our coats. Some huddled under their umbrellas. The guide began by leading us away from the busy street and into a back alley. We passed a much larger tour on the way. Their guide was holding up pictures of Jack’s victims. After gathering us under an awning, our guide continued by “setting the stage” and describing London’s east end during the late 19th century: the sights, the smells, the poverty. Those in the History Program nodded along. They had already learned this in class.
Then the guide led us down another damp alleyway into a 1980s estate housing complex. He stopped, gathered us together again, narrowed his shaggy eyebrows, and leaned forward: “It’s not here now, but this was where the first victim lived.” The Ripper story had begun.
He took us through each death, in all the gory details. Periodically, we would move to different location down backstreets and alleyways. Most of the original buildings had long since been destroyed (thanks mostly to the Blitz), but there were still a few facades, a few cobblestones sidewalks that had been around during and even witnessed the legendary murders.
If it had all been relatively empty, the intended haunting effect would’ve been created—the ghosts would’ve shimmered faintly on the damp bricks and Victorian Whitechapel would feel as if it was only a step away. But no, it was simply impossible to create that atmosphere. First, there were the other tours. They would pop up here and there, sometimes made up of dozens of people all vying to hear their guide. And then there was the neighborhood itself. It was not so much the changes in the architecture or the new buildings but the life in the streets. It was a Thursday night and people were out laughing and drinking outside the pubs. The neon and florescent lights illuminated the main streets like Brick Lane (London’s famous curry destination) and people would be hurrying into various restaurants for a good naan. The movement and activity simple continued to break whatever spell the guide tried to put us under with his story.
There was only one spot where the cold and the damp settled in and everything was quiet enough to allow for the past to creep in. It was the final spot we gathered at: a back parking lot officially not on the tour or one of the Ripper-related locations, but it was far enough away from the activity of the neighborhood and the other tours to create some sort of haunted atmosphere. We were also all thoroughly cold and wet by that time, and more susceptible to it all, especially his sinister conclusion:
“And the enduring thing about the Ripper is not so much the number of his victims or how he killed them, but the fact that he was never caught…and it’s been so long that I don’t think we’ll ever know who he is. People can guess and spend their whole lives researching, but we’ll never truly know…And you can take that to bed tonight as you try to sleep.”