A look at the Ripper Centenary in 1988 by John Bennett


Still from From Hell, 2001.

This is a guest piece by Ripperologist and historian, John Bennett, who gave such a wonderful talk about his experiences as an East End tour guide at the recent Jack the Ripper Conference. This piece originally appeared in the Ripperologist magazine but I found it so interesting that I asked if I could post it here as well.

John is author of the excellent E1: A Journey Through Whitechapel and Spitalfields and has a new and most fascinating sounding book, Jack the Ripper: CSI: Whitechapel, co-authored with Paul Begg out next week.

Contemporary and imaginative engraving of Mary Jane Kelly.

April 1980, Madame Tussaud’s opened the ‘Jack the Ripper Experience’ in its famous Chamber of Horrors. Here, visitors could walk among recreated scenes from the old East End streets, complete with Ten Bells pub; a wax dummy of Mary Kelly stood in a doorway and the mutilated corpse of Catherine Eddowes was not too far away. All that was missing from this grisly tableau was a swirling ‘pea-souper’, owing to teething trouble with an intended fog machine. According to the press, it was all well worth visiting – “You’ll never walk the streets of East London again without glancing behind. Remember, the Ripper was never caught!1

Such judicious melodrama was, by the beginning of the 1980s, de rigeur when it came to handling anything Ripper-related. Whether it was the latest theories, stage plays or movies, ninety years of gossip, myth-making and the obfuscation of time itself had turned this uncaught killer into an international icon of fear, folklore and ultimately, entertainment. The renaming of the Ten Bells pub was testament to the often antiseptic way in which the general public had grown to regard the Ripper and there were apparently no complaints when the pub’s rechristening took place amidst a blaze of local publicity in April 1975 2. Although much had been written about the crimes, the frequency of such material was in no way on a par with modern standards (although the emergence of the ‘royal conspiracy theory’ certainly captured the world’s imagination throughout the 1970s).

Obviously, the Whitechapel Murders fitted perfectly with the Chamber of Horrors’ particular choice of historical entertainment however, the timing of the exhibition’s opening was by no means perfect. For the previous five years, England had been dealing with its very own and very real ‘Jack the Ripper’.
October 1975 had seen the first in a series of brutal attacks and killings by Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver from Yorkshire, which for the next half-decade held the north of England in a state of terror. Many of the victims were prostitutes and as in 1888 they would have been vulnerable targets – Sutcliffe was particularly drawn to kill prostitutes apparently on the instruction of inner voices – but as the murder spree progressed, it was apparent that no woman was safe on the streets of West Yorkshire. He was soon being referred to as ‘The Ripper’, a name that obviously had echoes of the distant past and suggested that certain ingrained fears associated with the original murderer had not abated.

There were several parallels with this case and the 1888 Ripper. Apart from the choice of prostitutes as victims, the West Yorkshire police were criticised for their apparent inability to catch the killer. When asked if they were considering help from Scotland Yard, George Oldfield, Assistant Chief Constable of West Yorkshire CID exclaimed “Why should we? They haven’t found theirs yet.” Also, in 1978, letters pertaining to be from the killer were sent to Oldfield and the Manchester offices of the Daily Mirror. The following year, a cassette tape was received containing a recorded message, spoken by somebody with a heavy Geordie accent and again calling himself ‘Jack the Ripper’. The police considered some of these communications to be hoaxes, an echo of earlier opinions from the original Ripper case and indeed this deduction proved true following Sutcliffe’s confession after his arrest in January 1981. In 2005, it was discovered that John Humble was responsible for the letters and tape; he was convicted of perverting the course of justice and sentenced to eight years imprisonment.

Perhaps it took the very real case of Peter Sutcliffe to spark a reassessment of the true nature of the Ripper’s crimes, shrouded as they now were by fiction and mythology 3. Inspired by the truly terrifying events in Yorkshire and the publicity surrounding the discovery of Sutcliffe’s thirteenth victim in November 1980, various groups began to galvanise themselves into a nationwide campaign “to put across the message that violence against women is common-place, and condoned by current attitudes, bolstered by the law.” 4 This was a seemingly long-overdue reassessment towards the subject of violence against women and it wasn’t only the Yorkshire Ripper murders which helped to kick-start the movement. In the previous year there had been numerous sexual assaults by the ‘Rapist of Tottenham’, two murders in south London and the activities of the ‘Cambridge Rapist’5 were still a recent memory. The easing of censorship in the arts industry had produced a wave of exploitative films with titles such as Violation of the Bitch and Barbed Wire Dolls6 and perhaps with such real horrors literally on the doorstep, enough was considered enough.

Christ Church, Spitalfields. Photo: my own.

The hundredth anniversary of the Whitechapel Murders was fast approaching and this would bring with it media coverage without precedent, producing some of the most valuable discoveries in the case as well as some of its greatest controversies. The build-up to the benchmark year of 1988 would be gradual at first, with a number of different agencies pre-empting the ‘competition’ until the subject ran into accusations of overkill.

The centenary effectively started early. By 1986, numerous authors had already begun to put together their individual contributions to the literary output of the period. Many of these writers and researchers would go on to become the public faces of ‘Ripperology’, just as Colin Wilson, Daniel Farson and Donald Rumbelow had done previously. Then, with one year to go, the Jack the Ripper media circus quickly shifted into a higher gear and suddenly, no doubt owing to the increased coverage, elements within the press and public alike took an abruptly hostile attitude to what had for so long been considered ‘harmless fun’. Notably it was the press, once responsible for building up Jack the Ripper in the first place, that seemed dead set on demolishing the monster they had created in 1888.

The most obvious sign that the Ripper phenomenon was about to have its latest explosion of exposure was the publication of seven books on the subject, all released within a brief period in 1987. Authors such as Martin Fido, Martin Howells, Keith Skinner, Terrence Sharkey and Melvin Harris made their Ripper debuts at this time and were joined by established examiners of the case such as Colin Wilson and Robin Odell. Donald Rumbelow’s 1975 book, The Complete Jack the Ripper, was also given a timely reprint. Many of these efforts made a point of putting forward a suspect, introducing the wider public to as-yet ignored candidates like Aaron Kosminski / David Cohen (Fido) and Roslyn D’Onston Stephenson (Harris). Choosing to review these books en masse, critics were obviously suffering from ‘Ripper indigestion’ already and could scarcely contain their contempt for the revived interest in the murders:

Not until you read the dispassionate inquest testimony and compare it with the pathetic heaps of rags and flesh in the faded police photographs, are you brought face to face with the messy, stinking reality of what the Ripper did. These latest books prefer to titillate. They dip their pens in the blood of the five mutilated women as lovingly as the slaughterer’s thin-bladed knife. 7

The authors themselves also came in for considerable flak, often being denounced as ghoulish fanatics or obsessives. Writing in the Sunday Times, Stephen Pile was certainly not backward in coming forward:

More utter nonsense has been written about Jack the Ripper than any other figure, real or imagined. Next year marks the centenary of this total pervert and we shall never hear the end of it.

The only real evidence they have got after 99 years of non-stop sleuthing is some bit of blood-stained pinny found three streets away and now lost. If you suggest that this might belong to someone else who simply cut a finger slicing jellied eels or whatever they eat in the East End, you are howled down as a dolt…

From the start authors have manipulated the complete absence of any known facts to engineer sensational conclusions. And so a highly profitable industry was born. 8

Pile’s article was a rant, and nobody it seems was excused from his ire, not even East Londoners and their supposed eating habits. The authors of the recently released books were described in ways to belittle their otherwise earnest intentions with the addition of personal snippets which appeared to underline some form of eccentricity; Melvin Harris: “hobby: making baroque oboes”; Martin Fido: “a Cornish Quaker”. Martin Howells and Keith Skinner were briskly passed off as “two actors”. Colin Wilson’s portrait of the Ripper as a sex-killer was given short shrift. The only person to escape unscathed was Donald Rumbelow, merely for not fingering a specific suspect or idea. With a nod to the forthcoming Thames Television production featuring Michael Caine, Pile finished in withering style:

I do hope that Thames settles the question for ever because it means that all books on the subject can be shredded instantly and Ripperologists will have to find a proper job.

The Illustrated Police News edition about the murder of Annie Chapman. Photo: The British Library.

The Michael Caine series in question was a joint effort between Thames and Lorimar in the United States and was a £3 million production which – according to the early hype – would retell the story of the Whitechapel Murders and reveal the name of the Ripper. Such deductions were apparently going to be aided by direct information from the files of Scotland Yard and the Home Office. Caine was to play Inspector Frederick Abberline, the highly respected officer in charge of the investigations into the individual murders. Several endings would be filmed, so that even the cast would not know the result until the screening. In terms of media entertainment, it looked to be a sure-fire winner and the much reported return of Michael Caine to television (his first TV role since 1965) was no doubt contributing to the anticipation 9. But there would have to be a wait.

If the Thames Lorimar series was an exciting visual prospect to many, bypassing the growing antipathy for all things ‘Ripper’, then the release of a Jack the Ripper computer game 10 was fuel to the fire of journalists like Stephen Pile. Named after the eponymous villain, the game (intended for the now archaic ZX Spectrum home computer) created outrage the moment it was released. It also started a precedent – computer games had always been exempt from the attentions of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), however there was a loophole that stated that any game which contained significantly violent and sexual material could indeed be classified in the normal way. ‘Jack the Ripper’ showed images of mutilated women and though not as visually life-like as today’s computer graphics, they were deemed shocking enough to make the BBFC slap an ‘18’ certificate on the game, the first one ever to receive such a classification.

The idea behind the game was simple enough – players are accused of being the Ripper and must prove their innocence whilst solving the mystery of the killer’s identity. However, images of mutilated women, some with their legs apart and breasts showing, were understandably considered as too much. The ‘video nasty’ furore of the early 1980s was still a recent memory in the United Kingdom and comparisons with the genre’s more notorious films were levelled at the game 11. Once again, in the light of growing awareness of the real brutality of the crimes, there were still those who felt that portrayals of this kind were acceptable because it was ‘only Jack the Ripper’.

With the obvious outcry from the growing women’s groups and others, it is worth noting one peculiarity about this game – it was actually devised by women. One of the female creators was Marianne Scarlett, self-styled ‘headmistress’ of the ‘Women of St Bride’s’ in Ireland, a bizarre ‘school’ where women over eighteen could live out a fantasy nineteenth-century life. She was unrepentant about the nature of her Jack the Ripper game, even though several computer magazines were considering banning images of its packaging because of their young readership:

As far as we’re concerned this is a classic tale of a battle between good and evil set in Victorian London. In an age which doubts the existence of good and evil, we wished to present evil in a form so terrible and so real that no one could mistake it. 12

Another example of the legend of Jack the Ripper attracting the eccentric perhaps, but with journalists attacking even those authors who were attempting for the most part to ‘rationalise’ the case, the Ripper and all that surrounded him was now being tarred with the same ‘tasteless’ brush.
Amidst this growing anti-Ripper feeling, several important discoveries were made which should have put the study of the Whitechapel Murders onto a more level historic footing. However their timing would probably have just added to the increasing media coverage which many appeared to be already tiring of. The first of these new revelations came in the form of a copy of Robert Anderson’s 1910 memoirs The Lighter Side of My Official Life containing the marginalia attributed to Chief Inspector Donald Swanson naming ‘Kosminski’ as Anderson’s suspect.

Still from Jack the Ripper 1988, starring Michael Caine.

The other important discoveries of that year were sent to New Scotland Yard from Croydon, South London, in a brown envelope. Contained within were the original ‘Dear Boss’ Jack the Ripper letter of 25th September 1888 and Dr. Thomas Bond’s handwritten post-mortem report on Mary Kelly, amongst other documents relating to other cases. The report, when viewed in conjunction with the crime-scene photograph revealed the sheer horror of the mutilations and perhaps it was timely, following decades of stylized murder in Ripper fiction, that the world was rapidly getting closer still to seeing the real brutality of the Whitechapel Murders.

Great media interest had begun to accompany the production of the approaching Jack the Ripper mini-series. Much of this coverage had a great deal to do with the writers’ claim that the century-old mystery would be solved at last, based on newly-discovered ‘official files’. In response to the big-budget film deal, shares in Thames Television rocketed and newspapers were riddled with headlines such as “Jack’s all right for a TV killing13 and “Caine to solve Ripper riddle14. Such expressions were the work of the tabloid press, rather than the more middle-class angled broadsheets which were responsible for much of the press antagonism toward the Ripper subject. Reflecting the duality of the moment, the tabloids would continue to report on the centenary events with the same casual jocularity, suggesting that there was still a groundswell of interest in the Ripper, even at this stage.

The women of Whitechapel arming themselves against the Ripper. Photo: The Museum of London.

The other reflection of such popular interest, the guided tour, had also become a phenomenon in its own right. There were now many tours operating in the East End throughout the mid-to-late 1980s, most of them centering on the still down-at-heel area of Spitalfields. Some tours would be taken by women in period costume and would invariably visit the Jack the Ripper pub for a brief refreshment stop. Another pub, The Alma in Spelman Street, was also popular and although it had nothing to do with the Ripper story, it later hosted a small museum in its upstairs rooms 15. But it was the Jack the Ripper pub that would feel the earliest effects of growing outrage at the centenary ‘celebrations’ when it was reported that managers Ernie and Yvonne Ostrowski were planning to mark the event by selling T-shirts, postcards and even a blood-red drink called the ‘Ripper Tipple’. These plans were immediately seized on by the group Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), with members spending a great deal of time around Christmas 1987 collecting signatures for a petition to have the pub’s name changed back to the Ten Bells 16. WAVAW member Kelly Ellenborne said that it was “outrageous that anybody should be using the historical and horrific murder of women as a tourist attraction to make money”, although the Ostrowskis were adamant that they were not in the wrong:

It is a centenary, not a celebration. The fascination is not with the murders but with the mystery that surrounds them. 17

Despite the managers’ assurances, the campaigners found hefty support and with pressure mounting, Truman’s (who owned the pub) felt compelled to change the name back to the original Ten Bells 18. This took place before the anniversary dates of the first Ripper murders, although the pub still continued to display its memorabilia, sell T-shirts (adorned with a ‘Ten Bells – Jack the Ripper’ motif) and serve its blood-red cocktail. The latter was renamed rather begrudgingly by Yvonne Ostrowski as the ‘Tipper Ripple’. Strike one to the anti-Ripper lobbyists – almost.

The centenary machine was well and truly rolling. Highly popular Ripper tours, big budget movie adaptations, press and public outcries, new evidence and seven new books on the subject and 1988 hadn’t really started yet. Naturally, most of the publicity would be reserved for the autumn, when landmark dates would be crossed and media attention would be at its height. And whereas in the previous decades the Jack the Ripper story had been pulled in two distinct directions – outlandish fiction versus attempted solutions – the new developments would produce a different tension. It would be a battle between those who saw the murders as historical events which needed to be put into context responsibly and those who saw them as a vile piece of history that had no place in the enlightened late-twentieth century. In the middle were those who still felt it was all still fair game.

The 1980s were the times of burgeoning ‘political correctness’, a name given by the media to denote “language or conduct that deliberately avoids giving offence, such as on the basis of ethnic origin or sexual orientation” 19. Politically, it was often deemed as part of left-wing ideologies and that decade saw many examples, from the banning of business links and produce from apartheid South Africa to the much lampooned efforts of Labour controlled councils in England to re-write approaches to gender, race and sexuality 20. The Whitechapel Murders obviously fell into the category of male violence against women in particular, marking it as a controversial gender issue. Thus the perception of the Ripper crimes reflected the mood of the times once again and was a far cry from the schlock exploitation a decade earlier.

This is the year of the Ripper” announced Deborah Cameron of The Guardian in March 1988 before launching into a none-too scathing overview of the murders as sex crimes 21. This notion was not new – Colin Wilson’s angle on the motive for the Ripper murders had been one of the sex-killer for decades and a belief he had often put forward in his many writings on the subject – however, with the apparent reappraisal of Jack the Ripper during the centenary, the idea was becoming popular again. The ‘sex-killer’ was by now an all too familiar menace, as was the serial killer. Branding the Ripper in these terms would immediately strip him of all the melodrama, entertainment and ‘glamour’ that had been attached to him since the 1950s, turning him into little more than a horrific reflection of all that was wrong with violent society.

Deborah Cameron’s piece on the Ripper was a response to the book The Age Of Sex Crime by Jane Caputi 22 and was riddled with references to how publicising violent acts of the kind perpetrated by the Ripper only served to fuel men’s brutal sexual urges:

The hopeless obsessive quest to unmask Jack the Ripper deflects our attention from what should be obvious: the extreme desires and fantasies which animate sexual killers are shared to some extent by a great many men, growing up as they do in a culture which promotes them, not least by its portrayal of murderers as heroes. If we want to do something about sexual murder, it’s the culture and its attitudes that need to change.

The Madame Tussauds’ model of Mary Jane Kelly. Just be grateful that I couldn’t find my photograph of their Catherine Eddowes’ model. Dodgy eighties photo: my own.

It was in this increasing spirit of reaction to male violence that a specific limb of protest was created, namely the group Action Against the Ripper Centenary (AARC) whose most prominent spokesperson was Anne McMurdie, a women’s refuge worker. In September 1988, they released an official statement 23 which is worth quoting as it unflinchingly set out their intentions:

‘Jack the Ripper’, killer of five women in 1888, has become a folk hero, seized on for profit and entertainment value by the media, publishing and tourist industries. In 1988, the year of his centenary, interest in the Ripper has intensified dramatically: his exploits are being celebrated in new books, computer games, records, TV features and even on T-shirts. The women he murdered are meanwhile forgotten.

We do not believe this is ‘just harmless fun’. How can we, when 1988 has already produced so many reports of horrifying murders in the Ripper tradition (the Stockwell Strangler and Railway murderer to name only two)? When a recent MORI poll finds that 60% of women are afraid to go out? The Ripper centenary is not only tasteless, it reinforces and legitimizes a climate of male violence and female fear.

In the reporting of sexual murder, the media focuses on the woman’s age, appearance, dress, sexual history, marital status, class and race where these are usually irrelevant, yet give no analysis of the male sexual violence. We believe the media should not present these murders in isolation, but place them in a context of masculinity, male power and male sexual power.

Already in the East End women have organised protests against the Jack the Ripper pub. We need to carry this kind of action further. This campaign, ACTION AGAINST THE RIPPER CENTENARY, has been formed to oppose what we see as the glorification of womanslaughter. Its aims are:

TO DRAW PUBLIC ATTENTION TO THE CONTINUITY BETWEEN THE ACTS OF JACK THE RIPPER AND THE MALE SEXUAL VIOLENCE STILL GOING ON NOW.

TO PROTEST AGAINST ALL EVENTS OR ENTERTAINMENTS WHICH TRIVIALISE OR GLAMOURISE SEXUAL MURDER.

TO STOP THE MEDIA SENSATIONALISING AND GLORIFYING VIOLENT CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN.

TO COMMEMORATE THE WOMEN MURDERED BY JACK THE RIPPER, AND ALL OTHER WOMEN KILLED OR DAMAGED BY MALE SEXUAL VIOLENCE.

The AARC received a high profile throughout 1988 and was featured repeatedly in the national and local press. The broadsheet newspaper journalists may have been scathing in their coverage of the increasing interest in the Ripper, but the AARC were even more forthright in their condemnation of the whole media circus, admittedly to the point where they seemed to be literally ‘man-bashing’ at times.

One example surrounded the planned re-release of Screaming Lord Sutch’s record ‘Jack the Ripper’. It had already been released in 1963 and 1977 without issue, but times had changed and on this occasion it was to get a bumpy ride 24. The record company, RCA/Enterprises, admitted that the reissue was planned to coincide with the centenary, a blatant cash-in if ever there was one, but further inflamed matters when it revealed that a promotional video was to be shot with Sutch chasing women around Whitechapel itself. Anne McMurdie was beside herself at the prospect:

I am disgusted that Lord Sutch and his record company should even consider releasing something of such bad taste. It is simply endorsing male violence against women, further glorifying the Ripper who has become some sort of folk hero. As to filming it all on the original site, well that just shows no sensitivity at all to women. I am completely horrified and think it is sick. This is just men jumping on the bandwagon and trying to make money out of something that was an obscene event and should not be remembered fondly… We will do anything we can to have these, and all the books, posters and T-shirts also being produced by other money-grabbing men, banned. 25

To date there appears to be no record that the song was eventually reissued in 1988; strike two to the anti-Ripper protestors.

But the protestors, like the historians and researchers who were attempting to put the crimes into a more sensible historical context (theories notwithstanding), were up against a formidable adversary – ‘Joe public’. Despite the protests of broadsheet journalists and feminist activists, to the people in the street, Jack the Ripper was still the iconic gentleman, now part of a royal conspiracy, stalking the fog; creepy but harmless fun. He most certainly was not that, granted, but the mythology was powerful – it was these people who would read the Ripper articles without taking offense, flock to the guided tours and who were most certainly looking forward to seeing Michael Caine unmask ‘gentleman Jack’ once and for all.

In August 1988, the British press gave heavy coverage to yet another Ripper-related discovery. This time, a relative of a recently-deceased retired police officer passed on a set of documents to Scotland Yard. Although the former police officer was not named, it was believed that he had used the material for lectures though it was unclear how or when he had acquired them. Amongst these documents were photographs of all five ‘canonical’ victims. As well as previously unseen mortuary photographs of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Elizabeth Stride, there was also a second crime scene image of Mary Kelly, taken from a different angle to the one already published 26.

For the first time, the public could see the faces of Nichols, Chapman and Stride and there was no doubt that they would do much to dispel the oft-promoted notion that the victims looked like pretty music-hall starlets. The pictures of Eddowes had already been published in several books, although the new Kelly photo was probably deemed too disturbing to print in the national press. The Independent announced the discovery with the rather obvious headline “Faces fail to solve Ripper puzzle27. But not everybody wanted to see these new images. The Hackney Gazette ran a double-page spread on the latest finds entitled ‘New Light on the Ripper28 which prompted one reader to write in to complain:

I do not wish to see photographs of murdered women and cannot understand how their publication can be seen as anything but bad taste. Is it necessary to drag up 100-year old male violence with such relish?

These days we should be concentrating on the fact that the streets of East London are still unsafe for women. Suggesting as you did in the penultimate paragraph, that the Ripper may have been female is not my idea of equality.

The Gazette was forced to respond:

EDITOR’S FOOTNOTE: Our article neither glorified the crime nor dragged up male violence with relish – at least not on purpose. What the feature attempted to do was publicise new evidence which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Ripper murders.

Graffiti from Artillery Lane, Spitalfields. Photo: my own.

And so with the arrival of the actual 100th anniversary during the late summer and autumn, blanket coverage of the centenary began in earnest. The guided tours were now getting more exposure and were even being filmed for daytime television programmes such a BBC’s Breakfast Time. The East London Advertiser published a weekly, twelve-part overview of the Ripper crimes 29. As a newspaper that had been so close to the subject at the time, this was a wholly expected venture which was actually rather well-researched (by Mark Gould), covering not just the murders but also the police investigation, social issues and several suspects. As a result of these prominent articles, the Advertiser came under fire from Anne McMurdie of the AARC:

By printing the mortuary photograph of Polly Nichols and recounting explicit details of the mutilation she suffered, you are using the sexual murder of women to entertain and titillate your readership… when will journalists realise that they are contributing to the mass industry of glamourising a murderer?

This letter from Ms McMurdie was published on the same day as the Hackney Gazette letter quoted previously and the Advertiser, like its sister paper, was moved – rather curtly – to respond:

We are not ‘commemorating’ Jack the Ripper. Far from being irresponsible our articles are recounting a unique episode in the history of the East End which reflects on the social conditions that existed at that time. Jack the Ripper is not being “glamourised” or “trivialised” by us and Ms McMurdie should know this from the publicity we gave her Action Against the Ripper demonstration. 30

The demonstration in question took place the day after the above exchange.
Organised by the AARC itself, the peaceful three hundred-strong march attracted considerable publicity. The Hackney Gazette stated that “people who run guided tours of the murder scenes, writers who glorify the killings and people who think it’s just an interesting story were the targets31. The focal point of the march was appropriately enough the Ten Bells pub, which despite having been forced to change its name earlier in the year was still exhibiting its Ripper memorabilia inside. The local press displayed headlines such as ‘Women slam Ripper moneymakers’ and ‘Up in arms’, with local residents becoming more aware of the growing number of guided tours on the streets outside their homes. Some were in support of them, believing it brought money into the area, whilst others felt it was a worrying trend.

And so amidst the controversy, Thames TV finally screened its Jack the Ripper series 32. Despite being a subsequent favourite for many ‘Ripperologists’, it was rather a disappointment, occasionally marred by a tacky script and some choice overacting. George Lusk was portrayed as a bellowing revolutionary, Robert Lees became a gibbering aesthete and Michael Caine’s alcoholic Inspector Abberline often launched into vocal histrionics without the support of decent lines. Despite viewer ratings of 14 million, critics were none too impressed. One contemporary commentator described the Ripper film genre as ‘hackneyed’ and that the Thames-Lorimar production was
particularly embarrassing. Poor old Michael Caine and numerous other stars must have wondered what they had let themselves in for in this made-for-Americans western-style mauling of the story. 33

The Ten Bells, Spitalfields. Photo: my own.

A fortnight after the UK broadcast, on the evening of 9th November 1988 (exactly one hundred years after the death of Mary Kelly), a small group of ‘Ripperologists’ met in The Golden Heart pub in Commercial Street, Spitalfields. The original venue was to be the Ten Bells but it was unavailable and although the group would no doubt have been welcome there, the change of location was perhaps just as well considering the negative attention that was still being meted out by the AARC. Present were many who had researched and published on the Whitechapel Murders over the previous thirty years 34. This social gathering attracted a smattering of press attention and photographs of the event suggested a rather jolly night out, something that did not go down too well with the anti-Ripper fraternity. But this was no doubt an occasion for like-minded individuals to meet, chat and swap ideas; after all, several friendships and working relationships had been forged by the study of the Ripper case. A commemorative tie was also struck featuring five knives and the date ‘1888’.

The choice of date commemorated the end of the Whitechapel Murders and the meeting of such high-profile names in the field effectively marked the end of the centenary, but the events of 1987-8 had changed many aspects of the Ripper story. Despite the vociferous campaigns of the AARC and WAVAW, public interest was as high as ever and reached a plateau that has remained high ever since. It gave us a range of authorities who were willing to responsibly discuss the case in the media. The discovery of new evidence (and perhaps the relentless campaigns by the feminist action groups) helped to dispel the long-held assumptions regarding the victims and put the realities of the crimes into sharper focus. 35

But the AARC still found itself challenging long-held attitudes to the Ripper when the White Chapel Theatre Company staged a musical about the murders at a venue in Whitechapel Road. With songs such as ‘The Ripper’s Going to Get You (If You Don’t Watch Out)’, the busy protesters staged a demonstration outside the theatre, issuing leaflets to the cast and audience saying that such entertainment “adds glamour and mystique to these events. It serves to obscure the truth and is insulting” 36.

What Anne McMurdie and her fellow protestors were saying was effectively true; such depictions did indeed convert brutal murder into pantomime and mere ‘harmless fun’. During the height of the centenary, an alarming development was highlighted by East End prostitutes who claimed that some of their clients were requesting to be taken to the Ripper murder sites for sex. Despite finding these requests abhorrent, they duly complied, often charging double and making sure a colleague was on hand nearby should there be any trouble. 37

Such was the confusion of principles which presented themselves to anybody who wanted to dip their toes into the controversial world of Jack the Ripper. The protest groups were attempting to change strongly ingrained ideas about these particular murders, but the creation of Jack the Ripper as a ‘media-star’ had already preceded the centenary activities by many decades. Despite the changes that resulted in their actions (and perhaps the media overkill) groups like the AARC would never be successful in their attempts to turn the world against the mythology of the Ripper.

Graffiti at the top of Henriques Street, Whitechapel. Photo: my own.

Notes and Sources:

East London Advertiser, 23 May 1980 & 1 Aug 1980.
East London Advertiser, 2 May 1975.
Also by this point, the term ‘Serial Killer’ had been coined by the FBI’s Robert Ressler.
The Times, 5 December 1980.
In October 1975, Peter Samuel Cook was convicted of seven rapes and two woundings which had taken place in 1974-5 and had held the city in a state of terror. He died in prison in 2004.
These two movies centred on sadism and the sexual exploitation of the female characters (and they were not the only ones). Barbed Wire Dolls told the story of “prisoners in a barbaric camp of sadistic perversions” and Violation of the Bitch had the tag-line “she asked for it”.
‘Playing Games with Murder Most Foul’, Christopher Hudson; Evening Standard, 25 September 1987.
‘Ripper Yarns are Ripping Us Off’, Stephen Pile; Sunday Times, 6 December 1987.
London Evening Standard, 13 Oct 1987.
Released by CRL. Though mainly a text-based game, the gory images prompted a decision by W. H. Smith’s not to stock it.
‘Video nasties’ were films available on the home video market which depicted scenes of extreme violence or sexualised violence. Following the passing in Britain of the Video Recordings Act 1984, 72 films were categorized as such, several being banned outright. The most notorious of these were I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Driller Killer (1979) and The Evil Dead (1981). Many of these films have since been released uncut.
City Limits, 12-19 November 1987.
Daily Mirror, 14 October 1987.
Daily Mail, 14 October 1987.
The tours from the Alma included guides Martin Fido and Richard Jones.
East London Advertiser, 5 Dec 1987
East London Advertiser, 23 October 1987.
Hackney Gazette, 22 Jan 1988.
Wikipedia definition.
The right-wing tabloid press in the UK had a field day with this, coining the derisive title ‘The Loony Left’.
‘The Ghost in the Ripper Machine’, Deborah Cameron; The Guardian, 15 March 1988.
The Age of Sex Crime; Jane Caputi (Bowling Green University Popular Press 1987).
A copy was received by the Tower Hamlets Library and Archives on 12 September 1988.
The 1977 reissue of Sutch’s ‘Jack the Ripper’ was a disco version. It was obviously released to cash in not only on the growing popularity of disco music, but also in the revived interest in the case brought about by the publication of Stephen Knight’s theory in 1976.
The Stage, 19 May 1988.
This photograph is the view from the other side of Kelly’s bed; the legs and abdomen are clearly seen in the foreground and the bedside table, with lumps of flesh upon it, is evident in the background.
The Independent, 19 August 1988.
Hackney Gazette, 2 September 1988.
East London Advertiser, 2-18 September 1988.
East London Advertiser, 23 September 1988.
Hackney Gazette, 30 September 1988.
UK Broadcast, 18, 25 October 1988.
Newspaper clipping, 27 October 1988, publication unknown (Bishopsgate Institute).
Attendees included Paul Begg, Keith Skinner, Donald Rumbelow, Tom Cullen, Martin Fido and Robin Odell amongst others. Dan Farson apparently wanted his expenses paid and therefore did not attend, just as well considering the long-running feud between him and Cullen. The event itself was organised by David Andersen.
The following year, researcher Neal Shelden would publish the first results of his work tracing the lives of the victims, a project he had started in 1986.
East London Advertiser, 9 December 1988.
East London Advertiser, 7 October 1988. Strangely, the prostitute themselves did not mind having their photographs taken by tourists in return for money!

Acknowledgements:

Bishopsgate Institute, Tower Hamlets Library and Archives; David Andersen, Stewart Evans, Mark Galloway and Donald Rumbelow.

Author biog:

John Bennett is an author and tour guide who has contributed articles on various facets of the Whitechapel Murders and the East End to Ripperologist, Ripper Notes and the Journal of the Whitechapel Society 1888. He is the author of E1 – A Journey Through Whitechapel and Spitalfields (Five Leaves Publications 2009) and was associate producer and co-scriptwriter of the 2011 Channel 5 documentary Jack the Ripper: The Definitive Story.