Sunday, July 20, 2008

Whitechapel, Spitalfields and the Whitechapel Murders

At 7:30 PM on Sunday night we went on a walking tour given by the London Walks company called "Jack the Ripper's 'haunts". It was thoroughly gruesome and fascinating and our guide, Daniel, was entertaining and knowledgeable. We got to see parts of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields neighborhoods, or quarters, in the East End of London, that, in the Victorian era and even after, were infamous for their extreme poverty and harsh living conditions.

If you click on the names of the neighborhoods or quarters in the above paragraph, you'll see where they are located in Victorian era London. They lie on the easternmost, or right, edge of the map.

They were made incredibly infamous however, when in the late summer and early fall of 1888, they became known because of the grisly murders of five (some theorists say up to eight, but the most reliable experts say it was five) women who lived in the area.

Many former USM seventh graders have also been intrigued by the story and have chosen to cover it in their Victorian era research projects. As they will tell you, the "Whitechapel Murders" are the most well known criminal cases in history because of the horrid brutality involved, because they are believed to be committed by one person, making them one of the first serial killers to be written about, but also because the crime was never solved. Even today, there is no real consensus on who did it.

On the tour we heard all the various theories about who the murderer really was, many of which have been debunked. We also learned a bit about the lives of the victims and saw the sites where the bodies were discovered.

Another thing that makes the murders so morbidly fascinating to many people is the fact that the five victims were all extremely poor, most likely had drinking problems, and had been known to be prostitutes. To me, and to many writers from the Victorian age, these problems epitomize the extremely difficult and troublesome lifestyles that vast numbers of Londoners had during this time in history. Life was horrid for many people in the mid-to-late 1800's. Huge numbers of people lived in poverty, poverty that we can barely imagine; disease was wide-spread; jobs were literally back-breaking; and wages were low. Indeed, unlike today, when the average American born in 2005 can expect to live to 77 years old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, in the 1850's, the average working-class man's life expectancy was only 16 years old!

When faced with such turmoil, strife and hardship, people often turn to things that they might otherwise never fathom, such as drugs, alcohol and illegal acts, doing things that they know to be wrong or immoral in order to earn money, survive or cope. Unfortunately those things can include stealing or prostituting themselves. Some use drugs or alcohol to temporarily escape such a miserable existence.

In the 1800's, London was rife with, or full of, bars known as "gin palaces" or "gin houses". These establishments served beer and alcohol, but most people came to them to drink a liquor called gin. Unlike modern-day gin, it was three times more powerful and much cheaper. A few cents could buy you a large glass; as a result, thousands of people suffered from alcohol-related diseases which damaged their kidneys and livers. Some investigators believe that it was at one of these gin houses, The Ten Bells, which still stands today, where the murderer is said to have found some of his victims.

Click here to see the photos I took on the tour. Below you'll see Andrew, our guide, explaining the very poor living conditions of the people of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields neighborhoods in 1888, the year that Jack the Ripper struck.

According to Andrew, Jack the Ripper got his name when a journalist wrote a phony letter to the police claiming to have committed the murders and signed his name "Jack the Ripper". The name stuck because of its gory nature - people like gore, but also because the victims all had their throats slit or "ripped". Others claimed that the murderer had to have been a doctor or surgeon because the dead women had been cut open and had organs removed.

As of last spring, the actual casebook, or real-life files of the investigators who were assigned to these murders, was released to the public. Read what The British newspaper The Guardian reported about the casebook release.

Learn more about the unsolved case, the mysterious letters sent to police, and theories regarding the murderer's real identity by checking out the Jack the Ripper exhibit at the Museum in Docklands in London.

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