One of the points about the various Whitechapel Murders sites is that none of them have survived, at least not in the form they were in 1888. Yes, we can visit the sites in 2016, but we are simply visiting locations that have little – and in many cases no – resemblance to what they would have been like at the time of the Jack the Ripper Crimes.
Yet, it is still an eerie feeling to stand on those sites and to picture the final moments of Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly.
THE MURDER SITES ARE TOURIST ATTRACTIONS
Would any of the people who milled around the scenes in the immediate aftermaths of the murders have considered the fact that 128 years later, thousands, if not millions of people, would travel from all over the World to view those sites and to remember the victims?
Indeed, it could be argued that those long ago murders have turned otherwise nondescript corners of the East End of London into tourist attractions in their own right.
Of course, since the sites have changed so drastically over the years, the only way to get the true feel of what they looked like in the 19th century is to make use of the scenes of the crimes photographs that were taken in the immediate wake of the murders, or in the succeeding years.
MARY KELLY’S ROOM
One of the most chilling photographs – in my opinion at least – is the exterior photograph of Mary Kelly’s room. It is a haunting image that conjures up all manner of thoughts and feelings.
We are looking at the very window through which Thomas Bowyer looked when he came to collect the rent on that long ago morning of the 9th November 1888.
Just in case you’re not familiar with the image in question, here it is.
THE RENT IS OVERDUE
Looking at the photo you can see the entrance to Miller’s Court to the right of the room. It was along that passage that Bowyer walked that day, determined not to leave until he had secured the money that Mary Kelly owed her landlord, John McCarthy.
You can picture him banging on the door. Did he shout out that he was here for the money and that he knew she was in there? Did he try and cajole her to answer the door, appealing to her “come on Mary, Mr McCarthy wants his money, and he’s told me not to leave here till I get it.”
Of course, we don’t know what he said.
BOWYER’S GRUESOME FIND
We know that he got no reply when he knocked on the door. We know that he then went round to the window that you can see to the left of the drainpipe.
We can picture him as he peered in to the room expecting to see Mary Kelly trying to hide in a corner of her room.
We can imagine him as his eyes squint into the gloom of the room’s interior and his eyes dart around the room.
Then, perhaps the sickly smell of blood assails his nostrils as his eyes focus on something that is lying on the bed. Uncertain what it is, he stares a little harder and, suddenly, the horrific realisation dawns on him that he is, in fact, looking and the horrifically mutilated remains of Mary Kelly.
He recoils back in absolute horror at the sight within, staggers away from the window and, in a highly agitated state, runs to fetch the landlord John McCarthy.
THE TWO MEN COME TO THE WINDOW
Look again at the photo, and picture John McCarthy and Thomas Bowyer running back down the passage. Was Bowyer lagging a little behind, dreading having to gaze upon the horrific site again?
Picture McCarthy arriving at the window, stooping down, and peering into the gloom of the room.
Very few of us will ever have the misfortune of seeing what he saw; and so it is almost impossible to image the thoughts and emotions that coursed through his mind as his eyes focused upon the remains of the body on the bed.
LIFE WAS GOING ON AROUND
It was now around 11am in the morning. The surrounding streets would have been thronged with people, jostling one another, pushing each other, shouting, cursing, bantering – almost all of them unaware of the drama of the horror that was unfolding in Miller’s Court.
Did McCarthy and Bowyer stagger into Dorset Street, ashen faced and agitated to tell people of their discovery?
Again, we don’t know.
We do know that McCarthy sent Bowyer to fetch the police; and so the first hint many people would have had that anything was amiss in Miller’s Court was when the police officers arrived on the scene.
THE POLICE ARRIVE
We can imagine the first respondents – Inspectors Walter Dew and Walter Beck – stooping down to look through the window and seeing the same horrific site that had previously confronted both Bowyer and McCarthy.
We can picture Inspector Abberline turning up to take control of the situation as other police officers begin milling around Miller’s Court.
And, whilst all this is going on, the residents of Miller’s Court are looking from their windows, aware that Jack the Ripper had paid a visit to their nondescript little Spitalfields backwater.
THE BUSTLE OF ACTIVITY
Throughout that day, so many people ducked into that passageway to the right of the window. Police officers, doctors, even a photographer who was brought in to make a grisly visual record of that mutilated body that was lying on the bed.
THE BODY IS TAKEN AWAY
And then, as the day draws to a close, the body is lifted from the bed, placed inside a makeshift coffin and manoeuvred out through the door and carefully carried down the narrow passageway and out onto Dorset Street.
Here, an anxious crowd falls silent as the stained and battered coffin is placed onto an ambulance and Mary Kelly leaves Miller’s Court and Dorset Street for the final time.
Many of those people would have known her in life – if not as personal friends, then certainly by sight. Many of them would have, no doubt, chatted with her in the local pubs, such as the Britannia and the Ten Bells.
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
That is why these old photographs are so important to us; and that is why they feature prominently on our nightly Jack the Riper tour of the East End.
Because, by looking at them, and by using a little imagination, you really can put yourself back in the area in the minutes, hours and days that followed each of the murders.
There’s a chance – some might even say a probability – that things didn’t happen how I’ve just described them, but the point is that we can use these photos to create our own reality and, in a way, insert ourselves into the events surrounding the World’s greatest, and most baffling, whodunit.
In fact, we can use these old black and white photos as our springboards from which to launch our own investigations into the Whitechapel Murders and, in that respect, they provide us with the perfect vehicles from which to set out on a journey through time that might, ultimately, led us to the identity of Jack the Ripper.