One of the stranger things about the Jack the Ripper murders is the amount of folklore that has grown up around the myth of Jack the Ripper over the 126 years since the murders occurred.
By folklore I mean things that have firmly embedded themselves in the public consciousness to the extent they are almost taken as fact by the public at large.
Take, for example, Jack the Ripper’s attire.
Now, if I were to ask you to close your eyes and build up a mental image of what the ripper looked like, the chances are the one that would come most instantly to mind would be that of a top – hatted figure, possibly wearing a swirling cloak, and probably carrying a black Gladstone bag.
However, this image is almost certainly not an accurate one since it is suggestive of a murderer who belonged to the middle to upper classes, whereas Jack himself probably belonged to the lower classes.
When I began doing my Jack the Ripper tour back in 1982, the area through which the walk went was very different than it appears today. Indeed, in the old pubs we used to go into, such as The Frying Pan On Brick lane, it wasn’t uncommon to meet older East End inhabitants who might not have been around at the time of the Jack the Ripper killings but were certainly old enough to remember the fear that the memory of the ripper was able to instil into those who grew up in the area even 30 or 40 years after his murderous reign of terror.
One of the things that still sticks in my mind is the number of these locals whose mother, or grandmother, actually met Jack the Ripper. Indeed, I can remember several of them telling me that their mother’s next door neighbour was almost certainly Jack the Ripper!
But, the most oft repeated urban myth concerning the Whitechapel Murderer is one that has surfaced time and again whenever similar atrocities occur.
The number for times that I would be sitting in an east End pub and an elderly lady would come over to me and tell me how her mother had been walking home one night when she had been stopped by Jack the Ripper.
However, on learning that she was a “good girl” and so not one of the prostitutes, as all his victims were, the ripper allowed her to live and, in several cases, even told her to be careful as she made her way home!
No doubt these stories were told in many an East End home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But, if you think about it, there must have been people who actually did meet Jack the Ripper and who actually did live next door to him. And if, as is generally believed by experts on the case, the murderer was in fact just an ordinary nobody living in the area, then the parents of some of those people may well have lived next to him!
He may have just been that eccentric chap who everybody thought was a “little bit odd” but otherwise harmless. Until, that is, away from the glare of the neighbours, the voices in his head got to much, and he would pounce and claim another victim.
One thing though is certain, if he had gone out to commit his foul crimes wearing a top hat, trailing a swirling cloak, and clutching his black doctors bag, the neighbours would, most certainly have taken notice, because the image of the ripper so attired had begun fixing itself in the public consciousness as early as the inquest into the death of his second victim, Annie Chapman, who was slaughtered in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street on 8th September 1888.
So, all those years ago, as I sat in the pub inwardly grinning at what I thought was a preposterous idea that the ripper had lived next door to the mother of the elderly lady I was talking to, I realise now I should have paid more attention and delved a little deeper into this rich mine of local folklore. Because, it was just possible that one of them might have been correct and Jack the Ripper had, indeed, lived next to her mother!