More Jack the Ripper

Dear Hildie:


To take up where I left off, I parked the ladies at the Ten Bells Pub at Commercial and Fournier Streets, right across from the Spitalfields Market.


It’s really difficult to image how this area must have appeared in 1888, when old Jack was active. Today, it’s a bustling, thriving area, with an active Asian population (largely Indian and Pakistani) in the eastern part of the district. Great place to get good Indian food. Back then, it was actually heterogeneous, with everything from middle class to the lowest of the low, as one can see by Booth’s maps from the time. But boy, the lowest were pretty low—like from Dickens. Many of these were poor Jewish immigrants from the Continent. Turns out a substantial amount of London’s tailoring was done by Jewish tailors in Whitechapel, and sold through more “acceptable” outlets in other parts of the city.


The day was overcast (Isn’t it always in England?) and at about noon I started up Commercial St., looking for Hanbury Street, which intersects it. Hanbury Street is the site of the second canonical Ripper killing, that of Annie Chapman, on September 8, 1888.  If I’d studied my map more carefully I’d have seen it was at the end of the block where I started—But the sign on the cross street was Lamb (which becomes Hanbury!), so I missed it and walked north almost all the way to Shoreditch.


I guess I should pause now for some basic geography: Whitechapel District is slap against the east side of the old City of London, with St. Paul’s and banks and all kinds of hi falutin’  establishments, like bespoke tailor shops. Historically, it was enclosed by a high stone wall, of which very little remains, except at an excavation near the Tower. The inhabitants had certain privileges people outside the wall didn’t, like the right to be hanged with a silken thread when they were naughty. Goes back to the days of the Norman conquest, when they negotiated their rights from inside the wall with old William the Conqueror, who was standing (or mounted?) outside. Whitechapel Road—named after the district, which was in turn named for the white church of St. Mary Matfelon (now destroyed), cuts through the area roughly southwest to northeast. It, in turn, is cross-cut by Commercial Street, and both are thriving thoroughfares, and were back in Jack’s day. Certain parts of the district, such as the area around the Ten Bells (Dean and Flower Street, Fournier Street, etc.) were byways of vice in the old days.


Returning, like a fool, I found Hanbury and started east along it. How odd—It looked just like the Google Earth pictures I’d downloaded! But nary a sinister fellow in a top hat and cloak, carrying a doctor’s bag, in sight! Nor, of course, one of those pea-soup fogs—Well, it was high noon! And the folks scurrying along looked like lawyers, businessmen, and students, with some people in Indian native dress.


I quickly found the closest spot to where poor Annie Chapman was murdered. Actually, she was found in a yard, and the whole place has been leveled, so the closest I could get was the sidewalk.  Oh, well.


Today, the street is lined with little restaurants and shops. Not sinister at all.


As I reached a main cross-street, though, a middle-aged English gent in suit and tie accosted me, with, “Is this Hanbury Street?”


Amazing how quickly one becomes part of the surroundings and becomes mistaken for a denizen! I replied, “All the way to Commercial Street.”


He beamed and replied, “Thank you! Brilliant!” Brilliant being a faddish Limey way of saying, Awesome.


I kept on easterly on Hanbury St. And when I got to the end of it, walked south toward Whitechapel Road for a block or so, to where Durward Street enters on the east. Now Durward Street is the current name for the old Buck’s Row, which is where Many Ann (Polly) Nichols was found murdered on August 31, 1888—the first JTR victim (unless you count Martha Tabram, which I don’t).


Durward St. is a little seedier than Hanbury Street. Council Housing, as they call it. But, as the housekeeper said in the movie SCROOGE, “…in keeping with the situation.” Plus, there’s construction going on, and the street was blocked right where I wanted to go: All I could do was look over the barriers at the approximate location of the first atrocity. This is an important point: Half of London is a construction zone.   Soon there won’t be anything recognizable left (Well, they already took down London Bridge!).


After this fiasco, I walked down to Whitechapel Road, where there are so many sidewalk tent shops set up it looks like a bazaar. Passed the great mosque, from which the recorded voice of the muezzin was calling for prayer, and I stopped to rest in Altab Ali Park, which is where the original white church stood. Did I forget to mention I have to go slow because of a bum leg? That’s another war story entirely. The park was named after a young man who was killed by local thugs a few years ago in what we would call a hate crime.


I then walked down to the intersection of Commercial Street and Whitechapel Street and walked south on Commercial (I think they call it Road, not Street, at this point, though why I don’t know), until I came to Henriques Street, the old name for Berner Street. At the end of this street was a place called Dutfield’s Yard, which is where old Jacko was interrupted during his killing of Elizabeth Stride, back on September 30, 1888. Now it’s a schoolyard! Do the little darlings know what happened there so many years ago? Or care?


Well, that completes my tour of the sites of the canonical murders. A fairly easy walk—slightly more than, say, half an hour, from the westernmost (Mitre Square, Eddowes) to the easternmost (Bucks’s Row, Nichols).


The lesson from all this? I’m not sure. Just that a nondescript, schizophrenic fellow whose name we don’t know can live in popular lore almost solely because some enterprising reporter decided to fabricate some letters to the press and to the Vigilance Committee and sign them JACK THE RIPPER.