2018 marks the 130th anniversary of the Whitechapel Murders with the year’s annual Jack the Ripper True Crime Conference being held in the East End itself and coinciding with the anniversary of the Double Event.
Dates in the case are often marked by enthusiasts and researchers, most notably on the anniversary of the deaths of the women themselves when graves are visited and tokens of respect are laid down.
But as anniversaries go, the year 1988 was probably the biggest event in Ripperology since the ‘Autumn of Terror’ itself, as media attention went into overdrive, directed upon the centenary of the most famous murders of all time.
In the lead-up to that year, several books hit the market, many of them suggesting suspects, others being timely reprints or revised versions of earlier books. A number of serious documentaries on the case were broadcast and local and national newspapers often gave the crimes column inches. Some journalists were very much anti-centenary, accusing Ripperologists and anybody even slightly interested in the case of being misogynistic ghouls, whereas others were happy to exploit the continuing ‘Ripper industry’ with big stories about the identity of the killer.
One visible effect was the protests in the area about what was seen as a glorification of the sexual nature of the crimes, with many women’s groups organising demonstrations in Spitalfields throughout 1987 and 1988.
With prostitution still a significant issue in the area at that time, for the Whitechapel and Spitalfields of the 1980s was still run-down and poor, the public fascination with the Jack the Ripper murders during centenary year led to accusations that the real problems of violence against women were being glossed over and even made glamourous for public consumption. There was even a much-publicised march through the East End in September of that year, attracting many followers, which ended in a protest outside the Ten Bells pub.
In the 1988 documentary ‘Shadow of the Ripper’, Christopher Frayling interviewed a few prostitutes to hear their stories of life on the streets. Some claimed to have been on the receiving end of violence on a regular basis; one even said she had friends who had been killed. Despite this, one unusual story from the local press also revealed that some of the women were prepared to take a lot of risks and exploit the fascination at the request of peculiar customers.
The East London Advertiser ran a report about how some clients of prostitutes actually asked them to be taken to Ripper murder sites. Described as “thrill-seeking perverts”, these customers, described as all ages but usually ‘City types’, literally asked for the murder sites by name.“They seem to get a turn-on from having sex in the streets that they have read about,” said one prostitute.
Such bizarre requests, where the women would often charge double, were usually honoured. However, the women always made sure there was a friend close by as security against any further unwanted behaviour, as there was always a risk that violence may be just around the corner. Even more bizarrely, some of the women were known to pose at Ripper locations on the request of tourists to earn a little extra cash.
It was a strange period, and public outrage has always gone hand in hand with the historical fascination with these crimes. Such is the wealth of contradictions for anyone looking into the Jack the Ripper story!