August 31st marks the anniversary of the first-ever confirmed kill for Jack the Ripper. The 1888 murder also marks the beginning of a pretty traumatic stint for the London neighborhood of Whitechapel. Never mind that the Ripper would only terrorize the locals for months until committing his final murder in November — the citizens of this working-class suburb still have to put up with living in a terror of a tourist trap. [image via: JackTheRipperTour]
There was a reason that Jack the Ripper went to Whitechapel to kill prostitutes: the place had already spent decades as a working-class neighborhood in the shadows of the financial center, and by the 1880s Whitechapel had turned into a notorious slum. It was the kind of neighborhood where nobody asked questions of anyone creeping in the fog. Still, Jack ended up doing some good. Newspapers around the world turned Jack into an international sensation. Hey, there’d never been a stealthy serial killer prone to cutting out body parts before!
The sordid setting of his crimes soon had reporters trumpeting the sad state of Whitechapel, and the slums would begin to be torn down at the end of the century. That began to change the landscape of Whitechapel — which then lost plenty more old buildings during the WW2 bombing raids of the Germans.
The people of Whitechapel probably weren’t too upset. Unlike, say, with the locals of Loch Ness, you won’t find the people of Whitechapel pushing souvenirs of their most famous figure. Consider the travails of the Ten Bells Pub. It’s one of the neighborhood’s oldest businesses, and the owners attempted to capitalize on that legacy by changing its name to The Jack the Ripper. The locals were not amused — even though the pub had been around long enough to actually be the legendary hangout for two of Jack’s victims. The pub eventually returned to being the Ten Bells back in 1988. Fortunately, the landmark had some of its Ripper appeal renewed after being feautred in the popular Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell (and again in the Johnny Depp film version from 2001).
Otherwise, fans of Jack the Ripper won’t find much encouragement in Whitechapel. There are, however, plenty of walking tours hosted by local experts on the murders. Again, that’s much to the disdains of the locals, who take a lot of pride in pointing out how many of the murder locations are approximate in modern Whitechapel. They’ve certainly been underwhelmed by the popularity of the new The Jack The Ripper Walk, which has brought in entire new crowds with its use of Ripper Vision (that being images projected onto the walls of Whitechapel to recreate the murders). They’ve also had to endure 2009’s Whitechapel, which became a UK television miniseries about the suburb being terrorized by a modern-day Ripper — and the BBC just announced another series set in Whitechapel called Ripper Street.
At least the people of Whitechapel can take comfort in the Ten Bells Pub recently bringing in a hidden restaurant that’s brought international raves from foodies. The area’s become a destination for immigrants from Bangladesh, and there’s a wide range of ethnic restaurants to be enjoyed. The Whitechapel Art Gallery has also been a proud London institution since 1901 — although it’s also become a popular starting point for Jack the Ripper tours. If you do arrive in Whitechapel as primarily a Ripper fan, it’s probably just polite to hang around and learn more about the area. (Crime fanatics can check out the Blind Beggar pub, where notorious mobster Ronnie Kray shot a man in 1966.) You’ll be welcome as long as you’re not wearing a Jack the Ripper t-shirt. But if you’re in Whitechapel during the day, try hanging around after the sun comes down. It takes an enlightened tourist to see Whitechapel at night and not get the chills.