The Jack the Ripper murders: what more can be said about them? This year marks the 125th anniversary of those horrific crimes. Countless words have been written since, expounding endless theories on who might have carried out what many generally regard to be the most famous serial killings in history. And still, to this day, there is a continuing fascination with what has become an iconic, if grisly, part of London's history.
It's that same fascination that led me to attend this talk, my 4th Jack the Ripper themed event in the last 6 months, in a room above The Bell, a pub in Middlesex Street near Aldgate, organised by the London Fortean Society on Thursday 28 February: Jack the Ripper: The Making of the Myth. The talk was based on a book of the same name and given by the author of said book (and London tour guide), John Bennett.
My own interest in this part of London's history began in 1988, the 100th anniversary of the Ripper murders, when they were quite heavily featured in the media, with a proliferation of books and TV shows etc. The subject piqued my interest and I subsequently purchased a book, published the previous year, which outlined every single theory ever put forward up to that point, along with much background information about the sequence of events leading up to and during the 'Autumn of Terror', called 'Jack the Ripper: Summing up and Verdict' by Colin Wilson and Robin Odell (out of print now I believe). It was an excellent read and it prompted me to do my own walking tour of the five most famous murder sites (some experts believe more murders may have been committed, but the evidence is not as conclusive). Only one site, the first, was more or less unchanged in appearance at that time, but now none of the crime scenes look at all like they did when the murders happened. I learned this on the first of my 4 most recent events mentioned above, a guided walk last October, given by Ripper expert Jenny Phillips. And even John Bennett pointed out that some people find an interest in this subject a bit disturbing or morbid, but don't realise that it entails not only the murders themselves, but the whole background to them; the historical setting, the politics, the unemployment, the suffering of the poor and destitute, the huge indifferences between the East End and the West End of London. But back to my evening . . .
I personally don't believe in anything that requires an individual to suspend their own faculties of logic and reason, so was a bit apprehensive about potentially being drawn into a discussion with one of the Fortean Society attendees about aliens/ghosts/fairies etc, but that was perhaps a bit unfair, and most people actually seemed to be quite nice (although in the post-talk question and answer session I sensed some audience members might have been slightly alarmed by one questioner admitting to having been sectioned, but were reassured when he informed everyone he was now perfectly well).
Once everyone was seated, our host informed us that the evening would begin with the regular LFS monthly round-up of strange and unusual news stories. But this time apparently, we would be treated to hearing them in musical format, a change to the norm, and were introduced to Jude Cowan Monteque, a researcher and archivist for ITN Source in her day job, and described as a 'multi-media artist and musician' on the web link I've provided below. "Oh, this sounds good" I thought to myself. "I wonder what's in store? An acoustic set perhaps? Or maybe an electric piano/synthesizer accompaniment?" No. Jude sat down on a chair in front of us all and produced what appeared to be a mini keyboard. It reminded me of one of those Casio-style keyboards that were first manufactured way back in the 80s. And indeed, once she started 'playing' it, it also sounded like one of those Casio-style keyboards of the 80s. In fact, it could very well have been one of those Casio...well, you get the drift. This 'improvisational' piece of musical entertainment was in reality helped along by a lyric sheet, which Jude clung on to with one hand, while attempting to play her tiny keyboard (complete with tinny-sounding drum machine accompaniment) with the other. I filmed just a brief snippet of her performance, which is posted below.
She had 'an unusual rock'. And an unusual voice too it would seem. But, fair play to her, she got up in front of the audience and had a crack at making the LFS monthly round-up that extra bit entertaining. And she is probably far cleverer, more expressive and more creative than I will ever be. Here's a link to some of her recorded material.
Once Jude had finished her spot, John Bennett then took to the floor and began his presentation proper. The basic premise of his talk was how, over the years since the murders happened, through a variety of influences including public hysteria, urban legend, conspiracy theory, and film and television adaptations based on the multitude of books and articles written on the subject, the Whitechapel Murderer has become something of a folklore figure. A sinister presence prowling in the shadows. A mysterious phantom dressed in a cloak and wearing a top hat, lurking in the alleyways. A man with anatomical knowledge, possibly a doctor or surgeon. In more modern terms, films have continued to enforce that imagery, one of the first being Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 'The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog' (based on the novel published in 1913) and a 1976 publication that was instrumental in re-enforcing the theory that it was a Royal 'that dunnit', Stephen Knight's 'Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution'. Complete rubbish of course and later discredited. But a theory still embraced by many. At one point John was reading out some trailer lines from film posters etc, one from a 1959 production if I recall correctly, which referred to Jack as 'the most diabolical murderer in all the annals of crime'. An audience member piped up 'What about Hitler then?', which generated a wave of laughter.
An entertaining talk, but I came away feeling I hadn't really learned anything I didn't already know. And, strangely for this type of event, John was not on hand afterwards to sell or sign any copies of his book and in fact seemed quite keen to get off home! I chatted with one or two of the attendees afterwards and then had a drink in the bar downstairs, where I was invited to join some of the LFS members at their table. I couldn't chat for long though, due to last trains and all, and soon headed off home. But it will almost certainly not be my last Ripper themed outing and I may even return for a Fortean Society event, which they hold regularly at this venue.