When I was in Year 9 in high school, we undertook what was called a ‘Visions’ project. Each student chose a subject of his or her own and examined movies, songs, poems and more relating to this subject. From memory, it was our first truly independent venture as learners and as you’d expect we were all thrilled to be able to study stuff we liked. Popular subjects were quickly snatched up: surfing, The Doors, golf, astrology, vampires and more. The snag was that no student was supposed to share the same subject as another, and I quickly discovered that some of my preferences had already gone because I was taking too long to find the perfect one. It came down to the week to settle on a final topic and I was one of the last to do so. Finally, being pressed to make a decision, I landed on a topic and submitted it for consideration.
I still remember being called up to the front of the English class to talk to my teacher.
“Are you sure you want to pick this topic?” he asked me solemnly.
“I am,” I said, although, after his tone of voice, I wasn’t quite so sure, but felt it was too late to go back to the drawing board.
“It could be very upsetting.”
“I know, but I still want to do it.”
Remarkably, he agreed on my selection of Jack the Ripper. I’m still not sure today why I landed on that topic, but I think it’s partially because I grew up with a detective-novel-true-crime-loving mother, and I’d always known about the mystery. I was intrigued.
Given what I learned during that unit of work, the nightmares I suffered and asking myself questions of who could do those things to another human being, I feel lucky I got the go-ahead in the first place. Would this happen in our age of ‘helicoptering’ and screening of today? I’d like to think so, but am uncertain.
That project remains as one of my highlights of school life. I think I came second in the grade for marks.
That was 1993. It’s now 2015 and we’re not (really) that much closer to discovering the identity of Jack the Ripper. I wanted to do this walk because walks of this nature (touring crime scenes) have been around for decades, and I remember reading about them back while studying the topic and thought they’d be interesting. It was also to feed my own curiosity about the mystery – I admit – that I wanted to go.
However, before we even left Australia, I started to have misgivings. Isn’t it disrespectful to the memories of those slain women to take a tour of where they died? The idea of murder tourism sat with me heavily and those feelings of guilt only increased when I saw how many people turned up to our walk, on a cold April night.
I didn’t expect the amount of tours operating, each following similar paths; each warily eyeing the other, being civil and not loitering too long in a spot before moving on. Competition between such walks is fierce. Seems like the demand is alive and well. How many of these people were here for a lark? How many had a genuine interest in the case, or social justice, or even history? I could claim an interest, but the kids? Really? No. And that is a regret – taking them. The tour guide, while kindly and chatty, did not skimp on the details, even in the presence of youngsters. At one point, as soon as the word, ‘disembowelment’ left his mouth, I put my head in my hands and wondered how much this would cost me in therapy bills in the coming years. I didn’t need to fret though – turns out they weren’t in the least bothered.
But I was bothered. Getting my phone out of my pocket to take a picture felt wrong, and so I left it in there most of the time. My feelings came to a head at Mitre Square, site of the discovery of Jack the Ripper’s brutally murdered fourth victim Catherine Eddowes. Unlike most of the other crime scenes, changed or eradicated by the passage of time and city improvements, Mitre Square looks more or less now to what it did in 1888. Even the cobblestones are the same. That description left our guide’s mouth before he went on to add, with a casual gesture over his right shoulder, “And her body was found by that wall over there.”
Then I got angry. I don’t care how many times a week you might conduct a tour, how desensitised you get to the story (and I’m sure it can happen), I wished for him to use more respectful tone and hoped that other tours, at least, got that bit right. And then I felt sick.
The Ten Bells is at the end of the tour. It was operating during Victorian times, and was known to have been frequented by at least two of the murder victims. These days, like a lot of the East End, it looks hipsterish and gentrified. How things change.
But women are still victims of violence and abuse. How things don’t change.
Please note: I’m not suggesting people don’t go on a similar tour. However I would strongly recommend you do so knowing your own tolerances and senstivities. It could be triggering. And stay away from Google image searches.
For the record, I still find the subject fascinating – however, from now on, I’ll stay at home with my books about it.
If you want to see more of my Living List goals, go to this post.