This is a tour I have been interested in covering for some time now. Back in May when I attended the symposium on Critical Tourism at NIDA in Lithuania I remember listening to the presentation At the Grave of Santa Claus: Sketches of Thanatourism given by Aldis Gedutis. This was the first time I heard about the concept of dark tourism. I realised when I started turning my attention to East London that there is a prime example of just such a tour in Whitechapel: The Jack the Ripper Tour. Indeed, it seems to be held up as one of the iconic dark tours. In this informative literature review on the subject of thanatourism it is written:
a range of tourist experiences has been created from the lightest shades (haunted houses at amusement parks) to the darkest (Auschwitz). This sub categorisation of dark tourism enables a broader perspective into the motivations of visitors depending on the 'degree of darkness'. For example, the motivations of a tourist on a Jack the Ripper tour in London will differ from those of a tourist at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
The tour began prosaically enough with a rendezvous beside a tube exit where I found a growing line of budding dark tourists checking in with the really rather welcoming guide. The only thing that was perhaps less welcoming was the London weather; a fine drizzle enveloped us and would continue to haunt the tour. It never rose to more than a faint shower, but it still managed to remove most of the pleasure from being outside on this Autumnal evening.
I knew that there was more than just one Jack the Ripper tour as, when I was looking online and found the one I finally took, I saw several competing tours all vying for attention. Our guide explained that this explosion of Ripper tours is a relatively recent phenomenon that started as little as two years ago. My tour was given by Lindsay, a historian and researcher who has specialised in Jack the Ripper and is a definite contributor to the field of 'Ripper studies'. Many of the alternative tours are not led by experts but by actors in costumes so there are some very real differences in the character of these tours all dealing with the same basic subject matter.
We were led around Whitechapel and Spitalfield stopping at various murder sites and former homes of the victims. In general the locations have changed a lot so there was not so much of the original architecture to see; the tour succeeded of failed mostly on the ability of the guide to tell the story of the murders. The approach our guide took was to lead us chronologically through the Jack the Ripper story starting with the unattributed murders and then talking us through each of the subsequent killings. In the absence of sites that screamed murder, our guide relied upon showing us laminated grainy pictures to introduce images into the tour. This is one of the victims.
At one point our guide started to talk not so much about the murders themselves but more about the Jack the Ripper phenomenon, and in particular about film and TV adaptations. Michael Caine was apparently rather good in one version, we then got onto Johnny Depp and the film From Hell, and finally, there was much of Ripper Street, a BBC production currently being shown. This, mind you, is just the tip of the iceberg, the number of B-movies and exploitative documentaries must be great. What then is the motivation to come on the tour, is it morbid dark tourism or is it not also coloured with the fascination of celebrity?
For the most part, our guide gave a precise account of the murders and the social context in which they took place. This was not a dry historical lecture however, she had been giving the tours long enough to also be skilled at telling the story and getting the most out of her material. That is not to say she milked it, the tour generally stayed sober but she did affect a Cockney accent once or twice and placed herself into a role within a scene dramatising it lightly. She never stopped being herself however or got into embarrassing acting situations.
At one of the tour's locations we had to settle for a less good position as a Spanish Jack the Ripper tour group that had been trailing us all evening got to the best position before us. It was striking how they really had been on the same path as us pretty much throughout the evening. I even started to wonder whether they were simply recycling the tour I was on and delivering it in Spanish. This did make me think that I really should take a few foreign language tours of London's East End. I might start to research French ones as I'd at least be able to follow them pretty well.
Here she is demonstrating the wounds suffered by one of the victims. This was a running feature of the tour: sometimes mere stabbings but more often mutilations and gory details retold and choreographed.
As we were entering our final site, Mitre Square, we passed beside a building site and crossed another Jack the Ripper group leaving the square. The guides knew each other and exchanged greetings. Apparently there are as many as ten different tours and this is the most popular location, a point they all converge upon nightly. As such, there are often many groups vying for the best spot in the square. I imagine it on a busy night looking like Speakers Corner.
Mitre Square was, on most sides, a building site with boards concealing the construction work behind them. Our guide told us that, over the years she has been giving tours she has seen the site evolve and, as a historian, has taken a keen interest in documenting the evolution of this Jack the Ripper murder site. This degree of interest, or should I say this line of enquiry, struck me first as fetishistic but then upon reflection, I can see how the history and management of historical sites can be a very interesting subject to study. It was simply surprising to hear about it whilst on a tourist walk as it was a level of meta-commentary well beyond that of, "funny things that have happened whilst I have given tours."
Here our guide showed another of the victim pictures; this one more graphic than most. She warned the group to turn away if they would be upset by seeing it, but of course this only made people more curious to see it. She often closed her eyes when showing these pictures and I was not sure if this was as a mark of respect for the victim or to give the image gravitas and make the group feel less self-conscious about staring at the picture. I had a feeling it was more the latter and I suspect it worked: you don't want to be observed looking at ghoulish images.
Just as our tour ended, another group arrived in Mitre Square and they were led by a guide dressed up in an old fashioned police costume. This was yet another of the competing Jack the Ripper Tours and he had a good-sized tour group in tow. I had to ask how being dressed in a vintage police uniform and assuming that point of view would alter the nature of the Jack the Ripper tour, this is something I will only be able to say if I take that tour, I guess. Somehow I have resolved to take another one of these as it seems to me the variation between them should be interesting to observe and, I suspect, there are some far more camp dark tours of Whitechapel than this one.
Throughout the tour our guide had to pause whilst police cars raced past sirens blaring. This was because of a car accident that took place very close to our walking route. Looking at the real police who were trying to disperse the small crowd that had formed to watch the medics and fire crew at work I could not but think about the tour I had just taken. Some terrible things resist being staged while others, like these serial killings that took place over 125 years ago have spawned a small entertainment and scholarly industry of its own. I had to wonder if it is distance from the event which allows this to happen. Right now it would be unthinkable to offer a Moors Murders tour outside Manchester, as one of the perpetrators is still alive and in prison. But will this too, one day, become yet another point on the thanatourist's map, and if so, what is the process by which this transformation takes place?