Murder, Screaming And Autopsies: Inside East London’s Jack The Ripper Museum

The Jack the Ripper museum was set to be targeted by the anti-Cereal Cafe Class War anarachists, so we went along to find out what the fuss was all about...

Murder, Screaming And Autopsies: Inside East London's Jack The Ripper Museum

by Vicky Spratt |

I can hear footsteps, followed by a woman screaming, a man grunting and then a few moments’ silence. A shrill police whistle sounds off and there are shouts of ‘Police!’ and ‘Murder, there’s been a murder!’ This entire sequence is played on a loop, in a darkened room made up to look like the cobbled streets of Victorian Whitechapel. In the corner, two waxwork figures are positioned to recreate the moment a police officer discovered the body of Catherine Eddowes lying in a gutter.

I’m at the Jack The Ripper Museum. This is the weekend after a protest, organised by anarchist group Class War, drew attention to the ‘Cereal Killer Café’ nearby. A crowd of 200 barricaded the £4-a-bowl cereal shop and threw paint on its windows, causing the twin owners to claim they’d been victims of a ‘hate crime’. Class War had scheduled their next protest against this museum, but shortly before my arrival, it was called off because, according to the group’s

, the police had planned ‘mass arrests’.

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But, maybe, it was because the group realised, from all the headlines the Cereal Café’s twin owners have garnered this week, that the owners of the Jack The Ripper Museum would only gain sympathy if they became the targets of similar disruption.

Back in 2014, planning for the museum was awarded by Tower Hamlets Council, after the idea had been sold to the local community as a museum covering the history of East London’s women. And there’s warehouses worth of history here: Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, was born in nearby Spitalfields. And Edith Cavell, the nurse who, in World War One, saved 200 Allied soldiers escape German- occupied Belgium has a street named after her is 15 minutes up the road. Match factory workers downed tools in protest against ill-treatment and later, suffragettes from this area faced police brutality and took on hunger strikes. Waves of immigrants – French Hugenots, Russian Jews and Bangladeshis transformed this area to become one of the most diverse in the country.

But instead, what has opened here is a museum paying tribute to the murders of five women. Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly were all killed and mutilated by Jack the Ripper within a square mile radius of east London over a three-month period in 1888. 'Jack’'s identity, though speculated over, was never discovered.

When it was first reported that the museum was being made for a very different purpose to the promised women’s museum, owner Mark Palmer- Edgecumbe said his venture would tell the horrific stories ‘through the eyes of his victims for the first time’.

With new attention - and sympathy - potentially drawn to this museum should it be a 'victim' of Class War, we thought we’d just go and check it out to see for ourselves.

On Cable Street, just metres away from the legendary Wilston’s Music Hall and squidged between a mini-market and the DLR line, the façade of the museum is painted black and red – the same colours as the London Dungeon’s signage – with the heading ‘The Jack The Ripper Museum’. Adults are charged £12 admission on the door, but kids can go for £8.

As I enter, the first room on the tour is the gift shop. Here, you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with the black silhouette of Jack the Ripper standing in a pool of blood, and others bearing the slogan ‘Keep Calm I’m A Ripperologist’.

Joshua, the museum’s press officer, had organised to meet me there, keen to give* The Debrief* a tour on the day of the planned protest. We go down the stairs to the basement ‘mortuary’ which, Joshua tells me, is supposed to have a tasteful ‘chapel feel’. A wooden surgeon’s table lies in the middle of the room, while one wall has wooden ‘cold chambers’ (drawers to store bodies in) built into it and the other is smattered with autopsy photographs of each of the murdered women. Under each photograph reads some text about the woman’s injuries, along with details such as ‘a drinker and a heavy smoker’ or ‘a prostitute with a reputation for fighting’.

Joshua tells me that these images are already on the Internet and on covers of books so ‘it would be wrong not to have them’ at the museum. I find them very difficult to look at. I ask him whether he also finds them difficult to look at? ‘Yeah, I’ve just had lunch’ he replies.

I ask Joshua how he would feel if he were showing the descendant of one of these women around? ‘I’m having coffee with the great-great-great granddaughter of one of the victims next week actually,’ he tells me. ‘Obviously we don’t want to offend anybody…it might be a difficult experience for somebody who is the family of a victim, unfortunately we would just recommend that people who are relatives or sensitive…perhaps coming just isn’t for them.’ He adds, hopefully: ‘If I were a relative I would be quite proud that somebody has created a museum dedicated to a relative of mine.’

The next room houses the murder recreation scene. It’s done up with fake cobbles, faux brick walls, and bits of straw scattered across the floor to look like the Victorian street where one of the women, Catherine Eddowes, was murdered. There is an overpowering smell in the room. It's hard to place - perhaps it’s the straw - but it seems deliberate. Joshua says it's probably from all the ‘authentic old stuff’. And in the corner, are those two brand-new waxworks. Catherine lies on the floor, arms by her sides, two plaited pigtails sprawling out behind her. PC Watkins looms over her with his flashlight. This is where the audio of screaming, footsteps and shouting plays out.

There is no blood; I’ll give the museum that. But to be in this scene, after looking at autopsy pictures makes me well up. I wasn’t expecting to be so affected by this but it seems so morbid, so unnecessary. We all know that murder is a terrible act. That’s never been up for debate. I ask Joshua if this room is upsetting him, too. He sips his Pret coffee and replies that, yes, ‘It is putting me off my coffee’.

So what does reconstructing a murder scene in a museum – a museum intended to be about women’s stories - achieve? What does it tell us? Joshua says it invites visitors to ‘See, hear, touch, smell and feel what it was like to be one of the Ripper’s victims.’ Does anybody want to see, hear, touch, smell and feel what it’s like to be a murder victim? Is that how a museum should market itself? ‘Some people…the feminists…find this room quite awful, but I think to skirt over the issue is the wrong move.’ Joshua says, perhaps unaware of his pun.

Room three is the ‘The Ripper’s Sitting Room’. The website’s blurb says that this is where you can ‘see how Jack might have lived and where he planned his crimes’.

Newspaper clippings from 1888 charting the progress of the serial killer are placed next to medical instruments, a skull and assorted vials of ‘poison’ and drugs. At the desk, medical books on surgery and dissection are displayed, along with a letter labelled ‘From Hell’, which may or may not have been written by Jack. A doctor’s bag full of knives – just like the ones used to kill and mutilate the Ripper’s victims - is on the floor by the desk ‘Who was Jack?’ the website asks: ‘an artist, a doctor or an aristocrat? You decide.’

Upstairs is the reimagined bedroom of a victim. Walls are stained to look damp and this time the audio piped in is of a haunting female voice. She is singing A Violet From Mother’s Grave which is apparently a song that another victim, Mary Kelly, was overheard singing on the night of her death. Joshua tells me repeatedly the focus here is on the poverty-stricken conditions people experienced in East London in the late 1800s.

‘Imagine the bedroom of one of the murdered women,’ reads the script on the wall: ‘The women who fell victim to the Ripper’s knife had few opportunities in life… Some had turned to prostitution as the only way to earn a living. Most were addicted to alcohol.’

There are small photographs of each of the women above the single bed alongside explanations about who they were. This is the end of my guided tour and I can’t wait to get outside. I lead the way, past other journalists and photographers, back down four flights of stairs to the gift shop on ground level. Through the window I can see onto the street, there is no protest. A handful of people have turned up but there are more press and police than protestors. Mark, the museum’s owner, is in the gift shop. I wait for a chance to talk to him. We go back upstairs, to the Ripper’s sitting room, for a chat.

He points out the genuine Walter Sickert sketch on the wall (one of the alleged suspects according to American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell). There has obviously been heavy investment in the interior here. He tells me: ‘What I want people to feel is “My god that was such a terrible life and we should make sure that doesn’t happen again."’

I ask Mark how he feels about the protest being called off and he says he agrees with the protestors in some ways ‘It deeply concerns me, the social cleansing of London – where people can’t afford housing anymore’. However, he says ‘If [Class War] have called it off then that’s a victory for common sense.’

He tells me he’s had ‘death threats’ and that ‘some of the stuff they have written about me online is hurtful and hideous – there’s a thuggish aspect – going around and smashing people’s windows and daubing them with paint is exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany and I think we disapprove of that…whether that’s in 1939 or 2015.’

Is he really comparing the controversy surrounding this museum to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, I ask? ‘I’m not Jewish but I am gay and the Nazis targeted hundreds of thousands of gay people – so that’s why in my mind I see this very startling comparison between then and now. I am not going to allow a few bullies to shut down my museum’, he responds.

I say my goodbyes and go home, without buying any merchandise. Because it’s not just the thumb-smudges of fake blood on souvenir pint glasses or T- shirts with pools of blood seeping beneath the silhouettes of a man that reduce these women’s lives. Ultimately, the museum is set out like a murder mystery, with the Ripper’s supposed sitting room at the centre of the house.

There was an attempt to put the women at the centre of this narrative here, I was encouraged to feel sorry for them, their tragic stories, how poor they were despite the sheer amount of gin they allegedly consumed. But outside of their abysmal situations, there was no mention of the Britain they lived in. A newly- industrialised country with no welfare state and no mechanism to support those who fell on hard times. And there’s no dissection of how these women’s status as sex workers made the police unwilling to properly investigate their deaths and prevent others. For all the wallspace in this museum, there's no querying of how these women's situations could’ve been made less horrific ahead of their bloody endings: Mary Ann Nicholls went into prostitution to support her five children because she had so few options in life.

Turning the deaths of these five women into a tourist attraction is nothing new. Despite being real the story has, over time, developed a Gothic literary reputation, alongisde other tales of misty cobbled streets and gore like Sherlock Holmes, Sweeney Todd and The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Whitechapel is host to daily Ripper walks; tours of the sites of the murders, the London Dungeon has had a Jack the Ripper exhibit since the 1970’s and the BBC’s Ripper Street was watched by 3.38 million people at the peak of its last series.

But there’s something deeply insincere about a museum that poses as an educational showcase of women’s history turning these few women’s lives into yet another spectacle, feeding into the mythology of one of our country’s most notorious serial killers. Joshua later tells me on the phone that this is not a money making exercise. Mark, he says, is ‘a diversity champion who has worked for Google and Barclays’ among others who has ‘set up a charity called The Inclusive Foundation’ which the Charity Commission website says is for ‘the promotion of equality and diversity for public benefit by the elimination of discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or religion.’ According to Joshua the ‘plan’ is to ‘give a portion of’ their profits from the museum in the future to this charity.

However, if you check the Charity Commission’s site, the foundation was removed in July 2013 and no longer operates. Something doesn’t add up.

Surely such commodification of murder obscures the East End’s broad, diverse and, often, radical history? The museum is on the same street where locals defeated Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirt fascists in 1936 (something maybe dear to Mark’s heart considering his allusions to the Nazis) but where is the museum dedicated to that pivotal resistance movement?

The Ripper’s victims were denied privacy in the way they were murdered, shouldn’t we afford them that now? Chronicling the movements of a murderous misogynist and asking us to guess his identity is not the same as telling the story through his victim’s eyes. If this is meant to be a museum celebrating women, then give us strength.

Follow Vicky on Twitter @vickyspratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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