When the Jack the Ripper Museum opened in London earlier the year, it was the subject of public furore. Windows were smashed, angry protests staged outside its doors.
I can’t claim to be 100% on the details, but from what I understand the controversy mostly concerned the notion that it ‘celebrated’ violence against women. That, and understandable anger over the owner failing to fulfill a previous promise of ‘creating a museum about women’.
But I’ve got to admit that my response was quite the opposite. I was, in fact, incredibly excited by the prospect of there being a Ripper Museum in London!
I am fascinated with Jack the Ripper.
I love history, I love mysteries, and I harbor a morbid fascination with serial killers as well! And as far as historical murder-mysteries go, there is simply nothing that rivals the case of Jack the Ripper!
So for me the prospect of there finally being a museum dedicated to this gruesome aspect of London’s history was certainly something to look forward to!
Yes, I totally agree that the museum’s ‘selfies with the victims’ Halloween stunt was pretty damn tasteless. And I completely get the anger over its failure to fulfil its promise of creating a museum dedicated to women.
But even so, I was still very eager to experience the Ripper Museum for myself! Did this make me an insensitive arsehole, and was the museum really going to be a tacky affair which trivialized crimes against women?
Either way I was going to find out…
I’ve got to say that first impressions were good. Located in a former townhouse, the small ticket room/souvenir shop was atmospherically decorated with period ornaments and furniture. So far, so good.
When I arrived the curator was deep in conversation with a pair of female tourists, and as I paid my own admission fee he chatted happily about the museum and the rules for visitors. During this chat I was surprised to learn that the museum’s a popular destination for school trips, even amongst primary schools! Which seems pretty ghoulish, even for me.
Following this brief intro I was free to explore! The curator recommended starting on the first floor and making my upwards, so that’s just what I did!
The museum is set out over four floors, with an additional basement floor for those with a strong stomach.
The first room recreates (in non-gory detail) the scene of one of the killings – specifically that of Catherine Eddows; the Ripper’s second victim. The second room is probably the most engrossing in the museum, and recreates what the infamous murderer’s living room may have looked like.
For those who don’t know, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Ripper killings is that these were not the work of a frenzied maniac.
In fact, all evidence points towards the killer being someone highly educated – possibly existing among the highest tiers of the Victorian upper class. Popular theories suggest he may have been a doctor, or some other kind of medical professional.
This eerie (and partially interactive) sitting room features everything from bloody surgical tools, creepy medical illustrations and a framed copy of the infamous ‘From Hell’ letter. The room also features a cape and top hat visitors can try on, so naturally I couldn’t resist taking a selfie in the top hat!
This floor also introduces the profiles of two of the most famous ‘Ripper suspects’, leading nicely in to the next floor.
The third floor of the museum examines the various suspects linked to the Ripper murders, both at the time and in the following decades. I’d already been familiar with the usual suspects; a royal physician, a polish barber, Lewis Caroll ect (I’m not kidding about that last one!) – but this exhibit introduced many I’d not previously heard of!
These suspects include an artist known for his dark obsession with the killings, a school-teacher previously accused of molesting his pupils – who committed suicide weeks after the final murder – and a butcher known for his aggressive hatred of women.
One such suspect also once lived in the very building the museum is set, a fact that is proudly commemorated on a plaque outside!
The fourth floor is by far the saddest and most sombre part of the museum, and is dedicated to the Ripper’s five – confirmed – victims. This stark, dirty attic space recreates the grim lodging conditions that made up the lives of these unfortunate women. And that’s when they could afford a roof over their heads at all.
Life for London’s working women was incredibly harrowing, and the tales of these five women were no different:
- Mary Ann Nichols: Mary Ann Nichols was a homeless alcoholic who ended up on the streets after her husband left her; for the midwife who attended the birth of their last child. She spent her final years alternating between workhouses and prostitution to survive.
- Annie Chapman: Originally a married mother of two, Annie Chapman’s life fell apart when her 12-year-old daughter died of meningitis. After both she and her husband resorted to alcohol to cope, her marriage also subsequently fell apart. She spent the remaining years of her life making a meagre living through a mixture of odd jobs and casual prostitution.
- Elizabeth Stride: A Swedish immigrant, Elizabeth Stride had been working as a prostitute for most of her adult life. During this time she suffered a stillbirth, and moved to London a year later. She was described as having a ‘calm’ temperament by friends, and could speak three languages; Yiddish, English and Swedish.
- Catherine Eddows: Having had two failed marriages, Catherine Eddows was an alcoholic who had resorted to prostitution for income. Catherine was described by friends and acquaintances as a fiery but highly intelligent woman, who was known to be very ‘jolly’, despite her stark circumstances.
- Mary Jane Kelley: Mary Jane Kelley may be the most famous of the Ripper’s victims, but her past is shrouded in the most mystery. Possibly Irish by birth, she was known to be a quiet woman when sober, but loud and argumentative when drunk. Prior to her death, she was heard singing the song ‘A Violet Plucked From My Mother’s Grave’.
Having explored this gloomy living-space, the final place to visit was the basement ‘mortuary’. Not for the faint-hearted, this room houses some gory crime scene/autopsy photographs, and is quite a grim affair. If you are easily distressed – or can’t stomach gore – I do advise skipping this floor.
But even if you don’t feel like entering the room itself, there’s still some interesting information outside, detailing the changes made to welfare provision for lower class women following the killings.
So in conclusion, was the Ripper Museum really a tacky, misogynistic affair?
Well, considering all the misogyny accusations and the feminist protests, the really surprising thing was….most of my fellow visitors were also female.
Seriously. Minus two blokes, all the other visitors while I were there were also women.
The two tourists chatting to the curator, a middle-aged English-woman visiting with her husband, and a pair of Japanese girls around my age – it was odd. For a place that had been red-flagged as such a misogynistic institution, women seemed to be more intrigued than anyone else!
Was it out of morbid curiosity? Or was it simple interest in grisly history like me? It’s hard to say.
But what I can say is that I don’t think so many women would spend money visiting an attraction if it was so inherently misogynistic. I really, really don’t.
Yes, it was a tad sensationalized. Yes, it could have provided more information on the five victims.
But I learned way, way more about the victims themselves here than I ever learned in documentaries. And with them, a lot more about the lives of London’s poorest women than I was ever taught in school.
No, it wasn’t perfect. But it was brilliant none the less.
I would advise to anyone curious about the museum to ignore the controversy, and just try it out and see what you think! You may like it. You may not. But it’s worth experiencing it for yourself to make up your own mind!
So if you have an interest in the chilling side of London’s history, don’t miss the Jack the Ripper Museum! The museum is open all week, with nightly walking tours also being held! Find out more on the Ripper Museum website!
Have you visited the Jack the Ripper Museum? Do let me know what you thought in the comments below!
Otherwise I hope you enjoyed, and stay tuned for more blood-curdling posts this October!
If you enjoyed this post you may also like: