May 27, 2008

Jack the Ripper Exhibition

Jack the Ripper is a name that comes with associations- dark East End alleys filled with the lonely cries of drunks stumbling through the night air, the bodies of murdered prostitutes, the glimmers of street lamps above torn carcasses, the silent murderer like a ghost walking the ways around Whitechapel. There is at the moment a fantastic exhibition about the Ripper and his times over at the Docklands museum in London: I went there last week. The pictures of East enders bring home the poverty of the time: women and men without shoes, families living in single rooms if they were lucky, dirt and grime covering the streets and glum faces looking out of them. There are some wonderful pictures here: of match girls working from home, with the matches covering the desks or of cases that came into the London Hospital: prostitutes with their faces marked hideously by siphillis, terrible injuries from manual hard labour and there are maps of London made at the time showing the poorest areas- many of which surround the narrow streets in which the Ripper preyed.

Perhaps though the most powerful moment for me was coming round a corner in the museum and hearing people, interviewed much later, discussing how they had lived when kids in the time that the Ripper was alive and hunting. The interviews must have been done in the sixties or the fifties, but there are the peculiar flat London Eastend voices, the dropped vowels and you get that sense of intimacy with the past that is so important if you are to understand it. The thing about the Victorian era is that it is so easy for us to assume that they were like us- afterall this is the generation of our great grandparents- but it is very false. The poverty was what struck me throughout the exhibition: the prostitutes that the Ripper preyed on were known as four penny touches- four pence was the price of a room in the East End for the night and they would take that for sex and spend it on the bed where they completed the purchase. Photos of the suspects- particularly the Eastern Europeans who inhabited the East end bring home the nature of the area- it was a squabbling hive of poverty and immigration. An area not unlike the favellas of Brazil or the slums of Mumbai today- an area where visitors feared to tread.

All this makes the expert witnesses, whose videoed interviews disrupt the last hall, so disappointing. One even asserts that life as a prostitute in Whitechapel today is similar in some ways to life then: whereas one would think that though no prostitute deserves our envy, few are sleeping with men just for the cost of a bed and fewer are taking such a lottery with primitive methods of contraception. Equally facile are the observations of a criminal profiler that Jack was probably a bit weird- as though most men think 'ah today I'll go out and dismember a prostitute', it would have been more interesting to see some historians discuss the eras or even better see more interviews about the time with those who had lived in the East End in similar days. Attempting to suggest that the Ripper's society is like today's society is facile: horrible crimes happen today (of course) but the Ripper's case gives us the opportunity because of the contemporary public fascination to understand a type of life that isn't often exposed to us, to get into the slums of Victorian London- breaking that for the facile assumption that it ressembles our own lives seems to lose the point of the exhibition.

Overall though this is fascinating, criminal cases often are. They are fascinating because the criminal like a knife cuts not merely at the victim, but into his society. What you have exposed by that flesh wound is often the things that otherwise would be silent, would be kept under lock and key in some safe and never heard of again. Because of the media interest and the police files, we get to see the life of a prostitute in late Victorian London, something that we would not otherwise ever hear about. In that sense the morbid fascination contributes to our understanding of the way that the world was then: and it cannot be anything but a good thing that this exhibition has chosen to try and make this a display of the Ripper and also his times. The closer we get to understanding the differences between our times and theirs, the closer we get to understanding what Victorian London was like through Victorian eyes, the closer we get to discovering something of value.

It is, despite some annoying commentary, a good exhibition to see- the photos and reminscences in particular are worth hearing and it reveals once again how historical crime and scandal can reveal to us the patterns of the past.


James Hamilton said...

My great grandfather Wooding was a police constable in Whitechapel at this time. He'd receive a small financial bonus for making an arrest, according to family legend, and so wives would leave pints of beer out for the coppers in order to protect their menfolk from being hauled in. W returned to his home town after his service a very heavy drinker.

Sorry about Leeds, btw.