“From the world of darkness I did loose demons and devils in the power of scorpions to torment.” – Charles Manson
Back in the fall of 1996, I spent my first of many nights in London. Let me clearly state for the record that London during the daytime is an entirely separate experience from London at night, especially in the Old City. During daylight hours the thick black soot that covers everything gives the city an overall gray appearance, which in the light of day is rather nondescript. When the sun sets, all fades to black and shadows deepen with the dance of gaslights playing across the brick and stone of the ages.
On this particular night, my destination was Whitechapel and a visit back in time to the fall of 1888. In August of that year, a man that history would come to know as Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim. With the basic story of the murders etched in my mind, I left my hotel and headed into the oldest part of London, once the realm of the desperately poor.
Once exiting the Tower tube stop, the first site to greet me was by far the oldest: a piece of the original city wall built by the Romans over fifteen hundred years ago. Here it was, in the heart of modern day London, raising its proud old head high above it all. Athough decaying under the weight of its age, the wall itself was a remarkable sight, especially in the light of a fading sun. It was as if you could glimpse the glow of thousands of sunsets silently emerging from the cracks in the stone. As I passed beneath its high brow, I couldn’t help but touch this link with the past and realized I was touching the very stones that rough and worn hands had carefully put in place lifetimes ago.
Just as the sun finished its course and slipped below the horizon, I came across an old bridge archway. Above was the bustling sound of modern day transportation. Below, where I now stood, was like stepping back into Victorian London. The arch was made of uneven brick and was quite wide, like a small tunnel under the modern streets above. In the nineteenth century, archways such as this were the lair of the prostitute and these walls had been witness to many an indiscretion. Times were incredible difficult, especially for women. Prostitution was often all that provided a meal to eat and meager shelter. This was the atmosphere of the crimes committed in the fall of 1888.
Over the course of the next two hours, I visited three of the five actual murder sites, a couple of which had changed little since Jack the Ripper brandished his knife. As I walked, it was very easy to picture what night in Victorian Whitechapel would have been like. The slowly rotting cobblestones slightly dampened by the fog and gaslights casting eerie shadows over endless dark alleyways. But it was the smell drifting through the air will always stick with me – it was a mixture of stale alcohol, garbage and decay.
My last stop was The Ten Bells, a pub founded in 1666 which over the years had had its name changed many times due to its association with the Ripper murders. The Ripper’s final victim was said to have had her last drink here before heading home one dark night all those year ago, never to be seen alive again. Throughout the pub were many Ripper references (copies of newspaper clippings and such), but the pub itself, small and personal, with its worn wooden floors and tiled walls, looked little changed.
As I headed back into the dark night, I more than once looked over my shoulder as the sound of footsteps distantly echoing behind me lingered in my imagination.