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We meet at the Ten Bells, like always. The glow of it splashes out onto the street, and as we come inside, warmth hits us across the face so that our bones unknit and our layers unfold; gloves, hats, bicycle helmets come away like well-cooked meat.
We huddle together in our usual corner, drinking pale ales, and go over the plan. Laying a phone on the table, we hover our fingers over the route the tour will take. The death sites, of course: Hanbury Street, Dorset Street, Mitre Square. A drive-by viewing of 130-year-old crime scenes.
We don’t call him “Jack,” a made-up everyman name that gives him undue relatability. “The Ripper” is more appropriate, but still it has undertones of sick reverence. The gruesome verb is too painful an echo of the splattered bodies printed on souvenirs and guidebooks.
Instead, we refer to The Murderer. Or murderers, many. Let’s not pathologise the killing of women to the extent that we forget it is common, we remind each other, not something that needs to be attributed to a single mastermind.
We will need a place to hide before our protest. We double-tap spaces along the route where we might jump out from a dark corner and interrupt the tour. Options are limited. Victorian Whitechapel did not have the benefit of the bright lights it does today.
We show each other our T-shirts, hand-painted with the words NOT JUST A CORPSE, and printed with pictures of the women. Two of us have Mary Jane Kelly, and an argument ensues over who was supposed to do Mary-Ann Nichols. We shush each other, decide it does not matter, that people have the most interest in Mary Jane anyway. The youngest victim, the most sexually dangerous, biography-less, mysterious. Sometimes we must play to their perversions, we tell each other, to get attention.
It is time to go. We cover up our T-shirts again with big coats, wind long scarves around our necks like bandages, and step out into the night.
It really was a book group, to begin with.
The purpose was to educate ourselves – the selves in question being a handful of women, mostly white, all university-educated, all born outside of the city. We lived in East London, but had no prior connection to it, and we felt uneasy about this, our contextlessness. People like us appeared in Homerton and Bow and Poplar and Haggerston, set up a home, then left it two or five years later and went elsewhere. Usually Kent.
Between us, we had no faith or children, no way to lay down easy roots in the community. But we had the skills our humanities-heavy educations had taught us, and we had the background reading.
The books could be anything, but they had to feature somewhere local. First there were the modern greats: Monica Ali, Peter Ackroyd, Salman Rushdie. Then there was a memoir about a pie and mash shop, a biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, a short and unanimously panned book about the Krays. We were straying into Dickens (really more of a promiscuous London author, his literary scent in every postcode), when someone suggested The Book.
It was a new release, the rest of us protested, still only in hardback. And there was too much buzz around it. We liked books better when they had already had their buzz, and kept a whiff of it squashed between their pages like pressed flowers. But there wasn’t much we could say against its relevance. The people it was about – five women with a common killer – were deeply connected to the same streets we walked every two weeks to meet each other. Their blood had run between the paving stones. In the end, we relented.
It started small, with the slipping of mementos off pub walls and into our bags. When we went outside to smoke, we dropped the offending items to the ground and kicked them into the rest of the rubbish that pooled in Shoreditch’s corners. They were reproductions of old newspaper reports and caricatures of cloaked, top-hatted figures. Some of them were in glass frames that we smashed on the curb, delicious crunch under our boots. In bookshops, we rearranged the local history shelves, covering up the hero worship and victim gore with copies of The Book.
These were ways for us to flip things the way The Book had flipped us. The raw facts of the story had got stuck in our throats like fishbones. Five women, each with their own missed chances at a better life, had ended up in this grimy, noisy, lively, crumbling byword for deprivation: Spitalfields. And in the space of a few months, someone picked them off. Their memorials were picture of their bodies split open like chocolate wrappers, which were reproduced anywhere their killer was mentioned. We began to see the nasty little industry that had sprung up around this horror, in the tours and T-shirts and Halloween costumes.
One night, the pubs all closed but our conversation still alight as we walked down Brick Lane, we saw the grandest, most egregious iteration of this horror porn yet.
It was a face, his face, gloating and jut-jawed, leaning into the street above our heads. The Murderer. Someone had painted him onto the side of a building, at ten times human size. He wore a top hat and had an almost cartoonish Victorian moustache, which did not quite hide his smirk. Around him was a smash effect, to make it look like he was pushing through the wall. Here’s Jacky.
The next day, we struggled to sleep, to work. On WhatsApp, we messaged each other about this latest outrage, and wondered why nobody else was talking about it. All day, we looked at our phones under our desks and tapped different terms into the search bar. Ripper, Jack, mural, Shoreditch. Nothing.
It was the day of our next scheduled meeting when the group chat lit up with two words: Bring paint.
Once it was dark enough, it took hardly any time at all to scale the fire escape of the neighbouring building and come face-to-face with the mural. We whited out the wall, disappearing his face from view, and wrote the name of just one victim: Catherine Eddowes. We had agreed that a single name would have more impact. The black letters were simple and sharp, and their existence made us feel bold.
The reaction was swift. Before-and-after pictures of the wall appeared online. The Guardian wrote about a “local backlash” to The Murderer’s legacy, and we loved this word, local, licked it off our own lips as we repeated it.
Most gratifying of all was that among the 1,310 people who retweeted the picture was The Author of The Book.
“Hats off to whoever did this,” she wrote. “Next: Let’s get a monument to the victims.”
We made lists of what else we would do. Acts not just of protest but of education would form our remit, we decided. There would be a new walking tour that focused on life over death, and a literary festival, and fundraising for the memorial.
We met more frequently, for dinners and coffees and cocktails, and when we set off home we walked together, planning, laughing, daring the night to threaten the high we were feeling.
It was on an evening like this that we saw him for the second time.
An ice-cream shop had shut down, not an uncommon sight. On the lane, the rents killed off anything that wasn’t wildly successful in its first few months. Its windows were smeared with soap.
In the jumble of fliers for club nights and coffee festivals that had been tacked up on the shopfront, we saw it: that same face again.
This time its smirk pulled wider to show a little slice of teeth. The poster was large and black and white, and in an old newspaper-style font at the bottom it said: JACK IS BACK
We went towards it. The paper looked fresh, untouched by rain or dirt. Without speaking, we put out our hands. It was glued to the window, so we had to use our nails to pick at its edges. Then we tore the eyes and that dreadful smile. The pieces came away in thin curled strips like wood shavings, leaving a rough white residue.
Across what was left, we wrote a name: Annie Chapman.
After that, we saw his face everywhere, on lampposts and beermats, spray-painted onto billboards, on posters in underpasses. JACK IS BACK, they all said. It became difficult to conceal the amount of paint we were carrying in our tote bags.
He was in other places too, places he shouldn’t have been. We saw him reflected in the black screen of a phone that had just run out of battery, and in the windows of strangers’ cars, in glasses of red wine. On the tube, we saw him peering out of the eyes of other men and widening their mouths into dog-smiles.
We didn’t tell each other about these sightings. Not discussing them kept them drained of colour, just sketches on scrap paper. The work continued.
The war we waged against the many faces of The Murderer was noticed by The Author and her fans (our fans?) once again, and they cheered us on, added to our handiwork with stickers, and built tribute piles of flowers underneath. Someone painted a portrait of Elizabeth Stride next to where we had written her name on the side of a brewery – it showed her alive and standing, rather than against the mortician’s table.
When the sandwich boards appeared, propped up outside every station, they bore a picture that was the same as all the others, with the single exception being his smile. It was bigger again. Now a full-blown grin, it ripped an unpleasant half-moon across his face.
Along the top was that text: JACK IS BACK.
But at the bottom, something new. A website, a phone number, and the words: Book your place now on the most frightening Ripper tour ever! NOT for the faint of heart.
It was just advertising, we muttered to each other. Just a campaign, like most of the other street art in this ridiculous part of town.
We were in a co-operative coffee shop for the emergency meeting, our things spread out over low sofas, and the smack of incense in our nostrils as we sipped hot drinks.
There were two options, as we saw it. The first: give up and accept we had been played, that our efforts had only created more publicity for the thing we so despised. The second: make one final go of it.
Unspoken, but stalking the hidden corners of our conversation, was another consideration. Things had moved on too far from the original book club for us to go back to that now.
We went around the circle, nodding our commitment one by one.
It is a busy night. Shoreditch pulses around us with its uneasy clash of customers. There are queues around corners for Dishoom, Som Saa, and the speakeasy with a strict no-bookings policy. Tech guys in jeans and company-logo T-shirts stand around outside pubs despite the cold. In the curry houses, long tables have been set up for the grad-scheme bankers and lawyers who talk, ties off, with their mouths full of garlic naan, about university days on rugby teams and buying newbuild flats in Balham. Tourists from Spain and Japan and Russia clutch rainbow bagels and takeaway cups from Dark Sugars.
We have chosen our destination. The street is one we rarely use, not even together – little more than a service alley really. Backing onto it is a building which houses the headquarters of a once-beloved 90s clothing brand. Because of its proximity to Hanbury Street, the office is named, hideously, Jack’s Place.
We venture into the alley, and the atmosphere shifts. We are a thread pulled taut.
We are tightly woven silk, unbroken skin. Our bodies sing with a steady anticipation.
We forget the tour group as we inspect the badly lit space. The ground hums beneath us and we don’t think it’s the tube.
The leaping script of graffiti scores the walls on either side of us, relentless, layers and layers of it. There are so many unreadable tags fighting for space with grotesque depictions of politicians and sea monster–like creatures. As we stare at it all, gripping each other’s hands and wondering who will be the one to call off the plan, we spot something.
Baring his teeth, next to a picture of a dog doing the same, is The Murderer.
Only then do we realise, in the way you spot a single ant before the entire colony becomes visible, that he is everywhere. Every caricature has the same skin-splitting smile, and all the signatures say in red and blue and black: Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack.
A footstep rattles around the alleyway and inside our chests. We all turn together to see a man, his feet in black boots and a long coat rippling around him. He wears a top hat. Under his thick moustache, he is laughing at us.