OUR October 2018 Speaker was John Malcolm. He is originally from New Hampshire in the United States, but now lives in Cardiff.  His crossing of the Atlantic was directly influenced by his fascination for Jack the Ripper. But his talk would be one of reminiscence, reflection and observation.

Twenty-five Years of Adventure, Introspection & Exasperation

JOHN called his talk ’25 Years of Adventure, Introspection & Exasperation’. One of the most interesting facts that emerged it, was that despite the different ways in which we have all been drawn to the subject of Jack the Ripper, there are a great many similarities. These include the way the case evolves from casual lay-knowledge, to a rapid and an all-embracing, almost obsessive thirst for all knowledge, to a slower-paced, relaxed, perhaps slightly cynical but still interested detachment. Is there also a shared taste for the macabre, the sinister, the horrific? No doubt!

HIS first brush with Jack the Ripper was at a Halloween costume party in New Hampshire on the centenary of the Ripper Murders in 1988. He didn’t realise at that time that Jack the Ripper was a real murderer, and couldn’t find a suitable picture as a model so instead he ended up dressing as an alternative stage baddie, a Droog from the Clockwork Orange. He was later disturbingly reminded of the similarity between the murder of Emma Smith in April 1888 with a particularly brutal murder depicted in the film version of Clockwork Orange.

IN 1993, the real, as opposed to the fictionalised, Jack the Ripper came into John’s life.  From that time that he took a more active interest in  ‘Ripperology’ and the East End. Incidentally, he met his future wife in the City Darts (as it was then known).  This was a haunt of Leather Apron, when it was known as the Princess Alice—and is now the Culpepper. These name changes reflect in many ways the varying fortunes of the area over time. And his wife, a Polish immigrant, strangely mirrored his favourite suspect, who was also a Polish immigrant (Kosminski in case you wondered).

HE associated the beginning of modern Ripperology with the creation of the Whitechapel Society—then known as the Cloak and Dagger Club, back in 1995. Since then, the dizzying and often circular arguments about the number of victims, the ever-increasing suspect list, and the role of both the police and the press has often exasperated him. He also preferred the field when it was smaller and tighter knit but accepted that the broadening—and popularising of the subject—was an inevitable outcome with such a fascinating field of study.

HIS first trip to the East End was in 1995 and he has noticed rapid change since. He sensed that the area had been stuck in a rut for a number of years. The area was dirty and sticky. Late at night it became more interesting, as it was possible to imagine what it was like in the 1880s, as if transported back in time. He hung around in the Ten Bells and from 1999 to 2002 became such a regular squatter that he was able to roam the building at will with his own key!

HE also ventured out to the Pride of Spitalfields, the Grave Maurice, the Commercial Tavern and various other dingy pubs. His haunts were invariably those known at the time (rather rudely but accurately) to locals as dosser pubs. There were fewer beers available, with Murphy’s and not Guinness in the Ten Bells, Fullers beer, and in my experience of those hostelries, a heavy residue of grub floating in the bottom of the glass from infrequently cleaned pipes.

THE Grave Maurice, the Still and Star, the Alma and the Wellington have all gone. Those that remain, (except the Pride of Spitalfields which I am sure has very clean pipes nowadays) have undergone radical change. The Ten Bells has been transformed—and John wouldn’t go in there now.

BACK in the day, there were a tiny number of Ripper tours, that used to stop at  the Ten Bells between performances by strippers, as pub staff hastily stuffed candles into bottles to make the venue suitably atmospheric. But that old time spirit has left the building and it is now populated by hipsters and Jack the Ripper is banned.

THE demographics of the area has also changed, as both the City and gentrification  took possession of it. Most of John’s friends from that period have left. But some things will never change. It is still a district that rewards a visit—or more.

SINCE 1993, due to the internet and digitisation, Ripperology has opened up and made much more information available to researchers. And social media, despite some problems, has allowed Ripperologists to keep in touch with each other, as in the case of online forums. Does anything unite Ripperology? John felt that maybe the idea that the police were at odds over the likely suspect seems to be the central unifying foundation of twenty-first century Ripperology.

JOHN concluded his main presentation by quoting from a 2011 Ripperana article of his own:

For some the pursuit of the Whitechapel Murderer has perhaps been a life-long endeavour. For others a passing fancy and for one at least an emotional roller-coaster whose merciful ending is nowhere in sight. It certainly is self-indulgent to put forward the first person account of an obsession with a 120 year plus murder mystery, but the following will be such an account.

It began inauspiciously enough about 1993 with the realisation that Jack the Ripper was in fact the name given to an unknown murderer and not entirely a fictional creation. One thing led to another and I eventually found myself in Commercial Street on the hunt for the ghost of the Whitechapel fiend.

HE is still there! But his sobering conclusion was that it doesn’t matter who Jack the Ripper was!

THERE followed a PowerPoint slide show, which included many rarely seen pictures of the old interiors of the Ten Bells.  This included both upstairs and down, with an attempt to break into a concealed loft, that revealed nothing except an old newspaper from 1966! There was also a fascinating home movie from inside the Ten Bells from that period, which was just one of many such films that are in John’s precious archive. And the Q&A that followed the talk provoked much nostalgia for those lost days—some two decades ago.

JOHN’S book: The Whitechapel Murders 1888: Another Dead End? was published in September 2018 and a link to the podcast of his talk can be found in the podcast section of this website.