London's New Jack the Ripper Exhibit Cuts Deep

The note, written in blood-red ink with slanted cursive handwriting, reads like a confession: “I am down on whores and I shunt [sic] quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me?”

Police never did find the purported author of the letter, signed “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.”

Known as the "Dear Boss" letter, it was sent to a London press agency in 1888 after three women were found mutilated in one month in London’s East End. British newspapers printed it along with details of the gruesome murders. Police considered it hoax and suspected it was written by a journalist.

Yet the name stuck, and the legend of one of the world's most notorious serial killers was born.

The letter and dozens of other items, most never seen before by the public, are on display at the newly opened “Jack the Ripper and the East End” exhibit in London’s Museum in Docklands, a few miles from the very streets where the notorious killer slashed as many as 11 women to death between 1888 and 1891.

• Click here to see pictures from the Jack the Ripper exhibit.

Curator Julia Hoffbrand said the exhibition aims to dissect myths of Jack the Ripper, and to enlighten visitors about the harsh reality of life in 19th century London.

“[Visitors can] examine the contemporary evidence firsthand, enter the world in which the crimes took place and reach their own conclusions about a London story that continues to fascinate and shock today.”

The six-month exhibit, the first major collection of Ripper-related artifacts, documents the media frenzy that erupted over the story. Sensationalism abounded as daily tabloids concocted outlandish theories about possible suspects, openly criticized police investigations and reveled in the grisly details.

One account from the Birmingham Daily Post dated Sept. 1, 1888, the day after the body of victim Mary Ann Nichols had been found, reported: “the throat was gashed in two cuts, penetrating from the front of the neck to the vertebrae. … her abdomen had been ripped up from thighs to breast in a revolting manner.”

Newspapers went to press several times a day and transmitted stories around the world to feed the public's voracious appetite for murder.

By this time, interest in the criminal underbelly had already been piqued by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” published in 1886, and the first Sherlock Holmes story, published a year later.

The exhibit recounts the Ripper's story through the lens of Victorian London in the Whitechapel and Spitalfields neighborhoods: impoverished areas that set a shadowy stage for the murders.

One of the exhibit’s most significant items is an 1889 poverty map created by social scientist Charles Booth with streets color-coded according to wealth. The maze of streets in the neighborhoods where the Ripper stalked his victims is described as “semi-criminal” and in "chronic want."

Photographs from the National Archive paint a grim picture of life in that “abyss” where the killings took place: unsmiling, work-weary faces, children in tattered clothes and dark, dirty alleyways.

Alcoholism and prostitution were rampant. In fact, all of the Ripper’s victims were alcoholics and prostitutes, some reportedly trying to earn a few pennies for lodging at the time they met their fate.

Another highlight of the exhibit is the displays of original police reports from 1888 in what was dubbed the “Autumn of Terror,” when horribly mutilated bodies of women began to turn up along the neighborhood’s labyrinthine streets.

In careful cursive handwriting on yellowing paper, these reports document the horror, as with the discovery of the first body. Inspector John Spratling of the Metropolitan Police department wrote, “[the constable] found a woman’s body lying on her back … with her throat cut from ear to ear.”

But the exhibit itself is “not a whodunit,” Hoffbrand says. Instead, it presents a timeline display of various suspects, highlighting the most well-known.

Among them was American quack doctor Francis Tumblety, who had a disturbing habit of stealing wombs from patients. Others listed were Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor; and Walter Sickert, an English Impressionist painter whom crime novelist Patricia Cornwell accused of the murders in her 2002 book, "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper — Case Closed."

The exhibition culminates with an oval-shaped gallery area that’s preceded with the warning that the photographs housed behind the clean white wall are “of a distressing nature.”

Here, in a series of postcard-sized, black-and-white images, are the slain victims of Jack the Ripper. Most are post-mortem headshots, but the most gruesome one, that of Mary Jane Kelly, shows her savagely mutilated body in a bed. These were likely the first crime scene photos ever taken, according to exhibit officials.

“When you see these images, you see what this is about,” Hoffbrand says. “These are real women and their lives were cut short, and this is what’s important. There’s nothing glamorous about Jack the Ripper and there’s nothing glamorous about what happened. I hope people will leave contemplating that.”

The restaurant next door to the museum, however, doesn’t employ such sensitivity. It has created a special Jack the Ripper lunch menu, which includes, among other items, steak and kidney pudding.

The exhibit runs until Nov. 2, 2008.

Click here to read more about the "Jack the Ripper and the East End" Exhibit.