Living on "the worst street in London" in the shadow of the Ripper
About a year before I moved to London, I read Alan Moore’s graphic novel, From Hell, a fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper killings in Victorian England. The book was probably one of the most stunning works of fiction I’d ever come into contact with. At times a left-wing conspiracy theory implicating Queen Victoria and the Freemasons in the murders, at times times a rumination on the century that followed the Whitechapel Murders, and at times a depiction of the history contained in the stones of London, I finished it and found that it had given me nightmares – a thing I hadn’t experienced in over a decade.
Then, around a month after I finished the book, as I was planning to move to London to get my master’s from the LSE, I was offered a room in Lilian Knowles House, a graduate student dormitory in the East End of London.
Lilian Knowles House sits on Crispin Street. Running perpendicular to Crispin street is an unnamed alley. This alley – where you see the Parking sign and the Dallas News – used to be Dorset Street, which was widely known as “The Worst Street in London,” and inspired Jack London to write his book People of the Abyss.
The little indentation in the roof of that building would be approximately where Miller’s Court used to be, which was the site of the final Jack the Ripper murder – that of Mary Jane Kelly (whose throat was cut and then, since the Ripper had some privacy, was chopped to pieces).
Miller’s Court is gone, but the Providence Row Night Refuge and Convent – a place where Mary Jane Kelly once worked and many men, women, and children stayed a night when they had nowhere else to go – still exists. Now it’s a dorm for the London School of Economics, called Lilian Knowles.
The door that used to be the women’s entrance…
…had become my kitchen window.
Some of us were mildly excited to live on such an infamous street, and the guy who put together the Facebook group for our building dubbed us “The Rippers.” Then we moved in and found that “Ripper Tours” were walked passed our kitchen window every single day. The tourists would stand there and take pictures of the “Women” sign, which happened to be just above my stove.
So every day around dinner time, a campily dressed, top-hatted tour guide would stop beneath our kitchen window and say, “Back in Jack’s day, this was where the poorest of the poor used to live. Now, it’s student housing. Some things never change.”
“Haha!” the crowd would say.
“I should’ve worn fucking pants into the kitchen,” I would say.
I never took the Ripper tour myself, which was maybe an oversight, but I had other things to do, like study and drink. I’ve also never been the morbid type. Even Law & Order is a bit much for me. Like, I’m into horror as long as it’s the campfire kind, and not the “hey, look at this lady who was chopped into a billion pieces.”
I left London almost a year ago, and in a bizarre fit of nostalgia a couple weeks ago, I bought From Hell for my graphic novel collection (12 books and counting!) in the hope that at some point, I would glimpse the Providence Row Night Refuge, or at least see it mentioned in the appendices. It wasn’t, though there were a few times I thought I saw what could possibly have been the fence along the front of it.
One of my favorite parts about living in London was that it felt like history was in every stone. “Oh, Oscar Wilde used to hang out at this pub,” or “This is where Karl Marx used to drink,” or “Jack the Ripper stalked his victims in the Ten Bells,” (Most of British history involves pubs). But the neighborhood I was living in was not the same neighborhood it had been 125 years before I arrived. It has become posh and gentrified, no longer a street renowned for it’s near-constant murders and bar fights. Around when I was leaving Keira Knightley was moving into the neighborhood. Just a few decades earlier, she wouldn’t have gone there for fear of being mugged.
We’ve become detached from our history. It has been sanitized and cleaned up in nearly every regard. In Britain, it’s a place where we can tour the sites of horrific murders and feel a pang of nostalgia.
In the U.S., we view people like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson as heroes, and we are willing to ignore their mistakes. We gloss over slavery, the American Indian genocide, or our current exploitation of immigrants and sweatshop workers across the world, and say – constantly, incessantly, abhorrently – on the floors of Congress that we are the “greatest nation on earth.”
Americans don’t even like to remember their history. I can’t trace my family much further back than my grandparents. The idea is that we’re here now, and that’s all that matters. But there are consequences to not being able to recall a time before the automobile. There are consequences to history being that clean.
You can’t clean up Jack the Ripper.
During the Mary Kelly murder scene in From Hell, as Jack the Ripper is tearing apart her corpse, he starts to hallucinate. He suddenly finds himself transported to an office in the 1980’s, and as he looks around at the people around him, he says: