Both Jack the Ripper and H. G. Wells travel through time to the present day in the new TV series Time After Time (based on the 1979 film of the same name). In addition to the usual fish-out-of-water time-travel tropes, they are both faced with the fact that the “future” is full of violence, murder, terrorism, and war, which they’re bombarded with by ever-present screens.Related: Jack the Ripper Finally Busted? Patricia Cornwell Claims Scientific Proof
For his part, Wells is dismayed, as he had envisioned a Utopian future, where humans would have evolved out of the need for conflict and violence. The Ripper, however, has happily found his place in a world full of serial killers, where people look away and don’t get involved when a threat erupts in their midst. Murderers are featured on the TV news every night, which viewers can see as they channel surf through true-crime programs and horror films. (Let’s not spend too much time wondering how genius/scientist/inventor Wells is so mystified by modern tech, but the Ripper immediately figures out remote controls and burner phones.)
As I climbed the stairs of the Jack the Ripper Museum in East London and heard a woman’s terrified screams playing on a recorded loop, it hit me that he’s right: These days, our culture’s obsession with serial killers is stronger than ever.
But sadly, while forensic investigation and crime-solving tools may be more technologically advanced than in the past, for sex-worker victims not much has changed since Victorian-era London.The five known Ripper victims — Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly — were all brutally murdered in London’s East End between August 31 and December 20, 1888.
The museum has five rooms, and uses waxwork mannequins to re-create key scenes. One room depicts the police station on Leman Street where detectives attempted to identify the murderer, along with several artifacts.
Another sitting room has surgical instruments from the era — and a cloak and hat that visitors can touch and try on as they ponder theories about the Ripper’s identity.
Upstairs is a bedroom simulating how Mary Kelly, who was born in Limerick and worked for some time in a high-class brothel, might have lived.
For most Ripperologists, the best-known photo of Kelly is the iconic image of her butchered remains. But her bedroom tells a sad story of a desperate woman fighting poverty. Kelly was married, and reportedly turned to prostitution following the breakup of her marriage, and was also battling an addiction to alcohol.
Most of the women had sad stories: Many were married and turned to sex work to take care of sick children in a society where welfare did not yet exist.In addition, the museum also explores the death of the 11 women held in the “Whitechapel Murders“ case file, which are unsolved attacks on female victims in the East End of London over the same two-year period that the Ripper murders took place. The museum attracted controversy when it opened in 2015, with many feminist groups calling for its closure because “it glamorises sexual violence against women,” according to the Telegraph.
But others say that the museum is merely a reflection of the brutal reality. For example, experts say that sex workers in the United States risk violence and death on a much greater scale than their peers in countries where prostitution is legal.
According to the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), prostitutes are up to 400 times more likely to be murdered on the job than the average worker.
Sex workers continue to be targeted by serial killers, including the Long Island Serial Killer, who is believed to have murdered at least 10 victims and dumped many of the bodies on Gilgo Beach in New York. Sadly, like the Ripper victims, many of the LISK victims were dismissed due to their profession.
Serial killer Joel Rifkin and Hillside Stranglers Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono all targeted prostitutes because they believed — unfortunately, sometimes accurately — that their victims were less likely to be missed.
Green River Killer Gary Ridgeway was more blunt. He said:
“I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes, and I did not want to pay them for sex,” he said. “I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing.”
Today, women have more rights and opportunities than ever. But within the marginalized communities of women who follow men into dark shadowy corners, violence continues to be an occupational hazard.
Main image: Exterior of Jack the Ripper Museum in London [Catherine Townsend/Investigation Discovery]