Internationally recognized as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow is said to run the best Ripper walking tour in London.
I emailed London Walks, London’s premiere walking tour firm, three times to make sure the Donald would actually be present on the early autumn evening my friend and I chose to take the tour. “Arrive early. It gets crowded,” she said. No kidding. Over one hundred people converge outside Tower Hill tube station on a balmy, soon to turn nippy night. Fortunately, half of the unknowing throng trail after another guide.
With the energy of a much younger man, he carries a canvas trolley full of brochures, books, water bottles and a little plastic stool upon which he stands surrounded by the crowd. His voice, something like a lion’s, penetrates the faithful. He’s also a crowd control expert; we relax at his assurance that he will always be seen and heard as he employs a step right up, no-one-left-behind attitude.
Here’s a man who is passionate about his subject. He’s an author, has been interviewed countless times whenever a Ripper expert is needed and he tells us he spent two glorious hours alone with Johnny Depp walking this same route when Mr. Depp was conducting research for his role in FROM HELL. Okay, so now we know with whom we’re dealing.
Donald is a talented storyteller. He paints the scenes of 1888 London by reminding us of our romanticized images donated by film and television, of which he tells us are only a paltry two percent accurate, and then smacks us with the reality of what life was really like for an East End London prostitute. His description of a toothless, men’s boot-wearing woman who has piled all of her clothes on her person because she has no home in which to hang a skirt, is gruesome and dire indeed. Though miserable her existence is, she still would rather live in the stench of the rookeries, filthy city slums, than to meet such a sudden and certain death.
The Ripper walking tours are quite famous, and indeed, our small army of Rumbelow converts fly past four other groups like a swarm of bees in the night. The cringe factor is high when we pass a young man wearing a headset who is vigorously, and badly, acting out a scene for his group. My friend and I lock eyes. Ha! We think. We are with the best and you, my friends, are clearly not.
Donald tells us “things may happen” during our winding walk through the cobblestones streets and abandoned squares.
For example, a man who particularly dislikes walking tour groups routinely rides down the street on his bicycle while shouting a string of curses. He is nicknamed ‘Old Bollocks’ by consensus of the guides. Donald warns of drunks who might want to replace his guiding expertise, and an unaware naked man or two who might appear in a window of one of the flats. Anything, it seems, may happen.
To cross a single street is to cross an invisible line that separates the heady richness of the original Square Mile in the City of London where one can easily feel swallowed by the concrete, from Petticoat Lane and Middlesex Street where the odour of a long simmering curry hits the nostrils and the abandoned market stalls leave a ghostly impression.
After hundreds of years the difference is still blatantly apparent.
The Rumbelow Effect is in full force as he describes the scenes of the murders and the state of the victims in detective-like detail.And here lies the difference in Donald and the other guides. He is an investigator, and in fact, an ex-City policeman. Once, as he swept up his little stool and trolley and scurried to the next stopping point, I ran along beside him and asked about his research. “Police records, police records,” he told me. “ And I’m still investigating.” As if I needed telling.
At the last stop on our Ripper ramble we gather around him once again. My friend and I, caught on the edge of the group, are probably the first to see Rumbelow’s eyes look past us to a fellow lurking about. Not just any fellow demands his attention; he is this group’s “things may happen” moment. Dressed in a black frock coat, a bowler hat and smoking a meerschaum, a young man stalks our group. Under the bowler sprouts insane black tufts of hair, and a touch of smeared black hollowing makeup surrounds his eyes. He keeps his distance as if he knows that Rumbelow won’t tolerate any infringement upon his show.
Our visitor circles us for a few minutes and then points his finger at his chest and mouths silently. “I’m Jack the Ripper.”
If only he’d resisted making that claim before he slowly disappeared. It would have been the perfect end to a perfect evening.