125 years ago, on the last day of September 1888, London's autumn of terror peaked. The man we know as Jack The Ripper claimed his third and fourth victims within the space of an hour, one in Whitechapel and one in the City. This threw two separate police forces on his trail, which hindered rather helped the search. A postcard received by the press on 1st October described these killings as the "double event", a description which endures to this day. And the latter was the most brutal killing yet, despite being carried out in the most public place. So today I'm continuing my quest to visit the five confirmed murder sites as the anniversaries pass, comparing what happened then to what's there now.
The fourth of the Ripper's murders took place in Mitre Square, a gaslit quadrangle on the edge of the City. Holy Trinity Priory once covered the site, before Henry VIII closed it down, and the square today coincides approximately with the monks' cloister. Later developments hereabouts included St James's Church, after which Church Passage is named, but this was demolished in 1874. By 1888 Mitre Square was a mostly non-residential area surrounded by large warehouses and commercial buildings, with a small dingy yard in one corner. Behind one door sat a nightwatchman, but he wasn't watching the square that night, and neither was the off-duty policeman at number 3. Close by was St Botolph's Aldgate, then known as the "Church of Prostitutes" because ladies would parade their availability around its island perimeter. It's all too easy to image Jack storming off frustrated from Berner Street, selecting another victim from the carousel and leading her to her doom.
CatherineEddowes moved from Wolverhampton to London as a child, then moved back to the West Midlands to start a family. When that relationship failed she returned to Spitalfields, lodging in the same street as victim number three. By all accounts she lived an upright life, though was sometimes over-fond of alcohol which led to increasingly horizontal episodes. The City police took her in at 8pm on the evening of September 29th for being drunk, holding her in the cells at Bishopsgate Police station until she sobered up. Her release came at 1am, approximately the same time that Jack was murdering Liz half a mile away in Whitechapel. Catherine then headed back towards Aldgate High Street where she'd been picked up, only to be picked up again by a man on the other side of the law.
At 1.30am PC Edward Watkins walked through Mitre Square on his beat but saw nothing amiss. At 1.35am three witnesses saw Catherine talking to a man in a grey cloth cap at the end of Church Passage. One would later describe him as 30 years old, 5 foot 7 inches tall, of medium build with a fair complexion and moustache, although there's no reason to believe this was entirely accurate. After missing out earlier in Whitechapel, luck was now on Jack's side and he was able to practise his knife skills on Eddowes undisturbed. PC Watkins returned at 1.45am to find the mutilated body of a woman lying in the darkest corner of the square. Somehow the Ripper had murdered his victim by slashing her throat, then cut open her face, removed her intestines (and other specific organs) and escaped, all in a matter of minutes.
Mitre Square still exists, in approximately the same shape, but as a shadow of its former self. Every building that used to stand around the perimeter has been knocked down, the last major redevelopment being in 1980, and today only the cobbles remain. Even these have been moved and realigned, but it's possible that some are originals that the Ripper fled across. The site of Catherine's murder is in the southern corner, beneath the tree, on the kerb close to the flower bed. It's a half-decent bed too, raised on an island of earth along with a trio of lunchtime-convenient benches, ideal for perusing the fated spot. A few feet beyond is the playground of the City's only state primary school, Sir John Cass's Foundation, and alongside on Mitre Street stands a particularly anodyne modern office block. As for the other two sides of Mitre Square they're currently under construction, but look up and there's the Gherkin lurking over the scaffolding, approximately as far away as it is tall.
Of all the five canonical murder sites, only here can the public still freely stand. As such Mitre Square is much in demand by Ripper tours, so most evenings see several parties led inside to hear grisly tales. Whichever tour arrives first gets to stand in the correct spot by the flower bed, while subsequent groups have to cluster on the other side of the cobbles and pretend. Come during the day and you'll catch office staff and construction workers milling through, and maybe hear a few hundred kids at play. Come at the weekend and it's usually very quiet indeed. But come in a couple of years time and things will be very different. The redevelopment of two flanks of the square is planned to create a 17-storey steel and glass office block with ground floor retail space, "the perfect HQ building for any progressive City business", so the brochure says. And at the same time the square will be entirely re-landscaped, with the cobbles replaced by raised lawns and pert shrubberies. Expect Mitre Square to become yet another example of a public space falling under private control - an epidemic in the modern City - and whether Ripper tours will be welcomed has yet to be seen. But with CCTV trained on every corner, and security guards ever ready to pounce, the events of 125 years ago could never be repeated.