The sallow faces of lifeless prostitutes gaze out from the display, their skin scrofulous from poor diet, their mouths gaping as if in misery. These sepia-stained images are thought to be the first crime scene photos ever taken, used by Scotland Yard in its hunt to catch Jack the Ripper in the late 19th century. There's no Hollywood glamour in this blunt presentation of the facts, just the facts, about the first serial killer to capture the attention of the world's mass media. The grisly frames are a sobering reminder that this is one cold case that may not be solved, but will never be closed.
For the first time ever, amateur detectives can access the original evidence in the case. An unmatched new show at the Museum of London, "Jack the Ripper and the East End" (through November 2008 at the museum's new Docklands branch), lays out the entire case file. Its displays of photographs, police reports and curios—including letters the Ripper allegedly sent the police—fill more than 6,000 square feet. "There has never been a serious exhibition that allows the public to see the original material," says curator Alex Werner. "We place the murders in a historical context and let the artifacts speak for themselves."
The exhibit does that by creating a vivid and often troubling portrait of Victorian London at the time of the 11 murders that terrorized the city from 1888 to 1891. Curators spent two years trolling through municipal and museum archives, digging up a stunning series of photographs that document the East End's grueling poverty. Gaggles of barefoot homeless children, known then as "street Arabs," loiter in the snowy alleyways. A knifesmith—the strain of arduous labor etched in his face—stares vacantly into the lens. We see how whole neighborhoods were dangerous no-go areas for the respectable middle class.
The murders confronted prosperous Victorians with the rot at the heart of their society. "At the turn of the century over one-third of Londoners were living on or below the poverty line," says Werner, who points to a color-coded "poverty map" of London, published in 1889 by the social scientist Charles Booth. The map labels low-income black spots that dominate Whitechapel, where the mutilated victims were dumped, as "vicious, semi-criminal." The area's dank, unsanitary alleys and its slum housing—known as "rookeries"—were riddled with malnutrition and disease, a plight to which most wealthy Londoners had previously been oblivious. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw remarked at the time that the Ripper had done more for London than any philanthropist.
The fascination with Jack the Ripper began early. Only weeks into the investigation, waxwork models of the supposed killer were on show in nearby streets. Scotland Yard logged hundreds of letters from people claiming to be "Saucy Jack." Handwritten and brimming with macabre detail, the letters are the highlights of the show. Some are from respectable advisers giving helpful hints to the police: "Why not disguise oneself as an undesirable and catch him that way?" says one note from an address in a leafy suburb. The particularly gruesome "Lusk letter" is headed "From Hell." It was posted to the police along with half a human kidney, proclaiming that the sender had eaten the other half.
The show is also a postmortem on the cultural impact of the murders. The crimes galvanized the young genre of detective fiction. Scotland Yard believed the blood-red letter that coined the name "Jack the Ripper" was actually the handiwork of a journalist, keen to boost his newspaper's circulation. Alongside the police notes and postmortem reports are art objects. One sinister photomontage by the Surrealist Max Ernst is clearly inspired by the crimes. Another engraving by the German Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka illustrates the enduring themes of brutality and humanity. More haunting is the dark oil painting by Walter Sickert entitled "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom," packed full of suspiciously specific detail.
Fingerpointers will find themselves lingering at the suspects' wall at the end of the exhibit, where Sickert features prominently. He was accused by crime writer Patricia Cornwell in her 2002 book, which claimed that DNA evidence linked the artist to letters from the time. The exhibit works hard to debunk the myths and correct the historical record by laying out the raw evidence in accessible form. A set of razor-sharp knives and a syphilitic skull, eroded with disease, give frightening proximity to the Ripper's victims. An enormous stuffed bloodhound from the era evokes the frenzy of the manhunt. Such artifacts are far more chilling—and definitely more informative—than any Hollywood retelling of this unsolved tale.