The Boredom of Dark History: Women’s Histories and Jack the Ripper Narratives

Neighbors were startled last week when this facade was unveiled for the Jack the Ripper Museum.

Neighbors were startled last week when this facade was unveiled for the Jack the Ripper Museum.

Last week neighbors in London’s East End were dismayed that a planned women’s history museum had taken an unexpected turn.  Rather than “retell the story of the East End through the eyes, voices, experiences and actions of the women that shaped the East End,” the renamed Jack the Ripper Museum will narrate the lives of late 19th-century women through the familiar but hackneyed legend of a murderer.  The Jack the Ripper story has been told incessantly since the murder of five women in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the late 1880s.  The murders are a fascinating tale of extraordinary evil heightened by the murderer’s ability to remain anonymous and escape an analysis of what delivered him to such unthinkable darkness.  Nevertheless, the Ripper’s story seems an especially challenging starting point to narrate the agency of women in 19th-century London.  The Museum awkwardly argues that it “discusses why so many women had little choice in their lives other than to turn to prostitution”; that only seems to confirm that they will tell another theatrical tale about the Ripper instead of reflectively study the scores of women who negotiated the late 19th-century East End.

The Whitechapel murderer has been continuously constructed in popular discourses as early as this 1888 image from the Illustrated London News.

The Whitechapel murderer has been continuously constructed in popular discourses as early as this 1888 image from the Illustrated London News.

The museum seems to promise a spectacular story of the East End far removed from stereotypically dry academic exposition of everyday life.  A vast tourist industry clumsily attempts to preserve our fascination in the boundaries of human experience and the tragedies of history while securing the appearance of measured scholarship and escaping the charge of sensationalism.  The Jack the Ripper Museum is firmly situated in this ambiguous tension between measured museum scholarship and tourist trap sensationalism.  The Museum seems to aspire to present an engaging dark history even as it risks devolving into the exaggerated narrative form of movies, comic books, and popular cultural discourses.  Unspeakable evil is of course a staple in popular cultural discourses, where murder, apocalypse, and serial killings are commonplace realities.  However, these spectacular tellings of the real and imagined boundaries of human experience and evil normally conclude with narrative resolution that real life rarely provides.

The serial killings of at least five women could perhaps provide an element in a dark history of everyday life in London, but the popular fixation on the mechanics of dismemberment and a perpetual search for the killer are not especially productive starting points.  Dark histories seem especially powerful when they underscore how horrific evil becomes an evaded or ignored backdrop to everyday life, and the Whitechapel story may provide a mechanism to illuminate a host of inequalities and violence largely ignored in Ripper narratives.  The Ripper’s murders were followed zealously by the world press, but few observers assessed the structural conditions that women negotiated in 19th-century London.  Advocates for women were vastly out-numbered by disinterested masses, and many accounts for more than a century fail to consider these women’s standing beyond reducing them to prostitutes.

The museum's logo plays off familiar iconic images of the Ripper.

The museum’s logo plays off familiar iconic images of the Ripper.

Possibly the most interesting but unrevealed dimension in this story is the ambiguous process by which a museum that intended to examine women’s history transformed into a narrative told through a man who murdered five women.  Stunned by criticisms of the museum last week, its founder Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe admitted that “We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.”  Palmer-Edgecumbe clumsily perpetuated the picture of women without agency when he argued that the Whitechapel murderer provides a vehicle for the museum to focus on “how and why women got in that situation in the first place.”  Minimally he grossly over-simplified the Whitechapel murders’ effect when he told The Londonist ‘s Scott Wood that “Well Jack the Ripper is the most influential person of the East End.”

Community activists Class War demonstrated at the site last week and promise to return for the museum's opening.

Community activists Class War demonstrated at the site last week and promise to return for the museum’s opening.

The 2014 planning documents for the “Museum of Women’s History” aspired to “inspire a passion for, and understanding of, the history of women in East London and beyond.”  However, when its façade was unveiled last week to reveal the iconic outline of the Ripper, the museum’s original architects were among an instant chorus dismissing it as “salacious, misogynist rubbish.”  The local Tower Hamlets Council conceded that “the vision of the museum was to tell the story of women of the East End of London,” indicating that the “council is aware of the Jack the Ripper imagery and is investigating the extent to which unauthorised works may have been carried out at the premises.”  Local and international media have shared residents’ unhappiness with the museum’s change of mission, and the grassroots group Class War picketed the site last week and plan to return this week (compare Bustle’s review of tweets attacking the museum).

The Museum’s doors open this week, so its concrete narrative presentation remains unexamined, but it is not especially promising that they advertise an opportunity to tour “the morgue and see the autopsy photos and reports of the murdered women.”  The Ripper’s popular narration is a hyperbolic but familiar narrative illuminating a variety of insecurities about women in public space and the potential evil masked among the masses.  The Ripper’s tale may have seemed magnetic to the planners, providing them a familiar historical tale in which a real historical figure and his exaggerated popular interpretations have merged into a pseudo-historical character.  That story hazards saying nothing about the women living in late 19th-century London as agents directing their own lives, and it risks failing to address the men’s violence against women that has so often been an uneasy backdrop to everyday life.

 

Sources

Perry Curtis

2001 Jack the Ripper and the London Press.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Philip Stone

2013 Dark Tourism Scholarship: a critical review.  International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research 7(3): 307-318.

 

Images

Class War Demonstration at Jack the Ripper Museum image from Class War facebook page.

Illustrated London News 1888 image “With the Vigilance Committee in the East End” from wikimedia commons.

Jack the Ripper Museum facade image from The Guardian.

Jack the Ripper Museum logo from Jack the Ripper Museum web page.

Gardens in the Black City: Landscaping 20th-Century African America

In July, 1937 Louise Terry was married in the garden at her parents’ Indianapolis home, and her mother Mary Ellen and father Curtis were likely proud of their daughter and garden alike.  In the days leading up to the nuptials the Indianapolis Recorder rhapsodized about the Terrys’ garden: “A beautiful rock garden and lily pond bordered with flowers of variegated hues against a background of Sabin Junipers, Oriental Golden Arbor-Vitae, Colorado Blue Spruce, Virginia Glanca, Blue Junipers, Japanese Cedars, and stately Poplars will create a celestial atmosphere … at the Terry residence, 1101 Stadium Drive.”

Dorothea Lange's 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper's cabin indicated "Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes" (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

Dorothea Lange’s 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper’s cabin indicated “Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes” (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

The Terrys’ garden lay in the heart of the city’s near-Westside, part of an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood that was routinely caricatured as a “blighted” or “slum” landscape.  In the summer of 1937 that Louise Terry was wed, construction was nearing completion on the city’s first major urban renewal project, Lockefield Garden, just blocks from the Terry home (the segregated African American community accepted its first tenants in February 1938).  There was indeed genuine impoverishment and material hardship in much of the near-Westside, yet the African-American city was dotted with ornamental gardens like the Terrys’ home.  The archaeological scholarship on African-American landscapes includes fascinating analyses of plantation spaces and food gardens, but there is far less scholarship on the scores of ornamental African-American gardens in 20th-century cities and suburbs. Compounding the dilemma in cities like Indianapolis is the reality that many of these gardens have been erased.  Nevertheless, ignoring them allows racist stereotypes of longstanding urban ruin to pass unchallenged, and it risks ignoring that many similar gardens and gardeners remain scattered across the contemporary city. Read the rest of this entry

Heritage Exposed: Nudity at Historical Sites

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poso a poco).

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poco a poco).

In February American tourists Lindsey Kate Adams and Leslie Jan Adams were among the crowds at Cambodia’s Angkor, the 9th-15th century Khmer city and temple complex that UNESCO hails as the most famous archaeological site in southeast Asia.  The World Heritage Site sprawls over about 400 square kilometers, making it among the world’s largest archaeological sites and one of the most visited historical sites in the world.  The Adams sisters were among the thousands of visitors trooping through Angkor in February, with scores of them providing pictures of their journey and the astounding complex.  When the Arizona sisters reached the Preah Khan temple, they likewise documented their visit, yet like a modest but growing wave of contemporary tourists they departed from the conventional monument pose:  the women dropped their pants for a shot of their butts in the ancient temple, only to be nabbed by the authorities.  These increasingly common nude or partially disrobed pictures at historic sites tell us something about the aesthetic power of heritage even as they reveal its irrelevance to many of the Western tourists who are actually visiting historic places.

The Arizona travelers are not alone in their ambition to commemorate their historic site tourism with nude pictures.  In January three French tourists were deported after being caught in Angkor’s Banteay Kdei temple stripping for pictures of their Cambodian trek.  Five days before pictures appeared on Facebook depicting topless women at Angkor as well as Beijing’s Forbidden Palace.  In May a group of ten tourists posed naked in Malaysia on Mount Kinabalu, a World Heritage site distinguished by its botanical diversity (5000-6000 plant species can be found on the mountain).  Israeli traveler Amichay Rab’s My Naked Trip blog documents his tour of South America, where he stripped at a series of sites including Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and Monte Verde.  The facebook page and blog Naked at Monuments document sun-starved butts at sites including the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and Athens. Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Racist Landscape

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

Boone Hall Plantation bills itself as “America’s most photographed plantation,” and the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina plantation’s moss-draped oak approach and grounds are indeed magnificent.  The most dramatic aesthetic feature of the plantation may be the nearly mile-long “Avenue of Oaks” approach, which is draped in southern oaks planted in 1743.  Photographed by a legion of tourists whose images crowd the likes of Pinterest, Instagram, and Trip Advisor, the space has also appeared in films including North and South and The Notebook.

Captives quareters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

Captives quarters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

In April the visitors photographing the Boone Hall landscape included Dylann Roof, who later murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston church on June 17th.  In March and April Roof visited a series of South Carolina historic sites such as Boone Hall and included the images on a website accompanying a racist manifesto.  We may find it impossible to fathom the mind of a racist killer and determine how he went from the mimicry of xenophobic talking points to mass murder, but his historic site visits illuminate the somewhat “placeless” historic landscape of the racist imagination.  Dylann Roof’s imagination of these historic spaces is impossible to conclusively interpret, and his online manifesto and pictures did not deny the historical narratives of African-American heritage sites as much as he simply evaded them.  It appears that Roof ignored the complex heritage of all these places even as he felt strangely compelled to visit them. Read the rest of this entry

The Trinkets of Evil: Eva Braun’s Underwear and Dark Heritage

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

Few artifacts associated with dark historical moments are more perversely fascinating than a pair of panties for sale in an Ohio antiques shop.  The lace underwear embossed with the monogram “EB” were reputedly recovered in 1945 from Berchtesgaden, where they were said to grace Eva BraunThe provenience for the $7500 knickers is not clearly established, but the interest in the skivvies of Hitler’s mistress is a telling reflection of our deep-seated curiosity in the human dimensions of evil.  The fascination with such a prosaic thing illuminates our desire to comprehend (if not explain) the most evil people by focusing on their banal humanity.

Few collectibles provoke more anxiety than Nazi artifacts, whose exchange is strictly regulated throughout most of the world.  Many of the codes regulating Nazi memorabilia attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of contemporary neo-Nazis, but many observers simply see the profiteering on Nazi symbols as ghoulish if not immoral.  Harry Grenville, whose parents died at Auschwitz, called a 2015 auction of wartime memorabilia “hugely offensive,” lamenting that “this auction house is set to make a tidy sum of money from the sale of items that are hugely offensive to a lot of people.  It raises again the question about freedom of speech – you can’t force people to stop selling Holocaust memorabilia and making money from it but you can deplore it.”  Grenville is not alone in his uneasiness that Nazi material things have become “collectibles” traded like any other other good.  Nevertheless, this aversion to the trade in Nazi collectibles stands somewhat at odds with the pervasive presence of Nazis in popular culture, where Nazism and Hitler are nearly universally recognized stand-ins for evil. Read the rest of this entry

Burying Fans: Material Culture and Ritual at Fandom Funerals

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon's funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon’s funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

In February lifelong Star Wars and Liverpool Football Club fan Gordon Deacon died of cancer, and the 58-year-old’s funeral commemorated his passions.  The Cardiff father of four was escorted to St. Margaret’s Church by a phalanx of stormtroopers who then oversaw his pallbearers, who were themselves clad in Liverpool jerseys.  Deacon’s funeral was distinctive, but he is by no means alone embracing his fandom for his final earthly ritual.  For instance, the widow of Pittsburgh Steelers fan James Henry Smith requested that he be placed in his favorite reclining chair as if “he just fell asleep watching the game,” covered by his beloved Steelers blanket and facing a television showing a Steelers game (with the television remote in his hand).  When Doctor Who fan Seb Neale died his family and friends arranged a service at which Neale’s coffin was a TARDIS with a blue flashing light; the service program was a picture of Neale cosplaying as 10th Doctor David Tennant; music from the show was played; and instead of scriptural verses “the funeral consisted of quotes from classic Who scripts, including William Hartnell’s famous speech from `The Dalek Invasion Of Earth’: ‘One day, I will come back.  Yes, I shall come back.  Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.’” Read the rest of this entry

Faith at the Brickyard: Ritual, Fandom, and the Indianapolis 500

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Memorial Day weekend is among the most cherished holidays in racing fandom, with the Indianapolis 500 culminating a month of racing and community events.  For legions of followers the Indianapolis 500 is an annual rite, and for many fans the journey to the speedway is a pilgrimage to one of racing’s most hallowed spaces.  In 1973 the New York Times celebrated the event and place when it intoned that “the 500 is more than a race.  It is a folk festival, a happening.  Its pageantry, spectacle and corn make it Middle America’s counterpart to France’s pilgrimage to Le Mans.”

The speedway experience involves systematic ritual, intense desire, and visitation to an important place, all of which have some parallels to pilgrims’ religious travel in particular and broader religious experience in general (compare Jean Williams’ 2012 study of pilgrimage to the IMS).  Religious characterizations of sport fandom perhaps risk hyperbolizing the consequence of sport, and some observers have ridiculed the hackneyed definition of sports’ “hallowed ground.” In 2008, for instance, sportswriter Andrea Adelson complained that “There is nothing sacred about Augusta National, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field.  So why are these places referred to in the same way we talk about the Sistine Chapel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Wailing Wall?”  Adelson argued that sporting places should be characterized as being “steeped in tradition.”  Adelson’s distinction between sacred and secular places reveals a wariness of projecting sacred authenticity onto the prosaic reality of sporting venues, if not sport itself. Read the rest of this entry

Racing Along the Color Line

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

This month the massive crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear to confirm its confident claim to being the “motor racing capital of the world.”  Racing began on the oval in 1909 and the 500-mile race first ran two years later, with the 99th running of the 500-mile race approaching on Memorial Day weekend.  The speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and its fascinating social history reaches well beyond the obsessive statistics and biographical minutia that motorheads have compulsively detailed for a century.  The IMS dominates American racing mythology and is as much a pilgrimage destination as a race track.  Like so many shrines it invokes a host of American traditions that are perhaps more firmly rooted in our imagination and hagiography than especially concrete history.

The imagination of the speedway’s history has recently begun to contemplate historical racial inequalities in sports.  This year the 500 Festival parade before the race will be marshalled by the 1955 state high school basketball champions from Indianapolis’ segregated Crispus Attucks High School.  The Attucks champions’ place in the pre-race parade celebrates Indiana’s two most adored sports, basketball and racing, but of course the implications of sport and the color line extend beyond the hardwood and the speedway.  No 20th-century Indiana institution escaped anti-Black racism, and the speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was long a segregated space and has included very few people of color on the track or in the pits.  The prominence of the Attucks players makes a modest but potentially important concession of racism in sports, though the concrete social effects of such discussions remain to be evaluated. Read the rest of this entry

Commemoration and African-American Place: Remembering Basketball and the Dust Bowl

The page from Oscar Robertson's scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

The page from Oscar Robertson’s scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments.  In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).

Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life.  An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball.  Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood.  This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes.  Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball). Read the rest of this entry

Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside

The 1956 Negro Motorist Green Book (image South Carolina University Library).

The 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book (image University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library).

In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel.  Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”

The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested.  Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears.  One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!”  Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century:  an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry

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