The Jack the Ripper Conference 2012

2 October 2012

Following a man dressed as Jack the Ripper down an alleyway during the Sunday night ghost walk.

Hello there. I am now back home, safe and sound, having returned yesterday afternoon from the 2012 Jack the Ripper Conference, which was held in York. ‘What on earth happens at a Jack the Ripper Conference?’ I hear you all cry. Well, I am going to tell you…

I arrived in York on Friday afternoon after a trauma punctuated four hour train journey from Bristol, which involved a very nice group of stag weekenders (no, seriously, they were a delight and I’m not even being sarcastic), a mad shouting person over the aisle who switched alarmingly between insane ranting, threats, weepy protestations of friendship, throwing things at us, giving us all his food and so on. It was quite alarming. I also got trapped in the loo and had to be rescued by a group of mocking, drunk teenage boys but the least said about that the better…

York Minster.

York, as many of you will know, had issues with flooding last week and although it was starting to ebb away, the flood was still very much in evidence on Friday afternoon – for instance, I obediently followed the Google Maps route on my phone only to find my way barred by swirling and rather alarmingly fast flowing flood waters and when I later crossed another bridge on my hastily made up alternative route, I could see that even the bicycle stands beside the river were almost completely submerged.

After dumping my stuff at my hotel, I then went for a very long walk around York to reacquaint myself with the city (I used to know it VERY well in my youth but haven’t been back for a few years) and have dinner before rolling up at the Conference venue in the evening to register, get my excellent delegate’s pack and meet a few people, after which we wandered out into the night to watch a demonstration of a Victorian policeman’s lantern in some of the dark alleyways of the city. Very evocative! I found it very interesting as, of course, my 1888 H Division ancestor, Sergeant David Lee probably would have carried something very similar on his rounds around Whitechapel.

Clifford’s Tower, York.

My alarm failed to go off the next morning and the one after that but by some miracle I woke up at almost exactly the right time anyway (turns out like the DUNCE that I undoubtedly am, I’d failed to remember that it was a weekend and my ‘weekday’ alarm would, unsurprisingly therefore fail to go off so I needed to set a new alarm and oh, this is dull, isn’t it?). After a very virtuous breakfast of poached eggs, I headed off to the start of the Conference, where I managed to miss the start of the introductory talk, which reminisced about conferences of the past and people touching walls in a reverent manner.

The Maybrick Diary.

After this there was the first talk, by John Bennett about the trials and tribulations of being a Ripper tour guide. This was excellent and made me feel a bit guilty about all the times that I have stalked and then jumped out on Ripper tours in the past. I’ve since collared Mr Bennett and have a guest post and possibly another treat coming up from him…

After a break, we were then treated to Robert Anderson’s ‘An Inconvenient Book – Everything You Wanted To Know About The Diary Tests But Were Afraid To Ask.’ The diary in question of course being the one allegedly written by Maybrick and published as The Diary of Jack the Ripper. This talk was very interesting but there was a bit too much science and diagrams for me, especially as I’ve never been too interested in Maybrick or his possible ramblings. However there was a definite ripple of excitement in the room when it was revealed that the diary’s owner was there too and had brought it with him for us all to gawp at in a state of reverent hush.

We expected lunch after this but instead we were treated to an open top bus tour of York! I wouldn’t normally go on a tour bus for much the same annoyingly up myself reasons that I never use those audio tour things (‘I don’t need THAT’ I always protest. ‘I have a degree in this old shizzle and have no need of your modern flim flam.’) but this was actually highly entertaining and also informative. It was also nice to get out and have some fresh air after all the intense science talk about the chemical make up of ink.

The Maybrick Diary.

After lunch (jolly nice – an actual hot buffet rather than the expected sandwiches) we were treated to the fabulous Neil R. Storey, who is now one of my all time favourite people EVER, talking about ‘The Dracula Secrets: Jack the Ripper and the Darkest Sources of Bram Stoker’, which was FASCINATING and revealed a very strong link between Bram Stoker and our very own Dr Tumblety as well as discussing the influence that the Ripper murders may have had on the conception of Dracula. If that makes you sit up in a state of bosom heaving excitement then you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve roped Neil in to write me a guest post at some point in the future! In the meantime, I’ve bought his book, The Dracula Secrets: Jack the Ripper and the Darkest Sources of Bram Stoker and can’t wait to get started on it!

Following on from this there was the very lovely Trevor Bond talking about ‘Writing Mary Kelly’, which was of great interest to me as I’ve been working on my novel about The Girl Who Probably Wasn’t Actually Called Mary Kelly for a few years now. This was a really interesting talk as it discussed why Mary gets so much more attention than the other canonical Ripper victims. Personally, I think it comes down to the a. fact that so little is definitely known about her (in fact pretty much all that is known is the manner of her death if you believe that it wasn’t even her, whoever ‘her’ was), b. the unprecedented savagery of her murder and c. a sentimental tendency to fawn over young and/or attractive murder victims. Trevor is HOPEFULLY going to be writing a guest piece about the murder of Frances Coles for you all at some point soon! This was actually supposed to happen a while ago but he was up a mountain at the time or something.

The last talk of the day was by Trevor Marriott, who talked about ‘Missing Organs and the Clue at Goulston Street’. This was an interesting look at Mr Marriott’s rather unique theories about the murders, particularly that of Catherine Eddowes and involved a number of extremely revolting and graphic photographs of a kidney and uterus being removed in order to demonstrate how tricky both are to locate and remove and also the sort of staining they would cause on cloth. I remain unconvinced.

Jack the Ripper menu.

After this we all headed off into the night to get ready for the evening’s formal dinner at St William’s College. I was very pleased to be seated at the Mitre Square table with one of my friends and also Neal and Jenni Shelden, whose work I have long admired. Yes, you read that right – the Mitre Square table. All of the tables at the dinner were named after Ripper sites and just look at the ‘Dear Boss’ like menu!

My husband and I are planning a rather epic event at the moment and I’m definitely doing something similar for it. We even walked in to the theme from the Michael Caine Jack the Ripper series from 1988, which is one of the things that led me onto this dark DARK path all those years ago.

The dinner was very entertaining and was even served on those weird solid bread plancher things, which caused some alarm when it came to gravy and sauces. ‘That looks like Mary Kelly’ my friend noted as I sloshed tomato sauce onto my leek and mushroom wellington, which rather diminished my appetite somewhat. I am FAR too squeamish to be a Ripperologist. Clearly. We skipped out almost straight after the meal as we’re not great drinkers and instead went to a pub in the city to toast Catherine Eddowes and Liz Stride who both died that night in 1888. We were accosted in said pub by a very nice man from Santa Barbara, who didn’t seem to mind our discussions of murder and mayhem in Victorian times at all.

Not the actual Mitre Square.

The next morning kicked off with another talk by Colin Cobb, mainly about how everyone else had stayed up until five in morning and got absolutely wrecked. I felt fresh as a daisy however but kind of wished I’d stayed for all the frolics with everyone else. Ah well.

On the way to the Conference, I noticed dozens of policemen and police vans loitering around York Minster and assumed there’d been a TERRIBLE murder committed. Later on, we walked past again to see hundreds of policemen milling about the place, some of whom had their wives with them. Clearly this was a murder of EPIC PROPORTIONS. In a state of some alarm, we asked one what was happening and it turned out to be their annual police church service event. Phew. Of course, we excitedly asked ‘Has there been a murder?!’ while wearing Jack the Ripper Conference lanyards. Oops.

The first talk was by Lindsay Siviter, who has been researching Sir William Gull for many years and intends to completely clear his name. I am in total accord with this as I’ve always felt really sorry for poor old Gull, a fellow Colchester sort and by all accounts very decent man. I wish people talked more about his pioneering work into the causes and sympathetic treatment of anorexia than the ridiculous mythology touted by Stephen Knight, who came off in Siviter’s talk as at best a hack and at worst, along with his Sickert source, a dreadful liar who besmirched Gull’s reputation for no reason at all. I mean, according to Siviter, Gull wasn’t even a freemason and far from sectioning people left, right and centre, he spent so much time putting people from psych wards back into their families and the community that they ended up closing down the one that he was in charge of. What a nice man.

After this we were treated to a talk by Ripper Celebrity Martin Fido of the A-Z fame, who discussed the newspapers and main events of the weekend of 30th September 1888. This was very interesting as an overview of the period immediately preceding the Double Event murder of Eddowes and Stride, during which time talk of the murders had diminished to an almost hush. One thing though, Mr Fido, which I didn’t like to point out at the time: Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill was actually Lady Randolph Churchill and not the Duchess of Marlborough…

Moving on, we then went for lunch and then a walk around some of the York city walls, after which Rob House talked to us about Aaron Kosminksi: Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect, which was extremely interesting as it looked in depth at Kosminksi’s residences in Whitechapel and evidence that placed him very near the crimes as well as suggesting that he was the suspect who was under police surveillance. There was also discussion of schizophrenic murderers and how the fact that Kosminksi was probably schizophrenic didn’t completely rule him out as a suspect as some have suggested. It was very persuasive and I’m just about to buy his book, Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect about this to read more. Like another delegate at the event, I was left wondering if perhaps Kosminski was responsible for the murder of Elizabeth Stride due to his connection to Berner Street.

The final talk of the event was by criminal profiler Laura Richards on ‘Profiling Jack the Ripper: Using 21st Century Techniques to Understand a 19th Century Killer’. As I’d already seen her documentary about this, I was fascinated to hear more about her work looking at the case, which determined that the murderer would probably have lived in the vicinity of Flower and Dean Street and may have known at least two of his victims. I asked a question after this but it came out all wrong! Oops.

The Conference sadly came to an end after this and we all disbanded again – many of us to go home but a few remained, including myself, to go on a ghost walk through the city at night. This was thoroughly hilarious and an excellent climax to a great weekend.

Alix and I at the formal dinner.

This was my first ever Jack the Ripper Conference and I have to say that I had the most fascinating time – I wish that I could have taken part in the social aspect a bit more but the talks were fabulous and very inspiring and instructive. I also met some very lovely people, some of whom have kindly agreed to write pieces for this here blog in the future, which I am sure you will all look forward to! I honestly cannot wait for next year’s conference, which will be held in London on the ninth of November – the 125th anniversary of the murder of the Ripper’s final victim. It’s going to be brilliant.