All info and quotations from Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.
In 1888 in Whitechapel, London, Jack the Ripper did his famous five killings. If he had ever been caught, it probably would not have captured our imaginations the way it has, but he wasn't, so we remain distinctly obsessed with the story. As sick as it sounds, this obsession was not the result of time passing–there was an instant, global (or at least Western) obsession and even worship of the Ripper by otherwise normal, healthy people. I was going to compare it to our interest in TV shows like Dexter or Hannibal, but it's not really comparable: we know those shows are fiction. Jack the Ripper was a much more shocking obsession because the killings were very much real and on the front of every newspaper. People couldn't stop talking about it, shocked that the murders were able to tap into an inner darkness many never knew they even possessed.
One of the prime examples of this obsession was the Whitechapel Club which was started in Chicago by several prominent businessmen: doctors, lawyers, newspapermen, artists, musicians–it was a thoroughly "respectable" institution. The inside of the actually club itself, however, looked more like a serial killer's trophy room than your standard gentleman's club: "A coffin at the center of the room served as a bar. The light was dim and came from gas jets hidden behind skulls mounted on the walls. Other skulls lay scattered about the room. A hangman's noose dangled from the wall, as did assorted weapons and a blanket caked with blood.
"…The club's president held the official title of the Ripper; its members were mainly journalists, who brought to the club's meetings stories of murder harvested from the city's streets. The weapons on the wall had been used in actual homicides and were provided by Chicago policemen; the skulls by an alienist at a nearby lunatic asylum; the blanket by a member who had acquired it while covering a battle between the army and the Sioux.
"…The club's coffin . . . had once been used to transport the body of a member who had committed suicide. After claiming his body, the club had hauled it to the Indiana Dune on Lake Michigan, where members erected an immense pyre. They placed the body on top, then set it alight. Carrying torches and wearing black hooded robes, they circled the fire singing hymns to the dead between sips of whiskey. The club also had a custom of sending robed members to kidnap visiting celebrities and steal them away in a black coach with covered windows, all without saying a word." (46-47)
This got to be a deeply snobby institution with lots of ridiculous rules about who could become a member, with tons of ceremony and bureaucratic nonsense. And, as with all the best secret clubs, it wasn't a secret in high society.
In fact, during the big vote that would decide which city would get to host the 1893 World's Fair (New York, Chicago or St. Louis), Chauncey Deprew, President of the New York Central, "promised the members of the Whitechapel Club that if Chicago prevailed he would present himself at the club's next meeting, to be hacked apart by the Ripper himself" (47), so certain was he that New York would get to host the fair.
When Chicago won, the Whitechapel Club sent Depew a telegram that said: "When may we see you at our dissecting table?" Depew rather graciously sent them a telegram back saying: "I am at your service when ordered and quite ready after today's events to contribute my body to Chicago science" (48).
So, if a man all the way from New York knew about the club and spoke about it publicly, then it's pretty clear that the club and its actions were not a secret. So how was this legal? I mean, if they're purloining evidence from murders, kidnapping celebrities, and burning their dead members on pyres that are probably not approved by city ordinances, how is it possible that they weren't shut down? There must have been a moment on the club's ascension into high fashion before it got its most powerful members where someone went, "Hmmmm, this isn't right. One might be inclined to say this is utterly messed up." It's actually a little disturbing what the right connections can do for you.
The club apparently only lasted 5 years, shutting down in 1894–does anyone know the reason for this? Was it a loss of interest, a forcible shut-down, or could it perhaps be that Chicago soon after discovered its own, much more prolific serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, and perhaps it hit the club members a little too close to home?