"They've all got knives," the kid working front desk at the Four Points Sheraton warns of the group convening upstairs on the mezzanine. And with that my mind is off, racing, conjuring all manner of bladed horrors: gleaming machetes, club-like butcher knives, twisted turn-of-the-20th-century surgical implements, seemingly less suited to saving lives than to snuffing them out, ensuring that the last terrible moments are spent in paroxysms of blinding white agony. And all of them—all of the blades, that is—are black from their work's awful harvest, with the dark, crusted residuals of gutted human remains.
"Kidding," the desk guy assures me, waving his hands with a smile that I hope is sincere. The bunch he's referring to consists of 40 or so Jack the Ripper enthusiasts—aka Ripperologists—gathered here for the sake of the 2008 Jack the Ripper Conference, a three-day international convention, um, celebrating, I suppose, the history of the world's most infamous serial killer.
The Sheraton's day manager, a bull-necked bald guy with unruly front teeth, flashes his crooked grin when he learns I'm headed that way: "I asked one of the guys in the elevator why he's into that stuff," he says in a coarse Northeastern accent. "He looked up at me and says, ‘Empathy.'"
But if I had any notions these people might be blood-mad psychos, ready to feast large on the savory but notoriously tough hide of a veteran reporter, they're dispelled pretty quickly when I walk into the mezzanine conference room. I discover a couple dozen people, mostly between 30 and 50 years old, casually dressed and lumped around a few conference tables listening to a speaker with white hair and a blue cardigan, prattling on in a very polite and British way about forensic theories and bygone murder suspects.
I try to pay attention, but my eyes glaze and I assimilate only snippets of his seemingly ceaseless presentation: "Jewish Hatians in Gummywitch?... colleague was a lugubrious, gloomy voice from Yorkshire... picture of a hideous harridan... leather apron... looked like a harmless imbecile who had been wrongly accused..."
As if to underscore the monotony of it all, the blaring revelry of the weekend's Brewers' Jam gathering, from the adjacent World's Fair Park, is seeping in even through the closed window—the dizzy celebrations of people drunk on thick beer and direct sunlight, careening across the fair site lawn to the careless horns and dragging beat of Dylan's "Rainy Day Women." As if to remind us all that there's real fun to be had, only a few hundred yards away.
But gradually, the caffeine from my latest cup of coffee kicks in, mental acuity returns, and I give speaker Martin Fido (author of The Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper) a second chance. He's not such a bad bloke, really, if a little too taken with arcane points of subject, as is the habit of so many academics—even those whose focus of study is a night-stalking, bloody killer of whores.
Later on, I meet conference organizers Kelly Robinson and fiance Dan Norder, a local couple who met, and were later engaged, at previous Ripper conventions.
"There wasn't going to be a conference this year," says Robinson, who became involved with Ripperology as an offshoot of her fascination with the Victorian era. "And we said to each other, there can't not be one; this has been such a big year for Ripper research."
Norder explains that Ripper enthusiasts approach the subject from any number of angles. "Lots are interested for the CSI, criminal forensics aspect," says Norder, co-editor of Ripper Notes, an international journal of Ripper studies. "Others have this Sherlock Holmes mindset; they see it as this great Victorian mystery. And others are mainly in it for the historical aspect."
Several of this year's speakers were involved in recent Ripper finds—mostly newly unearthed photographs of murder suspects and evidence. In addition to seven scheduled guest speakers, the Knoxville convention includes a showing of the Ripperland documentary film, an auction (sample item: an original letter written by one of the suspects), and, of course, plenty of lively Ripperian fellowship and debate.
"There have been 300-some-odd suggested suspects through the years, so it makes for some pretty spirited discussions," Robinson says. "People ask, how is there still anything to say 120 years after the fact? And yet every year I come to the convention, something new turns up."
For his part, Fido manages to build to a crescendo of mild excitement before his presentation is through. "Everyone has their favorite suspect, and you fight for your suspect regardless," he tells his attentive audience, adding, after a suitably dramatic pause, "But when the Day of Judgement comes, and Jack the Ripper is asked to come forward and make an account, everyone else will be holding their breath, waiting, wondering, ‘Who is he?'"
Outside, the beerfest band launches unceremoniously into a tepid rendering of—God, the horror!—"Free Bird," the signature Gary Rossington slide-guitar melody ringing as flat as a bug in a stonecrusher. And for the first time all afternoon, I'm happy to be up here, away from madding crowd and maddening song selection. Empathy, indeed.