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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: June 14-June 21, 2003

Thursday, June 19, 2003:

"Jack the Ripper Museum Offers Insight Into Killings, Snacks" (Boston Courier-Gazette, June 19, 2003.)

BOSTON- Over one million bricks have been slathered into place. Over 10,000 pages of financial assessments, legal briefs, and city permits have been issued. During the time the construction has taken, Boston-area residents have consumed a whopping 2.4 billion McNuggets. At last, however, the fruits of this labor shall be unveiled, with this week's gala opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum and Irregular Crib Outlet in scenic downtown Boston.

For museum curator and architect Angela Swarmworthy, the curious and macabre story of Jack the Ripper has been an obsession for nearly a year now, with the museum's opening representing the culmination of her efforts to educate the Boston area about the famous string of unsolved murders that shocked a stunned world over a century ago.

"I've always been very active in local history," Swarmworthy, 27, says. "For example, I was listening to the Pixies way before 'Planet of Sound,' and I personally sent over 50 letters to Bill Buckner, telling him to get out of town after the 1986 World Series. So last Fourth of July, I was talking with my brother-in-law Mike [Hamilton], who's a history professor, about Jack the Ripper, and I was explaining how I saw this special on The History Channel about the killings. It was really interesting, what I saw of it, and I was telling Mike how creepy it was that they never found him. Like, what if he's still out there somewhere, you know?

"So Mike said that everything I didn't know about Jack the Ripper would probably fill a museum, and that's when a lightbulb went off in my head! I'd been out of work for a few months, since the temp agency had to shut down after that one chick got caught stealing all those credit card numbers from the office she was working at, so I needed something to keep me busy. And I realized that, even though it's one of the biggest murder stories you always hear about, and it's totally our shared heritage, Boston doesn't have a really good resource to learn about Jack the Ripper. I really didn't know too much about him, but like Mike said, if I could put everything I didn't know into a museum, then maybe, you know, all the kids in town could be educated and . . . entertained."


With her destiny firmly fixed in her mind and a generous loan from her dentist and fiancee, 57-year-old Hugh Witherman, Swarmworthy set out to learn all she could about Jack the Ripper.

"At first, it was slow going because there's really not much information about Jack the Ripper out there, anywhere. In fact, the only information I found for awhile was that he liked to go by the nickname 'Saucy Jack.' But I'm a fairly deductive person, you know? So even though there's not much concrete to learn, I'm pretty good at kind of connecting the dots. I mean, if someone says one thing, and then someone else says something that's not totally related, I can usually come up with some way of connecting them, if I think hard enough. Oh- and thank God for the World Book Encyclopedia! I skimmed that Patricia Cornwell book, too, but I was having some trouble following what that Kay Scarpetta woman was talking about, so I kind of just gleaned as much information as I could from the Amazon reader reviews."

These intense study sessions, assisted by local history buff Josh Mowler, 29, would often last far into the night, with bi-weekly research jaunts taking the young visionaries to such far-flung locations as Cancun, Maui, the Virgin Islands, and Jamaica. Supportive fiancee Witherman reports that, after several months of unrelenting anthropological work that would often find Swarmworthy returning home with "study burns" on her knees and elbows, she finally began to draw up plans for her museum.


"I wanted the Jack the Ripper Museum to be a place with lots of interactiveness as well as furious educational content," Swarmworthy opines, sipping slowly from her third whiskey sour of the morning. "So even though you've got lots of exhibits that try to realistically create, for instance, how the Johnny Depp character discovered that the guy from Lord of the Rings was lying, you've also got a bunch of fun surprises disseminated throughout the museum. Even though there's obviously nothing good about murders, I think it's okay to have a little fun with the situation. So we've got things like a few fake elevators that open to reveal an empty shaft. Kind of to re-create those elevator shafts that Jack the Ripper- allegedly- pushed all those women down in his so-called 'castle' at 63rd and Wallace [Streets].

"Of course, we've installed special safety mats about two feet down each shaft, so if someone does accidentally step inside, the worst they'll do is maybe twist an ankle or something."

Having secured a building permit from the Boston City Council, and having appropriated $5.8 million in funds earmarked for "educational services" by the State of Massachusetts, Swarmworthy then drew up plans for a museum that would follow the twisted tale of Jack the Ripper from his earliest days through his crowning achievement as a wanted killer. The towering, four-story complex is, on the outside, a faithful re-creation of late-19th century Bostonian architecture, from the spiralling Tudor precipices to the minimalistic Baroque gargoyles that flank the glass sliding doors of the entryway. (Powered by an "electric eye," the doors part as soon as a visitor comes near. As a spook-tacular bonus designed to get visitors in the mood for terror, maniacal laughter- borrowed from the opening to the song "Wipeout"- blares from two nearby speakers as patrons pass through the entrance.)

On the inside, Swarmworthy's creation is a labrynth of "hands-on" activities, multimedia presentations, and wax exhibits that recall nothing so much as the surreal candyland of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, albeit with a dark edge. In one corner, the Walt Disney film Alice in Wonderland plays on an endless loop, in reference to Alice author Lewis Carroll, who is widely suspected of being Jack the Ripper. In the main hallway, a large mural has been created from an enlarged Edward Gorey cartoon, with the characters' names meticulously replaced, by Swarmworthy, by names of various suspects and victims of the killings. ("I always thought his cartoons looked kind of like they could be about Jack the Ripper or something," she explains.) In the gift shop, one can purchase sets of scented stationery that feature a letterhead photocopied from the infamous "Ripper Letters" that were sent to the Central News Agency. ("Dear Editor- This is the murderer of the 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman & the girl on the 4th of July near the golf course in Vallejo.") With forensic science becoming a popular fascination in our country, spurred on by last fall's sleeper television hit C.S.I., the Jack the Ripper Museum is a veritable playground for anyone looking to be entertained while attempting to unravel the mysteries of a heinous string of homicides.


Unfortunately, all has not been smooth sailing as the museum rolls toward its opening day, with some historians- including Swarmworthy's own brother-in-law Hamilton- calling "foul" regarding some of the exhibits.

"Look," Hamilton, 32, sniffs, "it's bad enough that much of the original evidence in the Ripper killings was lost or destroyed since it was originally gathered- in London, I might add- but it's flat-out irresponsible to cobble together a bunch of half-understood theories, dubious 'facts,' and references to events that are either anachronistic or just creations of some flibbertigibbet's imagination, and declare the whole mess 'educational.' Angela is actively making people dumber here."

Among the museum's features that Hamilton considers inappropriate is a fanciful display entitled "Catharine Eddowes' Dog: The murders through the eyes of a woman's best friend!" Beneath a wall-mounted daguerreotype of a cheerful-looking St. Bernard, Swarmworthy has written a monologue, meant to represent the thoughts of a fictitious dog belonging to Eddowes, a prostitute who was among the Ripper's victims. The opening paragraph is reproduced below:

"Rowf! Hi! I'm Twinkles the St. Bernard, and I used to live with a nice lady named Cathy With a C, until she got taken away by some mean old guy. I'm nine human years old, which makes me 55 in dog years! I practically qualify for AARP now! (Or would that be AARD?) Of course, living back in the 1920s, there aren't many types of cool toys for me to play with; I don't have any rubber squeaky shoes or cute plush toys shaped like fire hydrants or anything like that. But I looooooooooooove to play with this nifty musket ball that my owner found for me! I'm a happy little guy most of the time, but the only thing I don't like is when Cathy tries to dress me up in these outfits that she thinks are just adorable but sometimes make me squirm a little. For last Memorial Day, she tried to put this leather apron on me that made me howl and howl like crazy! Once, the c--t [censored for community standards reasons -Ed.] even tried to put a hat on me! But I know she loves me anyway! In fact, one time I got spraied [sic] by a skunk and my owner was up all night with me, giving me a tomato juice bath!!!!!"

Hamilton summarizes his complaints as follows: "I don't know where to begin in order to describe all that is tasteless, inaccurate, and nonsensical about the dog exhibit, but I suppose I should start by asking- or, rather, simply wondering aloud, because I'm certain she shan't come up with a coherent response- why my sister-in-law felt it necessary to use, er, the 'C Word' a mind-boggling 36 times in six paragraphs of rambling that are supposedly representative of a dog's thoughts. Especially considering she's made so much noise about how this 'museum' is meant to be an educational facility for all ages. What parent is going to permit their kid to read tripe like that? But then, it's typical for her."

When confronted with these complaints, however, Swarmworthy refuses to let them get her down.

"I know it's a little weird to see 'c--t' so much, but the thing is, there's a word called 'zeitgeist' that I learned," she says. "It means 'old slang that they used at the time.' And even though I know you're not supposed to say 'c--t' that much nowadays unless you're talking about a really skanky girl or something, I guess it used to not be offensive at all. Since I really tried my best to use a lot of zeitgeist in the various displays at my museum, I had to admit to myself that there were going to be times that I'd have to do things that other people might not understand. It's all about accuracy, you know."


Upon being apprised of Swarmworthy's explanation, Hamilton begins sputtering and choking on the lozenge he'd been enjoying. After regaining his composure, he fumes, "Accuracy?! She's constructed an entire wing devoted to playing out insane 'What if...?' scenarios that are so outlandish they'd make Harry Turtledove renounce the art of alternative histories. 'What if Jack the Ripper had a rich, famous twin who switched places with him for the killings?' 'What if the victims had shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue?' Most of them involve fashion in some way, as a matter of fact, and I fail to see how changing the outfits of slit-throated paper dolls helps to unravel the enigma of Jack the Ripper.

"Even the restaurant on the third floor is an abomination! Angela claims that it's an authentic replica of a tavern of the sort that Jack might have frequented, and while I'm sure that absinthe was indeed a popular drink at drinking establishments at the time, I sincerely doubt the beverage was consumed from novelty mugs reading, 'I got ripped with the Ripper.' And poor-quality novelty mugs at that! I wound up with five huge, metal slivers in my hand after taking a drink! Slivers! From a pewter mug!"

Nitpicking aside, however, Swarmworthy remains upbeat about her labor of love. "I don't claim to have all the answers, you know. That's part of the fun of Jack the Ripper: no one has all the answers! It's a... [lengthy pause], it's an eternal mystery, like who built the pyramids or what happened to Charles Lindbergh. But I figure that if I can help just one person figure things out, then all of this will have been worth it."

As for the theory subscribed to by Swarmworthy herself? "Well, I've done a lot of reading over the past year, trying to sort things out for myself, and even though, like I said, I'm not certain of anything... I'm pretty sure that Jack the Ripper really did kill those women."

The grand opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum and Irregular Crib Outlet will be held on July 24 at 7:00 PM. Parking is available behind the Kosher deli next door, but a minimum purchase of $5.00 is required. Attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony will be a confused Kelly Ripa, who is apparently under the impression that the museum is honoring her in some way.

CURRENT MOOD: Angry. If I buy a "factory sealed" set of My So-Called Life DVDs on half.com, it's maddening beyond words to receive a banged-up set with a crappy home shrink-wrap job, containing two copies of the second disc and zero copies of the third disc.
Eddie Bike Shorts. (Runners-up: Jon Stiletto and Ashleigh Pants.)
8:54 PM.

Doot? | |

Tuesday, June 17, 2003:

Tonight, I had to go buy Lorenzo a graduation gift, so I went to The Somerset Collection, or "Haughty McSnooterville," as I call it. It's a sprawling, triple-decker mall in Troy that caters to rich suburban kids with unlimited trust funds and their insufferable parents. I hate it there. Granted, it's a logical destination if you're looking for some nice clothes or you're in the mood to fiddle with all the cool gadgets at Brookstone, but rare are the moments when either of those pursuits is enough to override my distaste for swarms of kicking, squealing Abercrombie little piggies, and my head often feels as though it's going to cave in under the pressure of electromagnetic waves bouncing off the walls from 10,000 simultaneous cell phone conversations.

Part of me feels hypocritical for saying that, given that I've lived in Troy for practically 20 years and I'm certainly no bohemian myself (although that hasn't put a crimp in the activities of that other youth-culture faction I despise: the rich suburban kids who affect hipster, bohemian attitudes and look down on the Somerset kids, even though the pseudo-bohos still drive around in cars their parents bought them and talk on cell phones their parents pay for... seemingly without seeing the contradiction, or at least not caring about it, which is perhaps more horrifying). And I really don't have a knee-jerk bias against people who just want to buy nice things, or are interested in fashion, etc. When you get right down to it, an obsession with fashion is really no different from, say, my brother's obsession with sports, and I've learned to find that charming.

What bothers me is the attitude displayed by a lot of these people. That self-absorbed, "I've got mine" way of looking at the world, and not ever giving a thought to anything outside of their safe little circle of organized soccer games and "scrapbooking" and midlife crisis luxury cars. It's all about immediate gratification, and a lot of them (men especially) act like they've vastly improved society and made some great humanitarian gesture if they tip their waitress 20% at Bahama Breeze. And then they go back to voting Republican, on some vague notion that they've just demonstrated proof that trickle-down economics works.

There's an area of wetlands less than a mile from my house, which is home to a bunch of really cool animals that you don't ordinarily find in the suburbs. Deer and turtles and woodchucks and I think there's an endangered species of frog in there too. It's awesome. And it's being turned into a golf course. When this proposition was introduced, one member of the Troy City Council actually said- and I wish I could find the exact quotation, but this is close- "Troy does not need a wetlands. Troy needs another golf course."

Not a golf course, mind you: another golf course. One that is to be located literally one mile from the already existing Sylvan Glen Country Club, which is, in turn, located literally one mile from yet another already existing country club whose name escapes me. (Technically, that other golf course is in Rochester Hills, so it's not directly filling Troy's coffers, but still, it's right there.) Now there's going to be a third golf course, and its construction is displacing a bunch of animals who've lived happy, undisturbed lives for years until this point. In the past couple weeks, I've been noticing a bunch of really cool animals that you don't ordinarily find in the suburbs- deer and turtles and woodchucks- smashed on the side of the road, in locations they would never have wandered to if they hadn't been forced out of their homes. So a few people can get richer and a few more people won't have to wait as long for a tee time at the other two golf courses in the area.

That's the attitude displayed by a good portion of Somerset's clientele. Not to sound overly dramatic or self-righteous or arrogant, but if you look into their eyes, you'll see no awareness of or concern for anyone else in the world but themselves. These are the people who, after the September 11 attacks, said, "Oh, how awful" for a couple days and then went right back to huffily sighing when cashiers didn't attend to their special, all-important needs as quickly as desired. On a larger level, these upper-class feelings of entitlement- that they deserve anything they want- are symptomatic, in large part, of why this country is such a mess. These are the people who wouldn't give two shits whether the entire population of Iraq lives or dies by the hand of our government, so long as it doesn't affect their travel time at the airport. These are the people whose votes and political loyalty can be bought for a $300-per-household tax refund, even as their candidate is screwing over millions upon millions of those less fortunate than themselves.

Again, not everyone who's wealthy is a bad person. I really don't think there's anything inherently evil-producing about having money or being privileged or anything, so long as you recognize that you're lucky to be in that situation, and by no stretch of the imagination are you entitled to it. (It would be nice if these people decided to share some of their wealth with the less fortunate- as many of them do- and I certainly don't think that Bush's administration needs to be so enthusiastically widening the gap between "rich" and "poor," but I'm just saying: having stuff doesn't make you evil.) And not all Somerset patrons are bad people. Hell, most of my close friends shop there semi-regularly. "Bad people" isn't even a term I should be using, because obviously everyone has some good in him somewhere. But sometimes it seems like you could draw a fairly straight line showing an inverse corrolation between the amount of money one has and his position on Kohlberg's moral development ladder. In this city, anyway. It's not the money that bothers me; it's how little people seem to appreciate what they have, and how fervently they cling to their underbaked survival-of-the-fittest philosophies, and what soulless bastards they turn out to be as a result.

Blah. Tired of writing and this is going nowhere anyway. Basically, everyone bugs me, with about 20 exceptions.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Isness by Future Sound of London.
Pushing the mysterious "Degauss" button on my monitor to watch it flicker amusingly. I hope I'm not, you know, setting off the beeper of some guy named Degauss every time I do it, because I have no clue what's actually happening.
10:07 PM.

Doot? | |

I had a dream last night that I was playing a Save Jessica Lynch videogame. Even in my dream, I was cracking up, because it was obviously the most cheaply cobbled-together cash-in product ever created. It was a really old-school, NES game in which your pixelated character ran across a battlefield, confronted with laser-wielding aliens, angry mutants in football helmets, and, ultimately, Ganon from The Legend of Zelda in an effort to save Miss Lynch from her captors. If you failed in your mission (as I did, because I suck at videogames even in my unconscious mind), Jessica became Ganon's willing concubine. I actually laughed myself awake, but this was that rare time that the cause of it was actually funny in real life!

TIME: 7:28 AM.

Doot? | |

Monday, June 16, 2003:

We received 820 copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at the store today. I amused myself by writing disclaimers on all the boxes until I was informed that our district manager is going to come check up on our progress (i.e., to make sure we didn't open any of the boxes before Friday night, since Barnes & Noble is contractually obligated to leave them sealed) and she is notoriously humorless, so I should probably stop. I got through about 30. Anyway, not to toot my own funny horn, but I was pretty happy with some of them, so I thought I'd list a few:

· "Hermione dies at the end!"
· "Watch for the Worldwide Qidditch Tournament this summer on ESPN2, hosted by an embarrassed Keith Jackson!"
· "Requires use of Scholastic brand retinal implants to read."
· "Manufactured by authentic Uzbekistani political prisoners!"
· "Layaway available."
· "Dude, that Hagrid guy is totally a stoner."
· "Look for the film version, due in 2025, starring an in-and-out-of-rehab Daniel Radcliffe!"
· "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first commercially-available book imprinted with the U.S. Justice Department's new 'We know where you live' tracking chip! 'Don't resist, you terrorist!'"
· "Collector's edition approved by Anton LaVey: 'It's witchcrafterrific!'"
· "I wouldn't have thought the Granger family would resort to cannibalism so quickly."

I'm so funny.

CURRENT MUSIC: Internal Wrangler by Clinic.
Jokey, I guess.
A pirate walks into a bar, and he's got a huge steering wheel sticking out of his pants. The bartender says to him, "What's that steering wheel doing there? Isn't that annoying?" The pirate says, "Arrrrrr! It's drivin' me nuts!"
7:43 PM.

Doot? | |

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