​The undying fascination over Jack the Ripper

A foggy night in Victorian London ... just the sort of cover the murderous Jack the Ripper would have craved. Even as we prepare for the artificial frights of Halloween, a host of sleuths are investigating the very real terror that gripped London so many years ago. Lee Cowan has been watching them at work:

Along the back alleys of London's East End, a booming business lurks in the dark. This isn't just for Halloween; this macabre gathering happens nightly -- a band of the curious, following in the very footsteps of London's Victorian villain, Jack the Ripper.

"Every night of the week, we're busy," said Mick Priestly, the gruesome guide.

And why does he think that is? "I think it's the mystery. And it's the environment he did it in -- the gas lamps, and the cobbles, and the Victorian London, the top hats, this kind of thing."

Of the killer's first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, Priestly said, "Somebody had cut her throat, deeply in a nine-inch injury that was met by a six-inch one running back underneath."

It's been 127 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized these streets. And yet for many, he's still hiding in history's shadows.

Hollywood has made the Ripper more myth than man -- top hat and cape, shrouded in fog, chased by the likes of Johnny Depp (in "From Hell").

But his crimes are savage in their brutality. His victims were the poor -- all women -- prostitutes who had taken to London's streets in desperation.

"When we talk about Jack the Ripper's murders, there is an element that we might fall into, situation where we really are glorifying violent acts against women. So we have to be a bit careful, I think," said Alex Werner of the Museum of London -- one place, he says, where Jack the Ripper should be on display.

Because unlike Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper was very real.

"It's one of the most famous crimes of all time," said Werner.

The murders took place in London's Whitechapel district in late 1888. It's unclear just how many women the Ripper claimed; most agree it was at least four, probably five -- but some say it could be more.

But it wasn't so much his gruesome tally that turned the Ripper into a commodity; it was his coverage in the press.

"For journalists especially, this was sort of like, 'Right, we're got something really juicy here to use to sell our newspapers,'" said Werner.

Rarely had a crime spree, complete with illustrations, sold papers quite the way Jack the Ripper sold papers.

"Some have called this the first modern crime as being consumed by readers all around the world," Werner said.

Letters sent to newspapers, purportedly written by the Ripper himself, pushed interest into hysteria.

But many believe some of the letters were actually written by journalists hoping to keep the story in the headlines.

Little did they know over a century later, he'd still be there. "As soon as somebody comes along that says, 'I found Jack the Ripper,' everybody wants to know about it, everybody's interested, and he's back in the news again," said Priestly.

There are hundreds of ideas about his true identity put forth by so-called Ripperologists that fill shelves of books. One theory is that he wasn't even a man at all, but a woman. Year after year, they keep on coming.

Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell got into the Ripper game when she claimed to have solved the case back in 2002. She pointed to DNA on one of the supposed Ripper letters, and traced it back to British painter Walter Sickert, who did in fact have an odd fascination with the Ripper, even painting what he titled "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom."