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Jack the Ripper: What's in a Name?
by Paul Begg
There are a number of people throughout history whose names have become part of everyday speech, and the anonymous murderer known to us as Jack the Ripper is one. Another example is Hobson in the expression "Hobson's choice." This expression, commonly used in Britain, means accepting what you are given or what you are doing without. In other words, having no choice. The term derives from 16th century Cambridge stable-keeper Thomas Hobson. This man hired out his horses in strict rotation, so you either accepted the animal nearest the door or didn't hire a horse at all. Thomas Hobson is one of a select group of people who have given their name to a deed, thing, or type of behavior. Similarly, Giacomo Casanova gave his name to a seducer. Niccolo Machiavelli has given his name to duplicity, deception, and a preference for expediency to morality, a type of behavior we also recognize in the catchphrase, "The ends justify the means." In terms of hatwear, William Bowler lent his name to a type of hat also referred to as a "billycock hat"-a term that crops up in the descriptions given by witnesses in the Whitechapel murders. To my knowledge, Jack the Ripper is the only murderer among this illustrious and select group of people whose names have become commonplace in the English language.
The use of the name "Jack the Ripper" in an allusive sense began soon after the murders. On 7 March 1890, the Pall Mall Gazette referred to a "Jack the Ripper outrage at Moscow." In Cocktails (1919), the story of a Royal Flying Corps officer in World War I, C. P. Thompson wrote, "If only the officer would let him have a whack at her over the open sights, he'd do the Jack-the-ripper act on her in half a tick."
In the Max Hayward and Manya Harari translation of Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago (Collins & Harvill Press, 1958), one of the characters says, "I expected to see a bashi-bazook or a revolutionary Jack the Ripper, but he was neither."
H. Carmichael in Stranglehold in 1959 wrote, "I had to obtain a Home Office permit. And in case you still think I'm Jack the Ripper, here it is." A. E. Lindop in Journey into Stone (1973) "There's a lousy fog._ It's a Jack the Ripper's paradise." In the World War II movie, The Longest Day, two soldiers are bitching about their commanding officer, played by John Wayne, who had been riding them rather hard. One soldier observes in mitigation, "He knows his job." To the other soldier this was no mitigation at all. "So did Jack the Ripper," he replies.
In the first episode of the British television comedy series Only When I Laugh, which is set in a hospital ward, the character Roy Figgis (James Bolam) welcomes a new patient to the "Jack the Ripper ward."
And so it goes on. Reference after reference showing how Jack the Ripper very quickly entered the public imagination and has come to represent something to the common psyche.
In all these instances, the name Jack the Ripper conveyed a meaning which was not dependent on knowing anything about the deeds of the person behind the name. Just as it isn't necessary to know that Machiavelli was a Florentine politician who is today often called "the father of modern political theory" to know what "machiavellian" means, it isn't necessary to know what Jack the Ripper did for his name to convey a clear and precise meaning. What is important to note is that none of the references to Jack the Ripper say who he was or what he did. And they didn't need to. It didn't matter. Jack had become an image. He was undefined evil, the grownup version of the bogey-man of childhood, the thing that lurked in the shadows.
The Ripper was important in Police history, of course, and, in 1894, Chief Inspector John Littlechild indicated the immense weight accorded the crimes by Scotland Yard when he listed the Ripper crimes along with the Fenian dynamite conspiracies and the Great Turf Frauds (in which senior C.I.D. officers were shown to be corrupt) as crimes of the greatest importance to Scotland Yard. The Ripper therefore features in several police memoirs, albeit often mentioned in passing, as by Littlechild. The crimes were also kept alive by various journalists, notably the many references by George R. Sims.
No book-length examination of the crimes in English appeared until 1929, when Leonard Matters wrote an account in which he advanced the pseudonymous "Dr. Stanley" as the Ripper. Then ten years passed before another book appeared. In the meantime, it was the "image" of the Ripper which continued to attract attention, largely through Mrs Belloc Lowndes' novel The Lodger and the many stage and film adaptations of it which have appeared over the years, including a 1926 movie by Alfred Hitchcock.
Not until the late 1950s and more particularly the 1970s did the mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity come to the forefront of the public mind, first with Daniel Farson's "discovery" of what is now called the Macnaghten Memoranda written by Sir Melville Macnaghten in 1894 and then with the Royal conspiracy theory advanced first by Thomas Stowell and later by Joseph Sickert--a theory that was given great currency by the best-selling book by Stephen Knight, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976).