In the autumn of 1888 five prostitutes were brutally murdered in the Whitechapel district of East End London. There was no obvious motive and the women’s bodies had been mutilated, some with organs missing. This and the ensuing reactions to the crimes led the ‘Whitechapel fiend’ to be nicknamed ‘Jack the Ripper’. At the time, these ‘sex crimes’ that we are familiar with today, were virtually unknown giving rise to the belief that Jack the Ripper was the father of the modern-day serial killer and had led the way for crime as we know it in the twentieth century. Rather than focusing on the murders themselves, my essay will document and analyse the various reactions to these unsolved murders, by placing Jack’s crimes within the broader social context of Victorian London. I will also demonstrate how the prevailing attitudes of Victorian culture and the media of the time created and perpetuated the legend of Jack the Ripper that remains to this day.
Between 31st August and 9th November 1888, the brutal murders of five prostitutes were attributed to the one killer. His modus operandi involved strangulation or cutting of the throat, and the ‘laying open’ of the abdomen with what was presumed to be a long sharp knife similar to a post mortem knife used by surgeons. Viscera from the abdominal cavities was pulled out and arranged around the victims and some had all of, or portions of organs missing. All five murders occurred at night within a quarter of a mile of each other in the Whitechapel and Spitalfields parishes, with the exception of one body, which was found just within the boundaries of the City of London. Four of the murders were committed within the public space of poorly lit alleyways where time dictated the extent of the Ripper’s mutilations and darkness offered him cover from detection. In these four cases there was only a short amount of time between passers-by, in which the Ripper could commit his crimes and move on.
The fifth and last victim was the exception. Twenty-four year old Mary Kelly was the most horrifically violated owing to the fact that she was killed within the private confines of her single lodging room. With time on his side and no chance of being seen, the Ripper took out his fury on the pregnant Kelly, his youngest victim. Kelly was found with her throat and arm almost severed through, and her abdomen partially ripped open. Her entrails were missing and her liver was placed between her feet. Her forehead had been skinned and the flesh from her thighs and legs had been stripped and placed on the bedside table along with her nose and breasts, which had also been cut from her body. As a last defiant act, her hand on the arm that was left unsevered had been pushed into her stomach.
Such a violation as this, and to the previous victims, led to many debates on whether the killer’s methods displayed any anatomical skill or knowledge of the female body. Some believed that he was a mad doctor or surgeon, while others believed him to be a butcher or slaughterman with just enough knowledge to locate and remove certain organs. Other suspects included Jews or other foreigners, lunatics, local working men, and associates of the murdered women. Sir Melville Macnaghten, Assistant Chief Constable at Scotland Yard, and a highly regarded “contemporary guide” to the Whitechapel murders, put forward his opinion on three possible suspects in his official report to Scotland Yard. His memoranda outlined evidence against a doctor “of good family” who was sexually insane”, a misogynistic Polish Jew with “strong homicidal tendencies”, and a homicidal Russian doctor.
This frantic search for suspects revealed deep-seated prejudices against certain social classes and races and exposed weaknesses in the Metropolitan Police Force, which was unprepared to deal with crimes like these. The East End of London was gripped by panic and this exacerbated existing tensions with Jews and other foreigners, the police, and the upper classes of the West End. Owing to their geographical distance from the location of the murders, the West End was more fascinated than fearful of the Ripper. His crimes created a sensation and provoked long called-for social reforms in the debate over ‘Outcast London’. In addition, the Ripper renewed West End fears of “a social revolution on the part of the poor of the East End”. In order to understand these reactions, it is first necessary to understand Victorian culture in the City of London, as the social backdrop to the Ripper’s crimes.
During Queen Victoria’s reign, Britain experienced the massive social and economic upheavals that accompanied industrialisation. Victorian society was a paternalistic, property-owning society marked by rigid class divisions. The majority of wealth was concentrated in a relatively small upper class who had little sense of responsibility for those living in poverty. There was a puritanical conscience, and double standards in relation to gender and sexuality. Men and women lived in separate social spheres. The public sphere was very much a masculine domain, and women were expected to remain in the private sphere of their homes.
As Victoria’s Empire spread around the globe, the social conditions in London, the metropolitan centre, reflected the “economic uncertainty and heightened class tensions” of the time. The East End of London was separated “topographically from the rest of the metropolis as well as spiritually and economically”. Known at the time as ‘Outcast London’, the East End was the diseased blemish on the capital, and the shame of the British Empire. The landscape epitomised all of the social ills of the ‘other’ London and further instigated racial and class otherness. The East End was viewed by most Londoners “as a symbol of decadence, immorality, criminality, and poverty”. This negative perception “migrated from West to East” so that even East Enders resignedly accepted their living conditions as inevitable and inherent. The prevailing attitude was that poverty was a fact of life and was unlikely to change.
For the nine hundred thousand inhabitants of the East End, life consisted of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, lodging houses, workhouses, sweatshops, and brothels. Living day to day, many East Enders worked casually during the day to earn their ‘doss’ money for a bed in one of the many lodging houses at night. If a fourpence single bed couldn’t be afforded that night, then women could share a bed with a man in return for various favours, and men could opt for the twopence lean-to. This was “a rope stretched across the room for men to lean on… and sleep as best they could”.
Chronic under-employment left thousands of East Enders, particularly women, on the borderline of constant poverty. These women found it hard to reconcile the Victorian ideals of “motherhood and domesticity with the harsh realities of poverty and the need to earn a living”. However, an absence of factory work in London, and “a vast transitory population of sailors on shore leave, dock and building workers, recent unattached male immigrants, and slumming city men”, saw many women turn to prostitution. Even married women resorted to prostitution to help make ends meet when seasonal work was slow.
Prostitution was a contentious issue among Victorian commentators and there were “occasional outbursts of moral panic, when the authorities tried to address the problem”. Between 1864 and 1867, the Contagious Diseases Acts were passed, allowing police to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes, under the justification of preventing and controlling venereal disease. In actual fact, the fear of venereal disease was greater than actual infection and the legislation was aimed at protecting male clients and therefore their chaste wives. These sexual double standards saw prostitution and unmarried mothers as the targets of social reform rather than their male partners in ‘sin’. Cultural anxieties about a loss of social control were personified in the “fallen woman” and prostitution was inevitably used as a measure of poverty, public health, and social morality. It was against this backdrop that Jack the Ripper made his entrance. Economic necessity kept these women mostly alone on the streets late into the night, and it was due to their accessibility that the Ripper chose his victims from this class.
By 1888, there was intense debate over what to do with ‘Outcast London’. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, Jack the Ripper highlighted everything that was wrong with the neglected East End as well as many of the prevailing attitudes of Victorian England. He referred to the Ripper as “some independent genius” who had taken the matter in hand while everyone was wasting their time on “education, agitation and organisation”. Jack’s crimes “reinforced a whole series of larger long-standing concerns and preconceived notions” about class distinctions and race.
Poverty and an influx of Russian and German Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, led to social unrest in the East End. The belief that this “rising tide of Jewish immigration was reducing native Englishmen to destitution led to an increase in popular anti-Semitism”. This anti-Semitism found its expression in “a deliberate attempt to connect the Jews with the Whitechapel murders”. Some writing found on a wall in Goulston Street shortly after one of the bodies was found, stated that “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing”. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren washed it off before sunrise, in order to prevent “an onslaught upon the Jews”. It was not known whether the Ripper had written the words, but Warren stated in his report to the Home Secretary that it was “evidently written with the intention of inflaming the public mind against the Jews”.
Tensions between the East End and the upper classes of the West End were also heightened. Just a year earlier, many unemployed workers and vagrants had started to regularly camp out in Trafalgar Square, with charities supplying them with food and clothing. Sir Charles Warren’s efforts to clear the ‘scum’ from the city, were met with resistance by a huge mob of armed demonstrators which resulted in the battle of ‘Bloody Sunday’ on 13th November 1887 in Trafalgar Square. The West End feared that the panic brought on by the Whitechapel murders would result in another of these uprisings. The working class resentment toward Sir Charles Warren and the police force surfaced again during the murders. Although “hundreds of extra police were drafted in to patrol the streets of Whitechapel”, the Ripper remained at large, causing tensions and fear to rise.
The Metropolitan Police Force had no previous experience with murder without any obvious motive, and was therefore ill prepared to catch the Ripper. The lack of witnesses and any real clues further complicated matters, and the police force were under constant attack for being incompetent and calls for Sir Warren to resign. One contemporary New York Times journalist proclaimed that “the London police and detective force is probably the stupidest in the world”, while another suggested that the police force did nothing but observe secrecy, which could be “easily melted with half a crown, by the way”.
The police also received around a thousand letters of advice from the public each week, with suggestions on how to catch the Ripper and also with ideas on his identity. One woman, obviously influenced by Edgar Allen Poe, believed the Ripper was actually a large ape escaped from a wild beast show, while others believed he was a foreigner who was trying to overthrow the Empire, or a member of the upper class who was trying to rid the city of lower class ‘scum’. Suggestions on how to catch the killer ranged from disguising policemen as women, rigging alarm bells at thirty foot intervals around Whitechapel, and arming prostitutes with revolvers. Perhaps the most useful suggestion, which was echoed by many social reformers, was to improve the bad street lighting in East End streets and alleys. The poor lighting would have allowed the blood-covered killer to walk the streets without attracting the attention of passers-by.
Poor street lighting, just as one sign of the neglect of ‘Outcast London’, had far reaching effects. It contributed to the image of Whitechapel as the ‘East End Murderland’, and as a space for crime to flourish. The press played up this sense of place, piecing together Jack the Ripper narratives against the social and moral backdrop of urban degradation. The fact that the crimes involved sexual mutilation gave rise to their notoriety and ensured that the press were provided with the most sensational of stories. However, due to the lack of historical precedents for the murders, newspaper reports resorted to fiction and the fantastic as references.
This was especially the case across the Atlantic in New York City. Owing to their safe distance from the Ripper, their newspaper reports used sensationalism to entertain readers fascinated with the mystery of Jack the Ripper, and were not concerned with accuracy. Journalists peppered their articles with descriptions of Jack as “a bloodthirsty beast in human shape”  with “the cool cunning… of a monomaniac”. The victims were described as “wretched women” and streetwalkers “of the lowest class”. The press were repeatedly blamed for instigating panic, yet newspaper reports were the only way of informing the London public about what was happening. British reports were more factual in order to try and alleviate fears. The Ripper is hardly mentioned, and the victims were described more respectfully as “the unfortunate woman” who was “somewhat addicted to drink” and who had “supported herself as best as she could”.
During the height of the murders, the police, members of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee and the Central News Agency, were inundated with letters claiming to be from the killer. Only three were taken seriously, one of which was the first to be signed ‘Jack the Ripper’. The press published these letters, and presuming they were authentic, they allowed Jack to satiate his desire for recognition by speaking to a mass audience. The public were both fascinated with and fearful of his jeering letters, which heightened the mystery, added to the sensationalism surrounding the murders, and threatened the social order of London.
Jack’s legend is still alive more than a century later, evidenced by the numerous books, films, television documentaries, and even journals (The Ripperologist and Ripperana) dedicated to him, “almost always with the aim of identifying the killer”. The attraction for most researchers or ‘Ripperologists’ is the “elusiveness of a true solution” to the mystery, which many hope may be possible with the technological abilities of today. Crime novelist, Patricia Cornwell, has joined the search with her conviction that painter Walter Richard Sickert was in fact Jack the Ripper, based on a series of paintings he did twenty years after the murders. She has spent $4 million buying up his paintings and other belongings in order for them to be forensically tested. Nothing has been found yet to tie Sickert to the crimes, and many have attacked Cornwell for destroying his paintings in her obsession to solve the mystery.
Regardless of whether the Ripper’s true identity is ever discovered, his legacy has lasted to the present day, acting as a symbol for the social ills of any modern society. At the time, his crimes shocked the Western world, which had never seen or had to comprehend such gruesome crimes with no obvious motive. In this way he is generally regarded as the first serial killer in the modern sense. While searching for suspects and for meaning behind the murders, many prevailing attitudes and prejudices rose to the surface for examination. Jack the Ripper highlighted many of the problems in Victorian society and instigated debate over social reform, particularly in relation to the social conditions in East End London. Even today, research on his crimes have “shed considerable light on a range of late Victorian institutions, from the police to the press” as well as prostitution and the role of women in Victorian society. It was the rarity of his grotesque crimes and the various reactions to them that have added to the Ripper’s infamy, and the fact that this mystery has remained unsolved, has created a legend around the name ‘Jack the Ripper’.