Jack the Ripper: A Twenty-First Century Investigation?
by Jennifer Pegg
Does Ripperology respect women? Since the lives of at least five murdered women are involved in the field of study it is important to consider how women are viewed by it. I am concerned about what the established views of the field as a whole show us about our collective understanding of the events that we are researching and in turn how this reflects back on us. I find myself wondering if Ripperology can truly be described as a Twenty-First Century investigation.
Before I go on I feel a pressing need to point out that I am talking here about Ripperology in a broad sense, not about the individual Ripperologists who make up the field or criticising their own opinions or values. In fact I have met many Ripperologists both in person and online and in the main I actually like them all. Moreover, the quotations I have used throughout this piece are purely to make points about the whole field; they are in no way directed against the individuals who made them.
Coming to Terms with Ripperology
"Ripperology and Ripperologist. Terms coined by Colin Wilson for expertise and experts on Jack the Ripper" Begg, Fido and Skinner (1996, pp374)
So, what's in a name? The first thing that can be said about the term Ripperology is that it suggests a field of study centred on Jack the killer, who is almost universally presumed to be a male. As the name of the field is based on the name of the killer it makes no reference to his female victims. Therefore it indicates that what is being studied is the killer himself, his motives, his methods and his identity.
As the word Ripperology gives importance to the killer himself over any other factor then it must imply that he is the most compelling and important aspect for study. Yet, it can be argued that the term removes from the field of study any reference to the female victims or their suffering. In this sense, it renders the suffering of women as historically unproblematic and normal leaving the female victims as unimportant afterthoughts in terms of what is to be studied. Since the killer is what is deemed to be historically important then it is male violence that has necessarily been considered worthy of study.
Using a word such as Ripperology suggests that looking for Jack and finding his identity is more important than establishing causes of violence against women or understanding what social, cultural and economic factors could have led to their deaths. In doing so it hides the murdered women from the view of the historian and so reduces their historical importance. At the same time it gives their killer increased social status and historical importance by establishing for him a group of people whose role it is to determine his identity beyond all doubt. As a field we spend almost all of our time on studying him. Ripperology says (albeit inadvertently) that killing women is a good way to gain notoriety and fame.
All this leaves the term Ripperology in an uncomfortable and problematic place. Of course Ripperology is only a word, but I believe it illustrates a wider problem in the field about what we are studying and why and so this is why it is a good starting point for coming to terms with Ripperology as a whole.
"Can we ever hope to discover the identity of a man whose crimes were committed over a century ago?" Casebook, Mission Statement
"Women were significantly marginalised from the public telling of the story" Walkowitz (1992, pp 192)
Ripperology as a field is about, in the vast majority of cases, the hunt for the elusive male killer. Take some of the works in the field in recent years, films like From Hell, books like Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer, Trevor Marriot's Jack the Ripper: A Twenty First Century Investigation and Euan Macpherson's The Trial of Jack the Ripper, all of these are designed to attract attention. They say "I am worthy of attention as I will reveal the identity of Jack the Ripper and in so doing solve the identity of the world's most famous killer". It is the solving of the case that is the compelling and noteworthy aspect and it is the solution that informs the rest of the study in the field since it is viewed as what is necessary and what is important (consider titles like Knight's Final Solution, Cornwell's Case Closed or Feldman's Final Chapter).
The vast majority of Ripperology is focused on finding out who Jack the Ripper was and on studying his methods and motivations in order to uncover the truth of his identity (by definition the Holy Grail of Ripper studies). It does not concern itself primarily with issues that relate to the women directly, their position in society and the social, cultural and economic reasons for their deaths. Importantly it does not question, in the main, how these women came to be in the position to meet their end in such a brutal manner.
A substantial amount of Jack the Ripper books are suspect based. This focus on Jack rather than his victims can be seen online too, for example, on the archived Casebook message boards the suspect threads outnumber the victim threads by two to one. It is not just in these threads that it can be said that Ripperology is giving its primary focus and majority of attention to the hunt for Jack the Ripper rather than on anything else. Take the Casebook thread 'Goulston Street Graffito- All right, then…another poll', this is focused specifically on whether or not Jack wrote the wall writing. The wall writing is important not from a cultural aspect but only in terms of what it can tell us about the killer.
What of the Casebook victim threads themselves, are these threads safe from the all important hunt for the killer? Here are some examples of why they are not:-
'Annie Chapman - Hanbury Street' (I chose this thread in part because I started it myself and I don't want anyone to think I am picking on them!) This thread is about
"[W]ere the Ripper and Annie supposed to [h]ave got into Hanbury St via a side passage? But Mrs upstairs said she didnt hear anyone go under all night. ( Is this right so far!?) (But jnr said he knew people had been hanging around the yard?)"
(J D Pegg, 14th January 2006)
'Annie Chapman - Did [he] Wedge her in There? How big was he?' This thread is about
"As crazy as it sounds he must have slit her throat in that narrow little space with no elbow room. I can't get around the blood spatters.
I wonder if this tells us anything about his size."
(Diana, 19th May 2006)
'Catherine Eddowes - Eddowes body in relation to the gate'. This thread is about
"If you look at the sketch of Eddowes in situ in Mitre Square, you'll note that her head is towards the gate, obviously too far away for her to have been leaning against it! Her legs are pointing towards the exit into Mitre Street at the south-eastern corner of Mitre Square.
Given that they probably entered the Square from the north-east, i.e. Church Passage, they had already walked past the yard gate when she was struck down, apparently from behind. This suggests that she/they were about to exit Mitre Square at which point Kate was slain."
(Sam Flynn, 13th May 2006)
It is what the victims' bodies and murders can tell us about Jack himself that is of primary importance here. Consider the following sentence from Trevor Marriott (2005, pp76) 'Annie Chapman's murder shows that her killer was taking an enormous risk, as people would have been moving about the streets and back yards at that time', as a further example of this.
Ripperology is also a man hunt in a second and perhaps more immediately apparent way, in that it is a hunt by men. Of course I would be wrong to suggest that it was a hunt by only men and so I make it clear this is not what I am doing as there are women interested in the subject (myself amongst them). What I am suggesting is that it is a hunt that is dominated by men. There are significantly fewer women with published books to their names. A published book demonstrates who is passing on knowledge about the case to the general public and this is passing on of knowledge is a predominately male affair. The information that is considered to be important and the culture that is constructed around the case have been decided and created overwhelmingly by men. Take books published on Jack the Ripper in the years since 2000 as an example, the Casebook Ripper Media section indicates that there were 55 books published on the subject in this time. It shows that of these books 46 were written by men and 6 were written by women (while 3 were authored jointly by men and women). Furthermore, there are currently no female editors of Jack the Ripper based periodicals. Whilst of the main articles written in the three ripper magazines/periodicals whose contents are listed on the Casebook (that is Ripper Notes, the Whitechapel Society 1888 Journal and Ripperologist) in the period between March 2005 and March 2006 an overwhelming 85 were written by men compared to 13 by women. At the last four Jack the Ripper conferences there have been 25 male speakers (or book/product launches) and only 6 female speakers and the Baltimore 2004 conference saw no female speakers at all. Since 1995 the Whitechapel Society 1888 (formerly the Cloak and Dagger Club), according to its website, has had 58 speakers and of these only 5 were female.
I'm not saying there is a conscious or deliberate attempt to stifle the views of women. What I am suggesting is that this male dominance is indicative of the way that knowledge about the murders and what is considered to be important about them is constructed and perpetuated. As this knowledge is mainly constructed by men then it is men who set the agenda for what is and is not appropriate to be studied. This means we can say that Ripperology predominates as a hunt for a man by men.
Just Another Victim?
"The throat had been cut twice and the heart stopped because of loss of blood from those injuries" Plimmer (1998, pp 36).
"Her intestines may have been pulled out and tossed aside as the Ripper groped in the dark for her uterus" Cornwell (2002, pp 202).
Within the case the victims are not usually viewed as people, with lives of historical interest, but rather they are seen as objects that are to be studied. As they are the objects rather than subjects of study their human importance is devalued. This objectification affects the way that the field sees the victims in terms of the relative merits of studying their lives and the social, cultural and economic conditions that led to their deaths as compared to other factors, in particular studying the killer himself. When the predominately male gaze looks at the dead bodies of these women it is the woman's body that is of interest rather than the woman herself. As it is the female who is being gazed upon by the male then it is the male who holds the power since it is he who determines what it is about her that is seen, what it is about her that is of note and what it is about her that is of importance - if anything.
Little attention is paid to the suffering of women in the discourse of study of Ripperology. Though descriptions of the acts of violation against the victims of Jack the Ripper exist, they are usually not empathetic and at worst they are a gore fest or even a clinical description of destruction. These descriptions often pay no attention at all to the suffering that he inflicted on these women; it is as though their suffering is non existent. This renders the suffering that violent male crime brought to vulnerable women as unimportant and insignificant by suggesting that it is not even worthy of notice. If the injuries suffered by these women are of interest, it is not because they help us to empathise with and understand the suffering of the victims but because of what these injuries can tell us about the killer himself. They are of interest because they shed light on how he operated, how medically skilled he was, what type(s) of knife he used, why he chose to take certain organs or why he acted in a certain way.
With the focus on the killer there is less time and energy to spend on the suffering of women, on the lives of the women or on the impact of their deaths on society as a whole. There is no time to look at the conditions that they found themselves in or why. In fact, there is no time to take more than a passing interest in any aspect of their lives at all.
We speak sometimes of the search for the killer as a way of finding justice for the victims. But is this really the case? What about the changing and ever controversial list of Jack the Ripper's victims and what this can tell us about our supposed quest for justice? If you are on the list then you are considered by the field to be more important, more worthy of study and interest, than if you are not. Not being on the list removes the victims of male violence from the view of history. It makes these women just another prostitute who died and so finding their killer and achieving justice for them is rendered unimportant. Indeed, it is not an objective of the field. Therefore, the victims are only important in the way that they relate to the killer himself - they are not viewed as important in themselves.
An Eye to the Future
"The majority of written works on the murders tend to be factual accounts bound together with some theory as to the identity of the killer" Malcolm (2005, pp 114).
The more that I think about it the more I feel that I have stumbled, rather unfortunately, onto a truth about 'Ripperology' that is not pretty. This is that it, if unintentionally, both on a cultural level and as a discourse, gives male violence credit at the expense of women. Let me reiterate that this does not mean that I am not calling any single person a 'bad woman hating sexist' or saying this is their reason for entering the field (indeed, if I were I would be saying these things about myself!)
Ripperology is a product not of the Twenty-First Century but of a time that is long gone and so it can evolve and change. It can now place the women as the people of central importance in the case rather than their unknown and sadly un-captured killer. The field is not stagnant and never has been and there have been major changes in thinking in recent years so why not then a change in focus and emphasis?
A change of approach that considers the women of primary importance could be achieved. We could look together to see the social, cultural and economic factors that led to their deaths and to see the way the lives of these women had an affect on the lives of women in the future. In doing so we could no longer be charged with glamorising either female suffering or male violence.
'Jack the Ripper' took the lives of these women and in doing so attacked their womanhood. 'Jack' was, and remains, a coward who exploited the most vulnerable people in society. These were people who did not want or choose to be exploited or vulnerable but who found themselves to be so nonetheless. Is the truth of the matter not that, whilst society and 'Jack' exploited these women in life, in death we have inadvertently condemned them to a continuing and continuous exploitation? That whilst 'Jack' destroyed the victims in a physical sense, we have, though inadvertently, destroyed the very notion of seeing them as real people?
Your natural reaction to all this is probably defensive; this is my reaction when the field is criticised, but all I ask is that you stop and think about what it is that you are defending and why. After all, I write this not from the outside, looking critically at something which I do not understand, but rather from inside the field, a field that I have been involved with and interested in all my adult life, a field that I spend a considerable amount of my spare time on and one where I have met a significant number of people whom I now call my friends. Yet, it is from this position that I feel that there is something for us to come to terms with, even if this is an uncomfortable process.
When you wake up tomorrow, wouldn't you rather it be to a field that could not be charged with these things I have mentioned? I know we could do better by simply thinking more about what we do and say as a field and why we do it. I know that by considering these dead women better we could be a better field. I cannot change the field but the way I see our field has changed and in turn this must affect how I approach it and what I say and do within it.
With thanks to Don Souden and Jane Coram for their help and advice.
Begg, P., Fido, M. and Skinner, K. (1996) The Jack the Ripper A-Z, revised edition, London, Headline.
Cornwell, P (2002) Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed, London, Little Brown.
Macpherson, E (2005) The Trial of Jack the Ripper: The Case of William Bury (1859 - 89), Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing.
Malcolm, J (2005) The Whitechapel Murders of 1888: A Subjective Look into the Mystery and Manipulation of a Victorian Tragedy.
Marriott, T. (2005) Jack the Ripper: A Twenty First Century Investigation, London, Blake.
Norder, D. (2004) 'The Baltimore Ripper Conference in Review' Ripper Notes #19
Plimmer (1998) In the Footsteps of the Whitechapel Murders: An Examination of the Jack the Ripper Murders Using Modern Police Techniques, Sussex, Book Guild Ltd.
Vanderlinden, W. (2005) 'Jack the Ripper 2005 Conference: Brighton' Ripper Notes #24.
Walkowitz, J. (1992) The City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of sexual Danger in Late Victorian London, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Ryder, S. P (Ed) Casebook: Jack the Ripper
- Ripper Media: News From the Publishing World (http://www.casebook.org/ripper_media/book_reviews/non-fiction/latest_books.html)
- Ripper Media: Book Reviews - Non Fiction (http://www.casebook.org/ripper_media/book_reviews/non-fiction/)
Ripper Media: Book Reviews - Periodicals (http://www.casebook.org/ripper_media/book_reviews/periodicals/)
- Message Boards - Archived Message Boards (http://www.casebook.org/forum/messages/board-topics.html)
- Message Boards - Archived Message Boards -General Discussion -Annual Conferences on Jack the Ripper - Liverpool Conference UK, 2003 (http://casebook.org/forum/messages/4920/5407.html)
- Message Boards - Archived Message Boards - general Discussion - Annual Conferences on Jack the Ripper - UK Conference October 2005 (http://casebook.org/forum/messages/4920/9690.html)
- Message Boards - Victims -Annie Chapman -Hanbury Street (http://forum.casebook.org/showthread.php?t=103)
- Message Boards - Victims - Annie Chapman - Did [he] Wedge her in There? How big was he? (http://forum.casebook.org/showthread.php?t=1507)
- Message Boards - Victims - Catherine Eddowes - Eddowes body in relation to the gate (http://forum.casebook.org/showthread.php?t=299)
Message Boards - Letters and Other Communications - Goulston Street Graffito- All right, then…another poll (http://forum.casebook.org/showthread.php?t=298)
- About the Casebook - Mission Statement (http://www.casebook.org/about_the_casebook/mission.html)
Whitechapel Society 1888 - 'Past Speakers 'website http://www.whitechapelsociety.com/Society/Past_Speakers/past_speakers.htm