How the Media Invented Jack the Ripper

Emma Jane Holloway
June 5, 2019  •  No Comments

Jack the Ripper is a favorite subject for fiction writers for many reasons and the notion that the sinister drama is true ranks high among them. However, we don’t know the killer’s name or occupation, if there were one or several killers, and even the exact number of victims. The number of suspects is staggering. Despite the amount of ink spilled on the subject, the undisputed facts of the crime fill only a slim volume. So why, in a time and place where murders were common, did the Ripper case garner so much public attention?

One might say the media co-created the crime, both intentionally and by reflecting the Zeitgeist of the era. While the residents of Whitechapel were justifiably terrified by the murders, the wider public was served up the villain their imaginations demanded.

The dark side of London fascinates those able to view it from a safe distance. By the time of the Ripper, public hangings, complete with printed confessions sold for a penny, had long been entertainment. Relics of famous crimes were sold in the streets, tourists went to the mental hospitals to gawk, and Madame Tussaud created her waxwork Chamber of Horrors, depicting the true crimes of the day. Plays and novels followed where the newspapers led, presenting melodramatic versions of famous murders—or entirely bizarre urban legends, like Spring-Heeled Jack. On top of this was a fascination with the duality of the human psyche—just before the Ripper’s arrival came Stevenson’s smash hit Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By 1888, the public appetite for Gothic drama was prodigious.

A climate of social unrest underscored this mood. The Ripper murders are generally agreed to begin in April or August of 1888. Scant months before, soldiers mounted a bayonet charge against jobless protesters in Trafalgar Square. In simplistic terms, the incident reflected the deep division between the prosperous ruling class, who lived mostly in the West End districts like Mayfair, and the impoverished areas of the East End, such as Whitechapel. The East End also housed the migratory population of the docks, abused factory laborers, and immigrant populations. Is it any wonder the bogeyman of the day sprung from those desperate streets? The Ripper was a personification of middle-class fears.

And then there were the police. They had been increasing their numbers over the past few decades, but rather than increasing a sense of safety, public attention was fixed on a series of scandals that undermined their credibility. Missteps during the Ripper investigation gave the public ammunition to criticize, and the press lovingly documented every moment of the train wreck.

As mentioned above, one of the difficulties with the Ripper case is knowing when it began and ended. Prostitutes were frequently murdered, and despite general indignation at police inaction, not much ever got resolved. Were Emma Smith and Martha Tabram Jack’s victims, or those of another? They both had violent deaths—Tabram was stabbed 39 times—but were not mutilated on the scale of later victims. It was those breath-taking excesses that signaled something new was afoot, and the press got to work.

Delicious Gothic horror. Simmering social anxiety. An excuse to air grievances against whoever came to hand—corrupt officials, suspicious radicals, unionists, foreigners, and an unpopular and inept police force. Jack the Ripper’s crime spree was an editor’s dream moment, ripe for endless titillation. Crime sells papers, and the presses ran around the clock during peak carnage. With improved printing technology, illustrated depictions of crimes could be reproduced in greater detail than ever before. Concerned citizens worried that such graphic displays might unbalance the minds of readers, much like the complaints about modern video games. Such quibbling stopped no one—the papers kept the Ripper Murders in the public eye as long as they possibly could.

Much of what we know about Jack the Ripper–including the name–came from a series of notes written by Jack to Scotland Yard and the Central News Agency. The true origin of these letters is doubtful, and their timing perhaps calculated to revive public interest during a slump. The grammar and word usage suggest a forger attempting to appear uneducated. Did the press write the letters themselves? It’s a popular theory, and if that’s true, the version of Jack we carry in our imaginations—taunting, cannibalistic, almost cheeky—is a pure fabrication. The media put a face on the most famous serial killer of all time to boost circulation.

Is that what actually happened? As with so much of the case, we don’t know the truth. There is even some uncertainty over who was the last victim—Mary Jane Kelly, or another murdered prostitute. What we do know is that sometime around 1889 the murders stopped and Jack’s audience moved on. In 1890, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared, summing up the public’s troubled self-reflection.

Popular attention is fickle, and even Jack the Ripper couldn’t hold center stage forever. Another fascination was pushing Gothic melodrama aside—the clear-eyed rationality of the consulting detective. While the genre was not new, its popularity rose, giving readers the opportunity to solve crimes from the comfort of their firesides. Times had changed and, after the Ripper’s confounding chaos, certainty, justice, and the ever-increasing power of science held appeal.

It was time to invent a new avatar.


New uses for bar codes

Sharon Ashwood
January 4, 2010  •  2 Comments

Here’s a creepy piece of news to ponder as we launch into the new year with dreams of watching what we eat …

The article reports a study by high school students, who gathered about 150 DNA samples from foods and objects in New York as part of a science project with Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History. After gathering samples from a variety of sources, including supermarkets and fresh markets, “They sent the samples to the natural history museum, which tapped into a databank of DNA bar codes that was pioneered by Canadian scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario.”

A high percentage of the foods they collected as samples weren’t what was listed on the label. “That included a specialty sheep’s milk cheese that was actually made from cow’s milk, venison dog treats made of beef, and sturgeon caviar that was really Mississippi paddlefish.” In other words, cheap stuff substituted for expensive stuff. Not only are consumers being ripped off, but those trying to eat carefully for health reasons, like allergies, can’t rely on the package label.

If that isn’t enough food for thought, the article goes on to say, “The Consortium for the Bar Code of Life project involves identifying a particular DNA sequence in marine and animal life that is unique to the species. . . . Bob Hanner, a biologist at Guelph who led the work on bar coding, said [the project] shows the value of a technology that can be used to identify illicit goods at borders . . . he can soon see a time when people will be able to use tabletop devices at border crossings, schools and government departments to quickly identify a plant or animal.”

In other words, if something has the wrong DNA, they can be scanned at stopped at the border or anyplace else.

Interesting. The conspiracy theorist in me in all a-quiver. After all, people have DNA, too. Now we can really know whom we let pass through checkpoints.

The complete study will be covered in the January edition of BioScience magazine.


But will he make coffee?

Sharon Ashwood
August 20, 2009  •  No Comments

Well, I can think of many occasions when I might like the idea of Han Solo sprawled in front of me, but I’m not sure I’d want a frozen version of the dude as my desk.


Blooming blob

Sharon Ashwood
July 23, 2009  •  1 Comment

This news tidbit sent to me by DarkForgotten group member Loranthiana

A boatful of hunters from Wainwright, Alaska, discovered a large, fibrous blob floating in the Chukchi Sea. Dark and miles across, it was at first thought to be an oil spill. Or perhaps the world’s biggest Scrubby. Others thought perhaps a call to Agent Mulder was in order.

It was none of the above, but alarming in its own way. The article states:

“Test results released Thursday showed the blob wasn’t oil, but a plant – a massive bloom of algae. While that may seem less dangerous, a lot of people are still uneasy. It’s something the mostly Inupiat Eskimo residents along Alaska’s northern coast say they could never remember seeing before.”

(see whole article here)

Algae blooms can be problematic, especially where seafood is harvested. It’s also a huge indicator that things aren’t normal, sometimes for natural reasons, other times because humans have mucked something up.

My twisted imagination has the blob galumphing across the Arctic waste in search of human settlements to terrorize and possibly digest. Maybe a nice bunch of plump Aryan survivalists ready to save the great white north for great white hunters. Num, num.

I know some people think global warming, while messy and full of natural disasters, is an inconvenient process humankind will ride out like a bad storm. Then we’ll dust ourselves off and carry on, just with more sunscreen or warm socks as appropriate. I think they tend to forget everything else will adapt, too. They should read more science fiction.


The interest rates were sheer hell

Sharon Ashwood
July 9, 2009  •  No Comments

Apparently, in Latvia—the EU nation worst hit by economic crisis—there’s no need to provide more than a first name to get a bank loan. No knuckle-draggers will show up at three a.m. to collect the debt, either. The catch? All you need to do is to put up your soul as collateral.

The article reads: Such a deal is being offered by the Kontora loan company, whose public face is Viktor Mirosiichenko, 34. Clients have to sign a contract, with the words “Agreement” in bold letters at the top. The client agrees to the collateral, “that is, my immortal soul.”

It’s enough to make me eyeball my Visa bill with suspicion. Sure, we’ve become a society that likes to play fast and loose with our credit rating, but what’s with the Brothers Grimm lending terms? Maybe we crave the certainty of a time when our word was our bond and breaking it was unthinkable? Or perhaps we’re blasé enough to scoff at dealing with the devil?

What I do find interesting is the number of people willing to sign on the dotted line. He’s got roughly 200 takers in the last two months.


Finally, an explanation

Sharon Ashwood
June 24, 2009  •  2 Comments

http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2009/06/23/edmonton-research-day-night.html

Scientists at the University of Alberta have arrived at the amazing conclusion that the brains of early risers are different than those of night owls. Ya think? I’ve always suspected that early birds are actually a different species. Now we know.

What’s interesting is this:

“Using magnetic resonance imaging-guided brain stimulation, neuroscientists tested muscle torque and the excitability of pathways through the spinal cord and brain.

“We found that the brains of morning people are more excitable in the morning and evening people are completely opposite,” neurophysiology researcher David Collins said Tuesday.”

So, the spine and brain of night people are in synch, and the spine and brain of morning people are not. In other words, we of the slow start persuasion are more efficient once we finally get moving. Our body and mind are in harmony.

Nice that science has finally vindicated my slowpoke morning performances. Now, if Mr. Collins would just tell my boss ….


Burping cows?

Sharon Ashwood
June 23, 2009  •  No Comments

http://www.infowars.com/paul-mccartney-calls-for-meat-free-day-to-cut-cow-gas/

This article begins:

“Paul McCartney, the former Beatle and vegetarian pop star, asked fans to go meatless on Mondays to help slow global warming by reducing the amount of gaseous emissions from farm animals.”

Yes, according to Paul, belching cows are contributing to the destruction of the environment. Not that I’m against meatless Mondays, since I’m largely vegetarian anyway, but I find it hard to believe that domestic livestock are such a problem. Didn’t North America used to be covered with bison herds? Didn’t they burp? Why are our current herds so much more gassy? Is commercial feed the problem?

Okay, okay, I’m not a scientist and I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I think it’s cool that the feed people are finding a diet that’s more digestible for the cows. If I were a cow, I’d be grateful.

However, the part of me that likes a good conspiracy theory is wondering if this is some media spin sleight-of-hand. I’ve smelled farms and I’ve smelled refineries. If we’re talking global destruction of the environment by pure and simple stinky test, my money is still on big oil, not Bossy the Cow.


Eat the competition. Really.

Sharon Ashwood
June 18, 2009  •  1 Comment

Want your calling card to stand out from your competitors’? Today’s bizarre product is business cards made from beef jerky. Check it out at http://www.meatcards.com/

According to their web site:

We start with 100% beef jerky, and SEAR your contact information into it with a 150 WATT CO2 LASER.
Screw die-cutting. Forget about foil, popups, or UV spot lamination. THESE business cards have two ingredients: MEAT AND LASERS.

Okay, but what exactly does this say about your business? You’re beefy? You’re jerky? You’re tough and chewy, but lightly spiced? You’re covered in pocket lint and leave grease stains?

On the other hand, you can brand your business while your stationery is still on the hoof.


More strange science

Sharon Ashwood
January 29, 2009  •  No Comments

Okay, so we’ve all seen Jurassic Park and know that no good can ever come of hatching dinosaur eggs.

 Nevertheless, like the nightie-clad heroine in a horror film, somebody just HAS to go into the dark basement of science and see what extinct critters they can conjure up out of archeological DNA.

 http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126905.000-ten-extinct-beasts-that-could-walk-the-earth-again.html?full=true

 So, the exotic pet market can stay tuned. Want a woolly mammoth? There’s apparently a mammoth genome project with a genetic map on the way. I just hope they simultaneously recreate woolly mammoth food. I doubt our modern plants are quite the same.

 Not so much of a problem for the proposed saber-toothed tiger, who could have a tasty scientist to go if kitty kibble doesn’t turn his crank. Apparently lions are close enough relatives that one could serve as a surrogate mom.

 Speaking of which, one of us could be an incubator for a brand-new Neanderthal baby, though I’m not sure they’ll get a whole lot of volunteers. Some might even claim to already have a few teenaged models living in the basement.

 Other interesting possibilities include the short-faced bear (a third taller than a polar bear), the Tasmanian tiger (actually a marsupial), a glyptodon (armadillo as large as a car), a woolly rhino, the dodo, the giant ground sloth, the moa (ostrich-type bird), the gigantic Irish elk, the giant beaver (why?), and the gorilla. Yup, the gorilla’s populations have dwindled to the point that they’re collecting DNA just in case.

 There are problems with the quality of extant DNA and in finding suitable surrogate mothers. The odds aren’t great for successful resurrection in some cases, but the idea of seeing some of these beasts on the hoof is admittedly intriguing. Ethical questions aside, there’s a little kid inside that really, really wants to see a saber-toothed tiger. From a safe distance.