How the Media Invented Jack the Ripper
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.