By John Randolph Fuller
From April 1888 to February 1891, history’s most infamous cold case emerged when a series of 11 murders ripped through London’s working-class Whitechapel district. All of the murdered were women, and most were prostitutes. Whitechapel was one of the poorest areas in London and by the 1880s some of England’s grimiest industries, such as tanneries and breweries, had become established there. Poor Londoners, rural English folk, and immigrants crowded in looking for work, but the district’s poverty was so overwhelming, many of the women who found themselves there became prostitutes, living and dying in squalid anonymity.
These conditions made Whitechapel the perfect hunting ground for killers. Of the 11 murders committed, five murders of prostitutes were attributed to a person called Jack the Ripper. The Ripper probably killed more than five women, but only these could be directly connected to him. The crimes were shocking and fascinating: the shock brought attention to the plight of Whitechapel’s poor which led to some transitory social reforms, but the fascination brought attention to the crimes of Jack the Ripper into the 21st century.
Jack the Ripper’s murders have been the subject of a slew of fiction and non-fiction books, films, short stories, graphic novels, and web pages. The murder even got his own “ology,” with people studying the murders calling themselves “Ripperologists.” Every few years, it seems, someone arrives with a new theory about the Ripper’s identity or some “startling new” evidence. In 2002, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell published a controversial book offering up artist Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper. In 2012, author John Morris insisted Jack was a woman. Another researcher insists the Ripper was an American murderer named H.H. Holmes. The suspect list doesn’t end there. Lewis Carroll is on it, along with the Duke of Clarence, Sir John Williams, and on and on.
Why do we still care? Serial killers and murderers are at work somewhere in the world every day. For example, since 1993, hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico have been routinely killed, with some being dumped into mass graves. The explanations are prosaic: jealousy, drugs, domestic violence, gang wars, robbery, rape. Some may be the product of a serial killer, but so many women have been murdered, it’s hard to tell. The police make arrests, but the murders continue. This story and others like it have been repeated for a couple of decades, but those murders don’t seem to have the appeal of Jack the Ripper. Why?
Is it the lack of a catchy moniker for the killers? “Jack the Ripper” does have a ring to it. Is it the gruesomeness of the murders? The Ripper not only killed his victims, he eviscerated them with surgical precision. Whoever the Ripper was, he knew his way around a human corpse. Is it the era? Victorian London was certainly an evocative place, and Victorian Whitechapel is stuck with all the sooty baggage the term “Dickensian” couldn’t carry. Whitechapel was much as one Ripper suspect was described: “of shabby genteel.”
The scores of years that separate us from the Whitechapel murders might make the whole business seem gloomily romantic to us, but it was terrifying to those who lived through it. Although serial murder had doubtless been committed prior to 19th-century England, the Ripper murders were systematic and one of the first times the public could really get its hands on all the juicy details. News about the murders were not just passed by word of mouth, they were printed in newspapers along with photographs of the victims. Both the murderer and the victims became individuals in the minds of the public. It was just the killer that they couldn’t put a face on.
It can be argued that the traditional systems of English—and by extension, American—justice has something to do with the Ripper’s popularity. These systems evolved to focus on the individual offender and his or her rights: the police are under pressure to arrest the person who is actually responsible, not just anyone. (The police in London arrested several people for the murders, but had to let them go.) The courts are under pressure to convict the correct suspect. Everyone looks foolish when suspects are in jail, and the slaughter continues. These factors, combined with a freewheeling media that publicizes any new information it can get, tend to individualize the offender.
Recall that 11 women were murdered between 1888 and 1891, but only five were attributed to Jack the Ripper. Who killed the other six women? Many Ripperologists say those, too, were the work of Jack, but others disagree. Two or more killers might have been at work separately, or “Jack the Ripper,” might have been several people working together. But the public likes to imagine the killer as a single person, an individual. It is much easier to put a face on, and a personality into, one person rather than many. It is thrilling to imagine one person bursting with that much evil.
We will never fully understand the Ripper’s methods or motive, or why the murders stopped, although most criminologists would say that serial killers only stop when they can no longer kill. They are either dead or incarcerated. It is unlikely that Jack the Ripper chose to stop killing. Something stopped him, but nothing will stop us from wondering who he was.
John Randolph Fuller is Professor of Criminology at the University of West Georgia and author of Juvenile Delinquency: Mainstream and Crosscurrents, Second Edition.
Image credit: Jack the Ripper’s “Dear Boss” letter (part 1) postmarked 25 September 1888. (National Archives MEPO 3/142). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.