Jack the Ripper and British Attitudes to Sex and Murder: Murder mystery

Society has been fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders for over a century now.  In 1888, the Whitechapel murders generated circulation that was unheard of for newspapers at that time and remains a source of fascination even today.  There are various aspects that caught the imagination of Victorian society and continue to do so today.  Firstly, one reason for the allurement of Jack the Ripper was due to the fact that he was never caught.  The police arrested and interrogated 130 suspects, but they were never able to find out who Jack the Ripper was;[1] as such the mystery around who Jack the Ripper was remained unsolved.  Secondly, the Whitechapel murders involved two topics that, throughout history, has always drawn people’s attention: Sex and murder.

I first covered this topic in an essay a few years ago and it had such interesting findings that I wanted to share them here.  This subject will be covered over a four-part series in order to explore the question of how society’s fascination with Jack the Ripper can help us learn more about its attitudes towards sex and murder.  The first section will be centred around what it was about the murders that kept readers’ attention; this will cover themes such as people’s sense of safety and even excitement when the murder happened far from them and the mystery surrounding the identity of Jack the Ripper, keeping the reading public enthralled and newspaper circulation so high.  In the second part I will focus on the aspects that connected to sex, a taboo subject to be discussed in public in the 1880s, yet still fascinating for readers.  In the third part, I will be looking at the location of the murders: Whitechapel.  I will be considering the area and what it represented to those from the West End and how this contributed to the way the Jack the Ripper murders were perceived.  Finally, in the fourth section I will focus on the way the media represented the murders and the images and stereotypes they used.  Whitechapel itself represented “outcast London” and the stereotypes of potential suspects played on people’s attitudes towards certain groups in society; reliance on stereotypes was notable in the Whitechapel murders due to a lack of witnesses or evidence to help find the murderer.[2]

Part 1: Murder Mystery 

Generally, there is a strange appeal surrounding murder cases in the media and the Victorians were particularly fascinated by it.  This is largely explained by the fact that when a case was far removed from the reader, the danger that the case presented excited the reader because it reminded them how short life was, [3] thus providing the reading public with the thrill of danger.  Yet, at the same time, the fact that the reader was far removed from the murder also granted them with not only a sense of safety but even a sense of pleasure as well when knowing that although murder happens, it was not happening nearby.[4]  The press presented the details of the Jack the Ripper murders to their readers in minute detail, enabling readers to effectively imagine the murders for themselves whilst remaining in the protection and safety of their own homes.[5]  After the final and most brutal murder of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November, the scene was so horrific that the coroner had refused to provide a detailed report; yet the next day, despite his efforts, the newspapers had managed to print a fully detailed description of not only what had been done to Mary Kelly but also the state of the room itself.[6]

Fascination with murder was not just superficial and was not only about the violence; stories like these also provided a way of communicating important ideas about morality, respectability and normality.[7]  Such messaging gave the reader a sense of purpose behind the brutality.  Finding meanings behind the murders was particularly important with the Whitechapel murders due to the fact that no one was caught, and therefore, never possible to find out why he did it.  The lack of closure coupled with the brutality of the murders played with people’s imaginations and nightmares and leading them to make their own theories about who was Jack the Ripper.[8]  Victorians were fixated with ideas around character and virtuous conduct at the time of the Whitechapel murders where there were many discussions in which many believed that it was impossible that a normal, respectable and healthy Englishman could have murdered those women or, at the very least, not a middle-class Englishman.[9]  This assumption was one reason for the attacks that occurred on anyone who was different and known as “Other,” the group that Jack the Ripper was thought to have come from; this is a theme that will be dealt with in more detail in part 4.

The amount that was unknown about the murders – who was Jack, why had he done it, where did he go and why did he stop – is why Jack the Ripper continues to be a source of interest, even now 130 years later;[10] he fed the perpetual curiosity in the “one that never got caught,” the unsolvable mystery.[11]  Even today there are many theories as to who it could possibly have been; in the earlier stages, attention was focused on those who also joined prostitutes as social outcasts.  Eastern European Jews, in particular, were viewed in this light; these attitudes were particularly heightened at this time due to the economy causing a shortage of labour jobs available and feeding society’s xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment as they were viewed as taking Englishmen’s jobs.[12]  Other theories included Jack the Ripper as a butcher, tanner, or other similar professions dealing with leather and requiring a certain amount of strength and brutality. Later, it was thought the killer might be a surgeon as the murders became increasingly violent with Jack the Ripper removing organs from his victims.  The idea of Jack the Ripper having anatomical knowledge developed after Annie Chapman’s murder when the coroner noted that whoever had killed her and removed her uterus would have needed the knowledge and skills to do it.[13]  Another idea that began to circulate included the theory that Jack the Ripper was in fact a man who had contracted syphilis, was going mad and searching for vengeance on the women who had potentially infected him.[14]  The lack of evidence led to some more obscure and unusual theories including some parallels with Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, the theatre production, which was showing in London at the same time; the fact that Jack the Ripper could commit such brutal murders but then blend into society straight afterwards led to the idea of a dual identity like Dr Jekyll.[15]

As this post demonstrates, the Jack the Ripper murders sparked a sense of mystery and even excitement for people; the mystery surrounding who it was and why he did it led to an insatiable curiosity causing people to create their own theories as to who it might be.  This is not an exhaustive list of the causes that led to Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders becoming such a fascinating subject, not only for the Victorians at the time but even for people today, yet it does give you the opportunity to get an overview of the factors that led to the mystery behind the murders sparking so much curiosity and excitement.  In the next section I will be looking at the sexual aspects connected to Jack the Ripper.

[1] S. L. Gilman, “’Who Kills Whores?’ ‘I Do,’ says Jack: Race and Gender in Victorian London,” in Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History, eds., Alexander Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 217.

[2] R. F. Haggard, ““Jack the Ripper as the threat of Outcast London,” in Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History, eds. Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 209.

[3] L. P. Curtis, Jack the Ripper and The London Press, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 2.

[4] J. Flanders, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, (London: Harper Press, 2011), 1.

[5] Curtis, 3.

[6] J. Flanders, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011), 451.

[7] Curtis, 9.

[8] Curtis, 10.

[9] Haggard, 209.

[10] M. Whitehead & M. Rivett, Jack the Ripper (Herts: Pocket Essentials, 2001), 7.

[11] Whitehead & Rivett, 8.

[12] J. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, Virago Press, 1992), 203.

[13] Flanders, 433.

[14] Gilman, 217.

[15] Flanders, 435.

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History Gal

A history lover whose main areas of interest are with gender, sexuality and sex in the Victorian times. I am a PhD student from the UK who focuses on fallen women and masculinity within the Victorian period.

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