Jack the Ripper and British Attitudes to Sex and Murder: Sex and sexual violence

Jack the Ripper and The Whitechapel Murders have been a source of fascination for society for well over a century now.  From the high circulation numbers of newspapers at the time to books and videos today, there is huge interest the murders.  There are multiple aspects that have caused this, such as the mystery surrounding the murders which I covered in more detail in the previous post.  One other aspect of this allurement was the murders’ connection to sex which, both at the time of the murders themselves and today has always captivated audiences.

Part 2: Sex and Sexual Violence

“The victims in the Whitechapel cases belonged to a class which was exposed above all others to this form of secret and sudden assassination… No other adult members of the community will allow a stranger to approach them or will consent to accompany the first person who accosts them without making some inquiries or raising some demur.”[1] Glasgow Herald

“The police force cannot possibly do more than guard, or take precautions, against any repetition of the recent atrocities so long as the victims actually, but unwittingly, connive at their own destruction.  In this particular class of murders the unfortunate victims appear to take the murderer to some retired spot, and place themselves in such a position that they can be slaughtered without any sound being heard.” Sir Charles Warren.[2]

“Afraid to venture into the streets late at night, these unfortunate women are obliged to keep within doors… It must not be assumed, however, that there is less immorality practised because it does not show itself; and, while some poor creatures who eked out a miserable existence on the wages of vice on the streets are more liable to starve than they were, there is too much reason to fear that the gay houses of the more fashionable and prosperous… members of the sisterhood are more frequented than ever…  There is… proper recognition of the evil, but not a word of sympathy for the chief sufferers, who… are ignored, and to speak of whom evidences bad taste, and when spoken of are described as a sort of ‘human vermin, unclean parasites, a humanity affliction admitted in its existence, but so existent to be held as a matter of course.’”[3] Rev. Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne

One aspect that drew much fascination and attention to Jack the Ripper was the sexual nature of the murders; the women were not simply murdered, many were also sexually disfigured.  The murderer removed and kept the uterus of two of his victims, and even cut off the breasts of his fifth and final victim, Mary Jane Kelly.  Details such as these and the fact that these women were all thought to have been working as prostitutes at the time that they were murdered sparked the interest of the reading public.

In order to understand the complexity of prostitution at the time of the murders, it is important to note that, although all the women who were killed by Jack the Ripper were referred at the time as “unfortunates,” a term used in the Victorian press and by the general population as an alternative to “prostitutes,” not all these women were necessarily prostitutes in the modern sense.  Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes both lived or had previously lived with a man that they were not married to which the newspaper articles from the time indicate to be the main reason that they were classed as unfortunates; Chapman no longer lived with a man by the time she was murdered but was able to afford her lodging partly through sharing a room with an ex-soldier at the weekends.[4] Chapman, Eddowes and Elizabeth Stride did not always rely on prostitution for their income.  Stride, for example, also worked as a char woman whenever possible and only resorted to prostitution as a last option[5] and Eddowes was supported both by John Kelly, the man that she was living with, and also by whatever jobs she was able to find.  In fact, John Kelly believed that she stayed away from prostitution and that the night she was killed was the first time that she had worked the streets.[6]

Newspapers assisted in sensationalising the sexual nature of these murders at a time when the public, despite its taboo status, was fascinated by the subject.  Only three years preceding the Whitechapel murders, W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, sparked his own sexual sensation with a series of articles known as “The Maiden Tribute” articles in 1885 that highlighted the extent of child prostitution and white slavery occurring within London.  A year later, in 1886, the three Acts known collectively as the Contagious Diseases Acts (CDAs) were repealed following years of campaigning led by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) (to find out more information about the CDAs read my post on the women’s movement).  The 1880s in general saw a rise in social purist groups discussing and drawing attention to men’s sexual activities and campaigning towards more police intervention of prostitution and brothels.[7]

The fact that the victims of the Jack the Ripper murders were known as prostitutes drew much attention in the press at the time and became a talking point within the newspapers.  There were many comments regarding the murders being an unfortunate but likely consequence of their work.[8]  As demonstrated by the quotes at the start of this article, the Whitechapel Murders led to discussions regarding prostitution in general as well as the safety of any woman who walked the streets at night.  At a time when the police were receiving constant criticism for their handling of the crimes, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren’s response was to point out that it was, in fact, impossible to protect this group of women effectively as, by the nature of their work they had some part to play in their own demise.[9]  Others also commented on the fact that only a street walker would willingly go with a stranger to a deserted corner of London and, therefore, were the only group that were vulnerable to Jack the Ripper and others like him.[10]  Meanwhile, social purists and others of similar causes used the murders as an opportunity to highlight the problem of prostitution as a whole; writer for The Times and philanthropist, Rev. Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne, expressed concern that, rather than assisting in putting an end to prostitution as some social purists believed, it was in fact, simply moving the problem further underground to a more clandestine form and, thus, further entrenching such immorality into society.[11]

The sensationalising of the sexual disfigurement of the victims and the sexual nature of their work led to speculations by some historians and many commentators at the time; there was speculation that the mutilations were a sign that Jack the Ripper had a sexual motivation to his killings.[12]  One of the theories that began to circulate was that the murderer was someone who used to frequent this particular group of prostitutes that worked around the Whitechapel area and contracted syphilis from one of them, leading him to seek revenge on not only the initial woman herself but on all women like her.[13]   Alternatively, it was thought possible that the murderer may have been a “religious fanatic” and, considering the climate of London society at the time with the social purist groups campaigning against prostitution and any “non-marital, non-reproductive sexuality,”[14] viewed it as his mission to “purge the world of prostitutes.”[15]

This post focused on the sexual aspects of the Whitechapel Murders which were a major component in why they gained such attention and fascination from everyone, leading to the press at the time selling more newspapers than ever before.  The murders appeared at a time when the conversation around sexual morality and prostitution was in people’s minds and even adding to the arguments of advocates for more police intervention in prostitution and for closing down brothels.

The points covered in this post are not exhaustive but this should give you an idea as to the importance of the sexual aspects of the murders and why Jack the Ripper has continued to fascinate people even today.  In the next part of this series I will be looking more closely at the role the locations of the murders played in people’s fascination with Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders.

[1] “Glasgow Herald: Monday Morning, October 1.” Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Monday 1 October 1888), Issue 235.

[2] “The East End Crimes: Latest Particulars: Letter from Sir C. Warren.” The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, (Sheffield, Thursday 4 October 1888) Issue 10634.

[3] “The Repression of Immorality.” The Newcastle Weekly Courant, (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Friday October 1888) Issue 11152.

[4] “The Recent Murders in Whitechapel: Reports and sketches about the latest.” The Pall Mall Gazette, (London, Monday 10 September 1888) Issue 7327.

[5] “The Whitechapel Murders: Rewards offered: Inquest on Elizabeth Stride.” Birmingham Daily Post, (Birmingham, Tuesday 2 October 1888) Issue 9444.

[6] “The East End Crimes: Latest Particulars: Letter from Sir C. Warren.” The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, (Sheffield, Thursday 4 October 1888) Issue 10634: 6.

[7] J. R. Walkowitz, “Jack the Ripper and the Myth of Male Violence.” Feminist Studies 8, 3 (Autumn 1982): 546.

[8] J. R. Curtis, Jack the Ripper and the London Press, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001), 9.

[9] “The East End Crimes.”

[10] “Glasgow Herald.”

[11] “The Repression of Immorality.”

[12] S. L. Gilman, “’Who kills whores?’ ‘I do,’ says Jack: Race and Gender in Victorian London,” in Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History, eds., Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 217.

[13] “The Recent Murders in Whitechapel: Reports and sketches about the latest.” The Pall Mall Gazette, (London, Monday 10 September 1888) Issue 7327.

[14] Walkowitz, “Jack the Ripper.” 546.

[15] “The Whitechapel Murders: Rewards offered and refused: Inquest on Elizabeth Stride.” Aberdeen Weekly Journal, (Aberdeen, Tuesday 2 October 1888) Issue 10551.

Published by

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.

2 thoughts on “Jack the Ripper and British Attitudes to Sex and Murder: Sex and sexual violence”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s