Jack the Ripper and British Attitudes to Sex and Murder: Whitechapel and the importance of Location

With such persistent interest and fascination in the Whitechapel murders, it must be asked: why?  What is it about Jack the Ripper and his murders that have grabbed people’s attention for so long?  This series of posts are exploring this question and what it can tell us about people’s fixation on sex and murder and each post has focused on a different point.  This particular post will be looking at the importance the location of the murders had on the reading public’s interest.  Whitechapel and the East End of London as a whole was an area with a dark reputation; a place thought to breed immorality and thus the geographical alternative to what the common prostitute represented for society.

Part 3: Whitechapel and the Importance of Location 

“The veil has been drawn aside that covered up the hideous condition in which thousands, tens of thousands, of our fellow-creatures live, in this boasted nineteenth century, and in the very heart of the wealthiest, the healthiest, the most civilized city in the world.”

Morning Post, 12 September 1888[1]

“The latest tragedies, which have not only brought before all grades of society the shocking condition of the East End poor, but have revealed a state of things hitherto incomprehensible.”

Birmingham Daily Post, 2 October 1888[2]

“The mingled feeling of shame and dread at that condition of social degradation which the Whitechapel murders brought so shockingly to light…  Much has been written upon the revolting state of morals and of existence generally which is to be met with in such localities as Whitechapel…”

The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 3 October 1888[3]

Whitechapel and the East End were a source of fascination to the reading public and was a key part of what drew such intrigue and allurement to Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders.  As can be seen from the quotes above, the East End epitomized those thought to be the worst of London such as beggars, thieves and prostitutes.  Whitechapel was perceived of in the same ways as the common prostitute who walked the streets at night; the immoral “outcast London.”[4]  As The North-Eastern Daily Gazette claimed, there appeared a sense of mirroring of the terrible nature of the crimes themselves and the location within which those crimes occurred in.  Considering this perception, it perhaps helps to provide some context towards the reason the media continued to portray the victims as “unfortunates” when, as mentioned in part 2, they were not all prostitutes, particularly Catherine Eddowes who had never worked the streets until the day that she was killed.[5]

For the middle-class observers from the West End, Whitechapel symbolised a terrifying and dangerous space which produced equally dangerous inhabitants who, it was thought, would frequently cross the border from East to West and thus spread their terrible influence.[6]  Jack the Ripper, it was argued, had highlighted this issue and brought to everyone’s attention the poverty, overcrowding, immorality and criminal element living so close to respectable society within the East End.[7]  Jack the Ripper, it seemed, had found in Whitechapel the “immoral landscape” he was looking for; a home for all forms of vice, such as sex and murder, and therefore the prime location within which to carry out his brutal and savage attacks.[8]  Perceptions such as these contributed to the frenzied interest with which the public read anything the press revealed about the murders.

The symbolism and ideas that Whitechapel conjured in people’s minds contributed dramatically to the sensationalism surrounding the murders within the media.  Many argued that the murders brought to light the desperate need for intervention; there were calls for moral and sanitary reforms.[9]  Such an impression was thought to be an embarrassment for a country that believed itself to be the pinnacle of civilisation; an embarrassment which potentially would cause the rest of the world to doubt such a claim.[10]  Jack the Ripper, furthermore, by generating such excitement and interest around the area highlighted not only to the reading public but also to the government and local officials the dire need for reform and the desperate standard of living for inhabitants of East London.

It was no longer possible to ignore the level of poverty for people living in the East End: overcrowding, want of sanitation and abundance of crime were abundant.  It was noted that where the government and philanthropists had failed, Jack the Ripper had succeeded; drawing attention to the major problem developing in London and therefore prevented those in authority from neglecting the issue further.[11]  Overcrowding, for example, was of particular concern; many in the press claimed that this issue led to the dangerous situation of respectable working-class families living in close proximity to the criminal underclass.  It was thought that this was partly to blame for the extent of the problem that Whitechapel had become.  As The North-Eastern Gazette argued, there “cannot be a doubt that overcrowding, with the certainty of its impairing the bodily health and its morally debasing associations, both directly and indirectly demoralise and degrade.”[12]

This post has focused on the role Whitechapel, the location of Jack the Ripper’s attacks, had on the sensationalism and fascination with the Whitechapel murders.  With the way that East End London had symbolised such issues as poverty, crime and immorality, it managed to reflect the savagery of the crimes and the victims themselves.  With Whitechapel’s reputation of being the dangerous space for London’s most dangerous people, Jack the Ripper seemed to have chosen the perfect place to commit his dreadful crimes.  On the other hand, by choosing this location he also seemed to have drawn the public’s attention to the area’s need for improvements to the sanitary conditions with which most of its inhabitants lived.

The points covered here are not extensive but should provide you with an idea of the importance Whitechapel had in the attention and intrigue Jack the Ripper seemed to generate.  In the next part, I will be looking at the ways that stereotypes were involved in the way that Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders were perceived.

[1] “The Moral of the Whitechapel Murders,” Pall Mall Gazette, (London: Wednesday 12 September 1888), Issue 7329.

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

[3] “North-Eastern Daily Gazette: Wednesday, October 3, 1888: Social Horrors,” The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, (Middlesbrough: Wednesday 3 October 1888).

[4] R. F. Haggard, “Jack the Ripper as the Threat of Outcast London,” in Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History, edited by Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 197.

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

[6] J. R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of sexual danger in late-Victorian London, (London: Virago Press, 1992) 4.

[7] Haggard, “Threat of Outcast London,” 198.

[8] Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, 193.

[9] “The Whitechapel Murders: Still no clue: A spiritualist’s suggestion,” The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, (Bristol: Monday 8 October 1888), Issue 12607.

[10] “The Moral of the Whitechapel Murders.”

[11] M. Whitehead and M. Rivett, Jack the Ripper, (Hertfordshire: Pocket Essentials, 2001) 10.

[12] “North-Eastern Daily Gazette.”

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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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