Jack the Ripper and British Attitudes to Sex and Murder: Reliance on and promoting stereotypes

During his “reign of terror” in 1888 – the canonical five were killed between Friday 31 August to Friday 9 November 1888[1] – and continuing to this day, there has been a strong sense of fascination and lure in the Whitechapel murders.  Many, from the press at the time to ripperologists and historians today, have debated and reread the evidence over and over in the hopes of finding out who was Jack the Ripper and, at the time, to find out how these women died; the press provided the reading public with as much detail as possible on how these women were found, the scene of their murders and what it was thought had happened to them.  After all this time, however, the question remains, why did Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders cause such fascination and lead to the newspapers of 1888 to sell in record numbers?  In this fourth and final part to the examination of society’s almost obsession with Jack the Ripper, I will be focusing on the role of stereotypes; the way that they were relied on when there seemed no hope of finding the murderer and how they impacted the East End at the time will be considered.


Part 4: Reliance on and Promoting Stereotypes


The press played a large role in the way that society perceived Jack the Ripper and how he was visualised.  Newspaper editors could choose what was printed and how it was printed; whether something was given more or less space in their newspaper could add to how much something was heeded and how important it was perceived to be.  With such influence and so few actual facts known, it was possible for editors to present their own potentially biased views, not only of who might be Jack, but also the success or, lack of success of the police, and the location and women involved in the murders.  With a tendency to generate sensational stories that would generate more interest and, thus, sell more copies, there was a tendency to either exaggerate or, at least, focus on the most exciting aspects of the murders; there was a tendency for some articles to almost become mere fabrication and to allow space for even the most far-fetched stories.[2]


With no clue as to who might be the murderer, journalists were left to resort to creating theories which were largely reliant on certain presumptions of who might be capable of such atrocities.  With few labour jobs available at the time, largely due to a struggling economy, there was an increase in xenophobia and anti-Semitic sentiments among Victorian society at the time.  Many historians have pointed out that this influenced the images created of who might be Jack; with many fingers pointing between Polish and Jewish immigrants.  Additionally, due to the nature of the murders and the brutalisation of the women’s bodies after they were killed, men who worked in jobs such as butchers, tanners, and others whose jobs meant that they were used to working with knives, leather, animal carcases; as the murders became more and more brutal, with such intrusion into the women’s bodies, men with a working knowledge of anatomy were also considered such as medical students and surgeons.[3]  With anxieties and fears gradually escalating as time went by and still no sign of Jack the Ripper being caught, theories became increasingly urgent as some suggested that he was a “lunatic” suffering from “homicidal mania.”[4]


Such anger and fear reached its peak around Whitechapel and the surrounding area after the body of Elizabeth Stride was found on 30th September.  With two more murders in one night and still no clues or hope of finding the murderer it led to a need to find someone to blame; with the East End becoming the focal point for most immigrants and with anti-Semitic sentiment being commonplace, Jews, Eastern European Jews in particular, became the main target and leading to concerns that it would lead to a pogrom against the local Jews in the area.  In fact, this was of such concern that Sir Charles Warren, when he discovered certain evidence near Mitre Square, the location where Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim was found, he ordered it to be removed before any passers-by would find it and potentially spark violent retaliation against any Jew in the area.  The evidence was writing found on a wall: “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.”[5]  Although there is some question over the legitimacy of this evidence or whether it was another journalistic plant, such as the many letters the police received during this time, claiming to be from Jack the Ripper, stories such as this fed the growing anti-Semitic sentiment throughout this period.  Other stories appeared in the press which added to this; one theory by The Times Vienna Correspondent, for example, was shared amongst the different newspapers “that among certain fanatical Jews there existed a superstition that if a Jew became intimate with a Christian woman he would atone for his offense by killing and mutilating the object of his passion.”[6]  Such stories and comments were bound to add to the growing distrust of the Jews living in the East End.  Due to the fact that Jewish men were circumcised, were thought as sexually different, or, “other.”  With such an impression they were thought to be the mirrored partner of the “immoral” prostitute; it was believed that only those from the same world could kill and brutalise such women, thus, the “diseased destroy diseased”[7] (for more on the links between the Whitechapel Murders and sex Click Here).  These assumptions added to the building impressions that Jack the Ripper must be Jewish.


Other theories were also being disseminated; one suggestion was that he was suffering from syphilis and was killing women of the East End as revenge for his fate.[8]  Another was connected to the suggestion that he was a “lunatic” in various forms; one form was that, influenced by the various “Vigilance Societies and Purity Societies… [he] may have got it into his head that he is doing good service in ridding the world of so many social pests.”[9]  Alternatively, perhaps inspired by the play that was being shown in the theatre at the time of the murders, it was suggested that Jack the Ripper was an individual who had a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality; with both respectable and brutal aspects of his personality.[10]  This idea was popular to those who were trying to understand how a respectable surgeon could potentially have committed such horrid murders, a consideration that appeared after it was thought that at least some anatomical knowledge was needed in order to remove the organs that he had removed during his destruction of the women’s bodies.


Overall, with such little information or clues left at the scenes, the murders fed many prejudices and assumptions that were rife throughout the East End; the xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes along with other rivalries were given fuel and encouraged by the press.[11]  It should also be stated that it was not just Jack the Ripper that invoked many stereotypes, the women themselves who fell victim to him also received the same treatment through the Victorian press; they were all classed as prostitutes or, “unfortunates”, however when their lives were investigated, it was clear that this was inaccurate.  Several of them, had alcohol dependency problems; all apart from Mary Jane Kelly were in their forties’; most were mothers;  Annie Chapman, though had fallen on very hard times and likely could not pay for her lodging on the night she was murdered, actually came from a middle class background; Catherine Eddowes, although she was no longer living with her husband, was at the time she was murdered, living with a man named John Kelly, whom she was in a committed relationship with and she had never worked as a prostitute.  Yet despite this, they were referred to generally as prostitutes and both them and their murders were portrayed as a microcosm for the lack of morality and the need for sanitation intervention in Whitechapel and the East End (for more information on the role of Whitechapel on the fascination of Jack the Ripper, Click Here).


This post is not exhaustive, there are many nuances and much context that played a role in the way that society perceived and thought about Jack the Ripper.  Yet hopefully this post will help to understand the ways that stereotypes and prejudices played a role in the way that society reacted to the Whitechapel Murders.  The next and final post, which will be released next Friday, on society’s fascination with Jack the Ripper, I will be drawing these four posts together in an overall conclusion.


[1] The Canonical Five was the term used to refer to the five women who are considered to be most certainly victims of Jack the Ripper, all others referred to in connection with the Whitechapel Murders are not known irrefutably whether or not they were killed by him.

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

[3] 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), 208.

[4] “The Newcastle Courant, North of England Farmer and General Hue and Cry: Est 1711- 9th Year of Queen Anne: More Whitechapel Murders.” The Newcastle Weekly Courant, (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Friday 5 October 1888), Issue 11151.

[5] J. Flanders, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, Kindle Ebook, (London: Harper Press, 2011), 441.

[6] “Terrible Murders in Whitechapel: Two More Women Murdered and Mutilated,” The Newcastle Weekly Courant, (Newcastel-Upon-Tyne, Friday, 5 October 1888), Issue 11151.

[7] S. L. Gilman, “‘Who kills whores?’ ‘I do,’ says Jack: Race and Gender in Victorian London,” in Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History, edited by Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 226.

[8] Gilman, “Who kills whores?” 217.

[9] “The Newcastle Courant.”

[10] Flanders, The Invention of Murder, E book, 434.

[11] Haggard, “The Threat of Outcast London,” 209.

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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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