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

As this four-part series has demonstrated, the lure of Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders allows us to examine society’s fascination with sex and murder.  Murders, firstly, allow people to feel the excitement of knowing that life is short while still remaining safe in their homes.  The constant sense of mystery about Jack the Ripper has also added to society’s interest with its ability to pique people’s curiosity.  Furthermore, due to the fact that he was never caught, there was never any “closure” or any way to know why he did it, leaving us with only our imaginations to try to find the answer (For the full post discussing people’s interest in murder and mystery Click Here).


Where the murders took place is also important, it could be linked to much of the messaging that social investigators such as Henry Mayhew, philanthropists concerned with morality and those concerned with sanitation were promoting.  The press highlighted many of the issues that these groups were talking about; pointing out that the overcrowding and dark streets were a large reason why things were so dire in this part of London.  On the other hand, the fact that the murders were limited to Whitechapel allowed middle class readers to feel comforted by the fact that these dangers were far away from them, allowing them to watch the events from a distance (for more information about the role of Whitechapel with the fascination with Jack the Ripper Click Here).


Presenting these women as common prostitutes, or “unfortunates”, allowed, not only for readers to be further distanced from such brutality but also for commentators to make a point about the immorality of the area and the dangers of sexual deviation.  Yet when the press and investigators looked into these women’s lives it was often found that this was not accurate, out of the canonical five, only Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly were the only ones who had any connection to prostitution.  Even then, Elizabeth Stride, in particular, was found to mostly work as a charwoman, people who knew said that she only resorted to prostitution “when driven to extremities” and, furthermore, rather than having a reputation as a hardened prostitute, she was well liked by those who knew her and remembered her as a quiet person.[1]  These murders demonstrate the ways that Victorians navigated around the question of sex and sexual behaviour; as a topic that was required to be discussed in rather indirect ways, the press used language in ways to navigate around taboo words in order to provide the reading public with as much detail and sexual intrigue as possible (for more information about the role of sex and sexual behaviour and the fascination with the Whitechapel Murders Click Here).


Through the Whitechapel Murders, it is possible to see how the Victorian press linked the reputation of the area with the reputation of prostitutes; the prostitutes found working in Whitechapel were thought to be the lowest members of society and connected to the criminal underworld also thought to preside there.  The fact that women who were labelled as prostitutes were killed in an area that was viewed as their geographical equivalent appears as a symbolic connection and as some of the theories as to who was Jack the Ripper show, it appeared to be treated as such.  The search and determination to find a Jewish Jack demonstrates how the linking of different “outcasts” within the “outcast” area of London as a way to comprehend the mutilations and violence of the Whitechapel Murders (for more information about how stereotypes and prejudice had a role in the fascination with the Whitechapel Murders Click Here).

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

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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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