|In Victorian England, Jack the Ripper was a famous serial killer known for killing prostitutes. The renowned deviant’s identity today is still unknown. Walkowitz states, “News accounts enlarged the significance of the murders, transforming them into national news.”1 What does this say about the sensationalist nature of the newspapers surrounding these murders? How did the newspapers affect the presentation and representation of these murders? Did the newspapers help to provoke and instil fear in society? Discuss.
Student I.D: 22045325
Jack the Ripper, an infamous serial killer in Victorian London, created a great stir in the news media of the late 1800s. Walkowitz refers to “[an] enlarged significance of the murders” in the newspapers.2 This alludes to the concept of a sensationalist manner of the reports. In this sense, Walkowitz is describing a media frenzy which enabled the fear of Jack the Ripper to imbue itself throughout society. Firstly, this essay will provide a background analysis of Jack the Ripper enabling insight into the crimes. Secondly, this essay will define the social context of the district of Whitechapel in Victorian London in 1888. This will provide reasons as to why Jack the Ripper’s crimes were so notorious and will assist in defining the ill-fated region. The issues that were paramount and significant enabling Jack the Ripper’s crimes to be executed will also be explored. Theories behind criminality, deviance and degeneracy will be discussed in relation to the case of Jack the Ripper. Following that, the manner in which the news media were able to amplify the murders and how and why these murders were intensified will be analysed. Emerging from this idea, the sensationalist fashion of the newspaper coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders will be examined, and how public perceptions were altered due to methods of sensationalism. Finally, the question of whether the newspapers facilitated and provoked an excessive amount of fear will be explored. This essay contends that the sensationalist manner of the newspapers in 1888 instigated an exorbitant sense of fear to manifest and resonate throughout the people of Whitechapel, and of greater London.
Jack the Ripper was a notorious serial killer in Victorian London. His true identity is still unknown, yet the deviant crimes he committed live on into the 21st century (more than 100 years after these brutal acts of murder were committed). There is no definite number of how many murder victims there were as some bodies were found prior to Jack the Ripper’s undoubted victims.3 These were entitled the ‘Whitechapel Murders.’4 They occurred in the same region of Whitechapel, but occurred before the 31st of August which is Jack the Ripper’s first recognised killing.5 Jack the Ripper was known to have killed five prostitutes between the 31st of August and 9th of November, 1888.6 These were known as the ‘Canonical Five.’7 The ‘Canonical Five’ included Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Endowes and Mary Jane Kelly.8 The abhorrent manner in which Jack the Ripper killed his final victim is illustrated in ‘Dr Bond’s Post Mortem on Mary Kelly’, “The face was gashed in all directions, the nose, cheeks, eyebrows and ears being partly removed…the skin and tissues of the abdomen…were removed in three large flaps…”9 This emphasises the gruesome way in which these women were killed. All of these women were prostitutes earning low incomes and were residents of the Whitechapel district.10 As Jack the Ripper’s true identity was unknown, there was a plethora of diverse theories trying to determine who was the man behind this deviant killer. Some of these include an American, a woman, an aristocrat, a local, a mad man, a gang and a sailor.11 One of the significant factors which makes the Jack the Ripper saga still newsworthy today is the fact that “…[he] was never caught and it is the mysteries surrounding this killer that both add to the romance of the story and create an intellectual puzzle that people still want to solve.”12 This is evident in an article which featured in ‘The Age’ on the 16th of May, 2011, titled ‘London police fight to keep Ripper documents secret.’ The article reads, “Scotland Yard is fighting an extraordinary legal battle to withhold 123-year-old secret files which experts believe could finally provide the identity of Jack the Ripper.”13 It is clear that the allure of the mystery of Jack the Ripper will be something that will never die.
All of Jack the Ripper’s murders were executed in the vicinity of Whitechapel (a district in the East End of London). The East End was an area in London that was rife with poverty. Adler states “In the East End are the others. Here live the poor…[and] the shamed...”14 Obvious indicators of poverty were the elevated birth and death rates in the Whitechapel district. Drysdale, a doctor in 1888, wrote a letter to the editor of the ‘Star’ newspaper, stating “The birth-rate of Bethnal-Green last year, 1887, was nearly 40 per 1000 as compared with that of Kensington, which was only 19.5…”15 Similarly, the death rates highlighted in a letter to the editor of the ‘Daily Telegraph’states “…the death-rate per annum is 33 per 1000….whilst there are parishes in London where the death rate is only 16 per 1000.”16It was not uncommon for people to stay in lodging homes where the price for one night’s accommodation was 4 pence per night.17 Begg believes that, “The Jack the Ripper murders…drew attention to the surviving slums.”18 Prostitution was omnipresent throughout the Whitechapel district. Prostitutes were known as the ‘unfortunates’.19 Roland articulates “Whitechapel alone had 63 brothels and boasted in excess of 1,200 prostitutes.”20Jones reasons this high percentage was due to socio-economic conditions, he states “But for the majority, escape from the area was simply not an option and in times of extreme economic hardship, when men found it almost impossible to get work, many an East End slum family’s very survival depended on a wife or daughter prostituting herself on the streets.”21 Walkowitz relates the murders of Jack the Ripper to the Whitechapel district when she states, “…Whitechapel provided a stark and sensational backdrop for the Ripper murders: an immoral landscape of light and darkness, a nether region of illicit sex and crime, both exciting and dangerous.”22 Heightened in Walkowitz’s words, it is easy to see how the slums of Whitechapel were the perfect setting for Jack the Ripper.
In understanding the case of Jack the Ripper, it is important to define what is deemed normal and what is considered deviant. Cesare Lombroso, known as the ‘father of modern criminology’, believed that criminality is inherited. 23Lombroso believed that a criminal was identifiable due to the shape of his ears, forehead or whether they had a tattoo.24 Gina Lombroso, daughter of Cesare Lombroso, writes, “… the origin of the enormous jaws, strong canines…and strongly developed orbital arches which [were] so frequently marked in criminals… are common to carnivores and savages, who tear and devour raw flesh.”25This image of ‘tearing’ and ‘devouring flesh’ can present itself in Jack the Ripper’s horrific act of disembowelment of the ‘Canonical Five.’26 This is one clear example of what separates a deviant from a normal person. It must be said that the method of identifying a deviant due to their appearance would not have been effective when discussing Jack the Ripper, as his persona is still a mystery. It can be argued that the identity of the killer would be suffering from what is, coined as by Morel, ‘degeneracy’.27 Bénédict-Auguste Morel argued that degeneracy is an underlying condition of which symptoms include criminality, imbecility and insanity.28 Essentially, it can be described as a general deviation from what is considered normal. This argument of degeneracy concerning Jack the Ripper could be continued to be explored as Morel believed that a contributing factor to this concept was environmental factors.29 Jack the Ripper’s environment of the Victorian slums would indicate that his surroundings were encompassed with poverty, excessive drinking and sex crimes. In the case of Jack the Ripper, if deviant is described as being what is not considered to be normal, then as Walkowitz highlights, the victims also lead ‘deviant’ lives of their own.30 All of the women were prostitutes, heavy drinkers and were overwhelmed with poverty. In accordance with these definitions, this would then allow Jack the Ripper to be classified and regarded as deviant.
At the time of the Jack the Ripper crimes, there was a revolution within the print news media. Begg describes this transformation when he states, “The ‘new journalism’ was a combination of racier journalism, investigative journalism, making the news (campaigns highlighting scandals, inefficiencies and inadequacies); sensationalism (exaggerated reporting).”31 This was most certainly evident throughout the prime of the Jack the Ripper murders. Begg goes on further to state, “The new journalism was looking for a sensation…Jack the Ripper rolled them all into one.”32During this period of ‘new journalism’ the newspapers were able to write in such a way to evoke their personal agendas. Begg writes “...Stead [editor of the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’] was responsible for bringing about changes to the East End.”33 Essentially, the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’ led the reform [of the slums], the ‘Daily News’ and the ‘Daily Telegraph’ followed, and the ‘Times’ disapproved.34 As was observed, “Large-scale re-development was Jack the Ripper’s most important legacy to the Flower and Dean streets [considered to be the worst streets in the Whitechapel district] neighbourhood.”35Whitehead further highlights the agenda of the news print media when he states, “Journalists from the tabloid ‘Star’ to the upmarket ‘Daily Telegraph’ rose to the challenge. Even the usual sedate ‘Times’ weren’t exempt. All were equally keen to make political currency out of the murders. Both radical and conservative papers used coverage to criticise the Home Secretary and Sir Charles Warren.”36 The newspapers the ‘Star’ and the ‘Pall Mall Gazette,’ specifically targeted the police and the government stating that they couldn’t care less about the victims because they were “destitute and immoral women.”37 Ryder and Schachner articulate, “Every day the activities of the Ripper were chronicled in the newspapers as were the results of the enquiries and the actions taken by the police. Even the feelings of the people living in the East End, and the editorials that attacked the various establishments of Society appeared each day for both the people of London and the whole world to read. It was the press coverage that made this series of murders a “new thing”, something that the world had never known before.”38 It is patent that the newspapers were scrutinising the actions of the police, the government and the people of the East End, which was a new practice in journalism that had not been seen previously.
It is no secret that the Jack the Ripper murders were a blessing to the news media. Newspapers ran rampant with any news pertaining to Jack the Ripper’s deviance. Jones articulates, “The newspapers of the time had realized that murderous attacks made good copy”39 Therefore, it is evident that the news media profited from such horrific crimes. Paul Begg continues on from this when he articulates, “The Sunday newspaper, the People, sold more copies than it had ever done. Crime always boosted sales… but a sensational series of horrific crimes unfolding… was a ‘journalistic windfall’ as far as Fleet Street was concerned-opportunistically happening at a time when the competition for readers was becoming fierce enough to cause several investors qualms.”40 Newspapers were highlighting the change in news media, where the rivalry between them for readers was growing ever more prevalent than its traditional role of informing the public. This is reiterated when Ryder and Schachner highlight that “…[Jack the Ripper]was not the first serial killer, but he was probably the first to appear in a large metropolis at a time when the general populace had become literate and the press was a force for social change”41 An example of enlarged nature of the news surrounding this deviant is clear in an article in the Pall Mall Gazette on 8th of September 1888, titled ‘Another Murder-And More to Follow?’42 This is further heightened in another article by the Pall Mall Gazette entitled ‘More Horrors in the East End: Two Women Murdered-The Same Fearful Mutilation’ which was published on the 1st October 188843.It is interesting that Paul Begg notes, “As time passed particularly during the long murder-free month of October, the press struggled to keep the story going, despite the long and detailed coroner’s inquiry”44 Whitehead and Rivett argue that, “Jack was born just as the popular press was finding its feet and they helped each other immeasurably. He gave them murders to boost their circulation and they, in turn, made him into a legend. No detail was too titillating or unpleasant to be left reported or undistorted.”45 Therefore, it is assumed that in enlarging the significance of these murders, journalists were utilising emotive means of writing to infiltrate the public with an overwhelming sense of fear.
An intrinsic factor of Jack the Ripper’s case were the letters he allegedly sent to the news media to heighten his notoriety and infamy. Begg writes, “It was to the Central News Agency that a letter would be sent, purporting to be from the Whitechapel murderer, being signed and for the first time giving the name ‘Jack the Ripper’.”46 It has been hypothesised that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was in fact devised by a journalist as this letter was the first recognition of the deviant’s perverse title47. An array of historians believes that the letter written by Jack the Ripper was indeed written by a fabricating journalist.48 This concept permeates through this statement from Sir Robert Anderson, ““I will only add here that the ‘Jack the Ripper’ letter which is preserved in the Police museum at New Scotland Yard is the creation of an enterprising London journalist.”49 The first letter was dated 25 September 1888, and Central News had received it by the 27th September50. The letter opened with ‘Dear Boss’, and was comprised of such statements as “I am down on the whores and I shan’t quit ripping them till I do get bucked” and “I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I can’t use it.”51 The letter ended by signing off “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.”52 Walkowitz writes, “… whether authentic or not, the letters helped to establish the murders as a media event by focusing social anxieties and fantasies on a single, elusive, alienated figure, a figure who created ‘sensation’ and who communicated to a mass public through the newspaper.”53 The letters were utilised in a way by the press to play on people’s emotions and generate a sense of fear on a much larger scale.
Due to the newspapers’ relentless and insistent reporting and coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders, the depiction of the serial killer was skewed. This is extremely pertinent through the press’ persistent pursuit of the identity of the deviant. Jones articulates, “Spurred on by press xenophobia, they [general public] came to the conclusion that an Englishman could not be responsible, and were more than happy to wreak vengeance on the [Jewish] community that had already become their scapegoats for virtually all the other ills that blighted their everyday lives.”54 This prejudice against the Jewish community highlights the animosity which stemmed from unsubstantiated reports and frivolous gossip emerging from the media. Another example of racism in the news media is palpable in a letter to the editor of ‘the Times’, on the 4th of October, 1888 which recites“…in reading the accounts of these Whitechapel murders…they have probably been committed by a Malay, or other low-class Asiatic…whom, there are large numbers in that part of London. The mutilations, cutting off the nose and ears, ripping up the body, and cutting out certain organs-the heart-are all peculiarly Eastern methods…whereas, here the public and police are quite at a loss to attach any meaning to them…”55It is clear that the newspapers were able to manipulate the public’s understanding of the murders through their emphatic and vigorous reports.
The print news media utilised methods of journalism to increase fear in the general public whilst simultaneously increasing profit. An example of this appears in ‘The Daily Telegraph’, where it writes, “There is a very general belief among the local detective force in the East-End that the murderer or murderers are lurking in some of the dangerous dens of the low slums, in close proximity to the scenes of the murders…Even the cellars in some of the slums are stated to be occupied for sleeping purposes by strange characters who only appear in the streets at night”56 In this way, it is clear how conspiracies of ‘strange characters’ who are reported to be ‘lurking in dangerous dens’ was an adoption of emotive language by the journalists to further heighten people’s fears. This concept of meddling with people’s emotions is an effective means of selling more papers, due to the moral panic to which the people of Whitechapel had succumbed. The establishment of a ‘moral panic’ by the newspapers surrounding the Jack the Ripper murder promoted and advocated a heightened sense of fear. It is the process of sensitization, (a coverage that increases awareness of the deviance), alongside inventory, (a series of events perceived as similar to the initial deviance), that produce ‘moral panics.’57 Therefore, in the case of Jack the Ripper, the media reported the deviant’s first official murder of Mary Ann Nichols. Journalists then utilised the ‘inventory’ concept and reported that Jack the Ripper must be responsible for the Whitechapel murders prior to Mary Ann Nichols gruesome death. Finally, the technique of sensitization ensures that there is excessive coverage ensuring paramount awareness of Jack the Ripper. This production of ‘moral panic’ would radiate fear due to the media fuelled frenzy, ensuring that news of Jack the Ripper would be unavoidable.
A deviant with an unknown identity, Jack the Ripper, shocked the world in 1888 with his notorious crimes. These gruesome murders in the slums of Whitechapel had an immense impact on the print news media. In Walkowitz’s words, “News accounts enlarged the significance of the murders, transforming them into national news.”58 This statement is referring to sensationalism which ran rampant within the news media throughout 1888. Whitechapel proved to be the perfect backdrop for Jack the Ripper’s murders. People were living in squalor, highlighting the desperation which filtered out of the Whitechapel slums. The area was densely populated with prostitutes, who were financially living day by day. Added to this, a high percentage of new immigrants made Whitechapel a boiling pot for something horrific to occur. Newspapers took advantage of the poor socio-economic conditions, and ensured that their personal agendas were adhered to. The news media heightened the abhorrent murders to their own advantage, highlighting the social inequalities of Whitechapel and the need for reform. With frightening headlines, the newspapers were able to make a larger profit by writing about a subject that was so feared by Whitechapel, and outer London. By focusing on this fear, the print news media was able to create a moral panic, and thus ultimately increase readership dramatically. A good example would be the Jack the Ripper letters written to the papers, which most historians believe were written by an enterprising journalist. By continually updating the public on the latest news of the deviant’s activities, the general public were compelled to keep reading the newspapers, thus warranting the newspapers success in their efforts of fostering fear.
‘Another Murder and More to Follow?’ in the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’, 8th September 1888, accessed at http://www.casebook.org/
Bond, Dr. Thomas, ‘Post Mortem on Mary Kelly’, November 1888, accessed at http://www.casebook.org/
‘More Horrors in the East End: Two Women Murdered-The Same Fearful Mutilation’ in the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’, 1st October 1888, accessed at http://www.casebook.org/
Begg, Paul, ‘Jack the Ripper: the Definitive History’, Pearson Ltd., 2004.
Fagin, James A., ‘Criminal Justice’, Pearson Inc., 2004.
Hayes, Vanessa A. ‘Revelations of the True Ripper’, Lulu Ltd., 2006.
Jones, Richard, ‘Uncovering Jack the Ripper’s London’, New Holland Publishers (U.K), 2007.
Lombroso, Gina, ‘Criminal Man: According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso’, New York and London, 1911.
‘London Police Fight to Keep Ripper Documents Secret’, in ‘The Age’, May 16th, 2011.
Pinkney, Tony, Hanley, Keith & Botting, Fred, ‘Romantic Masculinities’, Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Rafter, Nicole Hahn, ‘The Origins of Criminology’, Taylor & Francis, 2009, p.89.
Roland, Paul, ‘The Crimes of Jack the Ripper’, Arcturus Publishing, 2007.
Ryder, Stephen P. & Schachner, Thomas, ‘Casebook: Jack the Ripper’, at http://www.casebook.org/, accessed 1st May, 2011.
Ryder, Stephen P. ‘Public Relations to Jack the Ripper: Letters to the Editor: August-December 1888’, Inklings Press, 2006.
Walkowitz, Judith R. ‘City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London’, Virago Press, 1992.
Whitehead, Mark & Rivett, Miriam, ‘Jack the Ripper’, Pocket Essentials, 2006.
Wilson, David, ‘A History of British Serial-Killing: The Definitive Account from Jack the Ripper to Harold Shipman and Beyond’, Sphere (Little Brown Book Group), 2007.