Jack the Ripper

A fascination with the Jack the Ripper murders is a great way to begin talking about late-Victorian London. While “Ripperologists” focus on the unsolved mystery of the killer’s identity, that is not the interest of historians. There simply was not enough evidence collected at the time to solve the murder, and the evidence that was collected was deeply problematic. And that is where it gets interesting to historians. Because there were so few solid facts at the time, it encouraged contemporaries to speculate about the identity of the killer. It also invited people to speculate on the specific motives of this mythic killer, and identify potential broader social issues that led to the tragedies. Herein lies the interesting stuff for historians. Police officers, journalists, government officials, novelists, reformers, community members and the lay public all gave expression to their deepest anxieties and concerns. Without a clear suspect, they imagined their own worst nightmares coming to life. Their speculations provide wonderful primary source material for understanding late-Victorian England.

As Judith Walkowitz notes, coverage of the Ripper murders needs to be understood as part of larger ongoing conversations of power, space, and sexuality at the time.

“Drawing on cultural fantasies—about the grotesque female body, about the labyrinthine city, about the mad doctor—that had long circulated among different strata of Victorian culture, media coverage also highlighted new elements of late-Victorian conceptions of the self and London’s imaginary landscape.” 1

While many have tried to expand the number of victims of the “Ripper” killer, at the time, the police identified five. Sadly there were a number of women murdered in Whitechapel in 1888. The vicious assault on 45-year-old widow Emma Smith in April killed her not long after she was able to tell her story. She was attacked at the corner of Brick Lane and Wentworth street, and dragged herself to her George Street lodging house before dying in London Hospital on Whitechapel Road. In August, 39-year-old Martha Tabram was stabbed to death in George Yard, a notorious tenement block.2 However, the police determined that Smith had been the victim of a gang and that Tabram had been killed by a soldier (as her wounds were seemingly inflicted by bayonet).3

Framing a “Murderous” Neighbourhood

One of the main goals of this website is to see the totality of Whitechapel, and compare the representations of the area before and after the killings to see how they influenced public opinion. What quickly became apparent is that the Ripper murders were placed in a specific contemporary context very quickly. Murder was not common at the time, but it was not unheard of. After the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, journalists looked to other recent crimes for comparison.

The year before the Ripper murders, there was another gruesome murder of a woman in Whitechapel that gripped headlines. In this case it was Miriam Angel, a young Jewish woman found in her own rooms after nitric acid was forced down her throat. Her Jewish neighbor was found under the bed with light signs of poison, and was eventually convicted of the crime. The crime not only drew on contemporary fears about poison and anxiety about increasing levels of immigration, it also became heavily associated with Whitechapel. Articles about the murder were titled “The Whitechapel Tragedy,” “The Mysterious Tragedy at Whitechapel,” and “The Whitechapel Murder.”4 These stories helped cement associations between the neighborhood and terrible crime.

And when two women were killed in Whitechapel a year later, it was inevitable that journalists made comparisons. The location of one murder in Berner’s-street was within yards of the location of Miriam Angel’s death. Journalists could focus on the “evil repute” of the area, mentioning its ancient nickname as “Tiger’s bay,” given because of the “ferocious character of the desperadoes who frequented it.”5 If one went looking simply for articles describing Whitehchapel in a negative way, or looking for stories about violence and murder in the neighborhood, one can certainly find them.

Beyond Jack the Ripper

Those living within Whitechapel worried at the time that the murders might overshadow the complex lives of the people who lived there. Samuel Barnett was a clergyman, a social activist, and founding member of the settlement movement in East London. He moved to Whitechapel and both he and his wife Henrietta were active participants in trying to improve the neighborhood at every level. A sympathetic outsider, he was aware that the Jack the Ripper killings reinforced and magnified every terrible impression people had of Whitechapel. “The series of murders, and the revelations at the inquests of the daily life lived by men and women, have so impressed the public mind that Whitechapel at once suggests to strangers thoughts of degradation.”6 Barnett understood that the lurid details of poverty, prostitution, and violence that spilled out across the pages of the contemporary press were creating a caricature. While Barnett realized Whitechapel, and the East End as a whole, had problems, he did not see them as defining the area. He was always keen to emphasize the nuance and complexity of his neighbours’ lives.

Primary Source
Samuel Barnett

  • 1 Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 191.
  • 2 John Bennett, Mob Town: A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 132-135.
  • 3 Darren Oldridge, “Casting the spell of terror: the press and the early Whitechapel Murders,” in Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History, eds. Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 51.
  • 4 “The Whitechapel Tragedy,” Western Daily Press, 2 July 1887, 3; “The Mysterious Tragedy at Whitechapel,” Illustrated Police News, 9 July 1887, 2; “The Whitechapel Murder,” Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 August 1887, 5.
  • 5 “The Whitechapel Horrors,” Cornishman, 4 October 1888, 6.
  • 6 Samuel A Barnett, Whitechapel, c. 1889, Pamphlet Local Collection 022. box 1, Bishopsgate Archive.