Yale University Press / New Haven and London
Published with assistance from the foundation established in memory of Philip Hamilton
McMillan of the Class of 1894, Yale College.
Copyright ∫ 2001 by Yale University
All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations,
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Curtis, L. Perry (Lewis Perry), 1932–
Jack the Ripper and the London press / L. Perry Curtis, Jr.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0–300–08872–8 (alk. paper)
1. Jack the Ripper. 2. Serial murders—Press coverage—England—London.
3. Serial murderers—Press coverage—England—London.
4. Serial murders—England—London—History—19th century. I. Title.
HV6535.G72 L663 2001
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on
Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
In Memoriam
Father, Teacher, Anglophile,
and Man of Letters
‘‘The desire of knowledge,
like the thirst of riches,
increases ever
with the acquisition of it.’’
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Chapter 1 The Whitechapel Murders: A Chronicle
Chapter 2 Images and Realities of the East End
Chapter 3 The Theory and Practice of Victorian Journalism
Chapter 4 Sensation News
Chapter 5 Victorian Murder News
Chapter 6 The First Two Murders
Chapter 7 The Double Event
Chapter 8 The Pursuit of Angles
Chapter 9 The Kelly Reportage
Chapter 10 The Inquests: Reporting the Female Body
Chapter 11 Responses to Ripper News: Letters to the Editor
Chapter 12 The Cultural Politics of Ripper News
Since 1960, at least thirty books—not to mention scores of articles and
chapters—have dealt with the exploits and identity of Jack the Ripper.1 One
of the fastest-growing light industries of the late-twentieth-century publishing world, what is known as ‘‘Ripperature’’ has attracted a worldwide audience, owing in part to exotic film and television variations on the theme of
whodunem. Writers who relish playing the game of ‘‘hunt the Ripper’’ tend
to thrive by the rule that even the flimsiest circumstantial evidence can
serve to buttress a foregone conclusion. No matter how exhaustive the
archival hunt and how personally gratifying the discovery of the ‘‘real’’ Jack
may be—especially if he turns out to have been a gentleman or a royal—the
results of this exercise have brought us no closer to the real culprit than did
the exertions of Scotland Yard in 1888. Of course, the fact that Jack’s
identity remains a mystery explains much of his appeal today.
Given all the multimedia attention paid to Jack the Ripper in recent
years, one may well ask why we need yet another study of his deeds and the
myths swirling around them. My short answer is that long ago I discerned a
significant gap in Ripperature. For years Ripper buffs have devoted so
much energy to tracking down the killer that the subject of what the London press conveyed to the public in the way of murder news has been
largely obscured. In other words, the story of Fleet Street’s construction of
the Ripper story has yet to be told. Moreover, there has been an almost
complete failure of communication between, on the one hand, the male
‘‘essentialists’’ who focus on the Ripper’s exploits and identity and, on the
other, the ‘‘theorized’’ feminists, who have an entirely different agenda and
see these sadistic murders as symptomatic of the deep-seated misogyny that
pervades patriarchal societies.
The burgeoning field of ‘‘murderology’’ has been much enriched of late
by some outstanding studies by a new generation of cultural critics and
historians—most of them written by American women—of the representation of murder, murderers, and victims not only in newspapers but also in
fiction and art. Scholarly studies by Helen Benedict, Karen Halttunen,
Judith Knelman, Sara Knox, Wendy Lesser, Maria Tatar, Richard Tithecott,
Andy Tucher, and Amy Srebnick have greatly expanded the horizons of this
vital, if morbid, topic and made us more aware of how deeply we are all
implicated as readers and as members of society in narratives of violent
death. These studies are also studded with clues about the workings of
culture as well as class and gender relations.2 In short, they help to remind
us that at some level of our psychic lives the familiar emotions of love, hate,
anger, jealousy, lust, and greed (almost all the seven deadly sins) make us
complicit with the principal actors in murder cases, however strenuously
we may try to distance ourselves from the victims or the victimizers. In the
words of Sara Knox, ‘‘The teller of the tale of murder touches upon grand
and unanswerable questions.’’3 These tales affect us directly, if only because
we are all at risk when it comes to random, familial, or domestic acts of
lethal violence. No matter how far removed we may be from the actual
crime scene, we are drawn to such tales because the horrific reality of
homicide reminds us of both the precariousness of life and the immanence
of death.
Although feminist critics attribute the media’s fondness for sensationalizing murder to the voyeuristic or prurient impulses of male journalists and
their primarily masculine audience, there can be no doubt that murder
cases and trials in the Victorian era appealed deeply to many women,
judging from their presence in the visitors galleries of courtrooms. They
also made up at least a third of the spectators at public executions in
England up to 1868. In other words, the representation of murder and
its aftermath in newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets, and books reveals much
about the tastes or needs of the populace as a whole. At the outset of her
study of the legal, social, and moral issues arising out of a condemned
prisoner’s wish to have his own execution videotaped and shown on a
television station in California, Wendy Lesser admits that she is ‘‘interested
in our interest in murder.’’ So am I. But whereas she is most concerned with
‘‘the increasingly blurry borderline between real murder and fictional murder, between murder as news and murder as art, between event and story,’’4
I am intrigued by the illusions of reality purveyed by the print media, and I
keep wanting to know more about the efforts of editors and reporters to fill
as many of the empty pockets of murder news as possible with messages of
moral, if not political, import. Although not fully deserving of the label
fiction because they were not the products of pure imagination, the feature
articles about murder in the Victorian press contained many of the basic
ingredients of the novel or short story—with the obvious exception of the
clinical details of bodily injuries that Victorian newspapers served up to
readers in an almost pornographic manner. The larger focus of this study,
then, falls on representations of different kinds of murder in the London
press since the 1840s, including all the extra baggage that accompanied
feature stories about homicides deemed newsworthy by editors.
While most Ripperologists have treated Jack the Ripper as a unique
hero-villain, some feminists have interpreted his activities as a paradigm of
the ‘‘modern’’ phenomenon of sexual murder, configuring him as an extreme expression or epitome of ‘‘the patriarchal order.’’ In other words, this
icon of evil represents a huge milestone in the long war of the sexes that has
been variously called gynocide, gendercide, or femicide.5 When one surveys the different approaches taken to studying the Whitechapel murders,
what stands out is the absence of any serious dialogue or exchange between
the (mostly British) male essentialists and the (mostly American) feminist
cultural critics. Like ships in the night, the two schools pass each other by
with barely a foghorn or semaphore message to acknowledge the presence
of the other. (Much the same could be said about historians of murder in
nineteenth-century Britain and America, but that is another story.) One
notable exception, Christopher Frayling, has confronted the cultural implications of the Ripper mythos and pointed out how the press occasionally
went so far as to chastise itself—ever so gently, one might add—for exploiting the lurid aspects of these mutilation murders.6
My own point of entry into the heavily trafficked highway of Ripper
studies may be likened to a roundabout in the midst of two highly gendered streams of traffic. Among my principal concerns—in no order of
importance—are first, the constructed nature of news in general and murder news in particular; second, the handling of the Ripper’s mutilations by
reporters; third, the pervasive presence of law-and-order imperatives in
Ripper news during a time of tense class relations; fourth, the imaging or
‘‘Othering’’ of the East End as the natural site of such horrors; fifth, the
relation of Fleet Street’s representations of the Ripper’s victims to contemporary (male) images of the female body; and sixth, the public responses to
these murders in the form of letters published in some leading papers. In
one way or another all these themes arise out of my conviction that Ripper
news and its spin-offs afford insights into the preoccupations, indeed obsessions, of the late Victorians. To put this another way, into the partial
vacuum created by all the unknowns in this horror story rushed the kind of
fears and fantasies that were usually hidden behind the doors of reticence
or repression and therefore deemed unfit to print.
Cast in a more empirical mold, the first two chapters offer an overview of
the crimes and a brief survey of the crime scene—Whitechapel—as constructed by both contemporaries and historians. These are followed by
three chapters in which I seek to contextualize the industry and the art of
journalism and deal with the various meanings of sensationalism and the
nature of murder news in Victorian England. To aid and abet my understanding of the theory, practice, and politics of journalism I have drawn on
both the pioneering work on the twentieth-century British press carried out
by Stuart Hall, Steve Chibnall, and their colleagues at Birmingham’s Centre
for Contemporary Cultural Studies during the 1970s, and also the sociological investigation of the Canadian news industry (both print and television)
orchestrated by Richard Ericson a decade later.7 Despite their differences,
these cultural critics have likewise illuminated the ideological and/or political nature of news about crime and other forms of deviant behavior. Their
studies of media-driven ‘‘crime waves’’ in the late twentieth century help us
to understand better the workings of Victorian crime news, so much of
which was designed to achieve a well-ordered or well-policed society. To
that end, many (but not all) Victorian journalists drew sharp distinctions
between normative and deviant behavior, thereby reinscribing the dominant codes of social and sexual respectability. With these critical journalistic studies in mind, I have treated murder news as a social and cultural
construct assembled by reporters who both influence and are influenced in
turn by standards of approved behavior. News, in sum, is not just about
politics, it is politics.8
In Chapter 6 I begin the process of analyzing Ripper news by comparing
the various accounts of the Nichols and Chapman murders. The next four
chapters are devoted to the coverage of the last three Ripper murders
(Stride, Eddowes, and Kelly). In Chapter 11 I deal with several hundred
letters to the editor sent by readers with various agendas to express. And,
finally, in Chapter 12 I reflect on the political-cum-cultural ramifications of
Ripper news. Among the many omissions in this study are the countless
resurrections of the Ripper murders in our own time, whether these assume
the form of fiction, opera, film, television dramas, comic books, East End
walking tours, or tacky memorabilia sold in Whitechapel pubs. Such topics
could easily fill another book.
To appreciate the nuances of Ripper news, we must first examine the
conventions of crime reporting and murder news and then see how Ripper
news reinforced West End impressions of the East End as a den of unrelieved depravity. After this comes the gore. Since so much of the Ripper
reportage consisted of graphic descriptions of the injuries inflicted by the
killer, I have addressed the subject of ‘‘sensation-horror news’’ with all its
prurient and voyeuristic implications. In this regard, both the evening and
Sunday press took top honors by featuring the Ripper’s ‘‘abdominal’’ mutilations as revealed at the various inquest sessions. While some of these
passages contained intimate glimpses of female anatomy that seemed much
more appropriate for a medical journal, even these papers omitted some of
the clinical details found in the autopsy reports. At the same time, the
upmarket morning papers did not lag far behind their penny competitors
when it came to serving up gore to readers, few of whom ever complained
in print about undue shocks to their sensibilities.
Years of reading newspapers both past and present have driven me to
the rather depressing conclusion that news is more or less whatever editors and journalists deem newsworthy on any given day or night. In other
words, our daily or weekly diet of news represents the result of much
sifting, selecting, blending, and narrating of discrete facts or events, in ways
that reflect the values of reporters, editors, and publishers. Without entering into a long and no doubt tedious disquisition about how we can ever
know what really happened in any reported event given the insistence of
poststructuralist critics on deferred meaning and the always unstable and
self-referential nature of language, I should point out that murder news is
treated here as another form of ‘‘social knowledge’’ as well as a cultural production that falls somewhere along the broad spectrum between fiction and
lived reality. Just as ‘‘perceptions are perceptions of perceptions and so on
ad infinitum . . . [that] never reach—say their critics—the realities which are
the referents of truth,’’ so my approach amounts to a series of representations of the media’s representation of five brutal homicides that took place
in Whitechapel between August 31 and November 9, 1888.9 Written without benefit of semiotic theory, this study analyzes the feature articles and
editorials about these murders in order to illuminate some of the deeper
concerns of those who composed and consumed the texts in question.
There are several deafening silences in the texts of murder news. Not
only has the victim been silenced forever, but the perpetrator, when and if
caught and convicted, rarely says anything truthful, least of all if coached by
a lawyer. Even when a Victorian murderer did confess, the results could
hardly be trusted to contain ‘‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’’
Into the vacuum created by these silences rush all kinds of speculation and
fantasy on the part of journalists and their readers. And then, so obvious as
to be virtually ignored, there are the silences surrounding the composition
and publication of the stories. Journalists are not given to explaining just
how they went about gathering and selecting the materials for their articles,
and editors do not leave elaborate notes about why they chose to make a
front-page splash out of one particular murder while burying another in
fine print at the foot of a column deep inside the next day’s edition. Mindful
that the truth about what really happened and why during the Ripper’s
murder spree can never be known, I have focused on the representations of
these bloody events in more than a dozen London newspapers. Because
Ripper news depended so heavily on ‘‘the codes of [Victorian] culture to
give them meaning,’’ we cannot neatly separate the newspaper accounts of
what happened on each occasion from such contextual issues as sexual
propriety, class relations, masculine images of women, fantasies about male
and female sexuality, and constant fears of the hard-core criminal element
in the East End.10 In addition, the rigid codes of social and sexual respectability made it hard for both the producers and consumers of murder news
to deal with lust murder, especially when the pelvic mutilations were bound
to cause some readers acute distress.
Ever since Marie Belloc Lowndes published her short story about a
religious fanatic and misogynist (improbably named Mr. Sleuth) who murdered women ostensibly out of fear and loathing of their sexuality, the
exploits of Jack the Ripper have inspired a number of male writers to act as
historical detectives in pursuit of the true perpetrator.11 Apart from this
familiar form of Ripperature, plays, operas, movies, and television dramas
have also embellished the Ripper legend, serving up villains who run the
gamut from proletarians to gentlemen and at least one member of the royal
family—the Duke of Clarence.12 Even today, the custodians and sellers of
Ripper mementos in London continue to depict Jack as a tall, thin gentleman with a top hat and expensive black opera cloak. To paraphrase a
ranking police official who worked long and hard on the case, there has
been enough nonsense written and said about the murders to sink a Dreadnought.13 For this reason I see no point in adding more dead weight to the
sunken hulk by proposing yet another candidate for the leading role, especially when I do not share Donald Rumbelow’s faith that someday ‘‘the
mystery will be solved.’’ On the other hand, I have to agree with his surmise
that the killer—if ever discovered—will probably have a face ‘‘not so very
dissimilar from our own.’’14 Leaving all the speculation about Jack’s identity
to the armchair detectives, who are convinced that they can solve crimes
that baffled the combined forces of Scotland Yard and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at the time, I have concentrated on the news of
his handiwork served up by Fleet Street to millions of eager as well as
alarmed readers around the country and abroad.
In recent years two very different books have insightfully addressed the
cultural implications of serial murder in America. Concerned with why
‘‘we’’—proverbial middle-class readers all—are so susceptible to the social
panics engendered by serial killers, both works consider our (over)reactions
to such perceived threats and the natural reluctance of men to admit any resemblance between themselves and these ‘‘monstrous’’ or ‘‘bestial’’ killers.
In Killer Among Us, Joseph Fisher explores the social and psychological
impact of serial murder on the communities wherein they occur. Drawing
on various serial murders in the United States—from Richard Valenti’s
attacks on young women in South Carolina in 1973–74 to Jeffrey Dahmer’s
necrophilic acts in Milwaukee—Fisher constructs a semisocial scientific
model of the responses of the media and local residents to the ‘‘monster’’
lurking in their midst. His final chapter, based largely on the coverage in the
Pall Mall Gazette, deals with ‘‘The Classic Case’’ of Jack the Ripper. Addressing the media circus that always arises in cases of sexual serial murder,
he contends that ‘‘the public’s insatiable desire for news, the media’s commercial interests in providing it, and the killer’s need to publicize his invincibility can create a synergistic situation that spirals out of control.’’15
Whether or not Fleet Street and the public ever spun out of control in the
autumn of 1888, there can be no doubt about the presence of a synergistic
response to the Whitechapel murders in the press as well as the metropolis.
The second work, Richard Tithecott’s Of Men and Monsters, contains a
series of illuminating as well as disturbing messages about the ways in
which our culture constructs serial murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer. Stressing the paradoxical nature of the killer’s image, Tithecott conceives of him
as ‘‘one who must not be fully represented and one who is made in our own
image.’’ Far from producing an essentialist portrait of Dahmer, Tithecott
ruminates about our collective response to the so-called cannibal-killer,
whom we imagine to be either a maniacal monster, a sane embodiment of
pure evil, or an emotionally handicapped outsider. Such conventional categories are designed to distance ‘‘him’’ or ‘‘it’’ from ‘‘us.’’ Seeking a logical
motive for his atrocities, we rummage through Dahmer’s childhood looking
for clues about where he and his parents ‘‘went wrong’’ and how an ordinary boy grew into an alcoholic, necrophilic man. Tithecott insists that we
are asking the wrong questions and are guilty of accepting the flawed
findings of the experts—whether psychologists or criminologists—who reassure us that we have nothing in common with such monsters. Instead of
wasting time trying to understand the inexplicable reasons for such predatory behavior, we should be exploring the ‘‘dominant culture’’ and its relationship to our own unarticulated ‘‘dreams of violence, of racial or sexual
purity, of closure, of death.’’ In short, Tithecott asks us to search our own
souls for answers that will always remain problematic because there are no
natural or clear distinctions between ‘‘sanity’’ and ‘‘insanity’’ or between
‘‘normal’’ and ‘‘perverse.’’ To demonize the Ed Geins, Ted Bundys, or
Jeffrey Dahmers of recent notoriety is to delude ourselves into thinking that
serial killers are not real human beings who resemble us (at least us males)
in ways that are bound to undermine our complacency. In a moment of
startling self-reflexivity, Tithecott looks into the mirror of his own soul and
finds there a composite image of himself alongside Dahmer: ‘‘The serial
killer I see haunts his common representation. He is the monster within, or
rather he is monstrous normality within the monster of serial killer mythology. Identifying myself with the normal and remarking on its monstrosity is
to have a contradictory perspective, allowing me to confess, Frankensteinlike, that the serial killer I see is my monster, my creation—that I write the
serial killer and I write my self.’’16 Since the Victorians lacked the convenient category or label of ‘‘serial killer’’ and knew so little about lust murder, they had a better excuse than ourselves for demonizing or Othering the
Whitechapel murderer.
My study of murder news is much less reflexive than Tithecott’s ruminations and far more concerned with ‘‘them’’—namely, the Victorians who
wrote and read all those lurid articles about the Whitechapel horrors and
who felt the panics, shocks, and thrills arising therefrom. The core chapters
herein deal with newspaper texts as though they were ideologically charged
and fragmented images of events that had passed through the filters of
witnesses, reporters, editors, and, of course, readers, all of whom carried
their own preconceptions. The distorting effects of all this filtering prevent
us from ever attaining a complete grasp of the original events, despite the
apparent authority of each newspaper account. Equally important, reporters often devoted some time and space to their own surmises and rumors
gleaned from contacts or witnesses. In other words, all the unknowns in
these murders created a thousand and one openings for imaginations to run
riot. Whether by means of feature articles, leaders, or letters to the editor
(and the police), Jack’s contemporaries contributed much to the nightmarish story he inscribed with his knife on the bodies of his victims.
If murder is a social (as well as antisocial) act, then its telling and selling
by the press are significant cultural events that reveal much about what
journalists think the public wants or needs to know. Murder news by definition both whets and feeds an appetite that disapproving critics deem perverse or voyeuristic. Why, we may well ask, are so many of us drawn to
images of violence that frighten or disgust us? What is the source of our
ambivalent response to scenes or images of horror in films, on television,
and in newspapers? (Why do we slow down and stare at a car crash while
driving along the highway when we have no intention of helping any of the
victims?) Some tentative answers to these questions lie scattered through
the following pages. For the present we need but allude to Cynthia Freeland’s observation that pornography and the horror film share in common
not only multiple participants and body parts, but also ‘‘the embodiment of
humans’’ or ‘‘intimacies of the flesh.’’17 Murder news, then, is not just about
extreme violence inflicted on someone else. As Tithecott points out, it is
also about our own fantasies and the culture out of which they arise. Implicitly or explicitly, feature stories about homicide convey powerful messages about morality, respectability, and normality. For example, the Victorian press often garnished murder news with allusions to the wages of sin,
which had the effect of moving readers to imagine themselves as either
victim or victimizer, thereby giving rise to the thought ‘‘There but for the
grace of God go I.’’18
Crime news is, of course, only one form of storytelling. Because most of
us have been immersed in stories of one kind or another since childhood,
we find it hard to resist narratives and narrativizing. Some years ago Joan
Didion addressed our collective hunger for stories that contain a moral,
especially those dealing with violent death: ‘‘We tell ourselves stories in
order to live. . . . We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or
moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the
most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are
writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the
‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria
which is our actual experience.’’19
This notion of freezing the ever-shifting phantasms of our own lived
experience conjures up another vital aspect of murder stories—namely, the
ways in which the narrative form helps us to cope with the fears that well up
inside us whenever we encounter scenes of terror or sites of horror. As Wes
Craven, the director of the notorious Scream films, observed, ‘‘It’s like boot
camp for the psyche. In real life human beings are packaged in the flimsiest
of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events
like Columbine. But the narrative form puts those fears into a manageable
series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears.’’
Craven then went on to reveal how much he enjoyed the search for ways to
heighten the fears of his audience: ‘‘They see patterns, and they try to think
logically about how to escape the lurking danger. Our job is to always stay
one or two steps ahead and keep them scared.’’20
Because the Whitechapel killer was never caught and put on trial, the
murders became the kind of mystery that resisted simple, let alone seamless, emplotment. Detective fiction buffs need no reminding of the pleasure
of the denouement, when the master sleuth (more often nowadays the
medical examiner or forensic pathologist) unmasks the villain and thereby
helps to restore order and heal the gaping wound in the community. The
Ripper’s elusiveness denied both the police and the public the kind of
closure that comes with the arrest, conviction, and (in Victorian England)
execution of the murderer. Instead of a reassuring end to the story, these
mutilation murders left gaps into which all kinds of theories, daydreams,
and nightmares rushed pell-mell. Bereft of an explanation, contemporaries
also had good reason to fear that the perpetrator would soon strike again so
long as he remained free. Thus the silences in our newspaper texts problematize the narrative and create countless breaks or ruptures that invite more speculation. When dealing with the Ripper reportage, then, one
would do well to bear in mind the warning phrase still heard every day in
the London underground: Mind the gap.
Beyond our love of stories lies the attraction of news about sex and
violence involving people other than ourselves and our families and friends.
Such news usually sends shudders of horror or frissons down our spines,
and may well inspire a fleeting sense of schadenfreude. Sometimes we
justify our fondness for the gory details by intellectualizing them. In the
words of Theodore Dalrymple: ‘‘Murderers and their deeds raise acutely
the fundamental moral and psychological questions of our existence, which
is why there are so many murders in literature. The proper study of mankind is murder.’’21 In any event, the priority given by the media to murder
news reveals much about the anxieties of any culture and society, and this
applies with special force to the Ripper reportage. As Maria Tatar has
shrewdly observed about another time and culture (Weimar Germany),
‘‘the representation of murdered women must function as an aesthetic
strategy for managing certain kinds of sexual, social, and political anxieties
and for constituting an artistic and social identity.’’22 Seen in this light,
murder news is not only heavily laden with gender conflicts and social
inequities, it also reveals how the media package such reports with an eye to
either raising or allaying the fears of readers, and to enhancing the appeal of
the next day’s edition.
Stories of real murder continue to fascinate, especially if they deal with
bizarre perpetrators and unusual modes of killing. Harold Schechter, a
professor of American literature and culture in New York City, has raised
the narration of homicidal acts to an art form in a book that dwells in the
twilight zone between the fictional and the factual. In Fiend: The Shocking
True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer (2000), he recounts with some
of the novelistic skills of Caleb Carr the sadistic crime spree of Jesse Harding Pomeroy, a deeply disturbed youth from South Boston who between
1872 and 1874 tortured and sexually molested over a dozen small boys
before stabbing to death and severely mutilating a four-year-old boy. For
this latter murder the perverse Pomeroy earned the enduring epithet ‘‘the
Boy Fiend,’’ and spent more than fifty years in prison.
Although written more than thirty years ago, Richard D. Altick’s Victorian Studies in Scarlet (1970) remains the best starting point for any
inquiry into the import of murder news in Victorian England. Drawing on
the trial transcripts compiled by such murder buffs as Henry B. Irving and
William Roughead, Altick ranged over some fifteen high-profile murders
between 1849 and 1903. However, his blithe assumption that the public’s
passionate interest in such cases helped to ‘‘ease the social tensions of the
time’’ seems rather wide of the mark.23 By featuring certain homicides and
by employing reporters who specialized in murder, the London press had
by midcentury succeeded in taking this subgenre of news out of the hands
of publishers of ha’penny broadsides or street cocks and had begun to
captivate a huge audience—young and old, male and female alike—by
means of blood-curdling stories of violence and mystery. Altick’s final chapter, ‘‘Murder and the Victorian Mind,’’ begins with a rhetorical question:
‘‘Who can account for the prevalence of murder in Victorian England?’’24
However, one remarkable feature of Victorian society was the relative infrequency of murder, considering the hordes of pauperized people crowded
together in dirty and fetid tenements, the extent of class antagonism, and
the amount of alcohol consumed. While the population of England and
Wales rose from roughly twenty to twenty-nine million between 1861 and
1891, the annual number of recorded homicides between 1857 and 1890
averaged only 369.25 Rarest of all murders were those committed by middleand upper-class perpetrators, especially women or ladies, even though females were more likely to be indicted for murder than for any other felony.26
The banality of most murders in England meant that newspaper editors
were constantly on the lookout for ‘‘good’’ or unusual homicides that would
grab and hold the attention of readers for days or weeks on end.
Following in Altick’s wake, various Victorianists have cultivated the
fertile field of murder, ranging from the single crime of passion to serial
killings.27 Thomas Boyle’s engagingly subjective tour of sensational crimes
in the mid-Victorian period draws heavily on the press clippings of an
English naval surgeon obsessed by such morbid fare.28 The literary critic
John Cawelti has speculated about the ways murder news affected Victorian
readers, who were supposedly filled with feelings of guilt, anger, and sexual
desire.29 Needless to say, cases of domestic murder, involving family members, friends, lovers, or servants, held a special fascination for respectable
Victorians, who were well aware of the emotions or desires that might drive
someone to commit the ultimate crime. Few of these studies, however—
with the notable exception of Altick’s Deadly Encounters (1986)—directly
address the reporting of murder in the press, though at least one lateVictorian crime aficionado, Dr. John Watson, knew just how widely the
accounts of any given crime varied from one newspaper to another.30
The history of murder news raises many questions about the criteria
used by editors to decide which crimes deserved special attention. Why, we
may well ask, were some homicides assigned feature status while others
were relegated to mere filler at the bottom of the page? Alas, we know so
little about the inner workings of the Victorian press, especially the reasons
behind the editorial decisions made every day about the content and layout
of every newspaper. (As a youthful copyboy working for the New York
Times, I often wondered what went on when the senior editors or news12
room moguls gathered together in the ‘‘bullpen’’ at night to discuss the next
day’s paper.) Apart from the anecdotal memoirs of the leading lights of
Fleet Street, who relished tales of their more eccentric colleagues, all we
have in the way of evidence are the printed results of the editorial decisions
taken; and unlike today, we have to contend with anonymity in the Victorian era, when most journalists never knew the joy of a byline. While
one murder trial might earn three full columns, another would merit only
a short paragraph. That seasoned connoisseur of murder trials William
Roughead once declared, ‘‘We have in Scotland a really good murder about
once in five years,’’ while England, ‘‘more favoured in matters criminal,
boasts one a week.’’ Chief among his criteria of a ‘‘good’’ homicide were
‘‘striking circumstances, the picturesque, unusual setting, and the curious
character of the chief actors.’’31
Such criteria help to explain why Fleet Street made such a splash out of
the ten-day trial of Alfred John Monson in the High Court of Justiciary,
Edinburgh, in December 1893. A moneylender and opportunist, Monson
was accused of murdering his well-born pupil Lieutenant Windsor Dudley Cecil Hambrough, aged twenty, while shooting rabbits at Ardlamont
House near the Kyles of Bute in Argyleshire. Monson told the police that
Hambrough’s gun had discharged while he was climbing over a wall. But
there was conflicting evidence about the gun that fired the fatal shot, and
Monson turned out to be the beneficiary of a large insurance policy in the
event of Hambrough’s death. At first the London papers ran only a few
short articles about the shooting. But their response to Monson’s trial was
overwhelming. More than a hundred pressmen from all over the country
covered the proceedings—including seventy reporters, twenty-one ‘‘descriptive writers,’’ and fifteen artists. The Times alone ran a total of twenty
columns on the trial, consisting mostly of the paraphrased testimony of
witnesses.32 Dismissing the prosecution’s argument that Monson was a consummate liar, the jury returned a verdict of ‘‘not proven,’’ and the defendant left the courthouse to cheers from the crowd waiting outside.33
The media hype surrounding this case says a good deal about the nature
of journalistic sensationalism. What exactly was it about this case that
drew so many reporters as well as spectators to the trial? Was it the elitist
ambience of the shooting party, the victim’s Oxonian ties, or Monson’s
financial intrigues? Here was a murder laden with mystery and scented
with snobbery. How very different was the media’s response to the trial in
1889—also in Edinburgh—of a plebeian baby farmer named Jessie King,
who had strangled three illegitimate infants whom she had adopted for a
cash advance. While the trial attracted many spectators, the Times awarded
it only twenty-three lines of small print.34 In almost every respect the contrast between these two stories could not have been greater. Clearly Fleet
Street regarded infanticide in a Scottish slum, without any element of mystery and devoid of elitism, as undeserving of feature status.
Fascination with murder was not confined to newspapers. Witness all
the shilling shockers, penny dreadfuls, ha’penny broadsides, penny gaffs,
and melodramas about unnatural death in plebeian settings. The crowded
galleries in courtrooms during highly publicized murder trials also attest to
the drawing power of this crime. For all the curious people—many of them
women—who could not get into the courtroom, the press provided the only
access to the case. When it came to bloodshed, Victorian readers seemed to
relish the details of what knives, axes, bullets, or other lethal weapons had
done to the victims’ bodies. Many of the morbid details revealed in the
press would be deemed unfit to print today even in the most Murdochian
tabloids. Descriptions of bodies stabbed, shot, poisoned, and dismembered—what I call sensation-horror news—composed the centerpieces of
feature stories about the inquests and trials in homicide cases. Thus a good
deal of Victorian murder news qualifies as ‘‘gorenography’’ because the
clinical or anatomical details published offered a fine feast for the eyes of
more prurient readers.
Although terms like ‘‘pornography’’ and ‘‘violence’’ lack any fixed or
stable meaning and invariably become matters of personal judgment, we
should bear in mind Tatar’s reminder that ‘‘the representation of violence
cannot but become deeply implicated in the violence of representation.’’35
This in turn should move us to contemplate not only the varieties of violence but also the cultural significance of images of death—especially when
the bodies are those of young women. Alluding to paintings or photographs of dead female bodies, Elisabeth Bronfen has observed that whenever we look at these images we are not only voyeurs but also participants in
an act of violence. Thus, ‘‘narrative representations of death . . . serve to
show that any ‘voyeur’ is always also implicated in the field of vision.’’ In her
view, ‘‘ ‘death’ is always culturally constructed . . . can only be read as a
trope,’’ and although ubiquitous, it ‘‘remains outside clear categories.’’
Paradoxically, it is both ‘‘nowhere’’ and ‘‘everywhere.’’36 The import of
these reflections should become clear in Chapter 10, in which I deal at some
length with Fleet Street’s disparate accounts of the Ripper’s pelvic mutilations as revealed at the various inquests. Since our culture is no readier to
accept a standard definition of violence than we as readers (or editors) are
prepared to agree on what is fit to print or see, we cannot deal in absolutes.
Where Ripper news is concerned, the paucity of letters to the editor complaining about all the gore suggests that most readers were at least willing to
tolerate the thrills arising out of the lurid accounts of knife wounds.
Embedded in a matrix of moral and political imperatives about law and
order, Ripper news also engendered something akin to a social and moral
panic. Because the murders were motiveless and random, and because the
killer seemed to be taunting the police with boastful letters, the press had a
surfeit of disturbing as well as sensational material on its hands. Some
papers took advantage of these extraordinary crimes and the bafflement of
the police by focusing on ordinary crime and insisting that Londoners had
every reason to worry about their safety and property. Many an editorial
asked why the killer had not been caught and called for drastic reform of
Scotland Yard and the CID. If the extent of law-and-order news varied
from one paper to another, Fleet Street had no trouble turning the Ripper
murders into the crime story of the century.
In sum, the press coverage of the Whitechapel murders reveals much
about late Victorian culture, or what Raymond Williams called ‘‘structures
of feeling’’ and ‘‘the informing spirit of a whole way of life.’’ Like other kinds
of news, the reporting of murder involves ‘‘the structures of meaning based
on historical constructs,’’ while reflecting the ideological and material interests of the newspaper industry at large.37 Murder news also reinforces the
codes of normative or respectable behavior that are supposed to protect
the integrity of the family—indeed, the whole social order.38 Since murder
represents the ultimate social and moral transgression, readers of these
stories yearned for reassurance that the criminal justice system worked and
that the villain would pay dearly for his wickedness. In an increasingly
secular age, editors or leader (editorial) writers took on the clergy’s traditional task of preaching about the wages of sin and the necessity of avoiding
temptation. Not just keen to sell more papers, they also wished to remind
readers about the terrible fate that awaited anyone who succumbed to the
desires that had ended in this particular tragedy or scandal. After all, one
did not have to be a ‘‘born criminal’’ to progress (or regress) rapidly from
venial to mortal sin and thence to prison or the scaffold. Murder news thus
reflected the Victorian obsession with character and virtuous conduct. No
matter how much the Whitechapel murders differed from the standard fare
of domestic murder, the fundamental issues of morality and depravity also
underlay the reporting of these horrors.
In stark contrast to the classic domestic homicide, which contained an
understandable motive, the Whitechapel murders were palpably sadistic
and apparently motiveless. They also caused readers untold horror, suspense, fear, and uncertainty for more than three months. Instead of a coherent ‘‘newspaper novel’’ based on a familiar (or familial) plot, the Ripper
saga comprised a series of highly cobbled or disjointed articles laden with
unknowns, contradictions, and silences. The lack of hard clues and the
absence of a trial forced the press to fill the gaps with descriptions of
conditions in Whitechapel, reports of sightings of suspects and minor attacks on women, suggestions for catching the killer, sharp criticism of the
police and government officials, discussions of reward money, and stories
taking many other angles on the case. If the Ripper story had a beginning,
reporters and the police disagreed over who was his first victim. And if this
narrative had a series of middles, it lacked a clear ending. The villain never
even had a conventional name—only an epithet of dubious provenance.
Denied a visible culprit to revile, the public and the press were forced to
rely on such metaphors as ‘‘fiend,’’ ‘‘monster,’’ and ‘‘assassin,’’ while conjuring up a generic male suspect—dark-complexioned, black-bearded, blackcoated, and ‘‘foreign-looking’’—in short, a stereotypical Jew living in the
East End. Initially, Fleet Street may have agreed about the ethnic features
and origins of this outsider, but there was no consensus about his motive,
that all-important staple of domestic murder. The absence of any ‘‘reasonable’’ explanation for these mutilation murders stimulated all kinds of speculation by journalists and readers as well as the so-called alienists who
specialized in criminal insanity.
The primary sources for this study consist of some fifteen London newspapers, including three East End weeklies. These papers were chosen with
an eye to striking a rough balance between the morning and evening, the
daily and weekly, and the Tory, Liberal, and Radical press. Except for the
Times, Globe, Morning Post, and several East End papers, the papers used
here all enjoyed circulations of over 75,000 in 1888. Two of the Sunday
papers—Lloyd’s Weekly and Reynolds’s Newspaper—dwarfed the dailies
with circulations of 900,000 and 350,000, respectively. Based on these
mostly national papers, the core of this book consists of comparisons of the
Ripper reportage from late August to the end of December.
Besides relying on some valuable studies of the mass media in both the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I have also gained insights into the
always problematic relationship of history, journalism, and fiction from
exposure to the metahistorical musings of Hayden White about language,
tropes, rhetorical strategies, modes of emplotment, and narrativity. Although he does not address journalism directly, White’s discussion of ‘‘the
fictions of factual representation’’ spurred me to rethink many cherished
assumptions about the content and form of historical narratives and their
relationship to reality.39 As for the methods used in this study, these may be
best described as cautious and eclectic empiricism—insofar as I do rely on a
firm documentary base composed of newspaper texts—combined with the
hypotheses and inferences of the cultural studies school. Several decades of
exposure to practitioners of hard-core ‘‘theory’’ at Brown have helped to
distance me from the (oc)cultist camp occupied by the votaries of Derrida,
Lacan, Lyotard, and other French philosophes. Apart from the occasional
genuflection toward Michel Foucault, whose radical episteme opened my
eyes to the rule of language, the dominance of discourse, the genesis of
genealogy, and the nature of power/knowledge, I am certain that readers
versed in the kind of high theory imported from France after 1968 will
realize early on that my modest attempts at close readings of newspaper
texts are a far cry from the hermeneutics of biblical scholars, let alone the
artful deconstructions of the semiotic clerisy. In a more pedestrian way I
have tried to read or interpret all these newspaper texts from the perspective of what the Dutch scholar Joep Leerssen has called in a very different
study ‘‘the contextual and intertextual.’’ By this he means the ‘‘ideological
and political circumstances’’ of the images appearing in print or the mass
media, and also ‘‘the conventions, commonplaces, and indeed stereotypes’’
that are found in ‘‘previous texts.’’40 As we will see, Victorian newspapers
contain all kinds of ore worth mining in the name of intertextuality.
Somewhere beyond the doubly distorted images of the Ripper murders
in the London press lies the stark reality of five female corpses, four of them
terribly mutilated. And no amount of critical theory or semiological dissection of language can subvert that fact. As Dr. Watson once noted, writing
about a far less gruesome crime, ‘‘The story has, I believe, been told more
than once in the newspapers, but, like all such narratives, its effect is much
less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than
when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes, and the mystery clears
gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the
complete truth.’’41 The absence of the master detective himself and the lack
of firm clues about the killer meant, of course, that we would never know
the truth about the Whitechapel murders. So we are left with Tithecott’s
ominous reminder that we (men) need to scrutinize our souls and recognize
the nature of the image of the serial killer that we have created in collusion
with the (male-dominated) media. At the same time, we must confront the
close relationship of narratives or storytelling to the lives we lead. In the
words of Hayden White, questions about narrative ‘‘invite reflection on the
very nature of culture, and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself.’’42 If this is the case, then much of the murder news considered here
should move us to reflect on man’s inhumanity to woman.
Chapter One
The Whitechapel Murders
Before delving into the Ripper reportage, we must first survey the actual
events that comprised the basis of this baffling and still unfinished story.
Fortunately, the abundance of accounts of the five known murders makes it
unnecessary to repeat all the salient events here. Taken together, the narratives provided by such well-informed Ripperologists as Paul Begg, Martin
Fido, Donald Rumbelow, Keith Skinner, and Philip Sugden contain most of
the known facts as well as the theories and surmises about each slaying,
even though disagreements persist. Sugden’s study of the murders has the
advantage of correcting many of the errors and myths that have pervaded
Ripperature over the decades.1 Apart from continuing controversy over
who was the Ripper’s first victim, whether or not he had an accomplice,
whether there was a copycat killer, and the exact time of Mary Kelly’s
demise, most experts today agree about the circumstances surrounding the
five ‘‘official’’ killings. For this reason, the following brief outline avoids
entering into the finer points of either agreement or dispute.2
The conventional Ripper narrative begins on August 31, 1888, with the
discovery of the still warm and bleeding body of Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols
(also spelled Nicholls), aged forty-two, on the cobblestones in Buck’s Row,
next to a gate leading into a stable yard. Around 3:40 A.M. a cart driver
found her lying on her back with her skirt pushed up to her waist and a
deep cut across her throat. Having tried and failed to decapitate her, the
killer had slashed her abdomen and apparently stabbed her twice in the
‘‘private parts.’’3 Married but separated from her husband, and the mother
of five children, Nichols lived off her meager earnings from prostitution
and also scrounged for food and drink. A heavy drinker, she moved from
one run-down lodging house to another or slept rough when she could not
stand another grim night in Lambeth Workhouse. Shortly before her death
a friend saw her drunk and soliciting a man in the hope of earning the price
of a night’s lodging.
The second victim, Annie Chapman (born Eliza Anne Smith), aged
around forty-seven, was the wife of a Windsor coachman, John Chapman,
who had left her some years before. She had borne two children and was
living with a man who made sieves by the name of Jacky Sivvey, hence her
nicknames—‘‘Siffey,’’ ‘‘Sievey,’’ or ‘‘Sivvey.’’ Known to her friends as ‘‘Dark
Annie,’’ she was a fierce fighter and heavy drinker, who tried at times to
earn an honest living, but could not conquer her thirst for beer. Like
Nichols, she was continually driven back to prostitution by her lack of a
steady income to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and drink. Around 6 A.M.
on Saturday, September 8, her severely mutilated body was found in the
backyard of a dilapidated lodging house at 29 Hanbury Street in Spitalfields. Once again the killer had tried to cut off her head, judging from the
knife marks on the cervical vertebrae. Not satisfied with slashing her abdomen, he had ripped out her small intestines and thrown them near her right
shoulder. (Some papers also claimed that her heart lay nearby.) Although it
was not disclosed for some weeks, her uterus, along with a small section of
the vagina and bladder, had also been removed.4
After a three-week hiatus, the killer struck again in the early hours of
Sunday, September 30. This time his victim was Elizabeth (‘‘Long Liz’’)
Stride, aged around forty-five. Born in Sweden with the name of Elisabeth
Gustafsdotter, she had left her father’s farm at seventeen to work as a
servant in nearby Gothenburg, where the police soon identified her as a
prostitute. After several bouts with venereal disease, she turned up in London in 1866 and married John Stride, with whom she had nine children.
After falsely claiming that her husband had drowned in a shipwreck, Long
Liz took up a nomadic life in the East End, moving from one lodging house
to another, working as a casual prostitute, a seamstress, and a domestic
servant. Also fond of the drink, she had a record of arrests for drunk and
disorderly behavior. Several workers found her body shortly after 1 A.M. in
a courtyard off Berner Street, at the rear gate leading to the International
Working Men’s Club, which catered to plebeian Jewish socialists and radicals. The deep throat wound and the absence of any mutilations moved the
police to presume that the same killer had been interrupted before he could
finish his sadistic work.5
The fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes (alias Kate Kelly or Kate Conway) was also in her mid-forties. She died less than an hour after Stride in a
dark corner of Mitre Square, Aldgate. The daughter of a tinplate worker
from Wolverhampton, Eddowes was also an alcoholic. But her last lover,
John Kelly, denied that she was a prostitute. During her twenties she had
lived with a pensioned Irish soldier named Thomas Conway, and given
birth to three children before leaving Conway for Kelly around 1880. She
encountered her killer shortly after being discharged from the police station at Bishopsgate, where she had been locked up for drunk and disorderly behavior. Heading for her lodging house on Flower and Dean Street,
she had been attacked in Portsoken Ward. After cutting her throat to the
bone, the killer slashed her face, stomach, and pelvic area, pulled out much
of her intestines, and threw them over her right shoulder and next to her
left arm. During the autopsy the police surgeons discovered that both her
left kidney and uterus were missing. Besides occasional soliciting, Eddowes
also earned some money from selling goods, hop-picking in Kent, and
working as a charwoman. Despite her chronic drinking, she seemed to have
had a reasonably stable relationship with Kelly.6
At this point in time, a letter and postcard signed by ‘‘Jack the Ripper’’
and posted several days earlier were received by a leading news agency. As
soon as Scotland Yard authorized Fleet Street to publish these macabre
messages, the Ripper mythos was born. Labeled ‘‘the double event,’’ these
two murders proved a windfall for Fleet Street, and vastly increased the
public’s alarm over the predatory ‘‘fiend’’ on the loose in Whitechapel.
For reasons best known to the killer, no further prostitute murders took
place for more than a month. Perhaps the increased surveillance by the
police and local vigilance committees served as a deterrent. Despite daily
expectations of another death, the culprit, now known as Jack the Ripper,
did not strike again until the early hours of Friday, November 9, just in
time to mar the festivities of Lord Mayor’s Day. On this occasion he deviated from his pattern by killing indoors, which gave him ample time to
indulge his rage against the female body without fear of interruption. His
final victim went by the name of Mary Jane (or Mary Ann) Kelly, and she
died inside a small, dingy bedroom—number 13—in a lodging house often
used by prostitutes. Located behind the house at 26 Dorset Street, Miller’s
Court stood amidst one of the filthiest ‘‘rookeries’’ in Whitechapel. Unlike
the other victims, Kelly was Irish (having been born in Limerick), young
(only twenty-four years old), and attractive. After her first husband died in
a mine explosion, she arrived in London in 1884 and began to work as an
upmarket prostitute around Knightsbridge. For reasons unknown she
drifted into the East End, where she had to endure a rougher and much
poorer clientele. Around 1887 she took up with a Billingsgate porter of
Irish origins named Joseph Barnett, with whom she lived for a year, until he
walked out (on October 30) after a bitter row over her drinking and insistence on sharing their room with another prostitute. Owing some twentynine shillings in back rent, she had gone out to earn a few shillings so that
she could keep the landlord at bay and buy some beer. The exact time of
her death remains in dispute, but the burden of medical evidence suggests
that she died between 3:30 and 4 in the morning. Although her body was
discovered around 10:30 on the morning of the 9th, the police refrained for
several hours from breaking down the locked door and entering the room
because they had sent for a bloodhound, which never arrived. They did,
however, summon a police photographer, who took pictures of the victim
through the broken window.7
In an orgy of flaying and disemboweling, the killer had torn out Kelly’s
viscera and heart and cut the flesh from her thighs. Even the briefest catalogue of the injuries makes for repugnant reading. Once again he tried and
failed to decapitate her. After this he sliced off both breasts as well as her
nose and dumped some of her abdominal organs on the bedside table.8
When the surgeons reassembled the internal organs, they found the heart
missing. Some of Kelly’s clothes lay neatly folded on a chair near the bed, as
though she had undressed deliberately and without fear. Warm ashes from
a recent fire glowed in the fireplace, suggesting that the killer had used the
flames from burning clothing to illuminate his handiwork. Because no one
had a key to the locked door, the police finally ordered the landlord to force
entry by means of a pickax. The charnel-house scene that greeted them
inside upset even the hardest-boiled officers of the law.9
All five murders occurred on weekends toward the end or beginning of
the month. With the exception of Stride, the mutilations showed a steady
escalation of violence, culminating in the killer’s attempt to destroy the very
femaleness of Kelly’s body as he acted out his gynophobic rage. When the
authorities revealed that the uterus had been removed from at least two
(possibly three) of the victims, the public and the press naturally indulged
in all kinds of speculation about motive and identity. Although no weapon
was ever found at or near the crime scenes, the police and the medical
examiners assumed that a long, sharp dissecting knife had been used. Thus
the Ripper’s distinctive ‘‘signature’’ or modus operandi involved deep cuts
across the throat from left to right as well as pelvic mutilations and disemboweling (with the exception of Stride). He attacked in the early hours of
the morning and targeted prostitutes who were well past their prime (with
the exception of Kelly), presumably because they were the only ones still
seeking clients so late at night.10 After Kelly’s death the murders came to a
halt, leading some to infer that the Ripper had committed suicide because
he could not endure or surpass the horror of Miller’s Court. Although
several other prostitutes were stabbed to death in the East End during the
following year, the murder of Alice (‘‘Clay Pipe’’) McKenzie in Castle Alley,
Whitechapel, before dawn on July 17, 1889, could not be conclusively
assigned to Jack the Ripper, despite the eagerness of some police officials
and at least one surgeon to make this connection.11
The horrific nature of the Whitechapel slayings not only provoked panic
among women of all ages and classes, but also raised fears of anti-Semitic
rioting in the East End because so many of the suspects were young Jewish
males. While most newspapers subscribed to the theory that the murderer
was a maniac or ‘‘bloodthirsty fiend,’’ some editorial writers construed
them as proof positive of a serious moral malaise afflicting the nation. As
the murders continued despite greatly increased police patrols in the East
End, criticism of Scotland Yard reached alarming levels. Some Londoners
expressed deep concern about their own safety in letters to the editor. And
the Queen went so far as to scold one of her favorite prime ministers (Lord
Salisbury) for not having done more to ensure the culprit’s capture. The
political content of these various responses reflected the dramatic differences between the Whitechapel crimes and the standard fare of domestic
murder news. Besides widening the cultural gap between the West and East
Ends of London, the Ripper reportage also made women far more apprehensive about any strange man in their neighborhood and about venturing outside alone.
As if to thicken the plot and deepen the mystery, a number of journalists and police officials at the time—not to mention a few Ripperologists
today—firmly believed that the Ripper killed more than five women. One of
his first victims, so they contended, was Martha Tabram (or Tabran or
Turner), a fortyish prostitute, whose body was found in the early hours of
Tuesday, August 7, lying in a pool of blood on the stone steps of a tenement
house at 37 George Yard Buildings, just off Whitechapel Road. Although
the injuries and the presumed weapon differed altogether from the Ripper’s
modus operandi, the viciousness of the assault moved reporters to count
Tabram as the first—or possibly second—victim of the same maniac. In fact,
a Scotland Yard memorandum on the Whitechapel murders contains a list
of nine women—beginning with Tabram and ending with Frances Coles—
which may or may not reflect official thinking about the actual number of
Ripper victims.12 At the outset the press treated Tabram’s death as an
almost routine act of violence in a location notorious for such events. The
Times (Aug. 8) first mentioned this case in a short article under the small
headline ‘‘SUPPOSED MURDER,’’ which revealed that the victim had been
seen carousing with some soldiers in a public house shortly before her
It took the authorities almost a fortnight to identify the George Yard
victim as Martha Tabram, who often solicited clients in the area. On August
10, the Times carried a longer but still modest article beneath a bolder
headline—‘‘THE MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL’’—dealing with the coroner’s
inquest at the Working Lads’ Institute.14 The most arresting feature of this
story was the testimony of the medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Killeen (also
called Timothy Keene), who had autopsied ‘‘the very well nourished’’ body
of the victim. After a brief summary of the thirty-nine stab wounds, he
attributed death to one deep thrust into the heart. The Times’s reporter distilled all the clinical details into one concise passage: ‘‘The left lung was
penetrated in five places, and the right lung was penetrated in two places.
The heart, which was rather fatty, was penetrated in one place, and that
would be sufficient to cause death. The liver was healthy, but was penetrated in five places, the spleen was penetrated in two places, and the
stomach, which was perfectly healthy, was penetrated in six places. The witness did not think all the wounds were inflicted with the same instrument.’’
Quite apart from the repeated use of the verb ‘‘penetrated,’’ this article
alluded to only twenty-one of the thirty-nine wounds. Why the reporter
failed to mention the others stirs some curiosity. Whether he omitted them
because they were superficial or because they involved the genitalia remains unknown. However, at least one newspaper dared to mention the
unmentionable on this occasion. In the course of a long article on this
murder, a reporter for the East London Observer (Aug. 11) quoted the
police surgeon as stating: ‘‘The lower portion of the body was penetrated in
one place, the wound being three inches in length and one in depth. From
appearances, there was no reason to suppose that recent intimacy had
taken place.’’ As we will see, the mainstream morning press avoided any
explicit allusion to sexual intercourse, and hardly any pelvic, not to say
genital, injuries ever appeared in newsprint until the Ripper’s mutilations
were reported during the inquests. An accompanying editorial in the East
London Observer lamented ‘‘another dreadful murder,’’ as though the series had already commenced, and the writer wondered whether this crime
would ever be solved. Certainly, the ‘‘savagery’’ of the attack, manifested by
seventeen stab wounds in the breast, heart, lungs, liver, and intestines,
suggested that the killer was much more than ‘‘a vindictive paramour.’’
Several days later the Times (Aug. 24) covered the resumed inquest in a
much longer article (half a column of fine print). By this date the victim had
been identified as Martha Tabran (later, Tabram), aged thirty-nine or forty,
with no fixed address and an estranged husband, Henry, who worked in a
warehouse or hauled furniture.15 The last person to see her alive was a
fellow street woman, Mary Ann Connolly, better known as ‘‘Pearly Poll,’’
who recounted a festive pub crawl with Martha (or ‘‘Emma’’) and several
soldiers on the night in question. After the coroner’s summation, the jury
arrived at the verdict that would be repeated at the end of every Ripper
inquest: ‘‘Murdered by some person or persons unknown.’’
In contrast to the rather remote style of the Times, the East London
Observer (Aug. 25) added the kind of personal touches that one would
expect of a local paper. Thus, Coroner Collier was depicted sitting solemnly
beneath a portrait of the Princess of Wales, while Detective-Inspector Reid
was wearing his ‘‘usual dark blue serge coat and waistcoat,’’ as well as ‘‘light
striped trousers.’’ Henry Tabram was ‘‘a sallow-complexioned man with
iron-grey’’ hair, moustache, and imperial (beard). Turner, the unemployed
carpenter and ex-companion of the victim, was ‘‘dressed in a light tweed
suit, with a pale face and a light moustache and imperial.’’ As for Pearly
Poll, she wore an old green shawl and her face was ‘‘reddened and soddened by drink.’’ She told the jurors bluntly: ‘‘I am single and follow no
occupation, being an unfortunate.’’16 More interested in the dress and facial
features of those present than in the victim’s wounds, this reporter noted
that after the jury returned its verdict the coroner recommended that gaslights be installed on the streets around the crime scene.
In both form and content, the Times’s coverage of the Tabram case
epitomized the morning press’s handling of Ripper news, with the obvious
exception that the volume of newsprint devoted to the subsequent murders
increased exponentially after Nichols’s death on August 31. Although the
Times’s austere reporting style differed from the sensationalist articles published by the evening and Sunday papers, the newspaper eventually printed
almost as much clinical gore culled from the autopsy reports as the masscirculation penny dailies. And when the corpse of another ‘‘unfortunate’’
turned up in Whitechapel at the end of the month, Fleet Street needed little
prompting to provide the kind of front-page treatment normally given to
colonial wars, political crises, royal weddings, or natural disasters.
In the popular imagination Tabram was not necessarily the Ripper’s first
victim. Many contemporaries (along with the Ripperologist Tom Cullen)
believed that a mysterious woman known only as ‘‘Fairy Fay’’ had died at
the hands of the Ripper on Boxing Day 1887, from massive blood loss
caused by a stake shoved deep into her vagina following a night of heavy
drinking in Mitre Square.17 Most Ripperologists today regard this woman
as a phantom victim, contending that she has been conflated with Emma
Elizabeth Smith, a forty-five-year-old widowed mother of two children who
suffered an instrumental gang rape in the early hours of April 3, 1888, on
Wentworth Street that ruptured her perineum and caused her to bleed to
death. In a rambling account given shortly before her demise, Smith accused four drunken men of having stolen her few coins before raping her
with a stick or cane. Despite severe hemorrhaging she managed to reach
her lodging house, where she collapsed and was taken to London Hospital.
But the doctors could not stop the bleeding and she died three days later.18
Lacking the now standard category of ‘‘serial murder’’—a term coined by
FBI profilers in the 1970s—and unfamiliar with the new concept of ‘‘lust
murder,’’ Fleet Street had to rely on hyperbole and tropes when characterizing the deadly menace lurking in the East End.19 If lethal violence
against prostitutes was no novelty, the Whitechapel slayings involved a
degree of sadism that baffled the police and stirred heated debate among
the so-called experts, only a handful of whom had read the recently translated edition of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s pioneering study of lustmord,
written as a contribution to the new science of ‘‘medico-forensics.’’20 Since
each victim had apparently been chosen at random, the police had a hard
time linking any suspect to all five women. Furthermore, this brazen culprit
seemed to be taunting them. With one eye firmly fixed on circulation figures, Fleet Street heightened the public’s alarm by stressing the inherently
dangerous nature of the East End, by turning the murders into a media
event filled with sensationalism and gore, and by raising the Ripper’s body
count from five to eight or even nine.21 While Tory papers pointed to the
slayings as further evidence of the endemic depravity found in Whitechapel, the East End press assured readers that this district was just as safe
as any other part of London and downplayed the horror of these nocturnal
Ripperology and Ripperature
Since the 1960s, the pursuit of Jack the Ripper has become a profitable light
industry producing all kinds of books, films, and television ‘‘spectaculars.’’
Clearly the public’s desire for a solution to the murders has only grown with
time. To play the game of ‘‘hunt the Ripper’’ all one needs is a lively imagination, a few well-heeled sponsors or indulgent friends, and a willingness to
immerse oneself in newspaper sources, memoirs, and diaries of the 1880s
and thereafter. Once one has found a suitably demented young male—
whether plebeian or patrician—who was familiar with Whitechapel, then
one can build a case based in large part on coincidence and circumstantial
evidence. Add a vivid imagination and the result is a foregone conclusion.
In the absence of any new significant material from the files of Scotland
Yard all this feverish sleuthing has brought us no closer to the real villain.
Not to be denied their sport, however, some Ripperologists continue to
operate like true believers. In the words of two dead-keen players, ‘‘We
were confident that any real find would only further support what we
already knew to be the truth. We had already arrived at our destination—
for now, at least—and our journey would soon be over.’’22 No doubt the
whodunem genre has kept the Ripper industry in business by generating
much publicity and some modest royalties based on the bold claim of ‘‘the
final solution.’’ But no matter how ingenious the argument, none of these
works has come close to building a case that would survive the scrutiny of a
scrupulous judge and jury. Determined to avoid playing this game by nominating yet another farfetched candidate, I have chosen instead to focus on
both the content and cultural context of Ripper news contained in some
fifteen London dailies and weeklies during the latter months of 1888.
Since the appearance of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger in 1911,
Jack the Ripper has inspired almost one hundred books and pamphlets, as
well as countless articles, more than twenty films, a few operas, and at least
one ghoulish comic book based on the Masonic conspiracy theory.23 Of the
twenty-odd books about these murders published since 1970, virtually all
have been written by men.24 And while building various houses of cards in
the course of tracking down the true killer, they have all avoided problematizing the Ripper reportage and confronting the larger cultural, not to
say political, implications of the murders.
Most modern studies of the Whitechapel murders take their readers
through the long list of famous and obscure candidates for the role of the
Ripper whom amateur and professional sleuths have fancied over the years.
To this day many Ripper buffs cling to the notion that Jack was a gent—a
West End professional, a ‘‘guv’nor’’ or toff—who wore an expensive cloak
and top hat and was driven by misogyny, religious fanaticism, or venereal
disease to destroy prostitutes. Among the most persistent and ludicrous of
myths is the one linking the murders to royalty—namely, H. R. H. Prince
Albert Victor (‘‘Prince Eddy’’), Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the eldest
son of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. Clarence led
an active homosexual life and frequented the notorious male brothel on
Cleveland Street, where he was once arrested during a police raid. Prolonged self-indulgence led to an early death, apparently from the effects of
venereal disease acquired in the West Indies.25 An equally implausible
candidate is Sir William Gull, the Queen’s highly respected personal physician, who allegedly entered into a conspiracy of elite Freemasons determined to eliminate every prostitute who knew about Clarence’s supposed
secret marriage to a Roman Catholic shop girl, Annie Crook. According to
this myth she had given birth to a daughter, which raised the specter of a
Roman Catholic heir to the throne.26
Another upper-class suspect still fancied by a few Ripperologists is
Prince Eddy’s tutor at Cambridge, James K. Stephen, the emotionally disturbed and misogynist son of the noted judge Sir James Fitzjames Stephen,
and the first cousin of Virginia Woolf. An ardent advocate of this theory,
Dr. David Abrahamsen, a retired New York psychiatrist and an expert on
the Son of Sam murders, studied the ‘‘psychodynamics’’ of the killer and
concluded that Stephen had enjoyed a passionate love affair with Prince
Eddy while tutoring him at Trinity College. For a short time their ‘‘perverted partnership’’ continued in London after graduation, but the Prince
jilted him and Stephen lost the remnants of his sanity. He then embarked on
his war against prostitutes, whom he condemned as the ‘‘syphilitic spawn of
hell’’ and the ‘‘Harlots of Jerusalem.’’27 Another favorite suspect has long
been Montague John Druitt, an Oxford graduate and briefless barrister
who took up schoolteaching and lived for a time in Whitechapel. The
strange circumstances of his death as well as his alleged homosexuality have
enhanced his suspect status. At the end of December 1888 the police hauled
his body out of the Thames, and surgeons estimated that he had thrown
himself into the river toward the end of November—not long after the last
of the Ripper’s known killings. Thus there has been speculation that Druitt
had drowned himself not just because of his dismissal from his teaching job
but out of remorse for his terrible deeds in Whitechapel.28 Far more eminent suspects at the time included that most virtuous of Liberal leaders and
ardent rescuer of prostitutes William Gladstone, as well as the painter
Walter Sickert, the brilliant Anglo-American actor Richard Mansfield, and
the esteemed patron of destitute children Dr. Thomas Barnardo.
Obscure or plebeian suspects include Joseph Barnett, the ex-lover of
Mary Kelly; a vengeful doctor named Stanley, whose beloved son had supposedly caught venereal disease from Kelly; the mad Polish hairdresser
Aaron Kosminski; and the mad Russian doctor Michael Ostrog.29 Then
there is the eccentric and colorful medical quack Dr. Francis J. Tumblety, a
Canadian-born con man of Irish origins who made a small fortune by
peddling a fake cure for pimples. Much admired by ladies with bad complexions, he passed himself off at one time or another as a surgeon, an
officer in the federal army, and a gentleman—three roles for which he was
wholly unqualified. During a visit to England in the fall of 1888 he was
arrested for ‘‘unnatural offences’’ (which remain a mystery), whereupon he
fled to France and then back to America. For the remainder of his life (he
died in 1903) he tried to dodge detectives and reporters looking for a good
Among the most exotic suspects fancied by a few Ripperologists have
been practitioners of black magic reputed to have left their mark by such
cabalistic signs as the number of stab wounds in Tabram’s body (39, or 3
times 13), the choice of the murder sites so as to form a cross or pentagram
across Whitechapel, the ritualistic mutilations, and the timing of each attack to accord with phases of the moon.31 The veteran Ripperologist Melvin Harris chose for the role of Jack a ‘‘weird, uncanny’’ and bohemian
character named Robert Donston Stephenson, alias Roslyn D’Onston. The
stark contrasts in this man’s personality and career gave him something of a
Jekyll-and-Hyde quality as he moved from medical to biblical and then
necromantic studies and even served as a surgeon in Garibaldi’s army.
Emulating the FBI, Harris compiled a thirteen-point ‘‘master profile’’ of
the serial killer, which seemed to fit Stephenson because of his obsession
with the occult and his sociopathic leanings. Besides murdering the five
prostitutes, Stephenson is supposed to have killed and dismembered his
wife. He also made beauty creams and magic candles out of secret ingredients, and he allegedly stored the bloodstained ties he wore for each of the
five murders in a tin box that turned up in a Sicilian abbey. With all the zeal
of a bloodhound but without providing any footnotes, Harris followed the
tortuous and shadowy path of Stephenson, to whom he assigned the authorship of a bizarre article in the Pall Mall Gazette (Dec. 1) signed by ‘‘One
Who Thinks He Knows,’’ wherein the murders are blamed on a French
practitioner of black magic or necromancy obsessed with the ritual murder
of prostitutes.32
During the fall of 1888 the police took in hundreds of suspects for questioning but released all of them after a few hours or days. Besides the early
prime suspect, John Pizer, a Jewish bootmaker who made some money by
threatening to sue several newspapers for defamation of character, the pool
of suspects included a nameless Jewish butcher or Kosher slaughterman
(known as a shochim or shochet); a lunatic barber-surgeon (Severin Klosowski, alias George Chapman); a mad Russian secret agent (Dr. Alexander
Pedachenko, alias Vassily Konovalov), who had supposedly been sent to
London by the Ochrana in order to discredit Scotland Yard for failing
to punish Russian anarchists severely; Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, the provider of poisonous ‘‘pink pills for pale prostitutes’’; and at least two lunatic
Jewish paupers from the East End (David Cohen and Aaron Kosminski).
Needless to say, virtually all of the Jewish suspects fit the Orientalist bill of
Otherness with their dark complexions, black hair, black clothing, and
heavy foreign accents.33
The bogus ‘‘diary’’ of Jack the Ripper featured in the British press during
1993 exemplifies the continuing power of the Ripper legend to excite media interest. No doubt the Liverpudlian producers of this bizarre text—
written in a uniform twentieth-century hand in an old scrapbook with
many pages torn out—hoped to make millions by assigning the authorship
to James Maybrick, a well-to-do and middle-aged cotton merchant who
died in 1889 from an overdose of arsenic. His death became front-page
news for weeks on end when his American wife, Florence (née Chandler),
was accused of having poisoned him. Her trial in 1889 made headline news
around the country and attracted hordes of spectators. Although convicted
and sentenced to hang, she escaped execution, and spent fifteen years in
prison.34 According to this confessional diary, James Maybrick commuted
to London by train to wage his private war against prostitutes and returned
late at night with or without bloodstains on his suit. Serious Ripperologists,
as well as handwriting experts for the Sunday Times, soon denounced the
Maybrick diary as an utter hoax, and in July 1994 its purveyor, Mike Barrett, confessed to the Liverpool Post that he had forged the journal. Nevertheless, Paul Feldman, a British video maker, embarked on a prodigious
quest to prove the diary authentic.35 Given the perennial desire for a solution of the mystery, and given the acrobatic logic or legerdemain of some
Ripperologists, there can be no doubt that new and even more farfetched
suspects will emerge in the future to fill the great void created by the killer’s
Running parallel to these masculine productions and rarely touching
them at any point are a few important studies by British and American
feminists who have their own distinct ideas about the murders as the epitome of male misogyny since time immemorial. First among these polemical
but sobering studies was Susan Brownmiller’s indictment of men bent on
rape or gynocide who admire serial killers like Jack in Against Our Will:
Men, Women and Rape (1975). Twelve years later, Jane Caputi launched her
polemic against the lethal nature of male heterosexual desire and the vital
role played by serial killers in not only the lives of women but also the mass
media ever since 1888. The Age of Sex Crime (1987) reflected her anger and
deep concern over femicidal predators from Jack to Ted Bundy and David
Berkowitz. With a flair for telling tales of women tortured, raped, and
murdered, Caputi accused the patriarchy of having produced not only Jack
but also his many emulators. Her grim catalogue of sexual murder ends
with what she calls the ‘‘logical’’ consequence of all these fusions of sex and
violence—namely, the rape of ‘‘Mother Earth’’ by the (manmade) hydrogen
bomb.36 Between these two publications, in 1982, the much more moderate
and empirical feminist Judith Walkowitz published a groundbreaking historical essay on the social and cultural ramifications of the Ripper murders,
pointing out how some Englishmen exploited the public panic by acting
out their Ripper fantasies, thereby reinforcing male control of women.37
Then in 1987 two English feminist cultural critics, Deborah Cameron and
Elizabeth Frazer, published a book on lust murder that stressed the connection between the codes of heterosexuality and the murder of women.
Toward the end of this occasionally insightful work they indulge in a wonderfully utopian, or naive, appeal for the ‘‘total reconstruction’’ of male
desire.38 In sum, the Ripper murders have inspired a literature that ranges
from fantasy or fiction to polemics and forensics, and the dividing line
between the imaginative and the factual remains as elusive as ever across
the fertile field of Ripperature.