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Fed up with Jack the Ripper

2013 September 26

Jack the Ripper is kind of a big deal in East London. Whether it’s a plaque in a pub, a BBC film crew or yet another walking tour, he pops up all over the place with his spooky hat and cloak. And to be honest, it’s pretty tiresome.

Morbid stories

Regular readers will know that I love history, and that murder mysteries are just one of my many morbid interests. When I first started seeing my boyfriend, I took him on a date to Wilton’s Music Hall via Ratcliff Highway so I could tell him about the famous murder case there.

Wanted posterSo I get it, I do. The Whitechapel murders of 1888 are grimly fascinating, and the question mark over the killer’s identity is a magnet for myths and stories. The study of the murders and their legacy illuminate the historical and the contemporary context in valuable ways. One example is Judith Walkowitz’s superb book, City of Dreadful Delight. And Madame Guillotine has a great post exploring her interest in Jack the Ripper as a feminist.

But there are other tales we could tell. There are plenty of morbid stories to choose from (our other major historical export is the Krays) and it might even be nice to talk about some East London history that doesn’t involve murder. Although we know nothing about him, Jack the Ripper overshadows a cast of amazing East End characters, and the Whitechapel murders draw far more attention than any number of incredible events. Just one example: this year is also the 125th anniversary of the Matchwomen’s strike which launched the modern trade union movement. Thanks to the efforts of Louise Raw, there was a commemorative event at the Bishopsgate Institute and a bit of media coverage. But will we be tripping over Matchwomen walking tours in Bow?

Jack and his victims

It’s not just the extent of it but the tone. Jack the Ripper is everybody’s favourite mystery serial killer. There is endless speculation about his identity, his knowledge of anatomy and even admiration for his ability to evade capture. In contrast, the women he murdered are reduced to objects for study or criminal evidence for analysis.

For example: my local paper recently contained a special 12 page Jack the Ripper supplement including a page entitled “The victims: How women met their gory deaths”, featuring detailed descriptions of the last movements and mutilated bodies of five women who were murdered – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly – complete with pictures of their faces taken after death.

Where is the respect for these women? Poring over details like how drunk they were and how deep the gash in their throat was or how their intestines were arranged may be one thing in a history book, but why is it being printed in the Newham Recorder, along with photographs of their corpses? I don’t want these intimate and gruesome details exhumed for my entertainment.

Missing the big picture

Like almost all media coverage of the subject the article fails to connect the Whitechapel murders to any kind of context about violence against women then or now. Another article highlights the fact that six other women were murdered in the same area in the same year, three also working in prostitution and killed by punters (Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett), three killed by their husbands.

Sadly this article reads like a masterclass in how to subtly blame victims and excuse perpetrators when it describes the three cases of women killed by their husbands – Hannah Potzdamer, Susan Barrell and Elizabeth Bartlett:

“ordinary people driven to the ultimate crime by circumstance, a fit of anger or a desire for revenge” (this is a quote from author Peter Stubley, included in the article)

“her throat is slashed… in a jealous rage”

“Hannah had left him and moved in with a bootmaker”

“Robert, suffering from delirium tremens, also shoots himself”

“she refused to give him money for drink”

Over a century on it’s felt necessary to include details like this which serve to exonerate the killers. I wish I could afford to send every journalist a copy of this guide to responsible media reporting of violence against women (PDF).

Ripper chic

Whether blasé or breathlessly excited, the tone used to talk about Jack the Ripper almost everywhere makes me feel queasy. Have a look at this New York Times article about how All Saints clothing store makes use of “the romance of Jack the Ripper” and its location in “the Ripper’s hallowed stomping grounds”. Big stomper was he?

And did you know the Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields (where one of the victims had been drinking before she was killed) was at one point called ‘Jack The Ripper’? They used to sell T-shirts, and a blood-coloured cocktail called Ripper’s Tipple. Tasteful. Obviously there’s a difference between the crimes of one serial killer and the carnage of the First World War, but that has an anniversary coming up too – can you imagine a WWI-themed bar serving ham and mustard gas sandwiches? Although I guess we’re getting close with ‘Blitz parties’, but that’s a rant for another day.


Many people do seriously study the Whitechapel murders without celebrating ‘Jack’, but as this brave article explains, unintentional sexism abounds in Ripperologist circles. The focus is firmly on the suspects and not the victims, whose suffering is silent or sensationalised. The LIFT campaign in Tower Hamlets have subverted this with an alternative Ripper tour which talks about the lives and the communities of the women who were killed. There are some interesting tweets from the walk in this Storify.

Here’s a classic response to criticism of Ripperology:

We do not celebrate, we commemorate. We do not idealise, but we condemn him. We examine the harsh realities of that world to allow us to understand where we came from, how society has changed and why we should be thankful for these changes, and recognise where it has not and strive to put this right.

While this may be the aim, and I fully admit I haven’t had time to research this post very thoroughly, I haven’t seen many examples of Ripperologists striving to end violence against women.

Violence against women

That is the issue at the heart of this, and the reason I can’t join in the fun: violence against women is epidemic, often lethal but frequently trivialised. The most uncomfortable parallel I found between Ripper fandom and damaging contemporary attitudes to violence against women was this, on the London Dungeons profile page for Jack the Ripper:

DOs and DON’Ts

DO look over your shoulder.

DO dress conservatively.

DO go unnoticed.

DO NOT flirt.

DO NOT walk alone.

DO NOT accept his offer to buy you a drink.

This is advice that is seriously but unhelpfully issued to women today in the guise of rape prevention. It is also a classic example of the victim blaming which prevents many women reporting violence let alone seeing their attacker convicted. Repeated in this context it’s ghoulish, and not in a good way.

Now, as then, women working in prostitution are particularly vulnerable to violence – especially trans* women and migrant women. A woman working in prostitution is 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population. While I don’t want to be a party pooper, I can’t get that figure out of my head. I’ll sign off with this quote on ‘Jack’, from feminist academic Deborah Cameron:

The question for society is not which individual man killed, but why so many men have done and still do.

Some links

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Kirsten permalink
    September 26, 2013

    Great post (just spent quite a long time reading up about the Ratcliff Highway murders too..).

    Have you seen this?

    I have pre-existing reservations about Lucy Worsley from a feminist perspective, so I am quite intrigued by this combination.

    • Sarah permalink*
      September 26, 2013

      Gasp! I hadn’t seen that – might try and watch it tonight.

      Have you read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher? I haven’t yet but apparently fascinating.

      And thank you :-)

      • September 27, 2013

        I watched and enjoyed the Lucy Worsley programme. The focus was on the development of the public’s ghoulish interest in murder, which seems to me an interesting topic. I didn’t notice any victim blaming, nor was the emphasis on violence against women. The Red Barn murder was only case she covered in which a woman was specifically targeted. (Another was of a whole family slaughtered: members of both sexes.)

        What she said of a female murderer was interesting. (I’ve already forgotten lethal lady’s name, though.) She seemed the only interesting murderer.

        As someone who used to work with the families of murder victims (for Victim Support), though, I never feel entirely easy with murder as entertainment. My own experience suggests that the predominant emotion arising from murder is sadness. That never seems properly reflected in murder as presented in the media.

  2. October 6, 2013

    Great piece. In another life I was a teacher for 10 years teaching secondary history. I did a Ripper project with my year 8s but a significant part of our study was to look at the biographies of the women and look at their lives in the context of Victorian London. We considered why they were vulnerable and why Jack might have chosen them. The students often ended up more fascinated by the women than Jack.

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