Bloody Fodder for the Pen: One Hundred Ten Years of Jack the Ripper in Print
Let them go on believing that they are on the track of the murderer. Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise. ~George R. Sims, 16 September, 1888
London in the late 1880s was grim and grimy. Swept up in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, the city seethed with the smells and the hustle and bustle of business, while factory stacks spewing black, choking smoke towered over the monarchy of the largest empire in the world. For those lucky enough to afford the clean living to be had in the grand homes on the west side of greater London, to take country weekends, to shop in Paris, and to trade in the commerce houses, life could indeed be a pleasure. But that world was far removed from the wretched masses who struggled in the city’s so-called East End, a labyrinth of slums and hovels where death often came as a blessing.
In The Face of London (1932), author and Londoner Harold P. Clunn remarked of the East End, “whatever might have been the original character of this neighborhood, it had by 1880 become one of the worst rookeries…both as regards the character of its houses and of their occupants.” Populated by Chinese, Jewish, and Huguenot immigrants as well as Britain’s own destitute, the East End was worked by prostitutes, pub owners, and dockers. It did not suffer kindly the faint of heart. Rows of doss houses, pubs, workhouses, and market stalls crowded crooked cobblestone streets, and anyone with a few pennies earned, begged or bagged during the day had to reach his destination unscathed before he could even dream of securing a bed for the night or, if he preferred, downing some numbing drink.
Yet even the East Enders were surprise that late summer of 1888 when the brutal slaying of Martha Tabram, stabbed thirty-nine times, ushered in the most notorious serial killings in history – and spawned a reign of terror that held the entire city in thrall for months.
The names of Jack the Ripper’s victims are almost as famous as his own sobriquet. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly all met horrific ends – stabbed, mutilated, violated, degraded. (Only later, long after the terror had been created, did officials decide that Martha Tabram, murdered just a few weeks before Nichols, was the victim of a killer other than Jack the Ripper.) And although all of these women lived lives the social mediators of our day would call “marginalized,” their murders were picked up by newspapers throughout England, across the Continent, and over the ocean in America.
The crimes gripped both sides of the Atlantic as summer ebbed toward fall, an absorption that reveals more about our fascination with misanthropic misdeeds and ghastly tragedies than about the sway of one deranged individual. Jack the Ripper’s incessant memorialization in print, in schoolyard chants, and on the rust celluloid frames of film, to put a Jungian spin on it, is a reflection of nothing so much as our darkest, most secret selves – those parts of ourselves, as one modern-day psycho-guru puts it, that we feel compelled to keep locked in the basement of our subconscious lest they lunge out of control like starved dogs to become our masters. Reading about true crime lets our imaginations harmlessly crack the door for a brave look into those nether regions.
Even before the Ripper’s murderous spree was complete, German readers could buy the anonymously penned The Latest Atrocities of Jack the Ripper. In Italy the misdeeds of “Jack lo Squartatore” were as avidly followed as any modern soap opera. And no wonder. Sensational language combined in the same news stories with straightforward reporting to propagate a brand of shock and schlock journalism that reveled in every gory detail of the murders, omitting nothing and, even in the pages of “legitimate” news sources, throwing in a few extra details to create some of the first Ripper fiction to be printed. Murder was not uncommon in those narrow gaslit streets, but the Whitechapel deaths were so horrible they seemed to create limitless fodder for the media.
While the London Times on 1 September 1888 duly reported the facts regarding the death of Mary Ann Nichols, an ocean away in New York, that city’s own Times put a flamboyant twist on the story, embroidering from the facts a fiction that seems as immoderate as our era’s tabloid television. Jerry Springer has nothing on Victorian-era reporters.
According to all official documents, Nichols’ body was found near a slaughterhouse in Buck’s Row, a little before 4 A.M. on September 1. Although people had been in the area, no one remembered hearing anything out of the ordinary, and no one saw anything unusual. And that was precisely how the London Times reported it.
The New York Times, though, also breathlessly added, “She attempted to escape and ran a hundred yards, her cries for help being heard by several persons in adjacent houses. No attention was paid to her cries….”
And so it would go. As each victim was discovered, papers on both sides of the Atlantic reported the developments, advances their own favorite theories and suspects, found guilt where there was innocence, and helped to create the hysteria. London’s Illustrated Police News, that most popular of sensationalist rags – sort of the crime reporter’s National Enquirer of its day, despite the pseudo-legitimacy lent by the word “police” in its title – topped the heap with its no-holds-barred recounting of each heinous crime. The paper seemed to relish revealing the most gruesome aspects of the murders, lavishly chronicling the disemboweling of the poor victims. Though the broad facts as reported in the Illustrated Police News were fairly straightforward, the language was less than gentle.
Even more chilling, and just as greedily devoured by the public, was the string of slim, gory books that rushed into print as the year ground on. Titles such as the anonymous Whitechapel Murders, or The Mysteries of the East End (Purkiss, 1888); Richard Kyle Fox’s The History of the Whitechapel Murders with Sketches (Fox, 1888); and W.J. Hayne’s Jack the Ripper: Of the Crimes of London (1889) offered increasingly imaginative accounts of the saga. Nevertheless, as primary sources, artifacts of the language and reporting styles of their times, such books allow a modern reader to perceive the horror of the events from a contemporary perspective – to the extent, that is, that one’s sensibilities have escaped being jaded by a century of tell-all culture. Unfortunately, all these books are so incredibly rare that the Ripper himself might be more easily found.
It the Whitechapel murders transfixed the world, the ineffectualness of the authorities outraged it. As the New York Times bluntly remarked on September 9, The four murders have been committed within a gunshot of each other. But the detectives have no clue. The London police and detective force is probably the stupidest in the world.” British writers soon boarded the bandwagon. On September 24 George Bernard Shaw contributed a scathing letter to the Star, “Blood Money to Whitechapel,” that blasted the establishment – the press and the politicians – for its hypocritical treatment of the welfare of the East End’s inhabitants:
“Less than a year ago the West-end press…were literally clamoring for the blood of the people – hounding-on [police commissioner and evangelical Christian] Sir Charles Warren to thrash and muzzle the scum who dared to complain that they were starving…behaving, in short, as the propertied class always does behave when the workers throw it into a frenzy of terror by venturing to show their teeth….
“Now all is changed…. Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation and organization, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disemboweling four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of Communism.”
The satirical Punch weighed in with characteristically caustic verse. As suspects were rounded up and detained because their mere appearance (a suspicious foreigner with a mustache and hat) or occupation (a fish cleaner, because he used a filet knife), the magazine dryly commented on the three-ring circus atmosphere of the investigation. While the police and city officials blustered about without really accomplishing anything, on September 28 Punch stung hard:
“Like boys at Blind-Man’s Bluff. A pretty sport
For Law’s sworn guards in rascaldom’s resort!
The bland official formula to-day
Seems borrowed from the tag of Nursery play,
‘Turn round three times,’ upon the settled plan
Flounder and fumble, and ‘catch whom you can!’”
The killer himself (or just as likely one or more twisted pranksters assuming his identity) slid into the game by sending a series of missives to Scotland Yard and the newspapers, which immediately slammed them into print. “Dear Boss,” opened an epistle delivered to the yard on September 29 and generally assumed – but never proven – to be one of a very few actually from the hand of the murderer, “I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they won’t fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track…. I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal.” It was signed with the letter-writer’s own nickname for himself: Jack the Ripper.
Mary Kelly’s death, on 9 November 1888, turned out to be the last of the Ripper killings. As the year drew toward its close without the discovery of any more bodies, the Whitechapel murders began to fade from the forefront of public awareness. People moved on to the next news, and although the papers would continue to report new developments in the police investigation through 1889, the furor and apprehension began to die down.
The mythology that had so swiftly come to attend Jack the Ripper, of course, has yet to fade away. Well into the next century, English parents invoked the name to frighten their children into submission and as the facts of the case continued to give birth to fresh fiction, Jack was hauled out of the gutter and into the schoolyard as the star of several children’s rhymes.
One, still heard in London during the Edwardian era, spun childish innocence around the grim details that surrounded the facts of Mary Kelly’s death, the bloodiest of them all:
“Jack the Ripper’s dead
And lying on his bed
He cut his throat
With Sunlight Soap
Jack the Ripper’s dead.”
Another verse – “Jack the Ripper stole a kipper/Hid it in his father’s slipper” – was still in common currency as late as 1935.
As the new century progressed, the mystery gained momentum, spearheaded in part by journalist, novelist, and social campaigner George R. Sims, a tireless researcher who would continue to muse on the true identity of Jack the Ripper until his death in 1922 – and who himself was once a suspect in the case. Late in the evening of 30 September 1888, a suspicious looking gent appeared at a Whitechapel coffee stall and announced that two new murders would be reported in the following day’s press. Sure enough they were, and the stall’s proprietor lost no time in identifying his visitor from a portrait of Sims the being used to advertise his latest book. The police soon eliminated the author of Christmas Day in the Workhouse from their inquiries, but Sims was fascinated by the possibility that he might have a murderous double and by the growing list of other suspects.
Even without Sims – merely the best known of the Edwardian era’s Ripperologists – Jack would most certainly have survived in the public imagination. Murders so sensational struck deep, and since the crimes were never solved, the intrigue simply perpetuated itself. Carl Muusmann’s Hvem Var Jack the Ripper (Copenhagen: Hermann-Petersen, 1908) was the first published book to offer a “solution” to the crimes. Alios Szemeredy, whose mysterious identity generated much gossip – rumored to be a lunatic and known as a thug, he was by turns and American, a surgeon, or a sausage maker – figured as Muusmann’s suspect of choice. Szemeredy was first mentioned in the London Daily Graphic in 1892, and Muusmann would have developed his theories from that initial source.
Marie Belloc Lowndes’ short story, “The Lodger,” which appeared in McClure’s in 1911, was one of the first serious fictional accounts to be published. It used the viewpoint of an elderly couple who rents a room to a stranger that readers come to suspect as the Whitechapel murderer. Savaged by the critics at the time but now accepted as one of the classics in a grotesquely swollen genre, the story must have impressed Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1926 the master of suspense directed a silent film based loosely on the story, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (The Case of Jonathan Drew), remade in 1932 as The Lodger (The Phantom Fiend) and again in 1944 as, simple, The Lodger. Of the more than two dozen screen Rippers, Laird Gregar in the 1944 version’s sinister title role remains one of the best.
Mast occultist-author Colin Wilson’s spellbinding fictional treatment followed in 1960. Ritual in the Dark (Victor Gollancz) could not be set any farther from the fog-wreathed streets of Whitechapel: the action is confined to the swinging “mod” scene of late 1950s London. Still, Wilson re-created precisely the same climate of terror that one imagines must have gripped Victorian London seventy years before. He doubtless played a part in generating the next wave of Ripperology books as the 1960s unfolded. Tom Cullen’s Autumn of Terror (The Bodley Head) and Robin Odell’s Jack the Ripper: In Fact and Fiction (Harrap), published in 1965, both carefully examine the surviving (and still-accumulating) evidence, and both remain standard references in any Ripper library.
Perhaps kicked off by the publication of Donald Rumbelow’s comprehensive overview, or maybe for broader social reasons, such as people’s prurient curiosity getting the better of them as modesty in general loosened, the larges resurgence of Ripper mania broke through in the 1970s and hasn’t slowed. Doubtless, too, the “Yorkshire Ripper’s” notorious “copycat” crimes in the late seventies – he murdered thirteen women and claimed to have received divine instruction to kill prostitutes – had something to do with it.
Rumbelow’s The Complete Jack the Ripper (W.H. Allen, 1975), since reissued as Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook, was one of the first, and remains the best, summary of the entire case. Dealing with the cultural, political, and social effects of the Whitechapel murders on the people of London, Rumbelow presented new information never before published. Also to his credit, he revised the book several times through 1987 with the latest nuggets from his own and other’s research. It is a must-have for any budding armchair Ripper detective.
Paul Begg also has written authoritatively on the subject. As co-editor of Jack the Ripper A to Z (Headline Book Publishing, 1991) with Marin Fido and Keith Skinner, Begg presented for the first time a complete compendium of all known information relevant to Jack the Ripper. Another Begg classic is Jack the Ripper: The Uncensored Facts (Robson Books, 1988), a painstaking reconstruction of the crimes and the police investigations, “a simple, straightforward account…,” as the author described it, “of who saw what, where and when.”
Such clarification is important, for by the late 1970s and 1980s it seemed everybody was publishing an opinion about the identity of the killer. As Begg explains, “When an historical even is used for fiction, the fiction can rapidly enter the popular imagination as face. Then the reality becomes submerged under fiction, it can often prove impossible to raise the truths from the depths.” But not from a lock of imaginative theories ranging from the breathtakingly daring to the plain daft, for as long as new “evidence” surfaces, it seems, new “suspects” will continue to be found.
Psycho author Robert Bloch tackled the “who dunnit” question in The Night of the Ripper (Doubleday, 1984), which ties together all the then current biographical theories and brings in the likes of Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde to help solve the puzzle. The last year alone has seen the publication of three new titles, Jim Tully’s Prisoner 1167: The Madman Who Was Jack the Ripper (Carroll & Graf, 1997), M.J. Trow’s The Many Faces of Jack the Ripper (Summerdale Pub, 1998), and, boasting a title that can only inspire the collector with a weary criticism, Paul Feldman’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Chapter (Virgin, 1998).
Frank Spiering’s Prince Jack (Jove, 1978), a book that finally “exposed” what the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the royal coverup, a kind of century-long Rippergate,” perhaps represents the zenith – or nadir? – of all the far-flung theories. Spiering compiles evidence proving that the killer was Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson, Prince Albert – a distinguished addition to a company that includes such honorable members as the queen’s physician, Sir William Gull; a Canadian racketeer, Dr. Neill Cream; and an early (if undoubtedly fictional) suffragette, Jill the Ripper.
Which brings us to the biography that reads like a novel and the confession that sounds like a concoction…or is it the other way around? The alleged diary of Ripper suspect James Maybrick surfaced in the 1980s (as did many other “authentic” diaries) and sparked a new round of point-counterpoint. The discovery of these sixty-three dramatically confessional hand-written pages in the back of a scrapbook created a stir eclipsed only by the excitement that arose when author Shirley Harrison was commissioned to investigate Maybrick’s life and his own news-making murder by poisoning (for which his wife was convicted) and to write a book around the manuscript.
Scholars still debate whether the journal that lies at the heart of Harrison’s book, The Diary of Jack the Ripper (Smith Gryphon Ltd., 1993), is fact or fiction, explosive history or elaborate fakery. As with every other aspect of this timeless – and timelessly perplexing – case, the final diagnosis is best left to the reader, for as long as tourist-trapping “Ripper Walks” continue to haunt the murderer’s killing fields and the abruptly curtailed lives of his five victims still beckon from the grave, Jack the Ripper doubtless will continue to stalk us well into the next century. (Amy Hanson)