“The simultaneity of the Ripper killings and such modern cultural phenomena as a literary taste for Gothic and detective fiction, the explosion of the pulp press, and the rise of sexual and criminological science suggests a complete network of discursive and social trends that interrelated to produce an event that would resonate beyond its immediate moment and shape the figure of the murderer in the cultural imaginary for centuries to come and across geographical boundaries.” -Lisa Downing, The Subject of Murder (73)
I deal first with Jack the Ripper, undeniably the most well known serial killer of the 19th century. Jack the Ripper is a fantastic example of the type of popular interest in serial killers that consumed 19th century society. In fact he could even be considered the poster-boy for the spectacle of the serial killer in the 19th century. While untrue, Jack the Ripper is often cited as the first serial killer. This speaks to the fame and endurance of the Whitechapel murderer known as “Jack the Ripper” in the minds of the 19th century and today. Jack the Ripper was a media sensation and the terror of the city of London in way that would later come to characterize public reaction to serial murder. The Ripper murders were a communal spectacle and experience in London and of constant interest to local and international media, with reports in the newspaper of at least 11 countries (http://www.casebook.org/press_reports/).
The murders were fascinating for many reasons and had ripple affects to wide ranging parts of society, from social movements to methods of police detection. Part of the reason for this significance was their prominence in the minds of 19th century England during and closely following the murders. The Ripper case was the subject of nearly daily reporting for months while the crimes and search for the perpetrator were occurring and they continued to be periodically discussed for over a year. In fact the press began to try to connect the Whitechapel murders and theorize about a serial killer even before what is now believed to be the second Jack the Ripper murder (Weir 86). The first two Whitechapel murders did not fit the type of the Ripper murders, but by the time Mary Ann Nicholls, the Ripper’s first victim, was killed, she was the third dead prostitute in Whitechapel in five months. Even before the emergence of a pattern in killing style, the press was looking to create a serial killer. Once a pattern did emerge it was constantly speculated on (Wier 87). The international interest and attention combined with the enduring mystery of the killer’s identity have helped Jack the Ripper to remain a subject of fascination to this day.
The Location: Whitechapel was a crowded lower class district in London’s East End whose conditions were considered shameful to more respectable Victorian Londoners. (Fisher 200) The proximity of the murders to higher class districts connected the story outside of the poorer population to all corners of London, and the choice of victims and location of the murders called attention to the problems of the poor of London.
Victims and Modus Operandi: All 5 agreed upon victims of the Ripper were female prostitutes. While “Jack the Ripper” was commonly attributed with at least 8 murders at the time, the three initial murders are not now attributed to Jack the Ripper . While the three had clear sexual components and female victims, they had different MOs and lacked the physical mutilation of the corpses that distinguished the Ripper’s murders (Fisher 200-202). Additionally the murder weapon in the Ripper murders was different than those used in the other Whitechapel murders (Weir 87). Later murders, after the so called “canonical five,” that had characteristics of the Ripper’s style are still debated about (Weir 95). The markers of the Ripper’s method were the cut throat, from left to right, significant mutilation, and often disembowled or missing internal organs sometimes put over the victim’s shoulder(Weir 87).
In the Press: Jack the Ripper was one of the most frequently exaggerated cases of serial murder reporting. He claimed five victims but speculation often exaggerated that number to 20 or more, some killed in London around the same time but in radically different ways (Newton 164). It was not only the body count of the Ripper that the media exaggerated. The actual period of killing lasted 2 months but the public relations surrounding “Jack the Ripper” stretched a full year (Fisher 202). The Whitechapel murders were the talk of the town and the subject of seemingly endless speculation and reporting. After the Ripper killed Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes gawkers in numbers estimated as high as thousands lined up to view the murder site, even though the bodies had been removed and the street cleaned (Fisher 209). The media frenzy and public interest surrounding the Ripper demonstrate the effect and phenomenon of serial murder in the 19th century.