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Gender :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle



Prostitution and the Press:


Newspaper report after Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was murdered

As seen in earlier years, sexual scandal sold newspapers.  The 1885 publication of the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” in the Pall Mall Gazette made for one of the tabloid’s most successful issues (Walkowitz, “Jack” 545).  This piece of investigative journalism by W.T. Stead made an effort to expose the world of prostitution.  Stead claims that prostitution in the East End is like a “London slave market” where girls are “bought and ruined” (Stead, “Maiden Tribute”).  He goes on to explain how young girls are bought into prostitution and forced to live horrible, degrading lives.  The success of this article proved that a sensationalized story of sexual scandal, such as child prostitution, was a topic that people would pay money to read.  The same sort of scandal translated into the press reports on the Jack the Ripper murders.  The gruesome acts committed against the female victims of Jack the Ripper gave journalists a new subject of sexual scandal to entertain the public with.  The main reason for this was the fact that most of the women who were victims were prostitutes.  This allowed the press to focus on their profession combined with the brutality of the murders as a sexualized and sensationalized story.

For example, upper class citizens started a discussion about the murders in The Times, but instead of focusing on the “pathology of Jack the Ripper” the discussion focused on the “degraded conditions of the victims themselves” (Walkowitz, “Jack” 558).  One of the authors of this discussion was a man named Samuel Barnett. In his article published in The Times, Barnett discusses the murders as if they were inevitable.  He says that to think about the suspect as simply a homicidal maniac would be “salve to [the people of Whitechapel’s] complacency” (Barnett, The Times).  By this phrase, Barnett means that to think that the victims of the Jack the Ripper murders were simply victims of a homicidal maniac would be too comforting.  Instead, he is implying that it is their fault and that their lifestyle caused these women to be victims.  This statement implies the people of the East End cannot look at the murders as just random acts, they need to look at the murders as a sign that they should change their ways.  He claims that the murders were bound to happen and that a lot of it can be attributed to the lodging houses that the prostitutes often used (Barnett, The Times).  He suggests that the landlords of these places are making a profit “from tenements known to be the haunts of profligacy, vice, and crime” (Barnett, The Times).  The writings of Samuel Barnett and others who shared his beliefs implied that the murders occurred as a result of the women’s way of life.

To the women of the West End, especially women involved in the Social Purity Movement, prostitutes, including the victims, were seen as morally degenerate as opposed to trying to make a living.  Even though prostitution was legal in London at the time, middle and upper class women did not see it as a respectable way to earn an income.  Yet, most of the victims were in economic need when they were attacked.  In order to pay for a room at their lodging, they would prostitute themselves to make the money to spend the night (Walkowitz, “Jack” 552).  Many women had to resort to prostitution as a way of economic means.  While women in the middle class would look upon these women in disgust, women in the working class who were not prostitutes understood the need for money so they did not shun the women who were prostitutes (Haggard 201).  Unlike the women in the upper class, the women of the working class in the East End did not see prostitutes or any of the victims as a dark mark on society.  Instead they were seen as average working members of the community.  Even though these women may have simply been doing what they needed to in order to survive, the middle class did not always look at it this way.  For example, in a report on the murders in The Times, a middle class newspaper, the author claimed that these women “violate their womanhood for the price of a night’s lodging, and for whom the wages of sin was death” (Walkowitz, “City” 201).  In this case, the middle class blamed the victims for their own murders and implied that they should have made their money in a more decent and wholesome way.  This idea goes along with the Purity Movement at the time.  Because of the Social Purity Movement, women from the middle class did not have sympathy for women from the working class.  They believed that if the working class women would have lived more moral lives or had a moral profession then they would not have been victims.

Male Dominance:

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Police Illustrated News, 1888
Walkowitz, “Jack the Ripper and the Myth of Male Violence”

The victim-ology of the Jack the Ripper murders gave men an excuse to control the behavior and sexuality of women. The murders helped men create a false sense of male dominance as protectors and as scaring women into staying in their homes.  Men now had reason to make women believe that “the city is a dangerous place for women, when they transgress the narrow boundaries of home and hearth and dare to enter public space” (Walkowitz 544).  However, the women of the East End, especially the prostitutes, joined together during the time of the murders instead of running away in fear.  In fact, the crimes almost made these women less susceptible to male intimidation.   An article from The Daily News in October 1888 explains how the women of the East End saw the murders as an attack on their “sisterhood” (“London: Down East and Up West,” The Daily News).  The article claims that in the East End at the time of the murders distress among prostitutes “was not as great as one might expect” (“London: Down East and Up West,” The Daily News).  For example, these women would organize in large groups and chase down men who even threatened women with violence (Walkowitz, “Narratives” 186).  These women needed to continue their profession in order to make a living.  While many people, such as the government and the upper and middle class, were pressing them to give it up, they could not.  Therefore, instead of hiding in fear of the Ripper and succumbing to male dominance, these women felt empowered to fight back.

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