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Serial Killers in the 19th Century :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Serial Killers in the 19th Century

The 19th century was a time when crime and murder became the subject of popular obsession and entertainment, and of professional inquiry to scientists, investigators,  and social scientists alike. Theories about criminality and its causes abounded and the penny press obsessed about murder. It was in this atmosphere that the serial killer as a reality and a fantasy became a new type of phenomena. Serial killers are often thought of as a modern and distinctly American phenomenon, and the term serial killer did not exist until the 20th century. However the concept of the serial killer is not new. In the Europe of the 19th century serial killers had the same power to fascinate and terrify that they do today. Serial killers appeared in the new genre of crime fiction in works like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and the “penny dreadful” Sweeney Todd. Real life serial killers garnered media and popular obsession in even more dramatic ways that the common criminal. Coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders in the popular press lasted an entire year though the crimes occurred in a span of just two months. In a society consumed with murder, serial killers became objects of popular obsession. Serial killers are unique because their stories stretch over the public imagination for longer periods of time and in more acute ways. They remain a mystery and a question in a much more threatening and consuming way due to the communal experience and fear of their crimes and the incomprehensibility of their actions. Single-incident killers are a curiosity and an interesting story, but in the 19th century, much like today, serial killers inspired not only fascination but also terror because their crimes were ongoing. They were not safe stories to read about; they were a contemporary reality and constant threat. They also mirrored a real life version of the 19th century serial novel as their stories played out in the press. Stories about serial killers like Jack the Ripper and others filled the presses and remained interesting to the public long after the killings stopped even when the killer was caught. Thomas Wainewright, one British serial killer before Jack the Ripper was the subject of a book of crime stories decades after his crimes. Obsession with Jack the Ripper continues to this day.

I investigate the phenomenon of serial murder through contemporary social science investigations of serial killers, as well as their specific resonance in the 19th century through historical case studies of 19th century serial killers Jack the Ripper and Thomas Griffiths Wainwright. The reality of the serial killer in the atmosphere of the 19th century preoccupation with murder meant that real life serial killers and their stories became a popular obsession, a boon for the growing media industry, and a communal experience shared among the community in which they did their deadly work.

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