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

Serial Killers of the 19th Century

While single incident murders often captured media and popular for attention extended periods in the 19th century, serial murder captured the public consciousness in a more extended and involved way. From the discovery of the crime through the identification, hunt for, arrest, trial and punishment of the perpetrator and long after, the media and public followed and consumed the story of serial murder and the serial murderer.

Serial murder fit in perfectly with the crime media sensation. Both fictional crime stories and the crime reporting that was based in reality depicted crime as intriguing and entertaining. These avenues were a form of entertainment and their writers and producers were motivated by profit (Crone 107). This structure incentivized the use of narratives that would captivate public attention and sell copies. Each issue, novel, or publication had to have new information, an original plot, or a more horrifying and shocking crime. In order to maintain the public’s attention and entertain, crime stories glamorized the criminal and their crimes for popular consumption.** The 19th century was the time of the serial novel, with stories printed in newspapers chapter by chapter on a weekly basis. In this setting, the serial murderer was like a serial novel come to life. Each issue could feature a new story, a new update on the crimes of the serial murderer. Instead of fictional murder plots carried in newspaper serials, the crimes of and search for the serial murderer were real stories splayed across the front pages for the ravenous consumption of terrified neighbors and fascinated observers.

In the case of the coverage of an active serial murderer, the first event could be treated like a standard single-incident homicide. Once the murder was replicated and another similar homicide occurred, the serial murder became a different type of event. Until the murderer was caught or at least identified, the menace was active and ongoing. There was suspense and a horrible anticipation at when and where the next crime would occur and a constant threat to possible victims. This type of suspense and horror can become obsessive until the murderer is caught. In cases like that of Jack the Ripper, in which the murderer was never caught or identified, the horror and mystery can drag out for months beyond the last killing in the popular consciousness. The actual period of Jack the Ripper’s killing lasted 2 months but the public relations surrounding “Jack the Ripper” stretched a full year (Fisher 202). In fact even once Jack the Ripper faded from the front pages of the press he  remained an obsession for many around the world even to today, over a century after the killings.

However it was not just active killers that captured the interest of the 19th century. Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, another killer, different in almost every way from the “Jack the Ripper” killer, became an object of popular interest as rumors of his crimes spread. Even after he was exiled (on forgery, not murder, charges), his story fascinated people all over the world. Books and articles on his exploits continued to entertain long after his crimes ceased. Serial killers, their crimes, victims, and those that hunted them became enduring subjects of fascination and international celebrity in the crime saturated culture of the 19th century.

I survey the cases of 2 different 19th century serial killers to show the reactions of 19th century society to cases of serial murder and those that committed it. First is Jack the Ripper, the most famous 19th century serial killer and perhaps the most well known serial killer ever. Still a mystery, his crimes terrorized London for two months in the summer of 1888 and the uproar around them lasted much longer even after the killings stopped. His crimes and identity are still subjects of obsession for some over a century afterwards. The wide array of theories and reactions as well as the media frenzy and the terror and fear of the city of London exhibit the effects of a serial killer on the society in which he or she kills and the world at large.  Second, Thomas Grffiths Wainewright a mid-level artist and author who became more renowned for his crimes and was the subject of biographies and multiple books in the years after his discovery and exile, though he was never prosecuted for his murders, showing the enduring fascination with serial killers of all types, and their popular resonance in the 19th century.

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