The Time Machine: The Elusive Jack the Ripper

This week, the Time Machine recounts how an unidentified serial killer terrorised the Whitechapel district of London in 1888.

In 1888, during the months of August, September and October, a series of gory murders shook London. It is thought to have begun with the murder of Mary Ann Nicholls, a 42-year-old woman, whose corpse was found in a severely mutilated condition by a cart driver at 3:40 am on August 31. Some have speculated that Nicholls was probably not the first victim – Martha Tabram, who was found savagely murdered on August 7, might have been the first.

A week after the death of Nicholls, on September 8, the murderer struck again, leaving behind another woman in her forties with similar mutilations. Three weeks later, on September 30, was the “double event”, where two women were found murdered in two different locations, but it looked like the killer had not entirely finished with his first victim.

Soon after the double event, the Central News Agency in London received a bloodstained postcard signed ‘Jack the Ripper’. Earlier, the agency had received another letter, but it was considered a hoax. However, after the “double event”, the police thought both were authentic. Londoners too, came to widely believe that the communications were from the real killer, especially after most of the editors of Fleet Street published facsimiles of both between October 1 and October 4, reputed dailies like the Times included.

There were other letters that arrived late, but it is the first two that the police thought were genuine. Even so, as Jane Caputi wrote, ‘‘The authenticity of these letters remains, like so many things surrounding the Ripper, a matter of controversy, dispute and mystification.”

The bloodstained postcard received by Central News Agency in London. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The bloodstained postcard received by Central News Agency in London. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

From the contents of the letter and the postcard, should they have come from the killer himself, it is easy to see that the killer relished the persona of ‘Jack the Ripper’. A very self-aware criminal, he basked in the terror he created and gloated over having outsmarted the police. In the postcard, he refers to himself as ‘Saucy Jacky’, adding a touch of gothic horror with the bloodstains.

Newspaper bait

The Ripper’s murders had everything an editor would want, to generate voyeuristic public interest – it had both mysterious and salacious elements that intrigued and scandalised.

Not having very much on the killer, the victims took centre stage in the columns. Graphic and gory descriptions of the violence committed upon the bodies put penny dreadfuls to shame. The bodies of the deceased victims were laid open for public scrutiny to provide as vicarious a sense of horror as possible. Reporters characteristically inventoried the exact number of stab wounds a body part suffered. Throats were cut nearly “from ear to ear”. Suggestions were made of organs or body parts removed, especially the genitals. A sexual undertone was worked in with suggestions of corpses being found with the skirts of the women being hiked up to their waists. These reports were accompanied by excruciatingly detailed sketches that reconstructed the crime scene, all of which served to satiate public curiosity and heighten hysteria.

Features were dedicated to the backgrounds of the unfortunate women who suffered the wrath of a shadowy homicidal maniac. All the victims were impoverished East End women who were somehow, even if cursorily, related to sex work. The first four victims were in their forties while the last victim was in her twenties. The attacks on them seemed like an attack on their womanhood itself, with their abdomens slashed and body parts cut out.

Jack’s antics were deeply perplexing to Victorian society, where usually, the murders of poor, sometimes destitute women, would not have inspired public outcry. Sensational murders that deserved feature status were committed by the civilised elite, where the transgression would be shocking. The Ripper’s transgressions, however, were more complex – they were salacious and misogynistic and he seemed to derive a frightening amount of pleasure not just in the act of brutalising the female body, but also in his taunting secrecy. His motives were anybody’s guess – the letter sent to the Central News Agency mentioned “whores” leading to speculation that the killer might be a member of the elite with a specific vendetta or a fetish.

The murders were an offence on Victorian morale itself, exposing as it did, the seedy underbelly of London that thoroughly disturbed the happy bourgeois image of London being the centre of world civilisation. One man complained as much in a scathing letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, while a French newspaper took digs at the English, commenting how it seemed that they had lost all decency. Left-leaning publications took this opportunity to emphasise the squalor and the everyday horrors faced by the London poor, while others were outraged at police incompetence.

The Monster and the Other

The Ripper’s choice of victims made no sense, and there didn’t seem to be any apparent connection between them. They appeared to have been picked randomly, baffling the police. Several suspects were hauled up, but none quite fit the bill. A September 22 edition of the popular satire magazine, Punch, ran a short piece that seems to be referring to the cluelessness of the police in making arrests. The same issue also carried a cartoon titled Blind-Man’s Buff with an eponymous poem, both criticising the inefficacy of Scotland Yard.

That the Ripper was a threat to prevalent morality is evident in the anti-semiticism and xenophobia that rose in his wake. His invisibility and incomprehensibility lent demonic proportions to his figure in the public eye. The idea that such a monster might share their race/class was abhorrent and thereby, rejected. Specifically, the suspects were the Jews of East End. The police feared riots as the number of Jewish men who were suspected swelled.

Perry Curtis, Jr who analysed the contents of a number of letters written by the public, to newspapers, says that 37% of his sample were anonymous. From these letters rose speculations about the race of the killer – a continental European or an Asiatic? Lascar or Malay?

On October 4, 1888, the Times published a report with the byline “Nemo”. This self-appointedly Verne-esque reported claimed from his own experiences in India that the murders had a peculiarly eastern sadism to them that were meant to “express insult, hatred, and contempt.”

The legend

The most appallingly horrific thing that Jack the Ripper did was remain elusive. The killer, never having been caught, denied a sense of closure. Fears were not laid to rest as the possibility of this spectral figure lurking around Whitechapel continued to haunt public imagination.

Speculation continued well into the twentieth century, inspiring a torrent of literature and films. The Ripper was associated with supernatural qualities, as the uncertainty and inexplicability of it all provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories. One such theory even associated the Ripper to the British crown.

Circumstantial evidence and conjecture aside, the vast amount of contemporary literature that the Whitechapel murders generated provides invaluable insight into the cultural politics of Victorian London.