Understanding the Jack the Ripper murders and what they tell us about society

Thursday, 09 August 2018

Jack the Ripper

Oxford Brookes professors Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash have written for BBC History Magazine about Jack the Ripper’s identity and what the murders tell us about society’s greatest fears over the past 130 years.

This month marks 130 years since the first of five brutal murders took place in the Whitechapel area of London. There has been much speculation as to the identity of the killer and the crimes still continues to horrify and intrigue to this day.

“The Ripper murders attract because they feature an enigmatic murderer with an unbelievably catchy and graphic nickname and they were, most importantly of all, unsolved,” comments Anne Marie-Kilday, Professor of Criminal History at Oxford Brookes University.

“The murders were effectively the culmination of popular fears of the violent city. As Victorian society had become an urban society it had been fed stories of murder and interpersonal violence. Murder ballads and penny dreadful stories were supplemented by an increasingly sophisticated press eager to sensationalise in order to sell newspapers.”

Below is a short overview of the five theories the academics explore in BBC History Magazine:

1. Outcast Rippers

The Whitechapel killings awoke fears of the predatory immigrant.

“With the public, appalled by the acts of Jack the Ripper, it was scarcely surprising that these events were readily seen to be caused by an evil that had recently entered Victorian society from outside,” comments Professor David Nash, a Professor in History at the University.

“This meant that a host of marginal figures from ethnic minorities found themselves in the frame. Their arrival brought to the surface widespread fears of the predatory ‘outsider’, a stereotype that the police - and even government officials - found hard to resist.

“The murders were effectively the culmination of popular fears of the violent city. As Victorian society had become an urban society it had been fed stories of murder and interpersonal violence. Murder ballads and penny dreadful stories were supplemented by an increasingly sophisticated press eager to sensationalise in order to sell newspapers.

Professor Anne-Marie Kilday, Professor of Criminal History, Oxford Brookes University

2. The Ripper under your nose

It was impossible to separate the Jack the Ripper murders from the district in which they were committed.

Professor Kilday says: “The theory that the killings were the work of a local man - a criminal with good knowledge of the labyrinthine streets of Whitechapel - has long proved an attractive one. And modern crime mapping techniques suggest that the theory may have some merit.”

3. The royal Ripper

Professor David Nash reveals even Queen Victoria’s grandson found himself in the frame.

He says: “Queen Victoria’s grandson, ‘Eddy’ the Duke of Clarence and Avondale, has long proved a fruitful suspect. One theory has it that in the second half of 1888, the famously dissolute prince was seized by a syphilis-induced psychosis that led him to murder the five Ripper victims.”

4. The medical Ripper

Doctor’s may enjoy a healthy reputation today but in the 1880s, many Britons were all too receptive to accusations that the Ripper was drawn from their ranks.

“They moved freely about the urban underworld. Their professional need for corpses stimulated a vibrant clandestine market in dead bodies for dissection. And their callous treatment of defenceless female patients – especially the forced examination of prostitutes – had made them popular folk devils,” explains Professor Nash.

5. Outlandish Rippers

Perhaps nothing reflects society’s evolving obsession with Jack the Ripper than the rise of the ‘Ripperologist’, the individual who has made it his or her mission in life to provide the ‘definitive solution’ to the murders.

“’Ripperologists’ often go to extraordinary lengths in search of originality in what is a crowded field,” comments Professor Kilday. “This has meant that practically anyone with a pulse and the merest hint of eccentricity, who lived in and around London in 1888, has come under suspicion for the crimes.”

In 1939 the author William Stewart suggested that we should be looking for a ‘Jill the Ripper’, most likely a bloodthirsty, mad midwife. In 1996, the author Richard Wallace suggested that the Ripper was famous novelist Lewis Carroll, on the basis that he left anagrams in his novels confessing to the killing spree.

Professor Kilday continues: “Of course the poetic licence and exposure these more eccentric theories have enjoyed has only been possible because, in the case of the Jack the Ripper murders, so few hard facts exist.”

Read the full article in the September 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine on sale now. Print and digital subscriptions are available via their website.

Professor Anne-Marie Kilday and Professor David Nash work in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture at Oxford Brookes University. The School runs annual ‘Ripper walks’ where lecturers take our History students to visit the infamous murder sites around London. Find out more about studying the history of crime at Oxford Brookes and available undergraduate and postgraduate courses via the website.