Jack the Ripper: Historical person or media invention? Vast numbers of people the world over have heard of Jack the Ripper, as a glimpse at the figures for viewing and posting on just one of the internet forums devoted to the serial killer demonstrates. The image below is taken from ‘Casebook’ on 8/5/2019.
Many will associate him with an image of a top hat, cloak, and large knife, walking out of the London fog. The name “Jack the Ripper” has become almost a brand name, and the top hat, cloak and knife, a logo. It has been used to sell hundreds of books, non-fiction and fiction, films, T.V. series, video games, artwork, music including musicals and an opera, fairground attractions, guided walks, conferences, T-shirts, beer, mugs (in a non- exhaustive list), and has spawned several internet chat forums which attract thousands of hits a day.’ Jack’ is a good example of convergence culture (Jenkins.2006) Type ‘Jack the Ripper’ into Google, and the offer seems endless.
I have chosen ‘Jack the Ripper’ as a case study. The ‘Jack’ with whom we are familiar today didn’t exist, although a series of horrific murders did take place in Whitechapel, London, in 1888. However, absolutely nothing whatsoever is known about the supposed serial killer behind them, who has become known as “Jack the Ripper”. The majority of ‘facts’ associated with the case, are not facts at all, and there will be historians, authors, and amateur sleuths to put forward a coherent argument for and against any of them, as a browse of the heated discussions on ‘Casebook’ or ‘JTR Forums’, and the countless book reviews available there, support.
So, I will be looking at the question – from what source or sources has the creation “Jack the Ripper” come? And who owns ‘him’? With no copyrighted creator, I will explore the possibility that he ‘grew’ out of a Dark Fandom, and with some specific input from Textual Poachers.
Using the 10 points elaborated by Henry Jenkins in his book ‘Textual Poachers’, chapter ‘Scribbling in the Margins’, 10 ways to rewrite a Television Show (Jenkins,2013.pp162-176) we will compare this list to the way that the “Jack the Ripper” story itself has grown, and I will conclude with a discussion about whether we should care about the truth about ‘Jack the Ripper’, and some of the attitudes towards the word ‘fan’ brought up by my research in this essay. We will finish with the moral issues of being a Jack the Ripper fan, and where I situate myself in relation to my case study.
The Case Study
In 1888, eight women were found murdered in a small area of London, known as Whitechapel, with a further three being found over the next two years. To put that into perspective, no murders had occurred in 1886 or 1887 (as far as the statistics show) (Paley.1996). The police originally lumped all these murders together under the name “The Whitechapel Murders”. Sir Melville Macnaghton, of Scotland Yard, writing later in 1914 and recalling the murder series, insisted that only five were by the same hand (Jones, 2019) and these five have become the canon by which we judge the victims of Jack the Ripper, but Macnaghton may have been wrong.
I will assume that ‘Jack the Ripper’ was a man because modern psychologists usually agree that the killings were ‘lust murder’, largely committed by men (Wikipedia. 2019) There were also witness reports to that effect. However, the theory that ‘Jack’ was a woman was current at the time, and cannot be definitively ruled out.
The name ‘Jack the Ripper’ originated from a letter, and then a postcard, received by the Central News Agency and sent to Scotland Yard. They are widely believed to be hoaxes invented by enterprising journalists (Best and Bulling) to sell more newspapers (Begg,Fido,Skinner,2010) The majority of books on ‘Jack the Ripper’, fiction and non- fiction, usually begin by explaining the dreadful poverty and overcrowding in the Whitechapel area at the time.
It can be demonstrated by Booth’s map that Whitechapel had only an average level of poverty.
Whilst coal fires and damp from the River Thames could create fogs or smogs, a study of weather conditions on the nights of the murders show no such conditions occurred on murder nights (Casebook. 2019). Below is a film of Petticoat Lane Market, almost at the centre of Jack the Ripper’s murder area, and filmed only 15 years later. Since little had changed from 1888, it gives an indication of the type of population of the East End.
None of the witnesses saw a victim with a man in a top hat and cloak (Casebook. 2019), but exactly like any of the men in the above film (except for the photographer’s assistants, wearing boaters).
Fandom and Textual Poaching How can a ‘fan’ be defined? Henry Jenkins explains in his book ‘Textual poachers’ that the word is short for ‘fanatic’, and derived from the latin ‘fanaticus’, which means a ‘devotee’ (Jenkins. 2013p.12). Taken as a ‘devotee’, the word ‘fan’ is harmless. Saying “I’m a huge fan of Dr Who” or Star trek, or Star Wars (or one of the other big fandoms), might cause raised eyebrows, because some TV shows, films, or musical acts tend to attract a collective of fans who are obsessive. Say that you are a ‘trekkie’ (Star Trek)or a ‘potterhead’ (Harry Potter fan) or a ‘ringer’ (Lord of the Rings fan) and many people would think that you were quite crazy, since these words suggest fandom taken to its limits. So, the words ‘fanatic’ and ‘fan’ can have a pejorative connation. Many people have heard of John Lennon being murdered by an obsessive fan, or Ronald Reagan being shot by a fan of the actress Jodie Foster. Fanatical fans have been the subject of horror books and films for years (Stephen King ‘Misery’, Tony Scott ‘The Fan’).
Can murderers be said to have a fandom?
I would argue that they can; long before the internet – early examples of Dark Fandom might have included the fear of, but devotion to, highwaymen as shown in the past (Sugden, Sugden, 2015).
Around 60,000 people lined the route to see off Ronnie Kray in 1995 (Kelso. 2000).
Certainly, most ‘fans’ of True Crime and – my case study – Jack the Ripper, would refute the term ‘fan’ (Barnes 2015). One of the several East End clubs which focuses on Jack the Ripper, calls itself The Whitechapel Society (WS), rather than use the name of a serial killer, since it is well aware of the moral dilemma (see club magazine cover, further on). One of the conferences, also based around Jack the Ripper, (and a different organization from the WS), calls itself the East End Conference.
produced RipperNews In the interest of research, both ‘The Whitechapel Society’ and ‘The East End Conference’ were approached with the question “If one were to use the word ‘Fandom’ in conjunction with your club, what would be your reply?”. Both declined to give an official response. Obsessive students of the case call themselves ‘Ripperologists’, a term coined by Colin Wilson (Wilson. 1972). There is also a large American Ripperologist community, who hold their own conferences, whose members travel to London (‘Crime-tripping’according to Barnes), who interact with the rest of Ripperology via two internet chat forums (‘Casebook’ and ‘JTR Forums’), Facebook, and the Jack the Ripper podcast. They produce several magazines, which it could be argued are ‘fanzines’: The Ripperologist, The Whitechapel Journal, and The Dagger, and have published Ripperana and Ripperoo (an Australian version).
Both Naomie Barnes in her thesis for Utah State University (2015) entitled Killer Fandoms, Crime-Tripping & Identity in the True Crime Community, and David Schmid in his 2005 book for the University of Chicago Press, ‘Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture’ include Jack the Ripper Fandom. Therefore, despite the resistance of Ripperologists to the term ‘fan’, the evidence suggests that they are indeed a Fandom. Indeed, if Ripperologists are the hardcore fans, the seemingly inexhaustible number of hits for ‘Jack the Ripper’ on google, books being published every week, and a new TV series in the pipe line, based on Rubenhold’s book ‘5’, shows that there is a wider Fandom out there.
So, how an earth did we get from the absolutely horrible murders of a number of prostitutes in Victorian London by an unknown assassin, to an instantly recognisable portrait of the same killer, centre of a multi-million pound global industry in 2019? And has it anything to do with Textual Poaching? Jenkins, paraphrasing Michel de Certeau (Jenkins p.23) asserts, that fans are readers who appropriate texts and then “transform the experience (…) into a rich and complex participatory culture “. Some Ripper fans do the same thing. They want to” prolong the experience of the story, to master it, and to explore its unrealised possibilities”. De Certeau (1984, according to Jenkins) “has characterised such active reading as ‘Poaching’”.
Now let’s look at the ‘Jack the Ripper’ media version, and how the Fandom has helped shape it:
We will start with the broad strokes…
With the murder of the second Canonical (and the 4th of the Whitechapel Murders), the East End was in a frenzy. Phillip Sugden (Sugden. 1994) describes how the Ripper tourist industry began even during the murder series, with seats hired out at crime scenes, cabs bringing sightseers swarming to the East End, street artists, refreshments and even waxworks of the victims.
The first book to be published on a fictionalised Jack the Ripper appeared in October 1888, before the death of the last victim, and was entitled ‘The Curse Upon Mitre Square’.
The frenzy was fuelled by the newspapers (Historic Newspapers. 2019) In 1888 Textual Poachers were eager to write themselves into the ‘story’ by writing letters to the newspapers pretending to be Jack the Ripper. Whilst journalists may have had a financial motive in faking letters, it is clear that other writers had quite another motive. Schmid, writing albeit about American serial killers, declares that ‘whilst the monstrosity of serial killers engenders repulsion and condemnation (their) representation as celebrities simultaneously inspires admiration and familiarity’. A lot of people seemingly wanted to be Jack the Ripper; hundreds of letters were written to the police (or others involved in the case) during murders, and after the first one signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ was reported in the papers, those afterwards were also signed’ Jack the Ripper’, although by different people. One person caught with a fake ‘Jack the Ripper’ letter to post turned out to be a young woman, proving that the Fandom consisted of both sexes, as is the case today (Begg, Fido, Skinner.2010)
Although early clues pointed to the killer being a poor Jew (Einhorn. 2019), or being antisemitic and wishing to frame a poor Jewish immigrant (Senise. 2018), the first mention of a rich suspect (but still Jewish) came from a contemporary witness called ‘George Hutchinson’. This is generally thought to be a false statement because it contains unbelievable details and was rapidly discounted by the police (Casebook), but the idea of a rich ‘Jack the Ripper’ ‘slumming it’ in the East End and preying upon the poor suited the political climate of the day and was eagerly taken up by the newspapers and the population, there also being more glamour in it.
The Victorian gothic horror genre, and in particular the popular ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ certainly sparked imagination and fed into the burgeoning myth (Flanders. 2014)
The ‘Toff’ image was carried on in the first fictional film made about the Jack the Ripper case, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog’ based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. The film was made in 1927, and the novel first saw the light as a magazine series in 1911 (just over 20 years after the murders). The film is ambiguous as to whether the lodger is the murderer until the end, but it does introduce the foggy deserted cobbled London streets and the lodger is well dressed. There is no longer the suggestion that he is Jewish.
Count Dracula, and his moonlit thirst for blood, also provided inspiration -and later, the 1959 film Jack the Ripper (Berman, Baker. 1959) would take Dracula’s top hat and cape from the successful 1958 film of the same name.
The next peg in creating Jack came from a fan called Joseph Gorman, who brought the Royal Family into the story by asserting that his Grandmother had secretly married Prince Albert Victor (Queen Victoria’s Grandson), and given birth to his mother. According to Gorman, she had been kidnapped by Sir William Gull, a surgeon to the Royal Family, after giving birth to him. The 5 prostitutes were murdered to supposedly silence them on the affair, in the ‘Royal Conspiracy’. Gorman later admitted that the story was made up.
Stephen Knight used Gorman’s story in his best seller, The Final Solution (Knight 1986), and Fairclough in his book ‘The Ripper and the Royals’ (Fairclough. 1991) and these were the inspiration for both the 1988 mini-series ‘Jack the Ripper’ starring Michael Caine, and the graphic novel ‘From Hell’ by Alan Moore (Moore.1989), from which the ‘From Hell’ film, starring Johnny Depp (HughsBrothers 2001) was taken.
There has been a plethora of Ripper media since 2001 but, arguably, none of it has captured the public perception of the crime quite as much as ‘From Hell’.
I would now like to take a closer look at the ‘Jack the Ripper’ story taking Henry Jenkins ‘Ten Ways to Rewrite a Television Show’ (…) and see how it might relate to my case Study:
Recontextualisation (filling in missing scenes) -Any of the suspect based theories do this constantly. Since nothing is known of the real Ripper, to arrive at a book (self- published or otherwise), or any sort of creative input, means recontextualising. Not only by filling in missing scenes, but writing the story. Participants in the chat forums do this regularly.
Expanding the Series Timeline (writing about character’s backgrounds). Ripperologists spend hours researching the backgrounds of each potential suspect, and victim, and even those of bit players in the Ripper case. As with ‘Filling in Missing Scenes’, since the real information can be limited, they are obliged to be creative. There are whole books about Mary Kelly (the last canonical victim) although the historical person can only be traced in London to a year or so before. The Case of Mary Jane Kelly. Chapter 1: The family Curse by ArcanaCharlee is a Fanfiction ( Fanfiction website) which takes Mary back to her childhood.
Refocalisation (shifting attention away from protagonists and onto secondary characters). The books (self-published or otherwise) shift attention from ‘Jack the Ripper’ onto, for example the police (Bell 2016), victims (Sheldon, 2007), or even buildings (Berk, Kolsky 2016)
Moral Realignment (Villains as protagonists). Whilst most films have a detective as the protagonist, some of the fiction comes at the story from the point-of-view of Jack the Ripper. Dressing up as ‘Jack the Ripper’ would also fall into this category, and he is a popular subject for fancy dress. ‘Jack the Ripper’ graphics and merchandise also do this. It could be argued that the ‘Ripper’ as a logo is used in the same way as Batman or Spiderman, but whilst the latter two are fictitious crime fighters, ‘Jack the Ripper was a real Serial Killer.
Genre shifting (list – media/ fan fiction). ‘Jack the Ripper’ would usually be classed in the true Crime/Horror/ Detective genres, however there are many examples of him shifting genres: Some examples are: Comedy -the Phantom Raspberry Blower of old London Town , Spike Milligan (…); Science Fiction –‘Wolf in the Fold’ Star Trek (Bloch. 1967). The Wikipedia site ‘Jack the Ripper In Fiction’ lists so many examples in the comedy and science fiction genres, that is would be impractical to list them all.
Cross over stories. ‘Jack the Ripper’ and Sherlock Holmes have met many times in media. Just a few examples would be ‘Holmes and The Ripper’ audiobook (Clemens. 2010); ‘Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the ‘Ripper’ video game’ (Frogwares. 2009). ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Hunt for Jack the Ripper’ (Kelly. 2014). In ‘Oscar Wilde and the Return of Jack the Ripper’ (Brandreth.2014) Oscar Wilde teams up with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to hunt Jack the Ripper. In Gotham by Gaslight (DC comics. 1989) it is the turn of Batman to hunt the Ripper. It has already been noted previously, that the crew of the Starship Enterprise hunt Jack the Ripper, who turns out to be an Alien entity, and in Amazon on the Moon (Produced by Landis/Weiss 1987), Jack the Ripper turns out to be none other than the Loch Ness Monster.
Character Dislocation (“when characters are taken out of their original situation, and given different names”). It could be argued that a Canadian baseball team – ‘The London Rippers’- calling their mascot ‘Jack Diamond’ was to dislocate the character, even though it wore a top hat and cape. Vandal Savage, in Justice Society of America (DC Comics…) has claimed the Ripper murders as his. Jill the Ripper (Hickox.2000) set the story in modern America, and reversed the sex of killer and victims. Bad Karma (Hough. 2002) has a reincarnated lover of the Ripper -who is her psychiatrist.
Personalisation. In so called ‘Mary Sue’ stories, fans insert themselves into stories- and the term has come to be pejorative as the fans often idealise themselves (Jenkins.2013). Given the horrendous Whitechapel Murders, it would not seem likely that a fan would write themselves as ‘The Wife of Jack the Ripper’, but that is the story on the FanFiction website by poster ‘Miss SkullduggeryPleasant’. Otherwise, much fiction tends to come from men and centres around Mary Jane Kelly, the youngest victim, as a read of the forums show. She is also portrayed in the media invariably as very attractive, although we don’t know what she looked like before she was mutilated. This leaves men the space to imagine that she is their own idea of attractive. The song ‘Mary Jane Kelly’ written by Volbeat (Poulson. Post 2001) is a good example. In 1986, obsessed Kelly fan, John Morrison raised a gravestone to Mary Kelly, over her then supposed grave, dedicated to the ‘Prima donna of Spitalfields’, which was later taken down and kept under his bed (…). He thus wrote himself into history coupled with Kelly.
Emotional Intensification (“fan reading practises place (…) importance on character motivation and psychology”). It could be argued that any of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ books, or forum discussion sites are mostly concerned with picking over the possible motivation and psychology of the killer behind the Whitechapel murders. Guessing this, in fact, might be the first step towards forming a Ripperologist’s opinion as to who the Ripper was.
Eroticization. The victims of the Whitechapel Murders were all sex workers, either part time or full time, and unfortunately this has spawned a sub-genre of Ripper Erotica, which the following screenshot shows an example:
Even though the historical serial killer behind the name and popular image of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is totally unknown, I have demonstrated that the image grew out of a collusion between a Dark Fandom and the mass media. For that reason there is no copyright ‘on Jack the Ripper’-there is no one author- a fact which has facilitated the incredible volume of creative input to the subject. ‘Textual Poaching’, which has been defined by Henry Jenkins, helps explain how the true history has evolved from its factual bare bones beginnings into a layered fictional – some might say iconic- popular history.
Dark Fandom as a concept, and particularly applied to Jack the Ripper, is interesting to this author because of the disinclination of the most important East End Ripper clubs to comment, or acknowledge this subject.
It has been demonstrated in this essay that ‘Jack the Ripper’ does have a Fandom, but the reasons that two of its most important representatives, The Whitechapel Society and The East End Conference, wont reply to academic questioning can only be speculative.
The question might be asked if Ripperology has an uneasy guilt-ridden gap between its genuine interest in the Victorian social history of the East End, which includes the Whitechapel murders, and an unhealthy fascination in the minutiae of serial killings and mutilation of female sex workers? The two clubs are history clubs but the covers of club magazines show the same notorious ‘Jack the Ripper’ image as any slasher movie might. This hiatus would not be unique to Ripperology; East End churches led a concerted vigil outside the Jack the Ripper museum In Cable Street (Brooke.2015), despite the Vicar of St John on Bethnal Green hostinga Ripper drama evening in 2012 (Brooke.2012), because it was for charity. The Whitechapel Society has raised thousands of pounds for charity over the years, including for Victim Support (2018) and Great Ormand Street Hospital (2017), and writing as a member and Ripperologist, I feel that this should offset criticism.
Should we care about any of this? Certainly, the demonstrations outside the ‘Jack the Ripper’ museum highlight the fact that women’s groups and the Church in particular don’t agree with the Whitechapel murderer being used for entertainment purposes. When fans wrote their own version of history, they made Jack the Ripper a celebrity -and we should be at least aware of the moral implications when we buy into the myth. Putting something in the collection boxes of groups supporting vulnerable women might be a fitting way to remember the real victims, so that some good comes out of bad.
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