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The Media’s Influence on the History of Jack The Ripper

Published onSep 08, 2022
The Media’s Influence on the History of Jack The Ripper


What is the fascination with serial killers? From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, it seems our society has an obsession with following their lives and finding out who they are. While obsessing about these serial killers, the victims get left behind. Most serial killers are statistically men, and the victims are statistically women. Could the gender roles in homicide be a reason for the difference in fame from the victims to the perpetrators? Most importantly, what role does the media have in facilitating these different gender roles?

The most commonly known information about Jack the Ripper’s victims is that they were prostitutes, yet this “fact” is not confirmed to be true; “As soon as each body was discovered, in a dark yard or street, the police assumed that the woman was a prostitute killed by a maniac who had lured her to the location for sex. There is, and never was, any proof of this”1. This misconception is one of the main reasons these women are left in the past. The negative stigma surrounding prostitution made these women seem less important than their killer. There are five victims of Jack the Ripper; Mary Anne Nichols, Anne Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows, and Mary Jane Kelly. These women, prostitutes or not, were repressed by the media and overlooked in all aspects because they fit a stereotype.

The Victims

In the 1880s, it was taboo to be an adult woman without a husband or family. All of Jack the Ripper's victims came from poor backgrounds and faced many disadvantages. Mary Anne Nichols, more commonly known as Polly, was born to a blacksmith and her mother died at a young age. Many things led her to the street where she was murdered. Most notably, her marriage had fallen apart; “she had lost her home, her husband, [her dignity and her children].”2 A woman in her situation does not have many options, she went to live with her father, and there is controversy over her occupation. Her father “never revealed what sort of work his daughter assumed while she lived with him, he did suggest that she spent a good amount of time in the local public houses.”3 It is known that later after leaving her father’s home, she became a “tramp, or vagrant.”4 This could be the reason she was assumed to be a prostitute. Although Polly fits the stereotype of the Ripper’s victims doesn't make her death less tragic. She was a wife, a mother, and a daughter. Her social status did not give her comfort. On August 31st, Jack the Ripper took her life, most likely while she slept on the side of the road. Her poverty led to a life that society at the time deemed unfit, and therefore her story was lost in translation. The most prominent part of her life had become her death due to her famous killer. The media decided not to focus on the victims and the ‘sinful’ lives they led because the sinful life of Jack the Ripper was more intriguing.

Anne Chapman, the Ripper's second victim, was born as “an illegitimate child” 5 to a soldier father and a working-class mother; from the beginning, this put her at a disadvantage. Her parents eventually married, and she lived a divided life between the prestige of the regiment and the working-class. Annie had lost her father to suicide, and as the eldest sibling, much responsibility fell to her. His death meant her family would now only live as the working-class. While working, Annie met her husband, John Chapman. For a while, Annie’s life seemed to be on the uphill, but like Polly, alcohol was her vice. Due to her husband's increasing societal status, Annie's condition risked embarrassment for his employers. The two mutually decided to split. As a “lone woman,”6 she had no choice but to find a male partner. She formed a relationship with Jack Sievey, which brought her to Whitechapel.7 After her husband’s death, Annie was heartbroken. Sievey decided to leave her, and Annie was left alone with no money or protection. Although Annie overtime had multiple partners, these were relationships, not business interactions. She might not have lived a respectable life during the time, but she was not a prostitute. All of the Ripper’s victims would be considered “fallen women '',8 which would have put her in a compromising position, but unlike the newspapers alluded, Annie was never a prostitute. On September 7th, 1888, Jack the Ripper took her life. Not because she was a prostitute but because she was sick and an easy target.

The third victim of the Ripper, Elisabeth Stride, was born to a farmer.9 Like the other victims, she came from a low social class. Elisabeth had become involved in a sexual relationship the details of the relationship are unknown. Elisabeth could have made this decision on her own, or it could have been forced upon her either way, her reputation was ruined as it was illegal to have extramarital sex or an illegitimate pregnancy in Gothenburg10. Elisabeth became pregnant and was forced to register as an “Allmän Kvinna” (Public Woman).11 It was assumed that “Elisabeth, or any registered women, was, without a doubt, a prostitute who solicited openly .''12 However, Elisabeth never identified as a prostitute. Because of her reputation and being on the police register, Elisabeth could not find work; “to earn a living, her only recourse was to enter the profession she had been wrongly accused of practicing”13 (prostitution). To escape the unkind life in Gothenburg, Elisabeth found her way to London. In London, she met her husband, John Stride, a carpenter.14 Like the other victims, their marriage would fall apart. Elisabeth left John due to their financial demise and was once again on her own. On September 30th, Elisabeth became known as the first victim in the murder of two women that night. There is debate as to whether she is actually a victim of Jack the Ripper or not.15 However, her life should not be diminished that of just being a victim.

Catherine Eddows (also known as Kate) was the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper. She was born into a family of eight, which would have been straining on their financial situation.16 Kate and her family belonged to the working class. Her father had steady work for a long period of time until “the dissolution of Perkins and Sharpus, her father’s employer.”17 Soon after this, her mother fell ill and passed away. Her sisters had to take on much more responsibility, and once her father also fell ill, the daughters were in a rush to find a husband. With the responsibility of the family falling on the older siblings, Kate, who was thirteen at the time, was sent away to live with her aunt and uncle in Birmingham. While living with her aunt and uncle, Kate met a man by the name of Thomas Conway.18 She became pregnant out of wedlock. She and Thomas lived together for many years and even had more children. However, in 1877, “Kate and Thomas Conway’s union began to fracture.”19

Thomas, however charming he may have been, had a hunger for violence, and Kate was his punching bag. Like many of the Ripper’s other victims, Kate’s bad life made her take refuge with alcohol. This affected her role as a mother and severely damaged her relationship with her family. Alone Kate found companionship in a man named John Kelly.20 They had no home and would frequently have to sleep on the streets. On the night of September 30th, she was separated from Kelly and too tired/intoxicated to find him. “She found a spot in the far corner of Mitre Square”21 and soon became the second victim of Jack the Rippers on that night. Kate had suffered in life, which led her on a downhill path; however, this path did not include prostitution. Kate was accustomed to living without a home and occasionally sleeping on the street which may have made the police and the newspaper assume her position as a prostitute.

Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the Ripper's five victims, is the only one who is proven to be a prostitute. Mary Jane was born into a big working-class family, much like the other victims. The details of her life are cloudy. She never told one person the same story about her life.22 It is well known that Mary Jane lived with a woman by the name of “Mary Jefferies, one of the most formidable madams of the victorian age.”23 She was not the type of prostitute that frequented the streets she would have been “accustomed to well-dressed gentlemen making her offers and promises.”24 There are certainly similarities between the lives of the victims, but most notably. it would be their alcoholism. This bad habit would account for most of their misfortunes and would have led each of them to the street they died on. Mary Jane was not unlike the other victims when it came to alcohol. In March of 1887, Mary Jane met Joseph Barnett, and they lived with each other from then until her death. Barnett is “the primary narrator of Mary Jane’s History.”25 Without him, there would be no details about her life other than as a prostitute. She lived a happy life with him until they ran into financial trouble, and once again, she turned to prostitution. Her return to prostitution put a strain on her relationship with Barnett. On November 8th, she saw him for the last time. A “great difference of opinion exists as to the exact time, or about the time, the murder of Mary Jane Kelly took place.”26 as well as her whereabouts that night. Mary Jane was a prostitute but whether that had anything to do with her murder is unknown.

Rather than the notion that the Ripper targeted prostitutes, it would be more accurate to say he targeted helpless women of the lower class. There is so much more to these women than the label of a prostitute. These women may have all succumbed to the same unfortunate ending, but the possibility that they were prostitutes is most definitely not what got them there. There were many expectations of women during this time period, and these victims did not meet those expectations. This in no way means that they deserved their gruesome ending, but it can account for why these women got lost throughout history. The newspapers wanted to write about what was profitable to them. A serial killer was very profitable; everyone wanted to follow the news to find out if the killer had been caught. However, in the public’s eyes , these five women were not as profitable to write about.

The Newspapers

Journalism in the 19th century was one of the primary sources of entertainment. The TV was not invented yet, and plays were more for the privileged. Many people found joy in a pub or by reading the newspaper. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for some newspapers to exaggerate the truth. The more exciting a headline was, the more likely people would buy it. The Jack the Ripper case details are no different, “As the “Autumn of Terror” wore on, Whitechapel filled up with journalists.”… “their presence amid the ongoing police investigation and an East End population living in a state of fear proved explosive.” … “As the papers continued to fly off the newsstands, journalists became hungry for more content and new angles on the story. Inevitably, embellishment, invention, and “fake news” found their way onto the page.” 27 The newspapers made a huge profit on Jack the Ripper; everyone was concerned with the investigation and wanted as much information as possible After the case gained publicity “no fewer than 1,400 letters28 relating to the tragedies have been received by the police, and although the greater portion of these gratuitous communications were found to be of a trivial and even ridiculous character, still each one was investigated.”29 There were even letters sent to newspapers that claimed to be from Jack the Ripper himself. “Given the densely populated district in which these killings occurred, the public, the press, and even the police believed this to be remarkable.”30 The public became obsessed with these cases even as they were “sickened by the grotesque events, many people nonetheless found themselves compulsively intrigued by them.”31

In a newspaper article from the London Times, they describe the case and investigation of Mary Jane Kelly. The article focuses specifically on gruesome details of the case and more so on the murderer than the actual victims themselves. The article states, “the opinion of Dr. George Bagster Phillips, the divisional surgeon of the H Division, that when he was called to the deceased (at a quarter to 11) she had been dead some five hours. There is no doubt that the body of a person, who, to use Dr. Phillips’s own words, was “cut all to pieces'' would get cold farmore quickly than that of one who had died simply from the cutting of the throat.”32 The words used in this article dehumanize the victim. The paper uses the term “body of a person” when the victim has already been identified. Due to the assumed position of these women, the newspapers barely treat them as human beings. The attention was fixated on the police and Jack the Ripper. The victims were only mentioned in the context of their case, but their lives and loved ones were mostly left out of the paper. The public was in a frenzy, and however upsetting it may be, everyone was much more interested in the murderer rather than the innocent victims.

The article reveals many details about the case. Including the time of death from the doctor compared to the witness reports, which state, “Another young woman, whose name is known, has also informed the police that she is positive she saw Kelly between half-past 8 and a quarter to 9 on Friday morning.” It makes it almost impossible to solve a murder when witnesses and the professionals on the case are butting heads. Not to mention with all the information in the news the killer was able to see every step of the police and avoid being caught. If the media had focussed more on the victims of the murders rather than Jack the Ripper, it is much more likely that the people would be more persuaded to find interest in the victims rather than the killer. Also, if the news had not given so many details of the case away, the murderer would more likely have been caught. The fascination from the public referring to the case interferes with the actual murderer being apprehended. Everyone wanted to be informed and have some part in the murder investigation because of how much attention it was getting at the time. The news even used the word excitement to describe the attitude of people who believed to see Jack the Ripper, “great excitement was caused shortly before 10 o’clock last night by the arrest of a man with a blackened face who publicly proclaimed himself to be “Jack the Ripper.”33

The media impeded the police investigation. Jack the Ripper was used as profit for the newspapers and entertainment for the public. Men and higher class women did not have to worry about becoming victims to this infamous serial killer but lower-class women, who were just as innocent and whose lives were just as important, did. “Neither did the editors nor the journalists covering this story deem it necessary, worthy, or interesting to delve into the biographical details of the victims. Ultimately, no one cared about who they were or how they ended up in Whitechapel.” 34 These five women “would be largely forgotten, though the world would remember with great fascination and even relish the name of [their] killer: Jack the Ripper.”35 Women are villainized for living life outside of the social norm, but men are fantasized even as murderers. These five women have much more to their life than how they died. Their lives should be celebrated more than Jack the Ripper. Although the media at the time had their reasoning for printing certain information, we can now appreciate the lives of these amazing women.

About the Author

Isabelle Moore is from Greensboro NC. She is currently in her first year at Wake Forest. She plans to major in psychology and minor in English. Her interest in crime and mystery led to the discovery of her primary source. She hopes to continue looking at history through the eyes of a historian and understanding how history can be manipulated.

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