“I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they wont fix me just yet. I
have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right
track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits.” ~’Dear Boss’ letter, 1888
As much as the Victorian Age was full of light and progressive innovation, it had its fair share of darkness as well. In addition to the super-creepy photographic trend of mortuary photos (which we’ll address in a later post), it gave us Jack the Ripper. I doubt he needs much introduction to you, Dear Readers.
Why does this case fascinate us to this day, more than 120 years after the fact? Is it because he was never caught, despite the heinous nature of his crimes? Is it because he had the audacity to taunt the police with chilling letters and body parts? Is it because the list of suspects included Vicky’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor, and had other tenuous links to the Royal Family? For whatever macabre reason, Ripperology as a point of study is alive and well and continues to produce theory after theory as to who he was and why he did what he did, to say nothing of the detective and historical fiction this crime has inspired in the imaginations of writers and producers everywhere.
Modern media continues its obsession with the murderer “From Hell“. Two recent and ongoing series related to Jack the Ripper have caught my attention on BBC America: Whitechapel and Ripper Street (I totally scored an 80% on their Ripper quiz. Dubious honor?). I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of the first two series of Whitechapel, the first of which involved a Ripper copycat in modern times following Jack’s timing and M.O to the letter (which makes you wonder, with some trepidation, why there haven’t been more Ripper copycats. Hopefully, they lack the stomach for such involved butchery.). Ripper Street takes place in 1889, during the aftermath of the Ripper case. I hope to see what this series brings to an already overflowing Ripper table, like deeper insight into the workings and methodology of the Metropolitan police force of the time or the greater effect that Jack had on Whitechapel or London itself.
I consider myself a Ripperologist in the most informal sense. I enjoy online research into the topic (I recommend Casebook.org as a starting point, which I’ve linked to extensively throughout this post), I’ve seen the mortuary photos (brace yourself), and I’ve felt the frisson of walking through modern Whitechapel, which has changed street names over the years in an effort to remove the lingering stain on the neighborhood from Jacks’ crimes. The horror and extremity of the crime intrigues me as does the cunning and adept, if seemingly psychotic, mentality that was required in order to pull off something this nature and completely baffle police and experts for hundreds of years. Who else has been able to do that but Jack? And why?
Every year more Ripper books and articles are published. Conferences are held for enthusiastic Ripperologists can come together to discuss their theories of the case. I suppose it is this enthusiasm, if we may call it that, for the case that is the true point of fascination. On the Casebook’s FAQ, someone asks the question: “Why did you create a site which glamorizes a serial killer? You sicken me.” Are we, in the midst of our fascination with this murderer, glorifying him a bit? Are we romanticizing the gas-lit mystery of the time as we often romanticize the time itself? It is difficult not to feel the prurient interest of the macabre voyeur as we gaze upon the murder victims in various states of mutilation and fret about motive and potential mental disease of a case that cannot possibly be solved with any certainty in our lifetimes. Does the notoriety and infamy of a case like this have any effect or influence on murders to come? Are we, researchers, historians, enthusiasts, and modern media, complicit in the myth-making of such a man?
In the 120 or so years since the murders, there has been exponential improvement in the technology available to analyze what criminal forensic evidence we have, and a great deal of knowledge on the victims and suspects has been obtained even within the last 50 or so years. Are we busy playing CSI: Whitechapel, working to re-open the coldest of cold cases as a crime lab-equipped Sherlock Holmes? Are we in it for the historical, geographical, and sociological implications of the time? Or, are we, as the Casebook’s mission statement indicates, attempting to find justice for these abused women hundreds of years after the fact? Regardless of reason, I would argue that most Ripperologists do not, in fact, celebrate the man, but rather seek to understand and perhaps solve one of the most notorious cases of the age. Perhaps, in so doing, we could rectify the wrongs of an age gone by and find some peace in the knowing.
I hope to provide reviews of Ripper Street and perhaps Whitechapel in the future. I would be very interested in your take, Dear Reader, on this polarizing topic. To the comments! No kidneys or blood samples, please.