What you didn’t know you didn’t Know about Jack the Ripper (and why learning about it will convince you to never listen to true crime again)
Murder Like You’ve Never Seen It Before
What you didn’t know you didn’t know about Jack the Ripper (and why learning about it will convince you to never listen to true crime again)
True crime is an intensely popular genre today. But is our obsession with “murder most foul”’ good for us? Of course, most of us probably feel like we’re supposed to answer “no,” but why? Without a good reason to put down the podcasts, most of us are going to guiltily continue listening. Using possibly one of the most famous murder cases ever — those committed by the infamous Jack the Ripper, we can explore several of the specific problems with true crime stories. To make this romp through a very depressing historical moment easier to digest, and in the hopes that you’ll take the brave step of self-examination by reading it, I’ve made this post a numbered list. So buckle up for a fascinating history lesson — one which may just change the way you live today.
The Whitechapel murders (as they are perhaps more properly titled, using terminology that centers where the victims themselves lived and not the awful deeds of a violent killer) probably would never have become as popular as they were if it were not for the prevalence of the Kodak camera at this time. That’s right, the Kodak’s ability to capture images quickly, paired with its small size, made photography a key element in reporting the Whitechapel murders. While it’s difficult to know if the Kodak brand specifically was used by the journalists working at the murder sites, the technological advancement in photography generally had allowed Kodak to become a household name by this time, and resulted in a reading public that had come to expect visual depictions in their newspapers. The Whitechapel Murders were notable for being highly visually documented, in spite of the gory nature.
However, by their very nature, photographs capture a moment in time, and frame it off (literally) from everything that stands around it. It’s no coincidence that Kodak’s catch phrase became “capture the moment.” By definition, a camera captures and it decontextualizes. The camera allowed the horrific slaying of these human women — who lived with thoughts, dreams, and hopes — to be reduced to a simple photograph of their sliced-up flesh. It therefore allowed the public to think of these humans as mere bodies, and to think of their violent deaths in their lively neighborhood of not as the Whitechapel Murders, a term which would have highlighted their home and captured something about their lifestyle, but as the Jack the Ripper murders, a title which decontextualizes the women as living, breathing humans, and centers their brutal attacker.*
*It should be noted that contemporary Victorian newspaper accounts did in fact call the murders the Whitechapel Murders; however, today few aside from the biggest crime buffs would use that term. Moreover, as I will cover below, the term “Whitechapel Murders” was perhaps more problematic than an alternative term would have been in the 1880s when the murders occurred.
That these women were treated as killed bodies rather than living humans brings me to my next point: the decontextualization allowed for in the early days by cameras (and which continues to be promoted by true crime) generally rests upon the assumption that understanding a part of someone’s life is sufficient information to allow us to make broader judgments about them. An hour-long “deep dive” into Gabby Petito’s life, for instance, can never communicate everything that she was, and we do a disservice to any human about whom we engage in this fantasy. It is commonly stated that the Whitechapel murderer primarily killed sex workers. However, investigation into the lives of his victims that goes beyond documenting their death reveals that several of them were not, in fact, sex workers at all. Whitechapel was a poor district, and it was convenient for wealthy Victorians to assume that all manner of immorality went on among the poor, and it served a still-existent victim-blaming attitude to believe that only women engaged in “immoral deeds” were being slain. More on the non-sex-worker nature of these women can be found in Judith Walkowitz’s book on the subject, City of Dreadful Delight.
Not that sex work should be justification for victim-blaming, of course. In the context of the 1880s England, however, sexually transmitted diseases were a hot-button political issue, and this traditionally misogynistic society laid the responsibility for STDs solely at the door of sex workers, and not, ironically, at the feet of those who sought their custom. Rigid laws enacted around twenty years before the Whitechapel slayings allowed for the forcible genital examination of any woman believed to be a sex worker (without a warrant) and for the forcible imprisonment of any woman believed to be carrying the disease. Right around the time of the murders, the laws were repealed. Do you think there might have been some resentful syphilitic men out there blaming sex workers (as they had been taught to do) for their ailments? Certainly these laws and their repeal led to a lot of anger on both sides of the debate, and such unnuanced thoughts about sex workers (which, remember, was encouraged by decontextualized journalistic coverage on the issue) would have allowed for this anger to blossom into a possible motive for the killings to begin with, and even possibly a lack of deep concern on the part of the elite and middle classes, who may very well have thought it was a good riddance. For a longer read about syphilis laws in this time, check out Chapter 9 in my book Quarantine Life: From Cholera to COVID-19 (Simon & Schuster 2022), where I share the story of Julia Clark, a presumed sex worker locked up in 1885.
It may seem obvious at this point, but it bears saying that Whitechapel was not the impoverished slum it was represented as in the newspapers. Again, it served the elite and middle classes — the primary subscribers to most newspapers — to believe that this violence was neatly packaged away from their part of town. It served them well, therefore, to overemphasize the parts of the narrative that depicted Whitechapel as the seediest of neighborhoods, full of all kinds of depravity (this, of course, also served their narrative that poor people deserved to be poor because poverty was usually the result of immorality). In my book in progress on the topic, I track several equally gruesome murders which took place in “nicer” neighborhoods, and were conveniently (and predictably) given much less real estate in the newspapers (again, Walkowitz is a great source on this, as is Drew Grey in an article found here). They were reported, but in much smaller print — literally — and did not become sensational, popular tales like the Whitechapel cases.
Judith Walkowitz argues that the idea of a serial murder — of which Jack the Ripper is famously recognized as the “first,” at least in the eyes of the broad public — could not have existed without the concept of serialization to begin with. If you’re not sure what that means, in the 1800s, the century in which Jack the Ripper committed his murders, novels (the TV programs of the day) were published serially, meaning over the course of many months. Think of your favorite TV show that was released bit by bit. Or, you might think of the podcast Serial itself, which played off the term. Interest in a story grew intensely as readers (like listeners and viewers today) had to wait for the next installment to learn what had happened to their favorite characters. Speaking of Serial, the 2013 podcast which launched a thousand podcasts, ten years later, many of us would agree that the podcast sensation presented exactly what I am arguing against here — an unnuanced look at a case, which played up cultural stereotypes of both the victim and the accused, in ways that seem much more designed to provide user entertainment than to provide a humanizing, context-driven account of someone’s lived life.
In my experiments with my course design, in which students read a novel serially while watching a serialized reality show, The Bachelorette (you can read about that class, written up in Marie Claire magazine, here), I have seen this phenomenon myself. Even quite dry subject matter sticks with you a little bit more when you’re waiting for it. Given that many Victorians shared the cost of subscriptions with friends (much like we might share our Netflix subscription with family today), they also had a guaranteed group of equally invested listeners to speculate over the next issue with. Before the 1800s and after, serialization in fiction and writing generally was not really predominant. Therefore, Walkowitz is quite right to note that our very concept of serialization had to have had something to do with our ability to concieve of a person who murders as someone doing something serially.
Lest I be seen here as taking things too much into “literature professor realm,” try googling “Do they have serial killers in [insert whatever country you like here].” If you dive deeply into this rabbit hole, you will inevitably find sociologists publishing on the topic. Their answer? Pretty much universally, they say: this is an unanswerable question, because it depends how one views murders as a set or not, and this varies by culture. So yes, even sociologists basically agree that we have “serial murders” in English-speaking cultures because we developed the concept and paradigm of seeing such murders as strings, sets, or, if you will…points in a plot developed for our consumption.
Now I’m unapologetically going full lit prof on you. Think full circle back to point 1. Photography cuts out nuance. It frames things neatly for our understanding, things that are too horrific to contemplate easily (for more on this in regards to photography and Jack the Ripper, see Megha Anwer’s life-changing article). I have argued here that it allows for easy stereotyping and the convenient assumption that we have “all the facts” in a matter. And, when you add the serialization element to it, it becomes clear that all of this allows us to see death as entertainment.
I teach a class every other winter on true-crime media ethics, and I do actually think it can be done properly. I think it’s possible to care about crime and violence, and to engage with this discourse ethically. Check out, for instance, Rabia Chaudry’s Undisclosed, which specifically began as a project seeking to recontextualize and add nuance to Serial’s presentation. Other highly recommended creators are Amanda Knox, who hosts Labyrinth (this show is not solely about true crime, but becuase of Knox’s advocacy in the true crime world, her perspectives are always worth listening to) and Sarah Turney, who hosts Voices for Justice. Chaudry brought Adnan Syed’s case to Sarah Koenig’s attention in the first place, and then sought to right the moral wrongs Serial trafficked in. Turney has begun a grassroots revolution on the true crime genre generally, advocating for victims and their families to be the first touchpoint in true crime media, and is stirring up change big enough that production companies and platform hosts themselves are being forced to change their content development. Knox graciously guest-lectured my true-crime media course and frankly, changed my students’ lives, so I can’t recommend these three highly enough!
NB — if you’d like to hear more from me about the Whitechapel Murders, including who I think did it, check out Generation Why’s Patreon episode featuring me 🙂