Thursday 5 September 2013

The bloody shadow of Jack The Ripper

“MORE MURDERS AT THE EAST-END: In the early hours of yesterday morning two more horrible murders were committed in the East-end of London, the victim in both cases belonging, it is believed, to the same unfortunate class. No doubt seems to be entertained by the police that these terrible crimes were the work of the same fiendish hands which committed the outrages which had already made Whitechapel so painfully notorious.” 

2013 marks the 125th anniversary of the Jack The Ripper murders in the Whitechapel district of London. Even by the violent standards of the Victorian East-end the gruesome nature of the murders of five prostitutes shocked the nation. And to top it all off the murderer, dubbed “Jack The Ripper” by the press, was never caught. As quick as the terror had spread, so did the autumn of 1888 slip into semi-myth. A story to be told and retold as every subsequent generation re-analysed the crimes. But what is it about this grisly chapter in English history that continues to grip the collective imagination?

Jack The Ripper certainly wasn't the first recorded serial killer, and by modern standards he doesn't even hold a prolifically high body count. So what is it about “Saucy Jack” that differentiates him from the likes of Ed Gein and Charles Manson in the realms of morbid fascination? All of them have inspired their share of fictional monsters, yet Jack inspires a worldwide following from the superficially fascinated to the seriously academic after more than a century.

Perhaps it was because the Jack The Ripper case was one of the first serial killer cases to fuel international headlines. Speculation walked hand-in-hand with sensationalism as the Autumn of terror unfolded. This in-turn has provided a blueprint for press coverage of such cases in the 20th century and beyond, giving killers celebrity status.

The Whitechapel area of London's east end was a squalid and miserable place. Home to a transient and desperately poor population. The area was known for two things; prostitution and violence. And these two would find their physical manifestation in the crimes of Jack The Ripper. The savagery wasn't uncommon, nor were the victims for crimes of this era. But the mystery surrounding them has made them the most infamous of their time.

The murders began in August 1888 and by November of the same year the Ripper had killed and mutilated five women: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. The murders then suddenly seemed to stop as quickly as they started. However, subsequent cases over the following years such as Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, the Pinchin Street torso and Frances Coles have been tentatively attributed to the Ripper's knife further fuelling speculation.

Although every suspect has long since died, and every lead has gone cold, it doesn't deter historians and “Ripperologists” from putting forth their own theories as to who the person behind the moniker really was (and these now run into the hundreds!). Even the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation created a suspect profile for the 100th anniversary. Contemporary suspects included Montague John Druitt, Seweryn Kłosowski alias George Chapman, and Francis Tumblety. But in recent years the likes of Lewis Carrol and even the monarchy has become embroiled in a speculative conspiracy theory. However it has never been categorically proven the ripper was even male, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The author of Sherlock Holmes) pointed out in his own theory. This has all led to Jack The Ripper to become ingrained into popular culture as a shadowy character that is part-supernatural and part-corporeal, as though the bastard offspring of Dracula and Frankenstein.

The character of Jack The Ripper has evolved further through hundreds of works of fiction and non-fiction which have been written on the subject reflecting changing social paranoia, and mistrust of the establishment. It is a dark folk-tale of sex and death that draws on the conventions of gothic horror and brings them kicking and screaming into the real world.

The shadow of the ripper has spread even further through the collective subconscious into music: from Screaming Lord Sutch in the 1960s to the 21st century and avant-garde black metalers Eibon La Furies. On to television with gritty dramas such as 'Ripper Street' and 'Whitechapel'. As well as on the big screen with the film adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel 'From Hell'. This year, even social media has the ripper's spectre lurking among it with the Twitter-based project @WchapelRealTime which examines the events of 1888 in a real-time feed.

Physically and socially London has become unrecognisable from the darkness of the Victorian period, thanks in part to the ripper case which caused a backlash against the poverty of industrial London. But the modern world is still very much a direct product of this era. With streets, graves and even The Ten Bells and The Frying Pan pubs surviving to the present day there are plenty of reminders of how close to the surface the city's history is. A history that tours as well as attractions like the London Dungeon still make a killing out of catering to those wanting to walk in the footsteps of the ripper.

"One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century." 
Sir William Gull/Jack The Ripper in 'From Hell' (2001)  

We may never solve the mystery conclusively. There's even doubts like Robin Hood, as to whether Jack was one character or several. but out of the mists of time, the ripper has inspired generations of artists, writers and musicians eager to entwine themselves with the macabre legend. Here is some essential ripper lore courtesy of Intravenous Magazine to get your teeth into:





Yours truly...


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