Ripperologist JON REES says the 125th anniversary of the Whitechapel Murders gives us an unique opportunity to explore the dark side of London history
125 years ago this Autumn an unknown serial killer stalked the streets of Whitechapel in London and killed about five women. They weren’t famous or important, they were impoverished down and outs, mostly homeless, alcoholics and casual prostitutes. He took them to quiet locations, cut their throats and mutilated their bodies – often taking organs as souvenirs. He did this mostly out in the open, and often the bodies were discovered within minutes of the murders.
Jack wasn’t the first serial killer, he wasn’t the one who killed the most and he wasn’t even the most brutal. He was however the first modern serial killer – the stories of what he did horrified the world and was widely read in newspapers (before this time there wasn’t widespread literacy, so he was probably the first to be able to catch attention on this way). His identity remains a mystery to this day, perhaps another part of why his grim legacy has endured for a century and a quarter as he has inspired a game of cat and mouse for arm chair discussions who strive to unravel his identity through the mists of time.
Each year more books and documentaries are published which explore his crimes and identity. It is discussed on websites, blogs, message boards and Facebook groups. He has become the subject of comics, action figures, video games, films, TV shows, novels, board games and even briefly had a pub and beer named after him. Criticism on this fascination has been widespread – feminist groups often accused experts of glorifying the murders an the Ripper tours around the area have also had some mixed reactions from residents and local businesses.
So are we right to commemorate the brutal and misogynistic acts of a mad man over a century ago? I say yes. We do not celebrate, we commemorate. We do not idealise, but we condemn him. We examine the harsh realities of that world to allow us to understand where we came from, how society has changed and why we should be thankful for these changes, and recognise where it has not and strive to put this right.
The Whitechapel Murders provide a small window to a very different world to our own. The poorest area of the worlds richest city and the plight of those who every day struggled to survive. Those five women who were brutally murdered allow us to paint a picture of what life was like back then through their all to similar biographies and it is an important piece of social history, not just a great mystery.