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During the nineteenth century, London was the biggest city on Earth and was ‘the heart and brain of of the greatest empire in world history’. It was portrayed as being symbolic of the successes of British Imperialism; a city synonymous with wealth, prosperity and morality. Yet, in 1888, the crimes of Jack the Ripper were in direct conflict with these Victorian ideals, and brought into question the true nature of Victorian crime, culture and society. Between late August and early November, Jack brutally murdered and mutilated five prostitutes in the East End of the Imperial capital. Despite becoming the focus of an international manhunt, his true identity remains unknown to this day. Perhaps more interesting than his identity, his crimes provide an invaluable way to access and analyse the nature of Victorian society, and assess the rhetoric of Imperial London against the much bleaker social reality. This essay will first examine how the murders changed the role of the press and will then use the media and reporting of the murders as a gateway to examine reactions to poverty, rising crime and societal fears caused by a market driven moral panic. This essay will argue that the reality of life in the East End was in conflict with Victorian notions of Imperial prowess. A key reason for continued scholarly interest in the Ripper is derived from the fact that his crimes provide a gateway into the bleak nature of crime, culture and society in the Victorian times.
The Jack the Ripper murders allow insight into the changing role of the press in Victorian society and crime reporting. The timing of the murders meant that they benefitted from the abolition of stamp duty in 1855, increased literacy rates and improved printing presses. The arrival of halfpenny evening newspapers such as The Evening News in 1881 and The Star in 1888 furthered the accessibility of journalism by making it affordable, but were often ridiculed for using sensationalism and emotive language. Reports often gave ‘every grisly detail’ of the crime scenes in order to attract attention. For example, a newspaper article from The Star on the 1st of October 1888 describes the double murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. The headline ‘Murder Maniac Sacrifices More Women to his Thirst for Blood’ and the use of phrases within the article, such as ‘hellish fiend’ and ‘blood chilling’ portrayed the Ripper crimes as a work of fiction rather than real atrocities. This sensationalism was noted by Jean Chalaby. She stated that due to the volume and nature of reporting surrounding the Ripper, ‘journalists could no longer play down the significance of the phenomenon.’ Despite revealing an industrialising and increasingly literate society in keeping with the Victorian imperial rhetoric, the volume of interest in the Ripper alludes to a society entertained by the misfortunes of those less fortunate than themselves.
The press coverage of the murders also highlighted the interest in true crime within Victorian society. This was the case before ‘new journalism’ with huge interest surrounding cases such as the Red Barn murder where plays and songs outlining the gory details of the victims death were written and sold. Whilst ‘reporting of crime was not new, what was new were those elements of quantity of coverage and distribution which naturally accompanied the rising phenomenon of the popular press.’ This allowed for increased interest in the Ripper’s crimes as newspapers realised that true crime created large profits. Between 1st September and 20th October 1888, The Evening News dedicated 82 columns to the murders, 12% of its entire coverage. As interest in the murders increased, tours of Dorset street were also organised and a distasteful tourism trade was established. Society had a fascination with death and murder and the Victorian press exploited the Ripper’s victim’s tragedies for popular entertainment. This again further reveals a society at odds with both the prudish stereotype of Victorian sensibility and with the rhetoric of the Victorian empire.
The newspaper reporting’s on the Ripper murders provide a useful way of examining middle and upper class reactions to the poor. Prior to the Ripper murders, the concept of a ‘criminal class’ was being increasingly discussed by contemporaries in reports, newspaper articles and popular fiction. In 1883, Andrew Mearns had written of the East End as being ‘a vast mass of moral corruption, of heart breaking misery and absolute godlessness’, contributing to fear of a residuum genuinely dangerous to Victorian society. It is perhaps due to this that the crimes of Jack the Ripper provided a unique opportunity for press sensationalism. The murders became synonymous with the area and poverty in which they were committed and embodied society’s existing fears. Conboy argues that this fits the definition of a market driven moral panic. The press preyed on existing fears of social unrest and revolution by providing daily instalments on the state of the East End and its synonymy with Jack. Academics now regard the ‘criminal class’ as a myth created and believed by the wealthy in order to reject their responsibilities to the poor. Jennifer Davies believes that this ‘class’ was the result of moral panics like this.
Notably, the Cartoon ‘Nemesis of Neglect’ was published in the wake of the double murder and suggested that the Ripper murders were a direct result of the poverty in the East End. John Marriott notes that this cartoon, and other sensationalism within the popular press, aided to support the idea that ‘East London was a site of fear, loathing and moral desolation’ and thus characterized a threat to Victorian society and empire. Here, the ability of the press to manipulate the situation in order to create moral panic is clear – the Ripper was not created by the poverty of the East End, rather the environment provided him with both opportunity and victims. As social reformers attacked East End brothels, prostitutes were forced onto the streets. This provided Jack with readily available victims; it was more often the case that the poor would be victims of crime. The reality is that the East End was not home to a criminal class but to a class of desperate individuals, such as the Ripper victims, who had been left behind in a capitalist system built on Victorian notions of self help. This illustrates a society rejecting any responsibility towards the lower classes by denouncing them as dangerous, immoral and beyond saving – they did not wish to acknowledge a class of people at odds with the magnificence of the empire.
Despite this evident moral panic, Drew Gray argues that many ‘new journalists’ who wrote of Jack and Whitechapel had a genuine desire to alert the public to the need for intervention in the East End. It is important to note the efforts of social reformers such as Charles booth, whose study of London presented the East End as being in desperate poverty and requiring intervention, and Jack London who went undercover to expose East End doss houses. Whilst the fact remains that little was done to help those living in the Victorian ‘underworld’, it is important not to impose 21st century views of sensationalism onto Victorian society. In 1888, George Bernard Shaw stated that ‘private enterprise [had] succeeded where socialism failed’ and that the Ripper had ‘converted the proprietary press to some inept sort of communism’ It should be noted that alongside such sensational rhetoric there was likely to have been a desire to alert the public to poverty and if Shaw’s left wing interpretation is to be believed, then this was a success. It is, however, evident that the media contributed to an unhelpful rhetoric that poverty created violent crime which allowed individuals to justify their disgust towards the poor.
The Whitechapel murders themselves also allow us to examine the nature of rising crime and poverty levels in Victorian London. Both the area in which Jack committed his murders, and the social status of his victims, allow us insight into the links between poverty and crime. Paul Begg describes this well, noting that these were key reasons for his notoriety, and that ‘had he killed in the West End of London […] or chosen his victims from another class of women, it is possible that he would have been forgotten.’ The victim profile is symbolic of the dangerous nature of life in the East End. All of Jack’s victims were prostitutes who sold their bodies as a means of survival. The Ripper’s first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, entered the workhouse at least ten times between 1883 and 1888 after the collapse of her marriage. She was an alcoholic and owned very few possessions. This pattern is common within all of the victims; all were incredibly poor, owned very little and relied upon lodging houses to sleep in. The streets of the East End were not a safe place to be and Jack had an abundance of potential victims lying in wait due to the extreme levels of absolute poverty within the area. Paul Begg notes that even despite the intensely brutal nature of these murders, this brutality was not unique to Jack’s crimes, highlighting the vulnerability of those living in East London. Despite this, the press oftentimes blamed the victims, with headlines claiming that the Ripper was ‘Heaven’s scourge for prostitution’. This again fuelled upper and middle class fears of social unrest by providing daily instalments on the state of the East End and its synonymy with Jack, rather than outlining the need for paternalism towards those at the bottom of society.
To conclude, the Ripper murders portray Victorian society as being at odds with the rhetoric of imperial wealth as so often presumed. ‘Poverty, prostitution and crime were the stains on the Imperial map that were not shown in the atlases of the day.’ Not only do the crimes allow us to examine the changing role of the press within British society, but they also allow us to examine the reactions both caused and justified by the popular press. It is evident that the East End of London was demonised due to a desire to ignore the conditions that British individuals were subject to in the great city of London. Despite the fact that in 1888 Victorian society was beginning to move away from Victorian ideals of self help, the poor were consistently misunderstood and the real causes of crime ignored and manipulated in order to justify failing policing and an inability and lack of desire to intervene. The reality is that behind the curtains of a flourishing empire was a capital city that was deeply divided.
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