The population of East End in London during the Mid-19th Century saw a reconfiguration due to two events in the area. The first was the rapid migration of Irish immigrants as well as Jewish refugees fleeing East Europe. Secondly, it was the increased rates of homicides for which the mastermind behind some peculiar murders was Jack the Ripper, whose identity remains unknown to date. The unfortunate victims of these murders were predominantly sex workers in the slum area of London’s East End, in district of Whitechapel. While the brutal tactics used in the butchering of these women alone are haunting, they also shed light to critical social issues in London during the mid-1800s. From poverty, anti-Semitism, Gender Based Violence (GBV), incompetency of Scotland Yard (Metropolitan Police) and the sensationalized reportage in the media, culminated to what can be only described as an off-brand version of the dark ages.
The Canonical Five
“The Canonical Five” alludes to the killing of at least five women in the Whitechapel district of East End from the 7th of August to the 30th of September 1888. To set the stage, East End at the time was home to many Jewish and Russian migrants which caused overpopulation in the area and poverty. While sex work was illegal only in the event it caused public disturbance, women who engaged in this profession were subject to physical violence, at times resulting in death. Such cases were barely reported to the police or covered by the press. Jack the Ripper’s murdering of the women stood out, providing ideal grounds to highlight a kaleidoscope of issues in the poverty-stricken East End.
The victims of the Canonical five murders were namely Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Each of these killings took place a mile from each other in the given timeline. In the case of Nichols her throat was slit open, and tissues were dismantled, her vagina was stabbed deep inwards and her lower stomach had been ripped open causing the organs to protrude. Both Chapman’s and Stride’ bodies too were mutilated similarly, each being worse from the other. Eddowes’ body was found in Mitre Square of Whitechapel three and a half hours after Stride’s. Her neck was severed, organs in the abdomen was cut open. The intestines and uterus were removed, and face had been severely disfigured. Autopsy suggests that all the acts of mutilation took around five minutes to complete. Few meters away In Goulston Street, a part of Eddowes’ apron and anti-Semitic graffiti was found, the latter is now commonly known as Goulston Street Graffito. Till date there has been no established correlation between the murderer and the graffiti. Lastly, Kelly’s body which was beyond recognition was found in her room in Dorset Street. Her throat was mutilated down to the spine and almost all her organs in her abdomen area were removed, including her heart.
There are certain constants and dynamics regarding the Canonical Five murders. The constants were that all the murders took place close to the weekend, end of the month or week and all in the night. Secondly, the person or entity who carried out the murders had a great knowledge on bodily anatomy given the alleged short time span by which the butchering took place. The dynamic was that the severity of the mutilation worsened with each murder; Mary Jane Kelly’s was regarded as the worst of the five.
The hunt for Jack the Ripper, instead of bringing forth justice, only revealed the incompetency and/or bias of law enforcers of London. The Metropolitan police: Criminal Investigation Department (CID) conducted “thorough” door-to-door inquiries in the district of Whitechapel and interviewed over 2000 individuals. The infamous letters written by Jack the Ripper illustrating the brutality of the murders, were sent to the Police, newspapers and others which were clear indications of the murder pattern. This led to many wondering why the police took no preventive actions to protect potential victims. Among other investigative tactics, the police offered a reward for anyone who finds the Ripper or gives any form of lead to his whereabouts. Neither of the actions taken by the police were successful in determining the murderer, and because of this incompetency a group of volunteers called the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee was formed. The committee’s sole purpose was to assist the police in investigation.
By the end of the active investigations many suspects from all sorts of backgrounds including butchers, and slaughterers, surgeons, physicians, famous Victorian painter Walter Sickert, even Queen Victoria’s grandson and also women too were named. Since 1888 more than 100 people have been ruled out as suspects which is one of the highest on record. Ever since, the story of Jack the Ripper has been a hit in famous shows and productions, sensationalized on media and become a household name to symbolize terror. However, the key underpinning issues which led to these murders and the treatment of certain social classes went unaddressed.
Reflections of Greater Issues
Given the time during which these murders took place certain aspects of society and people’s outlook on it became wholly clear. The utter distaste towards women and those who were sex workers was emulated from this event. From over-exploitation of their profession, and the sheer lack of protection given to them by the police was evident from their inaction or delayed action. This social stigma for women in poverty and especially sex workers trickle down in societies even today. London at present has become a hub for GBV and the law enforcers themselves being the perpetrators of some incidents.
The anti-Semitic graffiti during the Eddowes case point to anti-Jewish and anti-migrant sentiment clouding in Western Europe which was reflected in East End. These were subtle acts of racism which catapulted later to global issues. The assumption that Jack the Ripper was a rich man killing the poor coupled with the incompetency of the police, brought forth the common notion of mistreatment of the poor in London during the industrial revolution. While this is purely a communal opinion, there’s a fair share of truth to it given the mismanagement of the investigation.
The role of media
Taking into consideration the tornado of an investigation, injustice towards migrants, women and the impoverished, the media took the upper hand in undermining the problem itself. In reportage the focus was on sensationalizing and creating fear based on conspiracies. Newspapers took it upon themselves to distort information and misinform the public, changing the discourse on how crime is reported in the media. Such traits are seen in the reporting of crime at present in many tabloids and other mainstream media namely newspapers, social media, television channels etc. The reason as to why this was problematic in London at the time was primarily because taxation on newspapers were abolished and British legislature had made education compulsory. Henceforth this led to a newly literate society whose perception had a greater potential to be shaped. On the 6th of September 1888, the Manchester Guardian reported that the police are deliberately hiding “important information” from public, which caused immense distrust of law enforcement for the wrong reasons.
The above elaborates the flaws of the Victorian Era and how something as gory and inhumane was overshadowed by sensationalism and mismanagement. While Jack the Ripper’s identity remains a mystery even today, the ripple effect it caused in poverty-stricken London resonates closely with that of many issues communities face even today.
– Rtr. Shihara Ferdinando
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Jones, Greg Jon. Murder, Media, and Mythology: The Impact the Media’s Reporting of the Whitechapel Murders had on National Identity, Social Reform, and the Myth of Jack the Ripper. Department of History, University of West London. 2013
Walkowitz, Judith R. “Jack the Ripper and the Myth of Male Violence.” Feminist Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, Feminist Studies, Inc., 1982, pp. 543–74
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