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Our Jack the Ripper Obsession Is Misogynist

Were Jack the Ripper alive today, would we idolize him as much?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Sunday, yet another amateur sleuth claimed to have solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper: the word’s most infamous serial killer—who, 126 years ago, committed his legendary slaughters of (at least) five women, all prostitutes, in the London district of Whitechapel. Russell Edwards, author and “Ripperologist,” announced this weekend that he had conclusive DNA evidence proving that Aaron Kosminski, a 23-year-old Polish Jewish immigrant who eventually died in a lunatic asylum, had “definitely, categorically, and absolutely” been Jack (who was never caught or identified). The key piece of evidence: a blood-soaked shawl. Edwards says the artifact was found at the scene of a Ripper attack, and contains DNA that matches Kosminski’s living descendants. “Thank God the shawl has never been washed,” he told reporters. (Neither the provenance of the shawl nor the DNA findings have been externally validated). 

Last year, London celebrated the 125th anniversary of the Jack the Ripper murders with a gaggle of new Ripper books, an array of commemoration tours, and an international Ripperology conference, held a short walk from the scene of Jack’s crimes. But amidst the hullabaloo, a little-known anniversary went unnoticed: It’s been 25 years since feminists took on Jack and the industry he spawned. And lost.

In 1988, the centenary of the 1888 “Whitechapel Murders,” Rippermania was alive and kicking—as evidenced by growing demand for Jack the Ripper walking tours. The most popular spot on the standard Ripper route was the Jack the Ripper pub (until 1976 it was called “The Ten Bells”) on Commercial Street, where one of Jack’s victims reportedly boozed up before her murder. The pub displayed Ripper memorabilia, hawked Ripper swag (like t-shirts depicting mutilated organs), and sold a blood red “Ripper Tipple” cocktail. “There’s nothing gory about it,” the pub’s landlady insisted. “It’s a great whodunit.” 

But feminists had begun to rally against a thriving Ripper industry that, they argued, glamorized violence against women, fetishized the murder of prostitutes, and commercially exploited real-life murder victims. Some came together in Action Against the Ripper Centenary (AARC). “How can society call itself caring when it worships killers and forgets the women that were killed?” its founder charged. The group held demonstrations and staged a hundreds-strong march. Particular fury was directed at the Jack the Ripper pub.

A small coterie of academics also turned its attention to the so-called “Ripper Effect.” “Jack the Ripper has been thoroughly sanitized, turned into a folk hero like Robin Hood,” argued Deborah Cameron, now an English professor at Oxford University. “His story is packaged as a bit of harmless fun: Only a spoilsport would be tactless enough to point out it's a story of misogyny and sadism.” 

Nobody paid heed. 

Tourists continued to flock to Madame Tussauds wax museum to see recreated Ripper crime scenes at the “Chamber of Horrors.” CBS released a new Ripper drama staring Michael Caine. The singer Screaming Lord Sutch announced a re-release of his hit “Jack the Ripper”—with a promotional video to be shot in Whitechapel. A new Jack the Ripper computer game hit the market, notable for its images of mutilated women and exposed breasts. Closer to home, a Whitechapel theatre company staged a Ripper-themed musical, with tunes like “The Ripper’s Going to Get You (If You Don’t Watch Out).” 

Twenty-five years later, interest in Jack endures. The Jack the Ripper pub is no longer—it’s back to being “Ten Bells”—but little else has changed. A London clothing shop, The New York Times reports, is channeling “the romance of Jack the Ripper.” Scotland Yard, London’s police headquarters, may publicly display evidence from the Ripper case—reportedly, to help plug a £500 million budget shortfall.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images 
An illustration of one of Jack the Ripper's victims, probably Catherine Eddowes, London, England, late September 1888.

On any given evening, hoards of tourists follow in Jack’s footsteps, along the cobblestoned streets of London’s East End. Led by animated tour guides (many, in something approximating nineteenth-century attire), they duck in and out of dark alleys—and pass around fuzzy post-mortem photographs of Jack’s victims: bodies with slashed faces, and missing kidneys, and peeled-off skin. The newest Jack the Ripper tours (running nightly at 7:30 p.m., at a cost of $12-$15) are more gore-drenched than ever. One tour company uses something called “Ripper Vision”: basically, a handheld projector that flashes mortuary photographs onto walls or bits of pavement. “It’s very modern, very different, a new way of looking at things,” Ripper Vision’s inventor told me. 

Given all this, might it be time to revive those old feminist critiques?

On a recent afternoon, I met historian Fern Riddell, author of The Victorian Guide to Sex, at the British Library. There, we put our heads together and tried to think of other instances in which people travel to murder sites to ogle photographs of mutilated women. This plays out in fiction, of course; just watch any episode of "Law and Order SVU." And Jack’s victims are not the only women to have found fame as disfigured bodies. (See, for instance, the Black Dahlia). But it seems that the Ripper obsession is indulged in a particularly public and unabashed way.   

Indeed, around the time of the Ripper centenary, and after some debate, Madame Tussauds museum opted not to erect an effigy of Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper,” who just seven years earlier had been convicted of murdering 13 women in northern England. “We also don’t see these kinds of images of men,” Riddell points out, “except in photos related to World War One. And we treat those images with a huge amount of respect and reverence.” 

The Ripper industry, on the other hand, involves very little respect, and plenty of irreverence. This is an entertainment enterprise, pure and simply. Murder is stripped of its context; victims are stripped of their dignity. And if the murders hadn’t happened so very long ago, we would probably be very repulsed that a Ripper industry exists at all. Semi-professional “Ripperologists” (most of them male; see Ripperology magazine) pontificate at length about who Jack was—and why he killed. But we hear little of the victims and their exacting lives. Jack’s ubiquity has veiled his crimes in myth. He now stands within a Gothic literary tradition more than a historical one: rubbing fictional shoulders with the likes of Sweeney Todd, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde. 

And then there’s the glib treatment of the story’s violent sexual component. While there is no evidence that Jack raped his victims, he did give several of them crude hysterectomies. In one case, he walked off with a victim’s uterus. But Ripper mythology reinforces a sense that these women had it coming. The victims were all pushers of the “four-penny knee trembler”—prostitutes. Today’s Ripper tour guides give us all the titillating details. In this, the tour guides are not unlike Victorian-era journalists, who emphasized how “depraved”—and, thus, perhaps, deserving of their fate—the victims were.1 

On one of the several Jack the Ripper tours I went on last fall (I live not far from the tour circuit—a short walk from the ‘Jack the Clipper’ barber shop), my guide took pains to emphasize that Jack’s victims, while prostitutes, were none too easy on the eyes. He flashed an image of Annie Chapman, Jack’s second victim, and grimaced. 

Jack the Ripper began to shape our modern understanding of serial killings and violent crime against women—and we are still confronting this gruesome legacy today.2 Dr. Thomas Bond, who analyzed the Ripper’s crimes in the nineteenth-century, is often credited with producing the first-ever psychological profile of a killer. The Austrian-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing—a turn-of-the-century authority on sexual crime—cited Jack as a case study of perverted sexuality. Men who kill prostitutes are still called “Rippers.” (See: Ipswich Ripper, Yorkshire Ripper, Camden Ripper, Dusseldorf Ripper, etc.) By the twentieth century, though, any clinical connotations attached to this label were gone. Jack had become more than a murderer; he was a narrative pattern, and enduring bogeyman—and a cautionary tale for women so bold as to walk the streets alone. 

This persists. The London Dungeon, a museum of the macabre, is offering a new Jack the Ripper attraction. Its promotional website brings Jack to life in a fun-to-read profile. Likes: “anatomy, internal organs, knives, writing letters, and blood grafitti.” Preferred Victims: “Drunken female prostitutes, loose women.” Museum curators also offer in-character safety tips: 

DO look over your shoulder.

DO dress conservatively.

DO go unnoticed.

DO NOT flirt.

DO NOT walk alone.

DO NOT accept his offer to buy you a drink. 

126 years later, London’s women still have much to fear in Jack.

  1. One of Jack’s victims, Mary Kelly, resented having to walk the streets; shortly before she died, she reportedly told a friend: “Whatever you do don’t you do wrong and turn out as I have.” On the night she was killed, a neighbor heard her singing.

  2. Indeed, the Ripper murders radically changed the rules on Fleet Street, home to London’s newspaper industry. Ripper’s “pelvic mutilations forced Fleet Street to push the envelope of what clinical details were deemed fit to print,” writes L. Perry Curtis in Jack the Ripper and the London Press. “Allusions to the uterus, vagina, and rectum had hitherto been confined to medical discourse.” But Ripper made it all “fit to print.”