The very name ‘Jack the Ripper’ has cemented its place in global notoriety as one of the UK’s most prolific and gruesome serial killers. Descriptions of his mutilated victims littering the rancid streets of 19th century London have set a precedent for a new generation of famous serial killers seeking their own macabre form of fame.
But did Jack the Ripper get his inspiration from others that came before him? He may be regarded as Britain’s first serial killer, but looking back at history, what other incidences of gruesome murder can we find that may have had an impact on the young Jack growing up?
Jack the Ripper may have been given the dubious title of ‘Britain’s First Serial Killer’, but if you consider the day and age in which he committed his atrocities, they occurred in a changing environment.
In the late 1800s, the modern police force was establishing itself as the protector of the city of London. Just a few decades earlier, his antics would have passed by unremarked by the powers that be. Jurisdictions were changing, and society, as we know it today, was in its infancy and asserting its growing presence in the community. The Jack the Ripper murders were exactly what they wanted to get their teeth into.
Equally, media was beginning to be more accessible to a wider and less ‘gentlemanly’ sector of society – a sector that was interested in salacious gossip and barroom opinions. Jack’s antics were no longer simply hearsay whispered from one ear to another but committed to paper and ink and printed in newspapers that travelled far beyond the gates of London.
It is in this atmosphere that Jack the Ripper becomes the most notorious of a group of people that soon became known as ‘serial killers’.
Looking back at history, there were many more who, had they committed their acts during a different period of history, might well also be allowed to enter this serial killer hall of fame.
14 years before Jack the Ripper approached his first victim, Mary Ann Cotton was contemplating taking on a fifth husband. Fortunately for Mary, her troublesome seven-year-old stepson Charles passed away from the gastric fever, leaving her free to pursue a new life.
The London police, though, were suspicious and ordered an autopsy. Their suspicions were well founded – arsenic was discovered in the little boy’s stomach. Further investigations highlighted that three of Mary’s four former husbands had all died under suspicious circumstances, as had 15 children and two lodgers.
Mary’s spree started in 1856, when over a period of five years, seven of her eight children and her husband all passed away from gastric fever. Seen as an unfortunate series of events, Mary was able to collect the insurance money and move on to her next husband/victim. It took less than a year for her to be collecting her next insurance cheque!
On 24 March 1873, Mary Ann Cotton – who jostles for position with Jack the Ripper as Britain’s first serial killer, was hung for her crimes.
The man who is believed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is considered to be one of the cruellest and most reviled leaders in history. He is particularly infamous for his love of impaling people.
Vlad was born in 1430 and was the Prince of Wallachia – better known today as Romania. He spent his life defending his principality against the aggression demonstrated by the Ottoman Empire, which was expanding into eastern Europe. One of the most gruesome accounts described how he left behind him a ‘Forest of the impaled’, where over 20,000 prisoners of war were left to decay impaled on pikes.
Although it could be argued that Vlad’s crimes were carried out in defence of his throne, by any standard his war crimes could be considered the crimes of a serial killer and place him alongside the likes of Hitler and Stalin.
You may not want to continue reading at this point, as the atrocities committed by the 15th-century French nobleman, Gilles de Rais are so horrific that no words can describe the absolute depravity that must have driven this man.
Gilles de Rais was a ‘kiddy killer’. Not only did he brutally murder them by decapitation, slashing their throats, or dismembering them – leading up to this he also tortured and sexually abused them. The total number of his victims was never confirmed, but estimates place them at anything between 100 and 600, mainly boys between the ages of six to 18.
The truth is that individuals have been killing, murdering, and maiming their fellow man since time immemorial. Driven by the basest of urges – greed, power, money, notoriety – an individual’s ability to self-limit acts of violence can only be controlled by the morals and values by which that individual governs their actions.
In truth, Jack the Ripper cannot be truly identified as Britain’s first serial killer – but as serial killers go, he was certainly one of the most notorious, and has taken residence in our imagination through the numerous books, stories, and films that have since been produced depicting his life and ‘works’.
Our Jack the Ripper tours allow you to step into this man’s mind. Book now and follow the routes the man would have taken as we transport you back to a time of gaslight, fog, and real poverty.