Everybody loves a good mystery – and there is no greater mystery than that of Jack the Ripper. Since 1888, this horrific whodunnit has held people in its thrall. Today, nearly 150 years later, we are still no nearer to learning who the culprit was, and why he carried out such gruesome murders.
It is clear that the story of Jack the Ripper has generated a complete industry. As well as the Jack the Ripper walking tours, a quick Amazon search will throw up the titles of literally hundreds of fiction and non-fiction books about, or inspired by, the Jack the Ripper story. To accompany many of these, there are people dedicated to releasing month after month of audio content on their Jack the Ripper podcast – exploring every possible nuance and morsel that might have been overlooked (though there are not many of those!)
TV production companies also have a serious backlog of dramas and documentaries inspired by this mystery. As well as the mainstream Jack the Ripper documentary on the BBC, and the BBC TV series Whitechapel, YouTube is also a veritable melting pot containing literally thousands of homespun ‘Ripperologists’ promoting their own knowledge and theories through their own channels.
Jack the Ripper is the ultimate murder mystery, not just because of the nature of the crime or the fact that it remains unsolved, but also because there are so many different narratives that encircle it, which give rise to wider and more in-depth and intricate conversations.
The London City Police was officially formed in 1839, just under 50 years before the Jack the Ripper murders. Though policing methods of that day were developing, the changes were slow, ponderous, and unproven. Some were just plain daft. For example, photographs were taken of some of the victims’ eyes in the hope that the image of the murderer was imprinted on the pupils. Needless to say, this did not come to fruition.
Ultimately, policing methods used around the time of the murders relied on local intelligence and basic investigative work.
As policing methods have evolved over the last century and a half, many have attempted to re-apply these investigative and forensic developments to the Jack the Ripper murders in a bid to try and uncover further clues and evidence as to who the murderer could be.
The TV series Whitechapel, which ran on the BBC from 2009, was an interesting attempt to overlay modern policing on Jack the Ripper-inspired murders, further feeding into the fascination that we have for solving mysteries.
Running alongside this is the continuing fascination that we have for all serial killers. As the publication of news and events has become more widely available through newspapers and magazines, the avid interest in serial killers has grown. A simple internet search on 20th century serial killers will throw up hundreds of faces and names that have become household names due to the gruesome nature of their crimes.
Names like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Peter Sutcliffe (also known as the Yorkshire Ripper) have become etched into our global conscience as we all struggle to understand the evil that lies behind each and every brutal killing.
Jack the Ripper is almost the ‘grandad’ of serial killers, taking his place at the head of a table that kicked off in 1888.
Many of these serial killers have been immortalised by the likes of Netflix, being dramatised into entertainment for the masses, feeding that huge hunger for crime and retribution.
This fascination with real life murderers is further illustrated by the continuing growth in and popularity of true crime podcasts. These podcasts are episodic, easily accessible, and ultimately extremely compelling – which is why they have hundreds of thousands of downloads every single day.
The degree of ‘othering’ (indulging in hearing about events that happened to other people that you can never really imagine happening to yourself) psychologically makes you feel better about yourself and your own life. It offers a form of escapism for a short period of time that is over and above the mindless scrolling of social media, stimulating an intellectual curiosity that distracts from more mundane activities.
This has also spawned the plethora of YouTubers who actively produce what they hope will be the ultimate ‘best Jack the Ripper documentary’. The hunger for stories and information has created a self-perpetuating machine that churns out information constantly.
An obsession with serial killers is also combined with a fascination with the social circumstances of 19th-century London, which was a very different London to that which we know today. London was a city of two halves, the west being monied, intellectual, and inspirational. The east, where Jack the Ripper operated, was mired in poverty, fed by the passing of ships bringing in goods and characters that jarred with the local population.
There was a morbid fascination in the west with the goings on in the east, driven by a growing newspaper industry that suddenly had pages to fill. Moreover, the gruesome goings-on of a mysterious killer availing himself of the lives of those women who had hit life’s lowest tracks made for compelling reading among the middle and upper classes of those residents in the more affluent areas of the city.
You, too, can experience Jack the Ripper’s gruesome journey by booking onto one of our walking tours.