It has commonly been said that the ‘Dear Boss’ letter, received by the Central News Agency on 27th September 1888, was the work of an enterprising journalist. Whereas that claim may well be true (and in fact was believed by many of the prominent detectives involved in the Ripper investigation), what is most significant about this notorious letter is that it gave the world the name ‘Jack the Ripper’.
Of course, prior to this, the murderer went by the name of ‘Leather Apron’ and as much as this may seem a totally inappropriate name in hindsight, the media reporting of the habits of ‘Leather Apron’ filled the East End of London with fear, creating the concept of the lone fiend of the shadows which remains to this day. But with the arrival of the ‘Dear Boss’ letter and the subsequent ‘Saucy Jacky’ postcard and their subsequent release to the public, fear would be given a whole new name and a whole new dimension.
As a name, Jack is currently one of the most popular boy’s names today, but back then it was generally used as a nickname for John, and sometimes James, or even Jacob. Jacks were a popular theme in folklore; perhaps another famous fiendish Jack of the 19th century was the peculiar ‘Spring Heeled Jack’. This bizarre ‘creature’ molested unwitting night-time strollers, usually women, on the suburban common lands of south London and the East End in the 1830s, terrifying them with his horrid face, peculiar costume, long sharp talons and, most strangely, his glowing eyes, his ability to spit blue flame, and the colossal leaps he was able to make, which gave him his name.
Other uses of this name can be found in characters like Jolly Jack Tar and Jack ‘o Lantern, as well as in popular folk stories and nursery rhymes, hence Jack and Jill and Jack the Giant Killer. Sixteen String Jack was a notorious highwayman and today, the fictional Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series is another example of this type of use. Jack becomes a blank canvas upon which any personality can be projected.
‘Jack the Ripper’ succinctly set out what the murderer was about, even if the killer himself had not created the title. ‘Ripper’ undoubtedly summed up his terrible methodology perfectly, and the whole name quickly promoted the idea of a mutilator of women blessed with the luck of the devil in his ability to evade capture. Thanks to the wording of some of the letters allegedly from him (and probably fake), the mysterious individual adopted a dark and cheeky sense of macabre humour, cocking a snook at authority.
This most famous of nicknames has been described by some as ‘a work of genius’ or a ‘copywriter’s dream’ and as we know today, has lent itself to other mass murderers - the Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe), the Rostov Ripper (Andrei Chikatilo) and the Dusseldorf Ripper (Peter Kurten).
So, whoever sat down and wrote that famous letter in 1888 probably had no idea what a cultural phenomenon that simple name would become, in both fact and fiction.