We unravel a ball of myths surrounding Jack the Ripper, an extremely cruel killer of women

Jack the Ripper. Extremely cruel killer. He killed 3, maybe 5, but maybe 11 women. He mutilated some of them, dissected them, removed their entrails…

A legend that has been living its own life for over 130 years. An undefeated serial killer, portrayed in period press as almost a supernatural being. And also as a foreigner. Like a Jew. As someone who does not belong to a “moral English society”.

“London lives in extraordinary horror these days,” wrote The Star. “An unknown pervert, half-human, half-animal, satisfies his murderous instincts every day.”

A shadow that emerged against the backdrop of the impoverished London suburb of Whitechapel. Against the backdrop of narrow dirty streets full of prostitutes, homeless people and criminals. Full of resignation and despair.

A symbol that has long said more about modern society than the investigation of a series of murders. Fascination with horror. About the manipulation of the media, politics and the crowd.

About the pride with which amateur historians try to find startling new discoveries from the life of the killer. Everyone has a chance ! Almost nothing is known about Jack the Ripper.

About the entrepreneurial spirit with which London travel agencies guide tourists to the sites of individual murders and offer them snacks, not at the Fisch and Chips restaurant, but at the Fish and Chiper restaurant. Like Jack the Ripper.

Of the incredible disrespect towards the victims, who are for the most part only mutilated corpses in the shadow of the glory of the murderer.

Sketch of the police inquiry into the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, London, 1888. HC Seppings Wright of The Illustrated London News.

brick path

Brick Lane is currently a popular street in London. The famous Indian cuisine restaurants here attract crowds of tourists. And nightclubs, fashion boutiques and graffiti are added, including those of Banksy. A cosmopolitan and lively street, from where you can see the nearby “Cucumber” between the houses, a skyscraper symbolizing the modern transformation of London.

When Emma Smith passed through here on the morning of April 3, 1888, it was a dirty and dangerous area on the poor and crowded outskirts of London.

In the second half of the 19th century, tens of thousands of people roamed London every night without knowing where they were going to sleep. Today’s luxurious Trafalgar Square alone housed 200 to 600 people.

Image: The streets of London a few years before the era of Jack the Ripper

And the worst was in Whitechapel. Part of East London, the working-class East End bordered by the London docks, which looked like a poor ghetto.

“The deeper we went into Whitechapel, the more our hearts sank,” recalls Jewish actor Jacob Adler. “Was it London? We have never seen so much misery in Russia or in the worst slums of New York as in London in the 1980s.

Adler was one of the Jews fleeing Russia and other pogrom countries. Many Irish were also heading to London. And many of them have become homeless in Whitechapel. The center of crime and prostitution in London.

Police estimated that there were 1,200 prostitutes in the neighborhood at the time and that there were 62 brothels. There wasn’t much other entertainment here – another ‘elephant man’, Joseph Merrick, who was on display in a shop in Whitechapel Road.

Emma Smith was also a prostitute and alcoholic. No one knew much about her. Only her landlady and roommates could tell she had seen other attacks on the street. That she often came back beaten. They say that once someone threw her out the window.

And when she drank, she acted crazy.

The normal life of a prostitute in Whitechapel.

Ordinary life in Whitechapel.

Whitchapel murders

Emma Smith was the first of the victims to be included in the so-called “Whitchapel murders”. 11 murders took place between April 3, 1888 and February 13, 1891.

An unknown perpetrator, or rather perpetrators, murdered 11 women and mutilated their bodies. One of the murdered woman killers removed the uterus. Other victims cut out the uterus and the kidney. And another cut out internal organs and left them in place next to the corpse. He took his heart away.

Investigators and later historians and criminologists widely believe that the killer of “Jack the Ripper” was responsible for five of these murders.

It is not certain. Contrary to the fact that none of the perpetrators of these murders have been apprehended and convicted.

London detectives interviewed 2,000 people, investigated 300 of them as suspects and temporarily detained 80 suspects. They paid special attention to local doctors, surgeons and butchers. The disfigurement of the bodies led them to suspect that the killer might be a professional with knowledge of anatomy. Or meat processing techniques.

In the end, the detectives showed nothing. Only suspicion remained. Some sensational and encouraging newspaper sales – the killer had to be a member of the royal family. Another current at the time – he was Jewish.

Nothing has been proven. He remains a legend.

Shanty town on Berner Street (later Henriques Street) in Whitechapel, east London, where Elizabeth Stride was murdered on 30 September 1888.

profit sharing

“It became clear at the time that murder was a money-making business, and almost every newspaper, author, and cheap ‘bleeder’ wanted their share of the profits,” says historian Erin Thompson.

“Disgusting wickedness, deadly cunning, insatiable bloodlust – these are all signs of senseless murder,” writes The Star, London’s best-selling evening paper, which boosted its daily sales during “Jack the Ripper” at 300,000 copies.

The report had the quality of a modern boulevard – it combined sensation, horror, populist political criticism and strained emotions. The text continued: “A demon-like creature crawls through the streets of London and seeks another victim, is simply drunk with blood and receives another dose. The question is: what can Londoners do? »

The Star declares that the police are incompetent, need fundamental reform and that the people of London must take care of themselves – they must create their own corps of volunteers and patrol the streets.

And after a political twist, he returns to a personal tone. It follows the knowledge of the last victim. As she emerged from the morgue door, where she had identified her, she wept bitterly and sobbed, “I knew her. I kissed his poor cold face.”

But it wasn’t just the media. Conditions for the legend of Jack the Ripper were incredibly favorable in London at the time.

1888 newspaper article about an unidentified notorious serial killer called Jack the Ripper, 1888.


Clathrophobic atmosphere of dark crypts and cold abandoned buildings, saturated with the feeling that someone is after you. Someone you don’t stand a chance against. Ghost, unknown force, demon…

The “gothic novel” was the perfect landscape of thought and emotion for the legend of Jack the Ripper. The genre’s founder was Horace Walpole in the mid-18th century. And the 19th century brings prominent works, popular to this day – Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Dracula.

Half-human, half-creature yearning for human blood and suffering. Such was the popular image of the Whitechapel killer.

The Gothic novel overflowed from the “great” literature to the level of the cheapest “bleeds” to continue. And in the last third of the 19th century, it flourished because more and more workers and people on the margins of society became literate.

This is also what made the success of sensationalist newspapers, predecessors of the modern boulevard.

After all, English has the term “tabloid journalism” for tabloid sensationalist journalism. And the word “tabloid” originally meant a tablet that could be easily swallowed. So later, news and reports that can be easily “swallowed up”. And they will bring relief.

Relief from hopeless daily life. Excitement, ecstasy, tension. Possibility of inclusion in the “right” social group.

It is a paradox, people who have been marginalized by society are now at least seemingly coming back with the feeling that they are more than foreigners, immigrants, Jews. That he belongs to the large group threatened by the dark forces. And that everyone is equal in the face of this threat.

And then there are the reformers, both left-wing and conservative, who point out from different angles that the situation in Whitechapel is unbearable and needs to change. And Jack the Ripper is useful as a symbol of how far things can go.

A bloodthirsty shadow creeps through the dark, faded streets of Whitechapel. And everyone wants to have a share.


“The idea that women were the same has prevailed for too long. Nameless, faceless, just a tattered, disgusting mass of people who cannot be distinguished from each other,” says historian Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five on the victims of the killer of Jack the Ripper.

Hallie Rubenhold continues: “But they weren’t. They just ended up in the same place.”

Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Five women, five victims, according to most historians, were killed by one killer, Jack the Ripper.

Elizabeth Stride, one of the serial killer’s victims. 1888

Five women, whom the then and subsequent media referred to as prostitutes, failed. “The media reported that women were talking about it,” Rubenhold recalls. “They were bad women, alone on the street at night. They were uprooted. They weren’t the good house angels. They weren’t part of the family. They deserve punishment.”

This too was – and is – the form of the legend of Jack the Ripper. And the opportunity to defend against the “bad guys” and join the “moral society”.

In his book, Rubenhold argues that at least three victims – Nichols, Chapman and Eddowes – have no evidence that they made a living as prostitutes. They were poor, homeless, sleeping on the streets.

“The killer didn’t choose the prostitutes,” says Rubenhold. “But women no one cared about and no one would miss.”

What the victims had in common was not prostitution.

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