This year marks the 125th anniversary of Jack the Ripper, the notorious Whitechapel murderer who killed and mutilated at least five women during the darkest months of the Victorian era. On the surface, it’s just another grisly tale from Britain’s often grisly past. So, after all these years, why does the Ripper’s legacy continue to linger so strongly in the public consciousness?
It seems that even today, everybody has heard of him and his horrific deeds. The Whitechapel murders are still taught to children in history lessons, regular Jack the Ripper tours take place in East London, and a small-but-dedicated group of expert ‘Ripperologists’ continue to investigate the mysteries surrounding the case.
The root cause for this continued fascination, I would assume, is the fact that the true identity of the Ripper has never been determined; despite Scotland Yard’s best efforts, he was never caught. It is easy to see how a murderous enigma such as Jack the Ripper, still unidentified after 125 years, can entice public interest on such a great scale.
Donald Rumbelow, a prominent British crime expert and author of ‘The Complete Jack the Ripper’ agrees.
“When it comes to the identity of Jack the Ripper, everybody’s got a theory,” said Mr Rumbelow.
“There have been over 200 potential suspects throughout history, but there’s never been conclusive evidence against any of them.”
Mr Rumbelow believes however, that many other reasons have influenced the continued popularity of the Jack the Ripper case. When I asked Mr Rumbelow for his initial thoughts, his first suggestion was to blame the usual suspects – the media.
“The press built it up, absolutely. Stories about Jack the Ripper would be on the front pages all the time, and the East London area would be swamped with newspapermen every single day.
“Within three months of the last murder, there was already a Jack the Ripper stage play. It didn’t take long for books and articles to emerge as well”.
“And of course, Jack the Ripper has been in the media ever since. By 1926, a young Alfred Hitchcock was already directing a crime thriller inspired by the Whitechapel murders.”
The film in question, The Lodger, was based on Marie Belloc Lowndes 1913 novel of the same name.
Richard Cobb, owner of the official Jack the Ripper tour, agrees that the Victorian media’s role was essential to building up the profile of the infamous killer. He said: “The killings were transformed into a fantastic Victorian melodrama by the newspapers.
“They wrote them up in every gory detail, and soon people of the West end – and indeed the world – where reading all about this unknown killer.
“If you mention his name to anyone, they will instantly think of Victorian London, foggy nights, gas lamps and prostitutes. Jack the Ripper remains the only serial killer in history that represents an entire era.”
On a personal level, besides reading about Jack the Ripper in the Horrible Histories book The Vile Victorians as a child, I can also remember being taught about him at school. The fact that the Whitechapel murders are taught to many pupils, as part of their Victorian history lessons, ensures that most people – young and old – have some degree of awareness about the infamous Ripper.
“It provides a useful gateway into Victorian history,” says Mr Rumbelow.
“Teachers tend to give it some attention, as it manages to connect this stimulating topic to the rest of Victorian history”.
I concur, for me and many others, the morbid curiosity surrounding the Jack the Ripper case seemed to be far more interesting than learning about factory conditions, slum housing, and the dangers of Victorian childbirth. The mysterious, conspiracy-ridden nature of Jack the Ripper’s legacy has ensured that the case has continued to be of interest to the British public. Whilst more recent serial killers may be swiftly consigned to history, it is certain that the Ripper will continue to evoke fascination for decades to come.
The latest edition of Donald Rumbelow’s book, ‘The Complete Jack the Ripper’, came out on 2 May 2013.
Photo: American actor Laird Cregar playing the title role in 'The Lodger' in which he is suspected of being Jack The Ripper (Getty Images)