Jack the Ripper and the London Press

Jack the Ripper and the London Press

by L. Curtis Jr.

Hardcover(New Edition)

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Press coverage of the 1888 mutilation murders attributed to Jack the Ripper was of necessity filled with gaps and silences, for the killer remained unknown and Victorian journalists had little experience reporting serial murders and sex crimes. This engrossing book examines how fourteen London newspapers—dailies and weeklies, highbrow and lowbrow—presented the Ripper news, in the process revealing much about the social, political, and sexual anxieties of late Victorian Britain and the role of journalists in reinforcing social norms.

L. Perry Curtis surveys the mass newspaper culture of the era, delving into the nature of sensationalism and the conventions of domestic murder news. Analyzing the fourteen newspapers—two of which emanated from the East End, where the murders took place—he shows how journalists played on the fears of readers about law and order by dwelling on lethal violence rather than sex, offering gruesome details about knife injuries but often withholding some of the more intimate details of the pelvic mutilations. He also considers how the Ripper news affected public perceptions of social conditions in Whitechapel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300088724
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 12/11/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08872-8

Chapter One

The Whitechapel Murders


Before delving into the Ripper reportage, we must first survey the actual events that comprised the basis of this baffling and still unfinished story. Fortunately, the abundance of accounts of the five known murders makes it unnecessary to repeat all the salient events here. Taken together, the narratives provided by such well-informed Ripperologists as Paul Begg, Martin Fido, Donald Rumbelow, Keith Skinner, and Philip Sugden contain most of the known facts as well as the theories and surmises about each slaying, even though disagreements persist. Sugden's study of the murders has the advantage of correcting many of the errors and myths that have pervaded Ripperature over the decades. Apart from continuing controversy over who was the Ripper's first victim, whether or not he had an accomplice, whether there was a copycat killer, and the exact time of Mary Kelly's demise, most experts today agree about the circumstances surrounding the five "official" killings. For this reason, the following brief outline avoids entering into the finer points of either agreement or dispute.

The conventional Ripper narrative begins on August 31, 1888, with the discovery of the still warm and bleeding body of Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols (also spelled Nicholls), aged forty-two, on the cobblestones in Buck's Row, next to a gate leading into a stable yard. Around 3:40 A.M. a cart driver found her lying on her back with her skirt pushed up to her waist and a deep cut across her throat. Having tried and failed to decapitate her, the killer had slashed her abdomen and apparently stabbed her twice in the "private parts." Married but separated from her husband, and the mother of five children, Nichols lived off her meager earnings from prostitution and also scrounged for food and drink. A heavy drinker, she moved from one run-down lodging house to another or slept rough when she could not stand another grim night in Lambeth Workhouse. Shortly before her death a friend saw her drunk and soliciting a man in the hope of earning the price of a night's lodging.

The second victim, Annie Chapman (born Eliza Anne Smith), aged around forty-seven, was the wife of a Windsor coachman, John Chapman, who had left her some years before. She had borne two children and was living with a man who made sieves by the name of Jacky Sivvey, hence her nicknames-"Siffey," "Sievey," or "Sivvey." Known to her friends as "Dark Annie," she was a fierce fighter and heavy drinker, who tried at times to earn an honest living, but could not conquer her thirst for beer. Like Nichols, she was continually driven back to prostitution by her lack of a steady income to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and drink. Around 6 A.M. on Saturday, September 8, her severely mutilated body was found in the backyard of a dilapidated lodging house at 29 Hanbury Street in Spitalfields. Once again the killer had tried to cut off her head, judging from the knife marks on the cervical vertebrae. Not satisfied with slashing her abdomen, he had ripped out her small intestines and thrown them near her right shoulder. (Some papers also claimed that her heart lay nearby.) Although it was not disclosed for some weeks, her uterus, along with a small section of the vagina and bladder, had also been removed.

After a three-week hiatus, the killer struck again in the early hours of Sunday, September 30. This time his victim was Elizabeth ("Long Liz") Stride, aged around forty-five. Born in Sweden with the name of Elisabeth Gustafsdotter, she had left her father's farm at seventeen to work as a servant in nearby Gothenburg, where the police soon identified her as a prostitute. After several bouts with venereal disease, she turned up in London in 1866 and married John Stride, with whom she had nine children. After falsely claiming that her husband had drowned in a shipwreck, Long Liz took up a nomadic life in the East End, moving from one lodging house to another, working as a casual prostitute, a seamstress, and a domestic servant. Also fond of the drink, she had a record of arrests for drunk and disorderly behavior. Several workers found her body shortly after 1 A.M. in a courtyard off Berner Street, at the rear gate leading to the International Working Men's Club, which catered to plebeian Jewish socialists and radicals. The deep throat wound and the absence of any mutilations moved the police to presume that the same killer had been interrupted before he could finish his sadistic work.

The fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes (alias Kate Kelly or Kate Conway) was also in her mid-forties. She died less than an hour after Stride in a dark corner of Mitre Square, Aldgate. The daughter of a tinplate worker from Wolverhampton, Eddowes was also an alcoholic. But her last lover, John Kelly, denied that she was a prostitute. During her twenties she had lived with a pensioned Irish soldier named Thomas Conway, and given birth to three children before leaving Conway for Kelly around 1880. She encountered her killer shortly after being discharged from the police station at Bishopsgate, where she had been locked up for drunk and disorderly behavior. Heading for her lodging house on Flower and Dean Street, she had been attacked in Portsoken Ward. After cutting her throat to the bone, the killer slashed her face, stomach, and pelvic area, pulled out much of her intestines, and threw them over her right shoulder and next to her left arm. During the autopsy the police surgeons discovered that both her left kidney and uterus were missing. Besides occasional soliciting, Eddowes also earned some money from selling goods, hop-picking in Kent, and working as a charwoman. Despite her chronic drinking, she seemed to have had a reasonably stable relationship with Kelly.

At this point in time, a letter and postcard signed by "Jack the Ripper" and posted several days earlier were received by a leading news agency. As soon as Scotland Yard authorized Fleet Street to publish these macabre messages, the Ripper mythos was born. Labeled "the double event," these two murders proved a windfall for Fleet Street, and vastly increased the public's alarm over the predatory "fiend" on the loose in Whitechapel.

For reasons best known to the killer, no further prostitute murders took place for more than a month. Perhaps the increased surveillance by the police and local vigilance committees served as a deterrent. Despite daily expectations of another death, the culprit, now known as Jack the Ripper, did not strike again until the early hours of Friday, November 9, just in time to mar the festivities of Lord Mayor's Day. On this occasion he deviated from his pattern by killing indoors, which gave him ample time to indulge his rage against the female body without fear of interruption. His final victim went by the name of Mary Jane (or Mary Ann) Kelly, and she died inside a small, dingy bedroom-number 13-in a lodging house often used by prostitutes. Located behind the house at 26 Dorset Street, Miller's Court stood amidst one of the filthiest "rookeries" in Whitechapel. Unlike the other victims, Kelly was Irish (having been born in Limerick), young (only twenty-four years old), and attractive. After her first husband died in a mine explosion, she arrived in London in 1884 and began to work as an upmarket prostitute around Knightsbridge. For reasons unknown she drifted into the East End, where she had to endure a rougher and much poorer clientele. Around 1887 she took up with a Billingsgate porter of Irish origins named Joseph Barnett, with whom she lived for a year, until he walked out (on October 30) after a bitter row over her drinking and insistence on sharing their room with another prostitute. Owing some twenty-nine shillings in back rent, she had gone out to earn a few shillings so that she could keep the landlord at bay and buy some beer. The exact time of her death remains in dispute, but the burden of medical evidence suggests that she died between 3:30 and 4 in the morning. Although her body was discovered around 10:30 on the morning of the 9th, the police refrained for several hours from breaking down the locked door and entering the room because they had sent for a bloodhound, which never arrived. They did, however, summon a police photographer, who took pictures of the victim through the broken window.

In an orgy of flaying and disemboweling, the killer had torn out Kelly's viscera and heart and cut the flesh from her thighs. Even the briefest catalogue of the injuries makes for repugnant reading. Once again he tried and failed to decapitate her. After this he sliced off both breasts as well as her nose and dumped some of her abdominal organs on the bedside table. When the surgeons reassembled the internal organs, they found the heart missing. Some of Kelly's clothes lay neatly folded on a chair near the bed, as though she had undressed deliberately and without fear. Warm ashes from a recent fire glowed in the fireplace, suggesting that the killer had used the flames from burning clothing to illuminate his handiwork. Because no one had a key to the locked door, the police finally ordered the landlord to force entry by means of a pickax. The charnel-house scene that greeted them inside upset even the hardest-boiled officers of the law.

All five murders occurred on weekends toward the end or beginning of the month. With the exception of Stride, the mutilations showed a steady escalation of violence, culminating in the killer's attempt to destroy the very femaleness of Kelly's body as he acted out his gynophobic rage. When the authorities revealed that the uterus had been removed from at least two (possibly three) of the victims, the public and the press naturally indulged in all kinds of speculation about motive and identity. Although no weapon was ever found at or near the crime scenes, the police and the medical examiners assumed that a long, sharp dissecting knife had been used. Thus the Ripper's distinctive "signature" or modus operandi involved deep cuts across the throat from left to right as well as pelvic mutilations and disemboweling (with the exception of Stride). He attacked in the early hours of the morning and targeted prostitutes who were well past their prime (with the exception of Kelly), presumably because they were the only ones still seeking clients so late at night. After Kelly's death the murders came to a halt, leading some to infer that the Ripper had committed suicide because he could not endure or surpass the horror of Miller's Court. Although several other prostitutes were stabbed to death in the East End during the following year, the murder of Alice ("Clay Pipe") McKenzie in Castle Alley, Whitechapel, before dawn on July 17, 1889, could not be conclusively assigned to Jack the Ripper, despite the eagerness of some police officials and at least one surgeon to make this connection.

The horrific nature of the Whitechapel slayings not only provoked panic among women of all ages and classes, but also raised fears of anti-Semitic rioting in the East End because so many of the suspects were young Jewish males. While most newspapers subscribed to the theory that the murderer was a maniac or "bloodthirsty fiend," some editorial writers construed them as proof positive of a serious moral malaise afflicting the nation. As the murders continued despite greatly increased police patrols in the East End, criticism of Scotland Yard reached alarming levels. Some Londoners expressed deep concern about their own safety in letters to the editor. And the Queen went so far as to scold one of her favorite prime ministers (Lord Salisbury) for not having done more to ensure the culprit's capture. The political content of these various responses reflected the dramatic differences between the Whitechapel crimes and the standard fare of domestic murder news. Besides widening the cultural gap between the West and East Ends of London, the Ripper reportage also made women far more apprehensive about any strange man in their neighborhood and about venturing outside alone.


As if to thicken the plot and deepen the mystery, a number of journalists and police officials at the time-not to mention a few Ripperologists today-firmly believed that the Ripper killed more than five women. One of his first victims, so they contended, was Martha Tabram (or Tabran or Turner), a fortyish prostitute, whose body was found in the early hours of Tuesday, August 7, lying in a pool of blood on the stone steps of a tenement house at 37 George Yard Buildings, just off Whitechapel Road. Although the injuries and the presumed weapon differed altogether from the Ripper's modus operandi, the viciousness of the assault moved reporters to count Tabram as the first-or possibly second-victim of the same maniac. In fact, a Scotland Yard memorandum on the Whitechapel murders contains a list of nine women-beginning with Tabram and ending with Frances Coles-which may or may not reflect official thinking about the actual number of Ripper victims. At the outset the press treated Tabram's death as an almost routine act of violence in a location notorious for such events. The Times (Aug. 8) first mentioned this case in a short article under the small headline "SUPPOSED MURDER," which revealed that the victim had been seen carousing with some soldiers in a public house shortly before her death.

It took the authorities almost a fortnight to identify the George Yard victim as Martha Tabram, who often solicited clients in the area. On August 10, the Times carried a longer but still modest article beneath a bolder headline-"THE MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL"-dealing with the coroner's inquest at the Working Lads' Institute. The most arresting feature of this story was the testimony of the medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Killeen (also called Timothy Keene), who had autopsied "the very well nourished" body of the victim. After a brief summary of the thirty-nine stab wounds, he attributed death to one deep thrust into the heart. The Times's reporter distilled all the clinical details into one concise passage: "The left lung was penetrated in five places, and the right lung was penetrated in two places. The heart, which was rather fatty, was penetrated in one place, and that would be sufficient to cause death. The liver was healthy, but was penetrated in five places, the spleen was penetrated in two places, and the stomach, which was perfectly healthy, was penetrated in six places. The witness did not think all the wounds were inflicted with the same instrument."


Excerpted from JACK the RIPPER and the LONDON PRESS by L. PERRY CURTIS, JR. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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