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‘Jack the Ripper’ was a serial killer who disembowelled women — we need to stop celebrating that

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‘Jack the Ripper’ was a serial killer who disembowelled women — we need to stop celebrating that

From ghost tours, to books, Halloween costumes to theatre productions – and even a museum – the Jack the Ripper industry is well and truly alive.

His is the name given to the unidentified serial killer who was believed to be responsible for a number of murders in and around the Whitechapel district of London between 1888 and 1891. It was during this period that the lives of Mary Ann Nichols (Polly), Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly were so brutally ended.

Known as the Whitechapel Murders, the killings saw an unsubstantiated number of female sex workers murdered by an unknown assailant[s]. At various points, some or all of these unsolved murders have been attributed to the notorious “Jack the Ripper”.

And yet the fact remains that Jack the Ripper is not, and never has been, real. The name “Jack the Ripper” was simply invented by a journalist to boost newspaper circulation – and it did just that as papers sold from stands all across London town with tales of “Jack’s” gruesome killings.

So while there was a killer – or even many killers – committing horrendous acts of femicide during the period, it was not done by a man named Jack the Ripper. And what can also be said with a great deal of certainty is that it was not a smog shrouded, top-hatted, cloak wafting mythical figure who was responsible.

The reality of the killings

What is real, though, are the women who were killed – and the pathological violence enacted upon them. Public recounts of their murders are often sanitised, and frequently omit the true ferocity of the violence and degradation they endured.

Annie Chapman is said to be the second victim of Jack the Ripper. Author provided (No reuse)

This includes virtual decapitations, facial, abdominal and genital mutilations, organ removal and possible cannibalisation. But yet in spite of the sexual injuries inflicted upon the bodies of the women killed, any sexual motives for the killings are frequently dismissed.

It has been argued by several feminist historians, that the whole grand narrative of the Whitechapel Murders is held aloft to all women – as a warning of what may happen should they breach their prescribed gendered limits of domesticity, geography and sexuality.

In this way, the story of “Jack” and his deeds, is built around a cornerstone of “whorephobia”. This is the hatred of, oppression of, violence towards, and discrimination against sex workers. And by extension, derision or disgust towards activities or attire related to sex work.

The sites of the first seven Whitechapel murders – Osborn Street (centre right), George Yard (centre left), Hanbury Street (top), Buck’s Row (far right), Berner Street (bottom right), Mitre Square (bottom left), and Dorset Street (middle left). By Ordnance Survey; modified by User:ΑΩ

The women killed, by and large, are rarely represented as anything but deserving, diseased, destitute, addicted, immoral and unsightly. They were part of a community which was too visible and deemed verminous. And many sources at the time overtly stated that the sins of the fallen, far outweighed the sins of the hand that slew them.

The humanity and life experiences of the women killed in Whitechapel have been utterly reduced to their jobs and the roles they played in society. They have become more akin to cultural tropes of “disposable street prostitutes” than once living women. More unreal than the unreal “man” who is supposed to have killed them.

A cultural icon

Failing to acknowledge the horrific historical truth of these murders has undoubtedly impacted perceptions of Jack the Ripper today. He is seen as an “icon of crime” rather than a horrific serial killer who disembowelled women.

Worse still, since the era of the crimes, hundreds of people globally have lost their lives to killers who have confessed to emulating “Jack”. And the press still refers to “Jack the Ripper type crimes” when acts of femicide have been committed, particularly if the victims work in the sex industry.

Common depictions of so-called Jack the Ripper. Shutterstock

“Jack” did not forge his ubiquitous cultural status, his multi-million pound industry, or his “immortality”. “Jack the Ripper” may be a made up construct but with lives still being taken in his name, it is high time that our cultural relationship with “The Ripper” changed. One way of doing this is by addressing the way such modern crimes are reported.

The World Health Organisation’s 2014 report, which looks at how violence can be prevented, highlights the impact language around such violence plays. And given that “Jack’s” name remains associated with an ever growing list of victims – from around the world – it is clear this is something that needs to change sooner rather than later.

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