Why study the Jack the Ripper murders?
The year is 1888, the place London, England. The last halcyon days of summer draw to a close. Victoria is queen, with thirteen years left in her 63-year long reign, her consort Albert long dead. Much like today, the gulf between the haves and the have nots is expansive. It’s yet another example of the 99% versus the 1%, if you will. While there are those who exist in luxury, there are even more living lives of quiet desperation, doing whatever it takes to secure their next meal and to ensure they have lodgings for the night.
Still, regardless of class, the people of London have no idea what awaits them in the Autumn of Fear, and of the terror that will unite them in spite of their vast differences.
A nameless, faceless killer begins stalking the streets of the Whitechapel section of London, preying on the area’s most downtrodden residents, the prostitutes who ply their trade in the East End.
Before his fiendish work is done, the murderer dubbed “Jack the Ripper” will claim the lives of at least five women.
The legend of Jack the Ripper endures. Why, you might ask? Circumstances then and now contributed to the public fascination with the Ripper.
Many decades before Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, Jack the Ripper quickly becomes a media sensation, a century before the advent of Court TV. This begs the question: What medium is responsible for spreading the word?
The answer can be found in the answer to a simple riddle: What’s black and white and read all over?
Newspapers. Newspapers, the medium that led to the coinage of the phrase “If it bleeds it leads.” And, in the case of Jack the Ripper, there was no shortage of blood. The murders were a veritable goldmine for the press, particularly after they began publishing the letters allegedly written by the killer. Of course, they weren’t the only industry to profit from the crimes, nor would they be the last.
Thus, the legend is born. Further, an enduring record is left in the form of “letters” and newspaper articles, cementing the myth of Jack the Ripper.
Fast forward to the present day, when our continued fascination with the Ripper has become a science of sorts, Ripperology.
According to the Urban Dictionary, “Ripperology is defined as being the study of the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. Though the term has not made its way into the mainstream, those who study the case, or are simply enthusiasts are referred to as ‘Ripperologists’. This does not simply refer to finding out who the killer was, but who all of the victims were, along with various evidence” such as the highly debated credibility of the Ripper letters.”
The popularity and even the existence of Ripperology can be explained by a host of factors.
There’s the obvious. We don’t know who Jack was and as much as we might not want to admit it, we likely never will.
Having said that, why do we keep banging our heads against this impenetrable wall? Why keep puzzling over this elusive enigma?
There’s a simple answer. Speaking personally, as a writer and reader of fiction, it’s a good story, with compelling elements like graphic violence, sex and romance and celebrity.
Anyone who doubts we as a society glorify violence clearly has never borne witness to an execution or a dramatization of the same. Though in the present day it’s a mostly sanitary affair, executions in the past were gory spectacles that drew large audiences.
The Ripper murders were no less a spectacle. Jack was the ultimate performance artist, always raising the bar and his work made people sit up and take notice.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Ripper is an indisputably a romantic figure. He’s the ultimate tall, dark, possibly handsome stranger. The crimes are often used as a backdrop for love stories.
Why do we romanticize the Ripper murders? The details are just too horrible for us to most of us to accept. It seems so random, and yet so very personal.
Jack the Ripper was a celebrity in his own right, but there are also many celebrities among the ever widening pool of suspects, including a royal prince, a famous artist and a beloved children’s artist.
The Royal Conspiracy. The Royals – now as in then – are a hot topic in the press and in the public imagination. Take a dull witted prince looking for love in all the wrong places, add a dash of Masonic conspiracy and you’ve got a story that’s guaranteed to enthrall audiences.
Ripperology has spawned a cottage industry of sorts. Outside of the realm of those who “study” the Ripper, there are also those who’ve built commercial enterprises on the back of this mysterious figure. There are books, movies, even video games about the crimes.
Finally, why do we study these hideous crimes? We do so to honor the memory of the women who perished at the hands of Jack the Ripper, if for no other reason than so that their lives were not given in vain. These “Unfortunate” women weren’t just Ripper victims; they were wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters and friends. They deserve to be remembered in life as in death.
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