Jack the Ripper – what did Londoners make of him?

In recent years we’ve had endless theories about WHO Jack the Ripper was and even a commendable in-depth look at this victims – but I’m curious to know what contemporary Londoners made of Jack the Ripper.

So I’ve dipped into my huge collection of old newspapers and publications going back centuries and found a copy of The Times and Punch magazine from the year 1888. This was at the time that the Ripper was at his peak of horror.

Londoners lived in fear of this ghoul stalking the Whitechapel area of the city. But on reading The Times and Punch, I found that Victorians spent most of their time moaning about the police. They viewed the forces of law and order as completely hopeless. The boys in blue were caricatured as bumbling idiots outwitted at every turn by the criminals.

Far from being lauded for their forensic skills or ability to protect Londoners, the police were seen as next to useless. Jack the Ripper was getting away with one brutal slaying after another. And there was no sign of a conviction.

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Indeed, as one cartoon intimates, the police were severely stretched and out of their depth. A letter to The Times has a young parson appalled that his house was burgled in broad daylight even though he lived right next to a police station. Where were the constables? Down in Whitechapel of course!

Watch my vlog above to see the reaction of Victorian Londoners to Jack the Ripper. Two weeks ago, I walked down Hanbury Street in London’s East End to see where Annie Chapman, one of the Ripper’s victims, came to a very grisly end. Today, it’s a post-war building covered in graffiti. Hard to even visualise what happened there.

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Below is a photo below of me trying to use my imagination!

What did Victorians think of Jack the Ripper?

My study is bursting with books, newspapers and manuscripts going back over three hundred years. I’m a terrible hoarder!! And I’ve got a couple of Jack the Ripper related publications from the 1880s that tell us what Victorians thought about this serial killer in their midst.

The first is a bound volume of Punch magazines from 1888. This was a satirical publication that tickled the Victorian sense of humour and pioneered the use of cartoons. The year 1888 was when Jack the Ripper began his killing spree. And Punch spared no punches when it came to this story.

Here I am reading Punch and below – let me share the cartoons and the clues they give us to what the Victorians made of this ghoulish man!

The first cartoon was entitled The Nemesis of Neglect. It’s an incredibly haunting image of a spectre rising out of the stinking gloom of the capital. It was drawn by John Tenniel – who was the first illustrator of the children’s novel Alice in Wonderland. So this was a bit of a departure from rabbits and Red Queens!

What this illustrator does is link vicious crime like that of Jack the Ripper to the appalling neglect of the London slums by the authorities. Victorians knew that the London poor were living in squalid conditions. Authors like Charles Dickens exposed the poverty repeatedly. In this cartoon, the Ripper – and other violent murderers – are described as “a phantom on the slum’s foul air”.

Other Victorians mocked the inability of the police to get to grips with Jack the Ripper and other crimes. So in the same volume of Punch magazines, we have criminals playing blind man’s buff with a blindfolded police officer.

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The inference being that the real life cops are incompetent buffoons operating in the dark.

Jack the Ripper

I also have a copy of The Times newspaper from that year that includes a complaining letter from a vicar. His vicarage had been burgled and he thunders that if the police hadn’t been wasting so much time on the “Whitechapel Murders” – as they were called – his property might have been better protected.

Two years before Jack the Ripper terrorised the Victorians – the author Robert Louis Stevenson published his hugely successful horror novel, the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the story, a respectable doctor is transformed into a killing monster by drinking a potion.

A theatrical version of the book was scripted and first performed in Boston – in the United States. It then crossed the Atlantic but with terrible timing, the play opened exactly at the same time that Jack the Ripper committed his first murders.

While Victorians flocked to see the play – they also professed to be horrified by the poor taste of staging it. So much so that the producer even found himself suspected of being Jack the Ripper. At which point, he closed the production down after ten weeks.

But it fixed in the minds of Victorians the notion of Jack the Ripper possibly being a society gentleman who had gone off the rails – and unable to control his basest passions was slaughtering working class women in the East End of London.

This line of thought about the true identity of Jack the Ripper touched every raw nerve of the Victorians with regards to class and sex. And it’s persisted to the present day.