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.
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.