November 30, 2021

#08-159: Jack the Ripper

"A Suspicious Character" (1888)

Note: Jack the Ripper remains one of the most fascinating killers in history, and the mystery of who he was remains unsolved.

Get Ready: As we shall see, the number of serial killers has increased from before 1800 until today. What might be some of the reasons for this?

"Serial killer" is a fairly modern idea. The term itself was only coined after the mid-20th century, though the phenomenon is much older. Under 30 serial killers are known to have been active before 1800; there were over 70 in the 19th century alone, and an explosion in the 20th century. Increased populations, better detection and reporting, and the concentration of people into cities may be contributing factors to the rise, but the serial killer seems a decidedly modern figure: nearly 450 have been identified since 1900 in the United States alone, with over 50 more remaining unidentified.

A serial killer is defined as an individual who has murdered three or more people at different times (with a "cooling off" period in between) and, usually, in different places. One who kills many people at once is a "mass murderer"; one who kills without sufficient cooling off--say, within days, or a few weeks--is a "spree murderer."

One of the first to capture the public's imagination, thanks to the spotlight turned on him by the press, was a London figure who became known as "Jack the Ripper." He has never been identified (let alone caught); all of his known murders occurred in London in 1888, though some victims were attributed to him as late as 1891.

And that mere fact--that there were other victims attributed--points to the complexity of the case. Five women were killed in a 10-week period in the Whitechapel district of East London. These "Canonical Five" came to be called "the Whitechapel Murders." Then, two murders before the Five and four after them were added to the list, simply because they happened in or near Whitechapel and the victims, like the Five, were working girls, mainly prostitutes.

I won't dwell on the grisly nature of the crimes, which involved mutilation in most cases. But the differences in method were enough to eventually separate the before-and-after murders from the Five. In fact, there was even doubt among some experts that two of the Five were actually committed by the Ripper.

So, did he kill three? Five? Eleven? No one is sure. Forensics then weren't as good as they are now. But more than that, the press and the public interfered in the investigation to the extent that it became a hopeless muddle.

The genuine Ripper may or may not have written letters to the police, but they received hundreds of letters claiming to be written by the murderer; just three are thought to have been authentic, or at least "of special interest." Furthermore, it's believed that some of those letters were forgeries by journalists to the increase circulation of their newspapers!

His legacy lives on. Hundreds of works of fiction feature Jack the Ripper, as well as songs, plays, TV shows, and films. There are more 100 non-fiction "true-crime" books about the case, more than any other. There's even a term for studying the case: "ripperology."

A museum dedicated to the Ripper opened in east London in 2015. But he is depicted only as a shadow in the famed Madame Tussauds Wax Museum's Chamber of Horrors, since no one knows who he was, or what even he looked like.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. circulation
  2. forensics
  3. forgeries
  4. grisly
  5. legacy
  6. muddle
  7. mutilation
  8. prostitutes
  9. serial
  10. spotlight

  1. the scientific handling of evidence
  2. sales (of a periodical)
  3. people who trade sex for money
  4. faked documents
  5. focus; attention
  6. disfigurement; removal of a body part
  7. disordered condition; mess
  8. lasting influence
  9. gruesome; bloody
  10. consecutive; one after another

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 30, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. a; 3. d; 4. i; 5. h; 6. g; 7. f; 8. c; 9. j; 10. e