Jack the Ripper. The name is synonymous with murder and evil. Even at the time of the murders, the name was so well known that police and newspapers received copycat letters from members of the public.
The murders of five women occurred in 1888 - 134 years ago. At the same time, the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Vincent van Gogh painted ‘The Starry Night’ and the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris.
But while women’s bodies were being celebrated and admired in France; in London, they were being torn apart.
What do we already know about Jack the Ripper?
He could avoid suspicion throughout the investigation
He could conceal his true nature
He could conceal murderous intent and actions during the day
He lacked empathy
He chose vulnerable women as his victims
What does that mean for his personality? Apart from the obvious that you wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley, it basically means that he was a psychopath. Interestingly, not all psychopaths are serial killers, however, all serial killers are psychopaths. What do the experts have to say about that? The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States has identified some common traits among serial killers, including:
Lack of remorse or guilt
Need for control
From what we know about Jack the Ripper through popular history and documentaries, he fits the characteristics of both a psychopath and a serial killer. No one is debating that, but why wasn’t he caught? Was he so clever to avoid detection? Why are we still wondering over 100 years later, who was he? Why were the victims never given justice?
Read on to explore the four main reasons Jack the Ripper evaded capture.
1. Forensic Science wasn’t a ‘thing’ yet
Evidence collection and police enquiries led to over 2000 people being interviewed, but there was no such thing yet as fingerprinting, DNA analysis or crime scene investigation techniques.
The crime scene photographs only exhibited the extent of the mutilations, and no one knew enough to perform forensic scientific analysis. While this case led to changes and developments in detecting techniques, it wasn’t until six years after the last murder that they used fingerprinting in Britain. DNA profiling wasn’t discovered until 100 years later. The complete lack of scientific knowledge in police practices during that time almost guaranteed from the very first murder that he would never be identified and caught.
Only a guilty conscience would have led to a confession that would allow for Jack the Ripper’s unmasking, and from what we know of Jack the Ripper’s psyche, a guilty conscience did not exist.
2. Detective work involved talking with people and gut instinct
Forensic psychology was still a very young science when Jack the Ripper committed his crimes. Profiling was not available yet, but the rudimentary application of it was.
The primary tools at a Victorian-era police officer’s disposal included:
Observing patterns of behaviour
Interviewing suspects and witnesses
Law enforcement in England developed over time from the Middle Ages to the present, beginning with the personal responsibility of all subjects of the crown to maintain law and order. London in the 1800s had a population of 1.5 million people but only had 450 police constables, using techniques described as Victorian-era beat policing. A constable would have a familiar territory to patrol and develop close relationships with community members to foster safer communities.
The crimes committed by Jack the Ripper were unprecedented in terms of an effective police response. The constables were learning on the job during those investigations; misogyny and classism would have hindered communication between police and witnesses. If there was ever a good time to get away with murder - the late 1800s disastrously combined scientific ignorance, gendered prejudice and an overwhelming lack of information storage, analysis and access.
3. The public did not consider the victims valuable members of society
In the Victorian era, classism, gendered prejudice and misogyny were common attitudes and practices. Prostitutes dressed in the normal fashion of the time, not provocatively, so they would have needed to be flirtatious toward men on the street to attract attention.
This sort of behaviour was both a source of titillation for men who wouldn’t have been used to women behaving so forwardly and also a source of repulsion for a man like Jack the Ripper.
In those times, men judged women by the way they made a man feel and if their actions were incongruous with a man’s ego, her behaviour or appearance was ‘corrected’.
Prostitutes, while they were independent in the sense that they made their own money and managed when and where they solicited clients, were at the mercy of each client’s whims and were often “assaulted, raped and ripped off” (Douglas, 1988).
The victims of Jack the Ripper were older than the average prostitute in modern times and not attractive, showing that there was no sexual motivation for the attacks. Rather, the murderer viewed them as dispensable human beings because of their working-class status in society.
4. The newspapers sensationalized each new murder and turned the killer into a legend
The golden age of newspaper publication in the United Kingdom happened between 1860 and 1910, but in the six years leading up to the murders, sensationalist journalism appealing to the masses grew steadily in popularity.
The name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was first mentioned in a letter supposedly written by the murderer himself but a theory proposed at the time by a police inspector, that it was a dramatic journalist looking for a story who delivered it to the Central News Agency rather than the police.
“Journalists…used the concept of a maniac, spawned in the depravity of the East End, stalking the streets at night looking for his next victim to entice their readers. This facilitated the continuation of reporting scandal and creating moral outrage but without the need for public sympathy for the murdered women” (Jones, 2013).
When looking back at the horrendous murders in Whitechapel in 1888, it’s easy to zero in on the abject poverty of the slum-like conditions, dark street corners, rife with hunger, disease and neglect. But when you pan out to see Whitechapel as a neglected corner in a larger socio-political eco-system, it’s clear that the conditions in the working-class neighbourhood contributed to the violent demise of those vulnerable women. Racism and pervading negative attitudes against the working class affected news reportage and evidence interpretation.
Let’s wrap up
The four main reasons that ‘Jack the Ripper’’ remained a mystery were:
1) a lack of understanding of forensic science
2) a lack of effective investigative techniques
3) a lack of compassion for the working class
4) a lack of ethics in tabloid journalism
Perhaps the most important thing to recognise was that ‘Jack the Ripper’ didn’t exist - his persona was a figment of a creative journalist’s imagination. The man who committed the murders was a depraved human being, not a legend or an intriguing mystery.
Given the right investigative techniques, scientific forensic analysis, objective policing, and ethical journalism, the person responsible would be identified, captured, tried, and punished. The mystery of Jack the Ripper wouldn’t exist.
History of Law Enforcement in the United Kingdom: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_law_enforcement_in_the_United_Kingdom
History of Journalism in the United Kingdom: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_journalism_in_the_United_Kingdom
FBI Profile Records - Jack the Ripper: https://vault.fbi.gov/Jack%20the%20Ripper/Jack%20the%20Ripper%20Part%201%20of%201/view
Jones, G. (2013),’Murder, Media and Mythology: The Impact the Media’s Reporting of the Whitechapel Murders had on National Identity, Social Reform and the Myth of Jack the Ripper,’ Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, BCUR/ICUR 2013 Special Issue, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/archive/bcur2013specialissue/jones/. Date accessed [25 April 2022]