A Very Popular Murder: The Narratology of Jack the Ripper

The piece originally appeared in Blot the Skrip and Jar It, September 15, 2014.

So, among all the other poignant, pointless and terrifying news stories that broke last week, it was announced in a Daily Mail ‘world exclusive’ that the hunt for the true identity of Jack the Ripper was over (again). Journalists across the land sprang into action, plundering Wikipedia in order to throw a bit of vintage murder porn together. This was all in aid of the latest book on the subject, Naming Jack the Ripper: New Crime Scene Evidence, A Stunning Forensic Breakthrough, The Killer Revealed by Russell Edwards (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2014). You’ve no doubt seen the story: ‘The landmark discovery,’ said the Mail on Sunday, ‘was made after businessman Russell Edwards, 48, bought the shawl [of Catherine Eddowes] at auction and enlisted the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a world-renowned expert in analysing genetic evidence from historical crime scenes.’ Apparently it was Aaron Kosminski, a mad Polish hairdresser, and one of the original suspects. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment, other than on the title, which is certainly optimised for maximum search engine coverage, but a trifle ungainly, although very Victorian in its verbosity. Reviews are mixed, ranging from very positive – it’s a page-turner – to sceptical – it’s popular history and science, rather than a well referenced and peer-reviewed piece of research. (Perhaps Dr. Louhelainen has a more formal paper in the pipeline.) Either way, I’m sure it will sell like eel pies at a hanging, while I look forward to also finding out who really killed the Kennedys and which is the one true god.

Catherine Eddowes
Catherine Eddowes, Unknown Artist, The Penny Illustrated Paper (1888)

I already own Patricia Cornwall’s Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed (2002) – it was Walter Sickert what did it – and The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Discovery, The Investigation, The Authentication by Shirley Harrison (1993) – the fake memoir of James Maybrick – and Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight (1976) – the popular Royal/Masonic conspiracy theory – so I think I’ll pass. You’ve read one of these things, and you’ve essentially read them all: sensational retellings of the original murders, pseudo-science and dodgy historiography, new artefacts discovered, and an evangelical level of epistemological certainty. So saying, it probably was Kosminski, or someone very much like him, an anonymous psycho, a nobody who wanted to be a somebody, socially alienated and otherwise powerless, and forced to stop by external circumstances (he was committed for something else). You pays your money and you takes your choice, although, as Julia Laite pointed out in Tuesday’s Guardian, while each self-styled ‘Ripperologist’ claims to have solved the crime, as a body of armchair detectives, amateur historians and tour guides they also have a vested interest in maintaining the mystery. But, as far as we’re concerned – this is a creative writing blog, remember – who the killer really was is not the point. What interests me about ‘Jack the Ripper’ is the narratology.

In truth, there was no ‘Jack the Ripper,’ beyond the miserable reality of an anonymous little prick who liked to carve up women. ‘Jack the Ripper,’ on the other hand, was (and remains) a fictional construct.

It is a common argument that the sheer brutality these crimes made the perpetrator so notorious. But even if you forget, for a moment, that we live in a world where people are beheaded on the internet, serial killers are celebrated, and images of death and violence are shown on mainstream television news channels that would have been banned by the 1984 Broadcasting Act even if they’d been faked… if you forget all that and just do your homework on the Victorians, it is clear from the police records of the period, as well as social investigations, popular literature and the press, that life was always very cheap in the rookeries of London. The Whitechapel murders were undoubtedly horrific, but far from unprecedented in the annals of popular murder.

The majority of the famous Regency and Victorian murderers have been forgotten now, but their names were still common cultural currency in 1888, and many of them featured in Madame Tussaud & Sons’ ‘Chamber of Horrors.’ The century started well, for example, with the ‘Ratcliff Highway Murders’ of 1811, in which two families in Wapping were attacked and seven people killed by an unidentified assailant (presumed to be the sailor John Williams, who hanged himself while on remand in Clerkenwell Gaol). Then there was the ‘Gill’s Hill Tragedy’ of 1823, in which John Thurtell, a boxing promoter from Norwich (and his accomplices Joseph Hunt and William Probert), beat the solicitor William Weare to death over a gambling debt; the ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in 1827; Burke and Hare (1828); the murder and dismemberment of the washerwoman Hannah Brown (whose head was found jammed in the sluice of the Ben Jonson lock in the Regent’s Canal) by her fiancée, James Greenacre, in 1836; the murder of the retired M.P. Lord William Russell by his valet, François Courvoisier, in 1840; the ‘Murders at Stanfield Hall’ in 1849 (Norwich, again, my home town, by the way), in which father and son Isaac Jermy and Isaac Jermy Jermy were shot to death at the family mansion by James Bloomfield Rush, a delinquent tenant farmer; the ‘Bermondsey Murder’ of 1849, in which husband and wife Frederick and Maria Manning killed Maria’s lover, Patrick O’Connor, and buried him under the flagstones in their kitchen; the case of Dr. William Palmer, ‘The Rugeley Poisoner,’ convicted for the murder of his friend John Cook in 1855, but suspected of also killing his brother, mother-in-law, and four of his own children. There was also Edward William Pritchard, ‘The Glasgow Poisoner’ (another doctor), who killed his wife and mother-in-law in 1865 (and, probably, a servant a couple of years before, although this was never proved); the murder and awkward disposal of Harriet Lane by her lover, Henry Wainright, in 1874; and the ‘Richmond Murder’ of 1879, in which the rich widow Julia Thomas was murdered and dismembered by her maid, Kate Webster. Neither were ‘serial killers’ a new idea, as shown by the career of the multiple poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794 – 1847).

You get the general idea. As far as ‘’Orrible Murder’ was concerned in the 19th century, there was a lot of it about, and people got off on reading about it in much the same way as they now hungrily consume true crime on Investigation Discovery and the Crime and Investigation Network. Violent crime, trials and executions were reported with a ghoulish relish throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the Newgate calendars, broadsheets, penny bloods, and the emergent tabloid press, most notably the Illustrated London News and its dark reflection, the Illustrated Police News, the CI channel of its day. Like his popular predecessors, ‘Jack the Ripper’ was not, therefore, simply a murderer, he was a hyper-real media event, and, apparently, he still is.

So how did this lunatic become the Elvis of murder?

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