The Jack the Ripper Industry
Good Reads lists the top 50 most popular Jack the Ripper non-fiction books; there are many more and several new ones are added to the shelves every year. In addition, the villain appears in at least 36 novels, and even Sherlock Holmes has joined the hunt for the sadistic murderer.
According to the Internet Movie Database Jack appears either as the subject or as a side character in 115 films. He turns up in the opera Lulu and is the subject of video games.
More than a dozen Jack the Ripper tours take the curious on nightly walks through his haunts. Long after the events, JTR, as he is known among the cognoscenti, continues to generate coin for a widespread industry.
The Basic Facts
Unless they’ve been in cryogenic suspension for a long time most people know the essence of Jack the Ripper’s crimes.
Between August and November 1888, five women (possibly six) were murdered in the Whitechapel neighbourhood of London’s east end. All the women were prostitutes and all, except one, were horribly mutilated posthumously.
The murders stopped as suddenly as they began and the culprit was never captured.
Killers of this type never stop of their volition. So Jack either died or was arrested for some other crime and imprisoned without the police knowing who they had captured. A third possibility, is that he simply moved to a different city and carried on his grim mission there. This was long before criminal databases were established so police in Manchester or Berlin would not know they had Jack the Ripper in their midst.
Ripperology is the “Study of or investigation into the crimes of Jack the Ripper, especially in order to uncover the identity of the murderer” (Oxford Dictionaries).
Once every year, Ripperologists gather for a conference somewhere in Britain. (A similar event is held in the United States). There are lectures, tours, and, of course, merchandise.
After 130 years it’s hard to imagine there’s anything new to say, but it’s a great occasion for Ripperologists to meet and argue about their favourite suspect. So, in order to avoid being boringly repetitive, true crime cases from around the world are dragged into the meeting.
Today’s Ripperologists are all amateur sleuths, the professionals of London’s police force having long since given up investigating the perpetrator.
Of course, the purpose of Ripper Conferences is to make money for the organizers and for those selling merchandise; just as authors hope to profit from sales of their books and producers from their movies.
Several others are cashing in on the Ripper trade by running tours of the locations of his crimes.
Ripper-Vision claims to have been voted the Number 1 tour of its kind and says “We use hand held projectors, bringing the gruesome story of Jack the Ripper to life in a way never before seen.” £12.50 ($16.50) per person.
Ripper Yarns undercuts the “Number 1 tour” and runs its walk for £8 ($10.50) a head. This company says it “has just been awarded a Certificate of Excellence by trip advisor,” and promises “… a terrifying experience you’ll never forget by joining us on the greatest Jack the Ripper tour in town!”
Jack the Ripper Walks nailed down the best title in the business and says it is the “original.” Along with its competitors this company says its walks are led by the “foremost authority on Jack the Ripper in the world.” Mid-priced at £10.
There are others, so congestion is an issue. Here’s The Telegraph “… with every group visiting all the same spots on a similar route, it's inevitable that things get extremely crowded. Mitre Square, in particular – the site of the second murder – will frequently have seven or so tour groups in it at once.”
And, here’s the irony. Almost nothing remains of the area in which Jack was active. All the Victorian buildings have been knocked down and replaced or renovated beyond recognition.
There are lots of people who find the notion of making money from the tragic deaths of five women repulsive.
When the Jack the Ripper Museum opened in August 2015 it attracted a lot of criticism. In its application for planning permission, the museum said its intent was to shine a light on the terrible social conditions endured by poor women in Victorian London. Somehow, that plan morphed into a grisly depiction of Jack’s blood-soaked rampage.
Historian Fern Riddell visited the museum and said “Frankly, it left me feeling sick to my stomach.” She notes that “One of the first things to greet you on arriving at London’s new Jack the Ripper Museum is a continually looping soundtrack of women screaming.”
Another visitor, author Louise Raw, called it “an absolute obscenity” that is “profiting from the blood of women.”
And, that’s the controversy on which the whole Jack the Ripper industry turns. It looks a lot like a business that exploits sexual violence against women and that does little to give context to the social conditions that forced poverty-stricken females to sell their bodies in order to survive.
There’s little money to be made in rehashing the old Ripper stories so Ripperologists have to invent new and creative ways of giving oxygen to the yarn. The latest effort comes to us from History Channel in an eight-part series called American Ripper. In it, retired American attorney Jeff Mudgett tries to prove that his great-great grandfather was the killer. Herman Webster Mudgett was an American serial killer who was executed in 1896. He was better known as H.H. Holmes and confessed to 27 murders, but he may have killed close to 200 people. Jeff Mudgett claims his great-great grandfather was in London in 1888 with a partner-in-crime. Holmes ordered the partner to carry out the Whitechapel murders to create a distraction from his own attacks on upper class women. He was, apparently, in search of high class ovaries that he believed could be turned into a youth serum.
Dr. Wynne Weston-Davies is author of The Real Mary Kelly. She was the last identified victim of the Ripper and Weston-Davies claims Mary Kelly was the only planned victim. He points the finger of guilt at Francis Spurzheim Craig, Mary Kelly’s husband. The theory is that Mary turned to prostitution and this angered her husband. He went on a frenzy of killing prostitutes to cover up that Mary Kelly was the real target.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, tossed out the notion that the killer was Jill the Ripper who posed as a midwife.
Some have suggested that there was more than one murderer and others claim there were none and the whole grisly episode was a hoax.
- Jack the Ripper Crime Conference.
- “Are Jack the Ripper Tours Blighting London?” Helen Coffey, The Telegraph, September 26, 2017.
- “Jack the Ripper Museum: This Shock Attraction Left Me Sick to My Stomach.” Fern Riddell, The Telegraph, October 12, 2015.
- “Was H.H. Holmes Jack the Ripper?” Nivea Serrao, Whitechapel Jack, July 6, 2017.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor