Apparently, they’ve found out who Jack the Ripper was. Maybe. At least, so says the Daily Mail, and a bloke who’s written a book about the case, and who owns a business selling ‘Ripper’ tours. So, reliable and unbiased sources.
Turns out, Jack the Ripper was… some guy.
Who’d have thunk it?
So, will this put a stop to the lucrative Ripper industry? The books, movies, walks, etc?
No, of course not. Like all previous unmaskings, it’ll just fuel the fire, even if this unmasking turns out to rest on marginally better evidence that some hack’s ability to create anagrams, or an evidently untrue story told by a publicity hound, or the baseless hunch of a crime writer, or an obviously forged diary, or the manufactured bad reputation of a dead one-time heir to the throne.
Because, contrary to what everyone ever has always said about Jack the Ripper, interest in the case doesn’t stem from the fact that the murderer was never caught. It stems from the appeal of the degradation, humiliation, punishment and silencing of women… and from the way revelling in this (with whatever spurious self justification) can distract us from other stuff about the lives those women led, and the world they lived in.
Our misogynistic culture is obsessed with the murder of women. It is possibly the main subject of the present-day Western narrative culture industry, aside from the sexual/romantic conquest of women.
It could be objected that there are so many stories about the murder of women because so many women are murdered… but that doesn’t explain, say, the lack of a similar number of stories about the rape of women (as Alan Moore pointed out), or about the political and social subjugation of women, or about any number of other things that are more common.
The prevalence of the actual murder of women is intimately connected with the prevalence of depictions of the murder of women, but in ways that are far more complex than the merely causal (whichever way you want to imagine the causation runs). It’s all part and parcel of a cultural misogyny which stems from sexism and patriarchy, generated by class society all the way back to what Engels called “the world historic defeat of the female sex” with the start of social hierarchy. (None of which is to excuse our present cultural practice by appeal to the influence of older structures.)
The women murdered (as is supposed) by the man dubbed Jack the Ripper are objects of morbid fascination because they shared a fate which made them only slightly unusual for women of their class and time. Lots of these women were raped, abused, beaten and/or murdered (by men – let’s not efface that vital part of the story). It just so happens that some of these women were murdered in particularly vicious and gruesome ways, with their bodies mutilated and insultingly displayed afterwards. (It’s by no means clear how many women were the victim of the one escalating killer who ended up reaching a crescendo of perverse cruelty in the killing of Mary Kelley and then vanished, but it does seem likely that at least four were part of his distinct sequence.)
There is a degree of pity attached to the fascination. Certainly, at the time, many common people in similar walks of life were motivated by fury at the fate of people who they knew, or might have known. But also at the time, part of the fascination was to do with a kind of furtively aroused moralism about ‘unfortunates’ (as women who were driven to prostitute themselves by poverty were daintily called). Such patronising and contemptuous pity is a mixture of fear and loathing of the poor, and of women. And it puts the focus on sex, safely away from other scarier stuff.
But the fascination with the women is marginal to the wider cultural obsession with Jack the Ripper. The women are props in his story, used as background detail and as titilation (particularly since the women involved worked as prostitutes, with all the sordid arousal this brings to some).
Generally, the obsession is with the man. The killer has been fetishized, celebrated, glamourised and bigged up beyond belief. He has been transformed from a skulking trick into a top-hatted, cloaked, evening-dress-wearing toff with a sinister gladstone bag, riding around in a coach with a royal crest on the side. Gentleman Jack, the genteel and aristocratic killer. There’s no doubt that part of this – alongside the various attempts to make him a royal, a freemason or a posh establishment figure covering up for Queen, Country and Lodge – is the submerged horror of a system in which the poor, especially poor women, were the playthings of the rich, material to be used when needed and then allowed to sink back into the slum. But the effect is to transform the killer himself, and his vacuously misogynistic crimes, into a meaningful figure, a powerful figure, a figure of purpose and steely determination, or of glamourous and tortured Jekyll-and-Hydean complexity, an artisan with a philosophy and a moral agenda of his own (however twisted), etc. In this, the Ripper is the prototypical serial killer of the present-day culture industries, of Seven, Messiah, The Tunnel, etc. The killer as intellectual, as the isolated thinker with lessons to teach us in blood, as the sinister harbinger of well-thought out rebukes (which shows simultaneously how much ‘we’ supposedly all need rebuke for ‘our’ sins, and how evil the opinionated outcasts bringing the rebukes usually are).
(I used to quite like the Gull/Masons theory… but it’s only a story, and only a good one when told by Alan Moore.)
The bullshit and the obsession started at the time, with most of the mythmaking about the case being spun by the contemporary newspapers, eager to mop up the profits along with the blood. The case could be moralised about from every angle except actual, practical sympathy with oppressed women (after all, the only place to go with that was to stop blaming the women and start saying they should be allowed to be safe… which was self-evidently unpublishable radical lunacy). The case was a litmus test on the moral state of society (the killer brings the rebuke that ‘we’ all need, in his mad way). The case was about swarthy Jews and their sacrificial religion, or about all the foreigners (no wonder the Mail loves this latest story – the guy supposedly identified as the killer was a Polish immigrant). The case was about the degradation of the criminal classes (Punch Magazine, as usual, took the opportunity at the time to define satire as consisting of kicking downwards). The case was a big joke, jolly London lore. Hence the newspapers’ invention of the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ when they hit upon the lucrative idea of sending themselves letters written in red ink, purporting to be from the murderer, invoking ‘Springheel Jack’ in their fabricated signatures, and sniggering about the whole thing in words that were painstakingly badly spelled (because, of course, ‘Jack’ couldn’t be an educated man).
By the way – notice the contempt for the women integral to the name. He’s not murdering people, he’s ripping things. In the name, the women become nothing more than sacks or sheets or dresses. Remember, when ‘Jack’ drones on in his letters about how he hates ‘whores’, he’s actually a journalist speaking with the contempt of the respectable for the ‘unfortunate’.
All this is a massive distraction. Was then, is now. Talk about anything, but don’t admit that most serial killers – ‘Jack’ included – are just squalid, pathetic, inadequate little men who hate women because they take the furious feelings of thwarted entitlement inculcated in so many men by patriarchy, and actually act on them. We don’t want to have that conversation, or miss out on the latest thriller.
And don’t admit that hugely more women died in the East End as a result of preventable disease, despair, drink, hunger, domestic violence… in a word: poverty… than died because of ‘Jack’.
And don’t admit that, as now, the London of 1888, the hub of an empire, harboured bigger mass murderers in the corridors of power than on the streets where the poor lived, worked their lives away, drank, hit each other, stabbed each other, laughed, joked, prayed, fucked for farthings and huddled together for warmth. And those mass murderers in the corridors of power didn’t need to sneak out at night to commit their murders. They oversaw a system of murder every day, from within those very corridors, from behind their eminent Victorian respectability. And they still do.
And don’t damage the Ripper industry by admitting that there was never any such person as Jack the Ripper. There was a pathetic and revolting misogynist who probably killed four or five women with escalating hatred and contempt. And then there was a marketing opportunity. And – in a society that still runs on drastic inequality, and on the disciplining, punishing and controlling women and their bodies – the market is still there.
September 8, 2014 @ 2:19 pm
I've never seen From Hell so well summarized without actually addressing its plot in the slightest.
September 8, 2014 @ 2:29 pm
As I say, its only a good story when Alan Moore tells it.
September 9, 2014 @ 9:59 am
But was he a big guy?