Imagining the Ripper

Jenny Pyke (Mount Holyoke College)

As the new “Ripper Street” series begins on BBC, the many other versions from books, tv, film, and stage echo like footsteps in a dark alley.  “Crime present,” says David Taylor “has a fascination, in part at least, rooted in fear; crime past has a fascination rooted in curiosity.”[i]

Figure One: Front cover of the Police Illustrated News found here

Teaching Victorian detective fiction, I am reminded regularly that the sensation of Jack the Ripper is still as immediate in the twenty-first century.  As I say the words, “Ok, you are reading the section on the Whitechapel murders next week, and–” I see the excitement in their faces and hear the buzz as they leave.  When I asked a group of first-year students why the “character” is still so sensational, they answered, “Sex?  He killed all prostitutes, right?”  and “Because it is Victorian.”  This last all-inclusive answer alludes both to gaslight steampunk fantasies and the safe distance they (we) feel.

Taylor acknowledges the indulgence of our curiosity, but also the creative potential: “It might be argued that the fascination with crime past is a form of self-indulgence.  We can scare ourselves with stories of highwaymen and hooligans, knowing that they do not pose a real and present threat…  But in a more profound sense, exploring crime past … enables us to confront some of the darker aspects of human nature in a relatively safe environment.”[ii]

Jekyll and Hyde

Part of the fascination with Jack the Ripper is of course how the crime seemed so different from our “nature.”  Those reporting the crimes searched for metaphors with which to communicate each new piece of news, and turned to fiction.  As Martin Danahay demonstrates in the Whitechapel appendix he includes in his critical edition of Jekyll and Hyde,[iii] fiction pervaded the accounts, even in conflicting ways.  Editorials in the Times declared the crimes more savage than anything found in fiction:

One may search the ghastliest efforts of fiction and fail to find anything to surpass these crimes in diabolical audacity.  The mind travels back to De Quincey for an equal display of scientific delight in the details of butchery; or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” recur in the endeavor to conjure up some parallel for this murderer’s brutish savagery.  But, so far as we know, nothing in fact or fiction equals these outrages at once in their horrible nature and in the effect which they have produced upon the popular imagination.[iv]
— even while articles in the same moment used fictional characters as case studies, primarily Jekyll and Hyde:

Such a series of murders has not been known in London for a hundred years. There is a bare possibility that it may turn out to  be something like a case of Jekyll and Hyde, as Joseph Taylor, a perfectly reliable man, who saw the suspected person this morning in a shabby dress, swears he has seen the same man coming out of a lodging house in Wilton street very differently dressed.[v]

As this same reporter notes, the fact that these murders occur while “everybody is talking about” the production of Jekyll and Hyde at the Lyceum shapes the narrative that emerges. (This intertextuality does not stand alone, of course.  Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond posed young women in his hospital as “Ophelias” accompanied by diagnoses based on the character as photography comes available mid-century.  And the state of Texas is revealed to be using John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to decide who should be executed and who can be reformed in…2012.)


The Ripper murders (the four or five of the Whitechapel murders determined to be Jack the Ripper) compel us because they were never solved.  Reported in the newspapers as sensation narratives, the story withholds exactly what nineteenth century detective fiction promised: the conclusion, the confession, the sense of order: the intellect of the detective (and modern nation) more powerful than brute force.  This missing piece not only leaves an open ending ripe for adaptation, like the audience vote at the end of a production of Drood, it leaves a sense of anxiety and present danger not yet contained by the satisfying confession.  We think we are concerned with the crime and catching the criminal—the what and the who.  But what we really want is the why to feel comfortable and safe.  As Foucault explains in his lecture[vi] on the evolution of “the dangerous individual”:

In large part, the evolution…at least of the day to day penal practice in many countries, is determined by the gradual emergence in the course of the 19th century of this additional character [the criminal].  At first a pale phantom…this character becomes gradually more substantial, more sold and more real, until finally it is the crime which seems nothing but a shadow hovering about the criminal, a shadow which must be drawn aside in order to reveal the only thing which is now of importance, the criminal (127-128).

“The Nemesis of Neglect” published in Punch. September 29, 1888. Source can be found here.

Terror and Horror

In discourses around fear and the sublime, Anne Radcliffe famously claimed that terror and horror “are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.”[vii] Radcliffe, like Burke, believed “the dreaded evil,” whatever it may be, must be somewhat obscured if fear is to wake us up and expand our consciousness in creative ways.   In horror, what we dread is not obscured; one sees everything and the senses shut down.

The Whitechapel murders continue to exist in such a sensational space in part because the story allows for both terror and horror, uncertainty and visibility.  The memorable aspect of the crimes was all that they made visible: the body and all those parts of the body usually obscured to most of us, the poverty and sense of abandonment in the neighborhoods in which the crimes took place (represented in the Punch cartoon above), the image of a bloody murderer somehow walking through crowds after the crimes, eluding witnesses and police.  The crimes are all exposure.  And yet the understanding we require is obscured.  We can’t quite make it out, and that is the terror that awakens all our senses as we hear the words Jack the Ripper and as we wait to see how a new production will fill in what we can’t see.  BBC World News offered their own stylish Ripper Tour through Whitechapel as preparation for the summer Olympics, highlighting both terror and vintage fashion as reasons to visit.

Jenny Pyke is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. She is completing a book manuscript titled If We had Keen Vision, it would be like Hearing on sympathy and the senses and the novels of George Eliot. She is also at work on essays examining cartography in Scottish novels of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, synesthesia in Eliot’s fiction, and Victorian and twenty-first century taxidermy. Her fields of expertise include Victorian literature, detective fiction, and Scottish literature, and she has presented on these areas at national and international conferences.

[i] Taylor, David. Hooligans, Harlots, and Hangmen: Crime and Punishment in Victorian Britain. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Stevenson, Robert Louis.  The Strange Adventures of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ed. Martin Danahay. Ontario: Broadview, 2005.

[iv] Editorial.  The London Times. 10 September 1888.  In Danahay.

[v] “Whitechapel Startled by a Fourth Murder,” New York Times (9 September 1888).  In Danahay.

[vi] Foucault, Michele. Politics, Philosophy, and Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. Translated by Alan Sheridan and Others.  Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman.  New York: Routledge, 1990.

[vii] “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” New Monthly Magazine (1826).


  1. I do like your analysis of the continued fascination of the Ripper murders. I have eschewed any study of this case, because I see it as a cultural phenomenon, and you have covered this point very effectively.
    I was interested in the latest TV spin-off, ‘Ripper Street.’ The Ripper was the hook to catch the audience, but the message to the viewers, and the opinion of the main protagonist, was the necessity of moving on from the fixation with one particularly nasty murderer. This point was well made, but the narrative then became a comment on the present day discourse on pornography, which was developed by a highly improbable and anachronistic use of photography. I quite enjoyed the programme as a piece of entertainment, but I do hope the series moves further away from the Ripper in the next episodes.

  2. Fascinating. Perhaps the safe distance here in time is also one reason for the popularity in the US of Scandinavian crime fiction. This reader would much rather know the details and motivations of a grim murder in Sweden of on an island in the Hebrides than in Middletown, CT.

  3. Thanks Guy Woolnough. I agree with you; it would be very interesting if they forced the focus away from the fixation, as you put it. Also interesting how angry people apparently were about that first episode. The meta narrative is intriguing for now, at least!

  4. Excellent piece, thank you. I think that the continuing fascination with the ‘Ripper’ murders is because violence (especially sexual violence) against women generates high viewing/reading figures. An excellent reading of the murders is in Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight, especially the involvement of the press in inciting panic on the streets and making them more dangerous for vulnerable women.

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