Jack the Ripper: Literary Creation?

Kirsty-Anne Jasper is a second year part-time MA student at the University of Greenwich. She has given conference papers on the links between ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and the Whitechapel Murders, and The Eroticism of London’s poor in Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and The White’. She is currently working on her dissertation; ‘To what extent is Jack the Ripper a literary creation? The Ripper in fiction 1888-present’ and a book chapter, provisionally titled ‘Anarchy in Suburbia: Bromley and the Punk Aesthetic’. Her research interests include urban and suburban writing, crime, Neo-Victorianism and The Gothic. She tweets @Kaja_Jasper.

I feel that following the rather audacious title of this blog I should perhaps begin with a clarification; I fully accept that in 1888 a series of murders occurred in the Whitechapel area of London, however, what interests me is the way our cultural concept of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is so far removed and broader in scope than the rather paltry facts that exist about the murders. It is my contention that our understanding of the crimes and the almost mythological figure of ‘Jack the Ripper’ has been shaped by literary conventions. I am particularly interested in the changing representations of The Ripper over time and how he has been utilised as a literary technique to highlight contemporary concerns about race, class, gender and media portrayals of violent crime, particularly in relation to London.

The Illustrated Police News covers the Whitechapel Murders.

The Illustrated Police News covers the Whitechapel Murders.

Although this feels like the wrong platform to admit it, I should confess that at heart I’m not a true Victorianist, instead I’m really intrigued by the way that, arguably more than any other period, we have fetishised the Nineteenth-Century, adding a healthy dose of urban legend to recorded history. As a Neo-Victorianist I am fascinated by the way we write about the Victorians and use elements of nineteenth-century culture as motifs and symbols in contemporary literature, film and television.

As a rather macabre pre-teen my first experiences of Victoriana came through Hammer Horror films and conspiracy theory books and articles on The Whitechapel Murders. As my reading and research habits became more sophisticated (although I do still have a soft-spot for Cushing, Lee, Price et all) I came too see that although much has been written about the murders, generally speaking this had failed to offer any real insight into life in late nineteenth-century Whitechapel and instead, merely focused on possible perpetrators. It is now my contention that it is the unknown nature of the murderer that is of real interest, as it is this that has allowed writers to project contemporary social anxieties and theoretical movements onto the crimes by fictionalising aspects of the murders or imagined culprit/s.

In my research I look at how depictions of the murders fit into existing literary genres, techniques, themes and language. In order to do this I examine to what extent the figure of Jack the Ripper and our understanding of the crimes, are a literary invention. I explore: The role of the media in creating the cultural concept of The Ripper and explore how the timings of the crimes coincided with the growth of the popular press, analyse how literary language (such as ‘the canonical five’) has been appropriated in writings about the murders, analyse ways that the Gothic genre has inspired representations of The Ripper and examine the vast array of literature dedicated to Mr Hyde as the murderer and Jack the Ripper being pursued by Sherlock Holmes.

Although there is a wealth of literature connected with the figure of ‘Jack the Ripper’ the literary connections with the Whitechapel Murders are perhaps most closely noted through examining the the ways in which Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) has become indelibly linked with the killings. Published two years before the crimes, a version of the novella’s central idea has entered the public consciousness, The phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde Personality’ has entered the cultural lexicon as shorthand for anyone with a changeable personality, and is frequently used to describe murderers. Inspired by Stevenson’s tale, the perpetrator of the 1888 murders has frequently been represented as an everyman with a hidden, murderous secret.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde had a profound impact upon the public’s understanding of who ‘Jack the Ripper’ may have been. The Ripper is nearly always represented as an outsider, moving between high society and the dark and dirty streets of the East End. Some of the proposed suspects such as Walter Sickert, Lewis Carol and The Duke of Clarence embody the idea, garnered from Stevenson’s tale, that a monster may lurk undetected within a respectable and successful man.

The tale placed London firmly on the map of Gothic Horror and is largely responsible for creating the late-Victorian London of our cinematic imaginations- the foggy labyrinthine, gaslit metropolis where Mr Hyde metamorphoses into Jack the Ripper and is pursued by Sherlock Holmes. The popularity of the novella quickly led to stage play adaptation which opened at the Lyceum Theatre on 5th August 1888. The murder of Martha Tabram, a crime many believe to be the first Ripper murder, occurred just two days later.

In an article for The Ripperologist (a journal for historians of Jack The Ripper). Alan Sharp looks at links the press made between Mr Hyde and Jack the Ripper in the summer of 1888. They begin with Freeman’s Journal noting:

‘these atrocities and apparently causeless murders show that there is abroad at the present time in the East End a human monster even more terrible than Hyde’ (Guest, 2004).

The press began to frequently mix fact and fiction. And the removal of some of the victims organs led to assumptions that the murderer must have medical knowledge, heightening the links with Stevenson’s story. Mr Hyde began to frequently be named as the Ripper despite being a fictional character. The Telegraph published a letter stating:

‘the perpetrator is a being whose diseased brain has been inflamed by witnessing the performance of the drama of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. (Flanders, 2011, 428)

The Star stated:

‘You, and every one of the papers, have missed the obvious solution of the Whitechapel mystery. The murderer is a Mr Hyde, who seeks in the repose and comparative respectability of Dr Jekyll security from the crimes he commits in his baser shape.’ (Ibid)

Richard Mansfield as Jekyll and Hyde, 1888.

Richard Mansfield as Jekyll and Hyde, 1888.

Some even went as far as to blame Richard Mansfield, star of the play, with The Pall Mall Gazette under the heading ‘Mr Hyde at Large in Whitechapel’ declaring:

‘I do not think there is a man living so well able to disguise himself in a moment as he does in front of the public.’ (ibid)

Things progresses even further when an anonymous letter was sent to the police implicating Mansfield.

The continued comparisons between the real-life events in Whitechapel and dramatics on stage in the Lyceum Theatre proved too much for contemporary audiences and on 29th September 1888 the final performance of Jekyll and Hyde was announced with The Telegraph summing up public sentiments:

‘there is no taste in London just now for the horrors on the stage. There is quite sufficient to make us shudder out of doors.’ (Flanders, 2011, 446)

The unease that existed surrounding theatrical and literary adaptations in the immediate aftermath of the murders didn’t last long and links between Jekyll and Hyde and Jack the Ripper have continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through literature and film. Iain Sinclair’s Whitechapel and Scarlet Tracings (1987), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1964), and the works of Robert Bloch being clear examples of this.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde gave the press a ready-made language through which they were able frame the murders. This foundation has been built upon over past century or so, with subsequent stories, novels, films, plays and television dramas all adding to a cultural figure akin to Robin Hood, Dick Turpin or Sweeney Todd, perhaps based on real and horrific events but with a cultural significance a far greater reach. Like a shadow, cast down a foggy Victorian street, the mythology surrounding ‘Jack the Ripper’ spreads much further than the facts of the crimes ever have.

Ackroyd, Peter, London, The Biography. London Vintage, 2000.

Buzwell, Greg ‘”Man is not truly one, but truly two”: duality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ at http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/duality-in-robert-louis-stevensons-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde#sthash.kY4An612.dpuf. Viewed 14 April 2015.

Curtis, L. Perry. Jack The Ripper And The London Press. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Danahy, M 2013, ‘Dr. Jekyll’s Two Bodies’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 35, 1, pp. 23-40, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 23 April 2015

Flanders, Judith. The Invention Of Murder. London: HarperPress, 2011.

George, Christopher T ed. Ripperologist issue 51, January 2004
Lombroso, C 1895, ‘Atavism and Evolution’, Contemporary Review, LXVIII, pp. 42-49, PsycINFO, EBSCOhost, viewed 15 April 2015.

Mighall, Robert. A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History’s Nightmares. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1999.

Showalter, Elaine. “Dr Jekyll’s Closet” in Elton E. Smith and Robert Haas, eds., The Haunted
Mind: The Supernatural in Victorian Literature. Lanham, MD & London: 1999, pp. 67-88

Stevenson, Robert Louis, and Robert Mighall. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde And Other Stories. London: Penguin books, 2007.

Warwick, Alexandra, and Martin Willis. Jack The Ripper: Media, Culture, History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Wise, Sarah. The Blackest Streets. London: Bodley Head, 2008.

Worsley, Lucy. A Very British Murder, UK: BBC Books, 2013

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