Jack the Ripper: legend and literacy

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Reading Clive Bloom’s Cult Fiction, I particularly enjoyed Chapter 8 The Ripper Writing: A Cream of a Nightmare Dream…

“Jack of Hearts, Jack O’Lantern, Jack the Giant-Killer, Jack the lad, Jack Sheppard and Springheeled Jack; ‘Jack’, a common name that represents ubiquity: the nomenclature of the ordinary. In the late nineteenth century as for us in the late twentieth there was only one Jack – the Ripper; of the famous nineteenth-century criminals this one alone has endured into legend. Of Charlie Peace, Neill Cream or Israel Lipski little is remembered; of other famous murders only the victim is recalled: Maria Marten offering herself to melodrama and Fanny Adams to a coarse joke. Jack survives, but not merely because he was not caught.

This chapter is an attempt to consider the determinants and the progress of the Ripper legend as both text and history and to consider the constellation of historico-psychological notions that have gathered around the name of the Ripper.

Jack, it seems, timed his murders at a correct psychological moment, for almost immediately, not least for their ferocity, his deeds became the stuff of legend. He instantly became both a particular and a general threat, a focus for numerous related fears among metropolitan dwellers across Europe and America. …Already, only one month after the murders had ceased, Jack [had] an international ‘appeal’.” (p.159)

Reporting on his murders mixed xenophobia, humour, political and religious fear, with sensation and sexual innuendo, Bloom explains, resulting in a peculiar relationship between the Ripper and the reading public.

“…even during the season of the killings in the autumn of 1888, papers quickly realized the value of Jack’s exploits, conducting their own post-mortems and reporting coroner’s verdicts at length. The Times, for instance, ran articles in its Weekly Edition from September 1888 to November 1888. On 28 September 1888 it gave a full page to the social background of Spitalfields and the poverty endured there by Annie Chapman, the Ripper’s first victim. The Times was quick to guess the direction in which police might look. They thought a post-mortem surgeon’s assistant might be the culprit because of ‘his’ specialized knowledge of the uterus, which was removed from the victim’s body.

The Times further noted the curious circumstance of an American surgeon who wished to include real uteri with a journal he was mailing to clients! Could this bizarre surgeon, whose name was not known, have prompted the killer to get ‘a uterus for the £20 reward?’ asked the paper. In a later issue, next to the report of other Ripper murders (26 October 1888), a clergyman protested in a long letter at the condemnation of the destitute by the middle classes, at [-p.162] their hypocrisy over prostitution and at their ignorance of the conditions prevailing in the East End. He concluded that this had ‘blotted the pages of our Christianity’.

The freakish, of which the nineteenth century was inordinately fond, found itself beside the missionary, which in its guise as Mayhew, Engels or Booth consistently restated the ordinariness of the ‘freak’ (the destitute, the prostitute, the opium addict, the derelict). ‘Body snatching’ (and the notion of a uterus as a ‘free gift’ with a new journal) then wierdly allies itself with murder for greed (the reward offered at £20) and murder as the act of the desperately destitute. Jack becomes the focus for the bizarre in the ordinary misery of everyday life in the metropolitan slums. Jack the murderer becomes Jack the missionary who focussed on problems other investigators were unable to bring to such a wide audience. Murder allowed for social reform. The newspapers, by keeping Jack the centre of attention, ironically kept the slum problems central too.

After reports covering three months by The Times and The Times Weekly Edition, the newspaper concluded that ‘the murderer seems to have vanished, leaving no trace of his identity… with even greater mystery’ (The Times, 10 November 1888). Jack the Ripper, given his nom de guerre by Fleet Street, was the first major figure to offer himself to, and to become, a creation of journalism. By the 1880s newspapers commanded audiences large enough to make Jack a major figure of international interest rather than a local folktale figure for the East End of London. The power of journalism and the crowded warrens of the central city of the Empire together provided ground for the dissemination of the legend, a legend based upon both fear and curiosity – a terrible ambivalence. The possibilities for the dissemination of rumour could never be more fortuitous, and letters from ‘Jack’ fed interest and added to the atmosphere of uncertainty.

Indeed, Jack’s letters themselves may have been the work of an entrepreneurial journalist providing ‘copy’ for himself.” (pp.161-162)

“The Ripper letters are a form of true life confessionheightened to the level of a fiction which embraces a ‘cockney’ persona, a sense of black hmour, a melodramatic villain (‘them curses of coppers’) and a ghoul (sending ‘innerds’) and mixes it with a sense of the dramatic and a feeling for a rhetorical climax. In these letters life and popular theatre come together to act upon the popular imagination. The Ripper (now possibly many ‘Rippers’ all reporting their acts) autographs his works as a famous artist (death as creativity) – anonymous and yet totally well known. Here, confession only adds to confusion (even Neill Cream claimed to be the Ripper). Jack’s letter ‘from Hell’ concludes ‘catch me when you can’, adding a sense of challenge and a stronger sense of a ‘hint’ to the frustration of authority in its quest for an actual identity to the murderer.

By the time of these letters Jack has ceased to be one killer but has become a multiplicity of performing personas for the popular imagination. The possibility of copycat crimes (although finally dismissed from at least two other ‘torso’ cases) lent to Jack the amorphous ability to inhabit more than one physical body.

Consequently, for the late nineteenth century, the Ripper became a type of ‘folk’ character whose exploits spilled into the twentieth century via cinema, theatre and fiction.” (p.163)

Bloom describes the numerous writers who have sought to positively identify the Ripper, noting that “The ‘debate’ heats up every few years with new flushes of theory and further refutations, while works such as Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper; The Final Solution added to the growing heap of books searching for scandal in suburbia or in the freemasons, in highest government or the royal family. Knight, himself a journalist, stated in the East London Advertiser (7 December 1973) that ‘the evil presence of Jack the Ripper still seems to haunt… the imagination of crime investigators’, and he noted that in the 1970s letters were still arriving from people claiming knowledge of or claiming actually to be ‘the Ripper’. In the twentieth century Jack has become the centre of a conspiracy debate. Indeed, so vast is the volume of literature to date that Alexander Kelly was able to write an article for The Assistant Librarian about his compilation of a bibliography of ‘Ripperana and Ripperature’. / The Ripper literature however is far from confined to the work of amateur sleuths (and they are a study in themselves) but extends to both fiction and film.” (p.164)

Jack the Ripper is a name for both a necessary fiction and a fact missing its history. Here fiction and history meet and mutate so that the Ripper can be searched for by ‘historians’ of crime at the very same moment that he can ppear in a Batman comic. Separable from his origins, the Ripper is a strange historicized fiction, a designation for a type of murderer and his scenario (for the game is to give ‘Jack’ his real name and collapse fiction into biography), while also being a structural necessity for a type of [-p.165] fictional genre….” (pp.164-165)

In chasing the identity of the Ripper and in placing his personality upon numerous more or less well-known historical characters (the lastest being James Maybrick) investigators acknowledge the [-p.166] bizarre silence at the heart of the tale, a place where history has closed in upon itself and refused its fact. History becomes an abyss antagonistic to its own determinants and played upon by conspiracy in the fiction of the secret of Jack’s identity. Scanning the grim, grainy, obscure picture taken of Mary Kelly’s eviscerated body as if in search of clues we become dabblers in the oracular and the occult. In her photo the Ripper steps out of Victorian history to become the epitome of Victorian history, its embodiment and spokesman.” (pp.165-166)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London

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