Big Debate: Does publicising the Jack the Ripper murders glorify violence against women?

Victim of Jack the Ripper, portrayed by the popular press of 1888

Victim of Jack the Ripper, portrayed by the popular press of 1888 - Credit: Museum of London Docklands

Last week, this newspaper published a 12-page supplement marking 125 years since the country’s most famous serial killer - Jack the Ripper - first murdered in the East End. The tale is still shrouded in mystery and the Ripper’s identity unknown but our supplement kicked up a historic stir last week as some readers claimed coverage of the murders glorifies the gruesome and violent deaths of the women.

Sarah Jackson, of the East London Suffragettes

Sarah Jackson, of the East London Suffragettes - Credit: Archant

Here to argue why writing about Jack’s brutal murders perpetuates violence against women is Sarah Jackson of the East London Suffragettes who will be holding a festival to celebrate the triumphs of East End feminists in summer 2014. Find out more here.

Edward Stow

Edward Stow - Credit: Archant

Historian Edward Stow, author on Jack the Ripper, doesn’t agree that studying the Whitechapel Murders encourages violence against women in today’s society. He uses Jack the Ripper to fundraise for the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust commemorating the 143 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster.

Sarah Jackson, East London Suffragettes

I love a bit of gory local history, but I’m getting fed up with Jack the Ripper. I can’t help but feel that by always putting “Jack” in the spotlight, we’re showing that we don’t take violence against women seriously.

There is endless speculation about his identity, his knowledge of anatomy and even admiration for his ability to evade capture.

In contrast, the women he murdered are generally reduced to objects for study or evidence to be analysed. We hear very little about their lives but can’t escape the intimate details of their deaths.

While many defend the attention showered on Jack the Ripper as infamy rather than fame, there are plenty of examples in which the tone tilts from condemnation to celebration.

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Here’s a famous one: the Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields was once called “Jack The Ripper”, and sold T-shirts, and a blood-coloured cocktail called Ripper’s Tipple. In what other situation would you condemn someone with a cocktail?

It might not matter so much if killing women had gone the way of gas lamps and top hats, but violence against women is still epidemic, and frequently lethal.

In the UK two women a week are killed by a current or former partner, and women in prostitution are 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population (source: AVA Project).

Women die because people don’t (or won’t) see the scale of the problem. If we did, there would be enough funding to keep our lifesaving domestic violence refuges open.

Efforts to raise awareness and change attitudes are hampered by a society which doesn’t take violence against women seriously. And Jack the Ripper t-shirts, tours and cocktails are part of the problem.

It is important to study and learn from the Whitechapel murders, but by keeping quiet about violence against women and turning Jack the Ripper into a superstar we turn away from the uncomfortable truth that he was just one killer among many.

Edward Stow

Jack the Ripper was one of the first known serial killers. He was particularly brutal, but was never caught. He was given a horrifying name, possibly by an enterprising journalist, that immediately captured the popular imagination.

Pretty much everything about him is based on conjecture.

It is disputed by some that he was a serial killer. The murders could have been committed by different people. Others argue that the motive behind them was a sinister conspiracy.

That is why there is a fascination with the case. It is a “whodunit”. It is not based on glorification of the culprit, nor of his vile deeds.

Establishing who may have “dunit” is the best restitution for his victims. Should these poor women be forgotten? Should their lives be erased?

Analysis of the Ripper crimes in the 21st century involves research into the social history of the East End – the politics, immigration, development of infrastructure through railways, gas supply, public lighting, road construction, sanitation, public baths, hospitals and so forth, as well as development of local government, the evolution of the police and the role of the press.

Obviously, the subject has to be handled sensitively. Real people were killed.

The East End is still a deprived neighbourhood, though not as severe as 125 years ago.

Tourism is one of Britain’s few growth industries. The Ripper mystery is one that holds a fascination for people worldwide.

The East End in my opinion should embrace the Jack the Ripper mystery – not glorifying a disgusting killer, but commemorating the victims as well as helping to bring greater prosperity to the area by making it an important part of the London tourist market.

This would be the case had these frightful events occurred in Paris, New York or Chicago.

At the same time, we can try to understand why and how these sorts of crimes take place.