The Ripper: Why Jack Walks in the Same London Today21 minute read

Allow me to tell you a story. A story of poverty and crime, racism and xenophobia. Of social exclusion, destitution and prostitution. Of commercialization, sensationalism and capitalism. But above all this is a story of London, a city so modern and developed, and so surely evolved from its darker past of the Victorian era. Yet we find this is not so; by using the story of Jack the Ripper and revisiting the sites, the victims, and aftermath, it is evident that London is a palimpsest where themes often not dissimilar to Jack’s time over 125 years ago, are constantly rewritten on the history of Whitechapel. Despite over one hundred theories surrounding the Ripper’s identity ranging from butchers to members of the Royal family, the mystery was never solved. Historical research and many works of nonfiction and fiction have focused on identification, but my study is unconcerned with uncovering the true criminal. Instead I am interested in the plethora of issues the Ripper has raised. From the physical spaces Jack was active, to the people he encountered, to the legacy he left behind, the true story of the unidentified Victorian serial killer aptly demonstrates reproductions of the past manifest in the present. The changes over time are so nuanced, I argue it has hardly led to any shifts in the political economy and this is largely down to government ideology. As a result, the Ripper could symbolically walk in the same London today as he did in 1888.

It is necessary to provide a brief, factual account of the case of the Ripper. This man committed horrendous crimes on female prostitutes in Whitechapel, London’s east end, in the autumn of 1888. What shocked the world was not the focus on sex workers nor the frequency of murders alone, but the particularly gruesome ways in which he carried them out. He cut his victims’ throats, mutilated their bodies, before removing their internal organs. The ferocity of crimes created a surge of genuine terror that sent shockwaves reverberating through Victorian society. Five murders known as the ‘canonical five’ are accepted to have fallen at his hands but as many as 11 are linked to him. The crimes were covered extensively and sensationalized by the media, leading to international notoriety and an enduring legend.

The Setting

In 1888 London was the world’s largest and most prosperous capital city, enjoying an empire which reflected the supreme confidence of the age. In contrast Whitechapel in the East End was a sordid, crime-ridden quarter. 76,000 residents lived in abject poverty in the worst slums, overcrowding and highest death rates in the city. This stark comparison cast it alien in Victorian society, a dark continent in an imaginary geography (Sibley, 1995). Dr. Charles Booth’s poverty maps conducted 10 years after Jack the Ripper document a high incidence of what was classified as ‘lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal’ followed by ‘very poor, casual, chronic want’. These depictions are also observed in many famous works of literature – ‘stagnant and filthy, the houses were tenanted by the poorest class’ (Oliver Twist). Dickens’ novels recorded poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters who were typically imagined to populate these grim areas. Poverty became a marker of class, with filth and disease deemed natural to the lower classes. In the celebrated 1968 film adaptation, the polite and innocent Oliver wears clothes of a notably lighter colour compared to other characters, a symbol of purity standing out against a background of dirt and filth. Films are useful to provide visual representations, though portrayals are subject to artistic license and subjective to the director.

Whitechapel had cobbled thoroughfares and dimly lit, haphazard alleyways. Nightfall and long shadows reaching into the dark recesses of the streets made it convenient for lurking serial killers to hide. The physical form reflected the characteristics of inner city slums, linked to the industrial worker and urban disorder (Mort, 1987). Walking through Whitechapel, I noticed many narrow passageways and understood why this setting was particularly conducive to crime; ‘the external conditions favoured murder’ (Haggard, 1993). Jack confined his activity to this impoverished, dark area and used space to his advantage as it helped disguise him. Architects and urban planners should consider the importance of the built form to promote safer streets. Bright lights, widened roads and glass buildings project light, openness and transparency which could deter crime.

Historically housing the working class and industry, the inner city location of Whitechapel is still regarded a poor area relative to the rest of London. Its local authority Tower Hamlets is the second poorest borough and third most deprived nationally1. In the Victorian times its residents were outcast; ‘the intention was clear: isolate them’ (Mort, 1987). We see parallels today surrounding the homeless, shunned by society and often depicted as drug addicts or deserving poor. The government is responsible for this rhetoric as they manipulate ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ into power (Foucault, 1998). Instead of managing the ‘problem’, we too often choose to ignore them, preferring to deny their existence altogether.

A new process at work in the 21st century can be described as social cleansing of another kind. The process of gentrification in Whitechapel has seen an influx of young professionals displacing the traditional lower-income residents who are priced out of the market, a form of revanchism to retake the inner city for the middle classes (Lees, 2008). Gentrification is an expected product in central city neighbourhoods as rises in rent levels produce profitable redevelopment (Smith, 1979). Large-scale luxury developments such as Cityscape and Goodman’s Fields, coupled with the opening of a Crossrail station in 20182 has seen Whitechapel gain the greatest increase in gentrification in the capital over the last decade. But whether private development is promoted or more social housing is built is dependent on government decision.

Interestingly, gentrification has contributed to a remarkable reversal of migration and fortune. Nowadays, the residents of inner cities look more suburban than ever (Lees, 2008). The rise in popularity of ‘urban living’ has come hand-in-hand with the decline of suburbs to the far northwest of London like Wembley and Willesden, who have seen significant falls in average socio-economic status. Previously, flight to the suburbs was undertaken by those who could afford larger homes, green spaces and clean air, but shifts over time have made areas once dismissed as slums most desirable. In a world of globalization and arguments purporting the ‘death of distance’, these shifts reflect the opposite. Inhomogeneity of space cannot be substituted; movement into central London demonstrates the importance of physical proximity to the wealth of amenities the capital has to offer. It also highlights changing social attitudes and notions of what is trendy in popular culture; once upon a time living in the suburbs was to ‘enrol yourself into a tribe’ (Gordon & Gordon, 1933), but now a new tribe of hipsters have colonized derelict warehouses, once the symbol of decline but now sites of unconventional pursuits in music and the arts, often with an expensive price tag. If Jack revisited Whitechapel today, he would see Victorian building stock and street patterns preserved. That is because the physical which can be seen has remained the same, but the less obvious social makeup, economic status and value of land have changed dramatically.

The physical form and all that Whitechapel encompassed was set against a backdrop of Victorian morality, ethics and values deeply embedded in society. These were a set of views espousing sexual restraint, low tolerance of crime and a strict social code of conduct. Yet the era was a time of many contradictions, such as the outward appearance of dignity coupled with high prevalence of prostitution. Against this background, the case of the Ripper was all the more scandalous. Mort (1987) writes, ‘representations of immorality… linked the habits and environment of the urban poor with medico-moral concepts of health and disease’. The many links between poverty and immorality made it easy to suggest causation. Instead of local interventions on the individual, Victorians attached the focus to an entire class of working poor, regarding vice as ‘rooted in their hearts’. This became another contradiction between Victorian ideology of minimal government intervention and the wish to ‘educate the poor into cleanliness and morality’.

If Jack’s criminal activity and violation of law can be seen as acts of disregard for the government, he would hold similar contempt for the current establishment, for they are very similar. Issues surrounding how much the state should fund public health and welfare are constantly topics of political debate. Single mothers, the unemployed or disabled are often portrayed as ‘burdensome’ or ‘benefit scroungers’, raising uncomfortable questions about how they are viewed and treated by government and the rest of society. It seems that instead of helping disadvantaged social groups, reproductions of the deserving and undeserving poor can be identified in both eras. Over a century later, social attitudes, power, and politics have seen little change.


Another marginalized group and central to our story are the victims of the Ripper. An estimated 8,600 prostitutes were in London, 1,200 in Whitechapel alone (Rumbelow, 2004). Nowadays the sex industry is associated with Soho, reflecting a spatial shift in the clustering of industry. Reformers depicted female sexuality as dangerous and a threat to Victorian morality as well as to the British Empire (Coleman & McCahill, 2011). The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 were targeted at working class prostitutes who were ‘human agents of infection’ (Mort, 1987), and included putting suspected women into hospitals, forced medical examinations, and moral and physical discipline. The coercive surveillance of women’s bodies and sexuality reflected clear discriminatory double standards (Coleman & McCahill, 2011), but this is true even of modern times. Despite some progressions towards equality and the rise of feminism, women’s autonomous sexuality is too often perceived as immoral and shameful. ‘Slut-shaming’ is a term widely used in the 21st century applied to the social stigma of females who violate traditional expectations of sexual behaviour. While women are punished, men are praised for greater numbers of sexual partners (Kreager & Staff, 2009). The underlying reason must be that sexual prowess is subconsciously considered an attractive masculine trait, connecting to our animal survival instincts that have arguably not evolved a great deal. Meanwhile, it shows that sex is still regarded as dirty, prompting the question – just how liberal is modern society? In relative terms social progress and sexual liberalization have come a long way, but in absolute terms there is still a long way to go. It is also perhaps one of the few areas where government change can be faster than society acceptance.

Derogatory perceptions of promiscuous women are problematic, but also dangerous. Prostitution is a highly underground and illicit activity, and for those reasons sex workers lack protection by the state. Little sympathy is given and little justice awarded to crimes against them, and rape or sexual assault is often underreported. This rationale could explain why Jack the Ripper exclusively attacked street prostitutes. Safety of women remains a pervasive contemporary issue; a serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper murdered 13 prostitutes between 1975-803. This highlights ongoing aggression against female sex workers, continued social rejection, and above all, vulnerability and lack of legal protection by the state.

Elizabeth Stride was Jack the Ripper’s third victim, killed in the early hours of 30 September 1888. Born Elizabeth Gustafsdotter to Swedish farmers, she moved to London aged 23 in search of a better life (Evans and Rumbelow, 2010). She learned to speak English and Yiddish and worked in domestic service, before turning to prostitution after separation from her husband John Stride. Acquaintances report she had a calm temperament. Elizabeth’s backstory is typical of many who migrate to London in search of opportunity, following the metanarrative of Dick Whittington who made his fortune here. London’s economic might makes it naturally attractive to workers from near and far, the same motivations of migrants who move to the capital today. How well they integrate depends partly upon government policy.

The docks and access to trade at sea was the centre of London’s commerce, providing work for many of the locals in the East End. Elizabeth’s husband was a ship’s carpenter, and her later lover Michael Kidney was a dock labourer. But there was no guarantee of long term employment; work was precarious, often seasonal (Steadman-Jones, 1984), and sometimes dangerous. The absence of job security and minimal social protection is echoed by the current government’s support of zero-hour contracts and benefit cuts. In the Victorian era and now, free markets and rolling back the state has been the dominant political ideology.

Whitechapel had established a large Jewish community but the need for low-skilled manual workers led to an even greater ethnic mix of Irish, Polish and others. Parts of the district had the appearance of a foreign town as inhabitants spoke their own language, dressed differently, and followed their own customs (Begg, 2004). The native gentile population resented this influx of foreigners, which led to the inevitable rise of racial tension and xenophobia. The prime suspects of Jack the Ripper were disproportionately Jewish, who worked as bootmakers, barbers and butchers, and anti-Semitic feeling became stronger than ever. A piece of graffiti next to one of Jack’s victims read ‘the Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing’ (Metropolitan Police Archives MEPO 7/42-51)4. This cryptic message was erased immediately when discovered, as police feared greater divisions amid already high tensions and near-riots.

The Battle of Cable Street in the East End in October 1936 was a violent clash between the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley and local Jewish, socialist and communist groups. Hostility towards migrants is a theme alarmingly present in the UK today, accompanied by soaring popularity of nationalist parties such as UKIP, and the even more radical Pegida. Although mainstream parties take a more positive view of immigration, understanding migration ‘myths’ (de Haas, 2004) and promote multiculturalism, repeated calls to close borders have gained momentum in recent times. A nuanced observation is that those most hateful towards immigrants tend to be older and have fewer years of education. As a result, more liberal views held by subsequent generations mean the proportion of anti-migrant and xenophobic feeling should decline with time.

To accommodate the religion of the Jewish residents, Fieldgate Synagogue opened in 1899. Religious buildings tell stories of change over time, and can be seen as a palimpsest, revealing the instability of narratives of migrant identity. Due to rising socio-economic status, many Jews left the East End in the 1960s. In 1985, the East London Mosque was built and surrounded Fieldgate on three sides and in July 2015, the synagogue was sold to them. Buildings demonstrate how space is contested and rewritten (Ahmed et al, 2016), and reveal a history told through layers of architecture which in this case reflects the changing migrant identity of Whitechapel from Jewish to Muslim. Local shops and services tailor to a Bangladeshi Muslim population, while anti-Semitism has been replaced with Islamophobia. Projection into the future poses the question whether Muslims will be replaced by another ethnic group over time, adding another layer onto the palimpsest.

The Ending

The story does not end when Jack stops killing. In the aftermath of the murders, newspapers made it a sensation. It saw the rise of the tabloid press and ‘penny-dreadfuls’, disseminating information to an increasingly well-informed and curious population. The combination of prostitutes and murder was fascinatingly scandalous, the media loved it. Journalists sent hoax letters, false claims and body parts to police and newspapers to ‘keep the business alive’ and ‘hurl circulation sky high’ (Evans & Skinner, 2000). This marked the start of drastic lengths journalists are willing to go to secure a good story and create a media frenzy (Woods & Baddeley, 2009). In modern times, journalists have undertaken many questionable and sometimes illegal methods of creating sensationalist news stories such as use of phone tapping. The press played a pivotal role in creating the public image of the Whitechapel murderer, and without any real evidence, easily blurred the boundary between fact and fiction, presenting the crimes as a story to be consumed.

Moreover, adoption of a nickname for a particular criminal became standard journalistic practice to ensure ongoing popularity, originating from one of the hoax letters claiming to be from the killer, signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ (Cook, 2009). Name becomes a powerful identification tool that is memorable and acts almost like a slogan or advertisement. As news becomes increasingly digitalized, there has been adoption of the suffix ‘gate’ to denote scandals, especially across online platforms. The rise of ‘trends’ and hashtags using these succinct words enable controversies to spread more easily. Here we see again reproductions of Victorian creations that continue to be relevant albeit with a modern twist.

The Jack the Ripper museum opened in August 2015, and several companies offer Ripper tours of Whitechapel, playing on phantasmagoria and turning a horrific crime into tourism, consumption, and a spectacle. I became a tourist and explored the museum and tour with a small group of Japanese visitors, who told me they had learned of the story through adaptations in anime and manga – another example of commercialized Jack. The tour took place at night to replicate a sense of fear, but any terror I harboured evaporated as we walked along busy Whitechapel High Street with its endless stream of cars, people and bright shop lights. The Ripper would have a hard time hiding. The guide was informative, a self-proclaimed ‘Ripperologist’ but I could not help but wonder about the accuracy of his narration. He seemed to place great emphasis on one of the suspects known as ‘Leather Apron’, even though he had solid alibis and was dismissed early on in the police investigation (Metropolitan Police Archives MEPO 3/3153). This is in contrast to the function of museums, which is primarily to document and preserve factual accounts of history. Memory itself is politicized; the museum has been slammed by critics for honouring Jack5. In whose voice history is recorded can determine what history is recorded. In the words of Chinua Achebe, ‘until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.

This is a recurring problem; newspapers, museums and tours want to sell and entertain, so to what extent they are historically accurate is questionable. The primary reason for this is linked to capitalism, or what Debord (1994) calls commodity fetishism, in a world where we live in a ‘society of the spectacle’. He critiques consumer culture, that everything has become a mere representation rather than being directly experienced. Jack the Ripper museums and tours have created a superficial manifestation to be consumed; even if we have little relationship with the subject, the commodity ‘completes colonization of social life’. The supernatural element of Jack’s reputation continues to be commercialized and exploited on the same fantasies, a ‘spatial phantasmagoria’ local to a specific place that Jansson (2002) argues reinforces the desire for tourism. Dominance of economic interest is no new phenomenon for London, the centre of the capitalist machine doing what it does best – even it if means capitalizing on a killer’s story.

In the Victorian era spectacles, mediumship and paranormal events were more popular than any time in history (Winter, 2000). And yet the enduring appeal of Jack the Ripper persists, continuing to capture the imagination of modern society. This is because phantasmagoria constitutes part of a city, and what is real about cities is not only the material surroundings, but also the dreams, memories and fantasies they conjure (Pile, 2005). Pile argues that fear and phantasmagoria are forged within cities through magic, vampires and ghosts that intersect the past, present and future. However I contend that contemporary fear in the city has evolved past the fantastical which may have gripped the Victorian imagination. I believe the primary fear facing Londoners today come in the form of terrorism and cyber attacks. Fortunately or not, these concerns are much more tangible and hence can be prevented and managed through greater policing and control, which ultimately fall under the responsibility of the government.

My claim that Jack the Ripper, active over a century ago walks in the same London today hopefully seems more convincing. Using his story, we have seen the setting, characters and ending to be overwhelmingly similar, only with nuanced changes. Whitechapel as a poorer district, prostitutes and migrants having little work protection, and sensationalisms for the purpose of profit are themes that are reproduced over and over again. The East End of London is clearly a palimpsest where new things are superimposed on earlier issues, but closer inspection reveals those new issues are not new at all. This begs the question – why has society not evolved since the 19th century? Perhaps the period of 125 years is simply insignificant and insufficient to see any real changes in society. But the alternative answer lies in the relationship between power and knowledge, that those in power use knowledge as means of social control (Foucault, 1998).

We may not realize just how much the government, who hold power, affect our lives. Their decisions on allocations of funding to local councils or social welfare affects the living standards of the population, and their ability to set laws to legalize or criminalize, protect or exploit workers affects security in labour markets. Finally, the political structure and hegemonic ideology itself dictates the lives of everyone living within it, whether there is democracy and freedom of press, and capitalism and free markets. What Jack the Ripper did was bring these matters to our attention (Haggard, 1993), to highlight the astonishingly little progress that has been made. Optimistically, Whitechapel seems to be growing wealthier and younger generations tend to be less xenophobic. But the government overwhelmingly control multiple aspects of our lives and set the laws which we must abide, so if democracy is to be successful and change to be realized, more people must vote. Otherwise, there is a danger of role reversal in that instead of Jack walking in London today, we perpetually walk in Victorian London.


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