While true crime stories will always have a special place in the hearts and minds of both the media and the viewing public, with everything from Netflix’s Making a Murderer to the BBC’s retelling of the story of the kidnap of Shannon Matthews in The Moorside, the media, in particular TV and film, has always been obsessed with uncovering the secrets behind cases, but there has never been such a following for any case as there has with Jack the Ripper.
Although there is limited evidence that the five main murders attributed to the Ripper (those of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly) were actually committed by the same man, the tenuous links between the cases (the supposed medical experience of the killer and the geographical closeness of the crimes), coupled with the letter to the media, now believed to be a hoax, caused the birth of the myth of Jack the Ripper.
Over the years, the Ripper has been featured in everything from films, plays, TV shows and books, both fiction and non-fiction. He has become a character in his own right, with many books, films, TV shows and art displays depicting him despite the fact that we have no real idea of what he looked like The Ripper has been everything from a character and core plot point, as in the Jonny Depp film From Hell, to a tenuous link, such as in the BBC series Ripper Street, which uses only his name and brief reference to his crimes.
Recently crime writer Patricia Cornwell renewed her previous claims that artist Walter Sickert was the ripper, reigniting the speculation around who the Ripper actually was. The claims were originally made a few years ago, but Cornwell recently rejuvenated the idea in a new book.
The question remains; why is there this continued fascination throughout the media with the Ripper? Part of it, I believe, stems from his anonymity. As no one really knows (or, let’s face it, ever will know) who Jack the Ripper is, everyone is obsessed with either uncovering him, or, in the case of the books and TV shows, at least lending him a face. The mystery is interesting to people, as they seek to solve the mystery.
Also, his crimes were both horrific and committed against women, who were predominantly, at least the five main victims believed to have been killed by the ripper, lower class women, some with known backgrounds in prostitution. Sex workers and lower class women have always been great media fodder, and their downfall is often vilified and enjoyed by the viewing public as the media looks to blame them for their crimes. Many of the portrayals of the victims, although fewer and far between than those of their killer, show them in an unsympathetic light; for example, Barbara Windsor’s depiction of Annie Chapman in A Study in Terror shows her, during the limited time she is shown on screen, as self involved and slightly obnoxious. The paradox between the media’s love of the Ripper himself and its distain for his victims is probably key to the longevity of their association with him.
Finally, the fact that the crimes were committed so long ago is a big factor in making the media continue to focus on the Ripper. When the BBC’s The Moorside was broadcast, many people questioned the timing, as the crime was only committed a few years ago and the young victim could be affected. However, the Ripper murders were committed around the late 1800s (the five key murders took place around 1888), meaning that none have surviving close relatives to mourn them or openly condemn the constant revisiting of these dreadful crimes. It is my belief that these factors all created the ideal platform for which the media could, and continues to, use the Ripper as the archetypal criminal.