A Pointless Exercise

There can be a tendency to ignore the general history of Victorian London to focus almost exclusively on the history of the Jack the Ripper crimes. This is both a pity and a mistake.

Historical events don’t (or should that be didn’t?) happen in a vacuum, but rather they are played out against a much wider backcloth. This is very much the case with the Whitechapel murders committed by the killer we no know as Jack the Ripper.


Although the Jack the Ripper crimes happened in the Victorian era, they weren’t, contrary to the impression you might get with the ubiquity of coverage of the Whitechapel murders, the only things that were happening in 1888, or in the years around it.

For the people of the era, life went on, even at the time when the unknown miscreant was holding the East End of London and the country at large in a grip of terror.


Today, there is so much focus on finding out who Jack the Ripper was, which, I hate to break this to you, is an impossible task. We are now never likely to establish the identity of the murderer. No evidence has survived, no witnesses are alive, and even the miscreant himself is now long dead.

Barring the uncovering of a confessional document (a letter or a diary for example) – and even that would not provide a definite solution  – we are never going to find out who Jack the Ripper was.


Personally, I have always seen the Jack the Ripper murders as a window into the past.

Rather than poring over endless descriptions of the murders themselves, I think it is far better – and, to be honest, healthier – to instead look at the periphery of the murders.


For example, the fact that so many journalists went into Whitechapel when they realised that the public appetite for every salacious detail of the crimes was insatiable, means that we have a fantastic historical record of the East End of London at the time.

We get an unrivaled snapshot of the people and the streets in which they lived.

In many cases, the journalists interviewed the local people, and thus we can almost hear their voices as they talk about their everyday lives and what is going on around them.

Illustrations showing the murder of Martha Turner in George Yard.
The Murder of Martha Turner. From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday 18th August, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Although the police weren’t “officially” releasing many details to the press about the crimes and their lines of inquiry, individual police officers were, almost certainly, talking to the reporters, and so, in addition to the snapshot of the people and the streets, we can also gain an insight into a major police investigation in the latter half of the 19th century.


And yet, the energy of researchers and theorists, will, instead of exploring the rich tapestry of everyday Victorian life that is available to us, devote their energies to trying to solve the unsolvable.

People want to know who the perpetrator of the crimes was, and thus the everyday life that went on around the crimes becomes secondary as people ask the question who was Jack the Ripper?