At first glance you might think that there is nothing that could be learned from Jack the Ripper. After all, on the surface, this is just a simple case of five murders carried out by an unknown, and deranged murderer, in the autumn of 1888.
And, whereas the murderer himself can teach us nothing, the lessons that society as a whole learnt from the East End killings spree really do resonate down the 125 years since the murders occurred.
One thing that the murders did, most certainly highlight was that his victims died because society as a whole chose to turn a blind eye to the women whose lives, blighted by tragedy and, in most cases, alcoholism, were effectively thrown onto the scrap heap of Victorian London.
With one exception, his victims led transient lives moving around the Common Lodging Houses of the districts of Spitalfields and Whitechapel.
Mary Kelly, his last victim, did have her own room at 13 Miller’s Court, located off Dorset Street.
However, Dorset Street itself was so densely populated that one newspaper went so far as to refer to it as “the worst street in London.” So the fact that Mary Kelly had a room there can, by no means, suggest that she had it any better than the other victims of Jack the Ripper.
Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes all died because they didn’t have the, relatively, paltry amount of four pence to pay for a bed in one of these East End doss houses.
In essence, their fates show us what can happen when society hardens its heart to the plight of the poor and comes to view them all as malingerers who are scrounging off the hard working folk.
It is too simplistic to stereotype the Victorian middle and upper classes with the usual “oh they didn’t care about the poor” or “didn’t they make children work in factories?” image.
Yes, there were some among the upper and middle classes who abused and misused the less fortunate. But there were an awful lot more who genuinely cared about the underclass that the combined effects of industrialisation and immigration had given birth to.
There were those who were determined to do something about it and, slowly, some Victorians began to make progress towards their dream of building a better, more caring, society – even to the extent that they moved into the area and lived amongst the poor to gain a better understanding of their plight.
By studying the Jack the Ripper murders we begin to get glimpses of this other side of Victorian Society, and, in so doing, begin to gain an insight into the problems that beset an age when technology and progress were forging ahead whilst leaving a trail of broken lives in their wake.
In short, it becomes a little like looking into a mirror of our own age.