One of the questions I frequently get asked when doing radio or television interviews on Jack the Ripper is why is he so famous. After all, compared to several serial killers since, he was anything but prolific.
I suppose that one of the reasons he endures is the name. Just saying “Jack the Ripper” brings to mind vivid images of foggy, gas lit streets through which this unknown monster stalks his victims. Had the letter which gave him his name been signed anything else (Arnold the Unpleasant perhaps, or even Nasty Nick) the chances are that it would never have caught on. But, the moment the Dear Boss Letter was made public, a legend was well and truly born.
Another reason for his enduring fame lies, perhaps, in the fact that he was never (officially) caught, and so he has left behind one of history’s greatest murder mysteries. Hunting the ripper, even after the passage of over 120 years, is a fascinating past time in which we can all indulge and which really can, to paraphrase Agatha Christie’s famed detective get those little grey cells working overtime.
However, there’s more to this subject than a hastily scribbled name, or a fascinating whodunnit.
The crimes, whilst fascinating in themselves, provide us with the perfect way to look back and view the lives of long ago Londoners who, were it not for the fact that they, in some way or other, found themselves embroiled in history’s greatest murder mystery, would have been long ago forgotten.
The police who investigated the case, the politicians whose names crop up from time to time, the doctors who examined the bodies of the victims, the ordinary men and women who were interviewed by the journalists, or who appeared at the inquests. All of these people give us tiny glimpses of bygone days in the streets of the East End of London towards the end of the 19th century.
And there perhaps is the paradox of the whole Jack the Ripper saga. For the names of these long ago citizens are known to us today thanks to the actions of a man whose name we will never know for certain!