The Whitechapel Murders: exploring Jack the Ripper’s victims in the Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture archive

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the East End of London was terrorised by a series of gruesome murders at the hands of the notorious ‘Jack the Ripper’. Ripper’s true identity was never discovered, and even though nearly 125 years have passed since his last attack his name still sends a shiver down the spine.

Despite this, Ripper continues to fascinate as much as repel, so much so that a museum dedicated to him and his killings has recently opened in London. This museum has attracted criticism for focusing too much on Ripper, and not enough on the women he murdered. So, I thought I’d see what I could find out about his victims from Gale’s newest digital archive; Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture 1790-1920.

Ripper’s total victim count isn’t certain – the fact that he was never caught means that some of the murdered women may have been victims of copycat killers. What is reasonably certain is that Ripper killed 5 women: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. What is also well-established is that Ripper targeted unprotected and vulnerable women, mostly prostitutes desperate for money.

Victorian attitudes to Ripper’s victims make them rather difficult to find by name in the presses of the time, as much referred to as “low”, “fallen” or “unfortunate” than their actual name. With such a taboo surrounding these women, their character and their profession, I knew that finding contemporary factual information would be difficult.

The Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture archive reveals that most of the contemporary reporting on Ripper’s crimes dwelled on Ripper himself, and the horrific nature of his crimes. This is not surprising, as building up the sensational aspects of the case would lead to more sales:

Whitechapel's Fiend
“Whitechapel’s Fiend.” National Police Gazette 17 Aug. 1889: 3+. Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture 1790-1920.
“Twelve!” National Police Gazette 28 Sept. 1889: 6+. Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture 1790-1920.

However, one of the strengths of this collection is that it includes several different content types, such as manuscripts and monographs, as well as newspaper articles. Whilst I was expecting to find results in the newspaper articles, I found a great resource in a manuscript from the TS Wood Detective Agency collection. Whilst still referring to these women as “of the lowest character”, it does give a chronological account of each attack, without resorting to sensationalism or judgement:

Jack the Ripper
‘Jack the Ripper.’ Murderer. n.d. TS Wood Detective Agency Records, 1865-1945: Series VII. Criminal Accounts and Articles Compiled by James Rodney Wood, Jr., 1816-1934 Box 12, Folder 42. Harvard University Law Library. Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture 1790-1920.

What I learned from trying to find information on Ripper’s victims from contemporary accounts, is that the recent criticism that the Jack the Ripper museum has attracted is not a new phenonemon – Ripper has always received more attention than his victims. However what I have found so far gives me confidence that there is more information to be gleaned from these sources, and as a next step I would try widening my search to other Gale databases, especially Nineteenth Century Collections Online. I am hopeful that someday, these women will receive the attention, sympathy and justice they deserve.

About the Author

I joined Gale in December 2014 as Digital Product Editor, working particularly on our Early Arabic Printed Books from the British Library and Stuart & Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives projects. I’m a qualified archivist and before joining Gale I worked in the Universities sector for nearly 10 years, so I’m delighted to continue working with Archives and Academics in a role that has broadened my horizons and introduced me to new challenges.