Jack the Ripper: Social Reformer?
Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper – Social Reformer?
Posted on August 19, 2010 by Wytchewoode
In the autumn of 1888 an unknown killer stalked the poorly lit streets of Whitechapel in the East End of London killing and badly mutilating five, and possibly more, women. The exact number of his victims is as uncertain as his identity, which remains a mystery to this day.
During what became known as the ‘Autumn of Terror’ the playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote to The Star newspaper to offer a theory for the killer’s motive.
Sir, Will you allow me to make a comment on the success of the Whitechapel murderer in calling attention for a moment to the social question? Private enterprise has succeeded where Socialism failed. Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation, and organisation, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.
Although firmly tongue-in-cheek, Shaw’s wryly observed comment raises the interesting question of whether the activity of the Whitechapel murderer directly led to sweeping social changes in terms of improvements in street-lighting and sanitation and even, eventually, slum-clearance. In their brief background to the social context of the murders, Eads, Kemmer, Robinson and Taylor quote Curtis’s description of Whitechapel which paints the usual gritty picture of the area as a crime-ridden ‘breeding ground for criminals, prostitutes, and layabouts; a center for depravity, degradation and disease.’ (Curtis, 12). It is certainly true that Whitechapel was not without its problems; high unemployment due to the massive influx of refugees from the anti-semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, prostitution was rife and alcoholism fuelled by cheap gin was common. Despite these and many other problems Whitechapel and the East End in general were also home to a large number of honest, hard-working residents many working to ease the conditions and to integrate with the increasing Jewish community who contributed to the religious, social, educational and cultural life of the area.
It could be argued, using a literary metaphor and the concept of habitat borrowed from biology, that the area had two distinct personalities, one light and one dark. During daylight hours the area was a bustling community of shop owners, street traders, market sellers, factory workers and tradesmen while between dusk and dawn its personality metamorphosed from Jekyllian respectability into the seedy, darker character of the evil Mr Hyde. The single mile stretch of the Whitechapel Road, for example, was home to no fewer than 45 pubs and gin-palaces along with more than a sprinkling of opium houses and innumerable brothels which served both the local population and the many itinerants and sailors temporarily staying in the area from the nearby docks.
The majority of the killer’s victims were prostitutes though prostitution for many women was often a temporary means to earn the price of a few gins and fourpence for a bed in one of the many frequently overcrowded and unsanitary lodging houses. Prostitution, though common, was more a practical means for women without education, skill or career to get by at times of hardship as a result of domestic violence, separation, divorce or homelessness. Such were the victims, hopeless, destitute and fuelled with cheap gin, an easy target for a lone killer stalking the badly lit streets and labrynthine maze of alleys and passages that criss-crossed the grimy square mile of Whitechapel.
Subsequent to the end of the reign of terror inflicted by the Whitechapel murderer many social reforms were implemented. Many houses pulled down to make way for new buildings, streets renamed, street-lighting increased and better sanitation introduced. Certainly the area changed but it had already been a focus of activity for social reformers and educators trying to improve the living conditions of an area bordered by the City of London and Westminster. The result of Jack the Ripper’s activity was certainly a more focused view of the area and its problems not only by immediate wealthy Londoners whose conscience may have been pricked but by a global media circus intent on increasing their circulation by the widespread publicity of the lurid details of each killing. Yes there were changes and improvements but these were already underway. Jack the Ripper was merely instrumental in hastening the rate of change.
Curtis, L. Perry. Jack the Ripper and the London Press. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001.
Jack The Ripper & the Whitechapel Murders A Research Report By Jessica Eads, Danielle Kemmer, Joanna Robinson, and Jennifer Taylor. Retrieved from:
More by Wytchewoode
More about the Author
- Melancholia & Dark Obsessions
Author's Web Site