Representing the Ripper: some lessons from Whitechapel and West Yorkshire

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If, like me, you watched the BBC’s recent three-part documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper case you might have been left pondering some of the conclusions that might be drawn from that awful episode in our recent history.  Tonight the BBC offers a less in-depth and more problematic documentary, which has already been criticized for its approach. At 9 o’clock Silent Witness star Emilia Fox presents a forensic reexamination of the  ‘Jack the Ripper’ with the help of criminologist Professor David Wilson. So the question I’d like to ask is what, if anything, can we learn from this sudden flurry of serious television aimed at two of the most high profile serial murder cases of the last 150 years?

Haille Rubenhold tweeted that documentaries like the one Fox will front this evening:

‘only feed the exploitative Ripper industry’, adding: ‘Trying out modern tech on some of the most defamed women in history just for the sake of entertainment is pretty low’.

So if exploiting the murders of five or more women in 1888 was ‘pretty low’ can we accuse Liza Williams of doing something similar in her recent series on Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes? I don’t think we can; Williams’ documentary was very careful not to ape some of the voyeuristic tendencies of modern ‘true crime’ programmes. The victims were placed centre stage and considered as real people (somebody’s mother, daughter, or friend) not as bodies to be dissected yet again. She stressed that all of Sutcliffe’s victims (the 13 he killed and the seven or more he attacked) left behind families that were and still are being affected by his casual inhumanity. It was extremely moving to hear interviews with Olive Smelt’s daughter, Wilma McCann’s son, and one of his earliest victims,  Tracey Browne who was just 14 when he hit her five or more times with a hammer in a country lane at Silsden.

Williams also focused her study on the police investigation and its failure to catch Sutcliffe. Although the investigation, led by Assistant Chief Constable Godfrey Oldfield and DCS Dennis Hoban, did eventually take credit for catching the killer Williams shows that Sutcliffe was caught despite the police team chasing him not because of it.

West Yorkshire police questioned Sutcliffe on no fewer than nine occasions and five times in the context of following up a lead directly linking him to one of the murders.  They ignored Tracey Browne’s description of her attacker as they didn’t believe the man they were hunting could have attacked her. This was because Oldfield and Hoban were convinced the murderer was only targeting prostitutes (despite him killing six women with no connection to the sex industry) and then because they believed that a tape sent to them was from the killer, and he had a Sunderland accent not a Yorkshire one.

In 1888 the police failed to catch the killer of five or more women (I believe the number he murdered was certainly in double figures, and that there were at least three non-fatal assaults). Again this might have been because the Victorian police were focusing on the wrong sort of killer, someone from outside of the community he terrorized. In this they were ably abetted by the media, just as the West Yorkshire force were in the late ‘70s and early 1980s. What Williams’ revealed was the way in which the British press (local and national) helped create an image of a monster – a master criminal with supernatural powers that helped him avoid capture.

When Sutcliffe appeared in the dock at Number One Court, Old Bailey in 1981 several journalists commented that he didn’t look or sound like the character they had imagined him to be. Instead Sutcliffe was a very ordinary sort of man, not larger than life at all.

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In 1888 the terror created by the original ‘Ripper’ was fueled by the intense press coverage of his attacks and the speculation as to his identity and his motives. Whitechapel and Spitalfields was overrun by journalists all searching for angles on the case and, just as the media did 100 years later, all intent of finding witnesses to interview, regardless of how it might undermine any future case the police might be trying to build against the culprit.

Moreover the press played its part in judging the victims by the prevailing standards of the day. In 1888 The Timespretty much stated that since the women killed by ‘Jack’ were ‘unfortunates’ (a contemporary euphemism for  prostitutes) they were culpable in their own demise. As Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow  has sometimes stated the Ripper killings were viewed as ‘so much street cleaning’ by some sections of Victorian society. Liza Williams’ documentary on the Yorkshire case reveals that a very similar mindset persisted there; the women killed by Sutcliffe were divided into ‘respectable’ and ‘immoral’ women when, after all, they were all simply innocent women.

Rubenhold’s new book on the victims (which has its flaws, be in no doubt) champions the lives of the women the Victorian Ripper murdered, just as Williams tries to do in her work. Both remind us that in every murder the killer is only one small part of the story. His name (and it is usually a ‘he’) is often the one that best remembered however, even if that name is often confused and (as with ‘Jack’) mythologized.

So what can we take from these two cases and the way they’ve been presented recently? I would say this: both reveal how hard it is to catch someone who preys on the most vulnerable in society. All of the victims of the Victorian killer were very poor women found out on the street at night, some of them intoxicated or at least befuddled by drink. Many of Sutcliffe’s victims were engaged in prostitution for the simply fact that society had failed them and they believed it was the only way they had to feed their families. Inequality and poverty runs through both these cases.

Moreover, the way these women were viewed also coloured the way the press reported their deaths and the police investigations that tried lamely to catch their killers. Frankly then society let these women down in the first place and then compounded that failure by blaming them for becoming victims.

We need to get away from the societal condemnation of anyone who sells sex for whatever reason. Prostitution is rarely a positive life choice; it is born of desperation, poverty, and (usually male) exploitation of women. A woman that is forced (by circumstances or someone else) to prostitute herself is no less of a woman than anyone else. She deserves the right to live every bit as much as we all do; no one has the right to take away her life and the sooner society recognizes this the better. Where I disagree with Rubenhold’s thesis that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the Whitechapel murderer were not all prostitutes is this: why does it even matter?  That there is evidence for or against them being prostitutes is immaterial in my view; they were all innocent regardless.

Finally what Liza Williams reminded me was that Peter Sutcliffe was no mythological demon possessed of supernatural abilities to evade capture. He was an ordinary nonentity – someone you’d not look at twice in the street. A quiet neighbour who lived with his wife and went to work each day driving a lorry. No one suspected him, not even the police when they interviewed him.

This very much fits the profile of the man Andy Wise and I think responsible for the Whitechapel series of murders between 1887 and 1891. A man we think hid in plain sight and melted away into the alleys and courts of the East Ed which knew like the back of his hand.  The police may have arrested and questioned him as they did many others, but they let him go off to kill again because he didn’t fit the false profile of the monster they were hunting.

‘Jack and the Thames Torso Murders’, by the author and Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in June 2019

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