Human beings are fascinated with the darker side of existence. For most of us, we live in the light. We get up, clean our teeth, have a shower, eat breakfast and go about our days in relative comfort, far removed from the grimmer things that go on in the world. It’s perhaps this lack of everyday danger and disgust that draws us to the macabre in our downtime. You only need to switch on a television or browse the bookshelves of your friends’ houses to see just how many of us are so oddly interested in crime. When we’re not watching films and TV dramas with wall-to-wall stories of violence, murder and wrongdoing, we’re following the real-life tales with a fixed glare.
Let’s go back to crime dramas and literature quickly. Most are written as whodunits. This plot device allows us to play detective and attempt to solve the mystery ourselves. From the days of Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton right through to modern-day TV shows like Broadchurch, it’s a format we find irresistible because of the immersive and involving nature of it. So it’s no great shock that the famous historical crimes that society is so obsessed by are those that have remained as yet unsolved.
Of course, stories such as The Manson Murders, The Great Train Robbery, Ted Bundy and the murder of John Lennon are all endlessly fascinating. While there are points of speculation and topics of debate in all of those cases - and other major crimes - the majority of the story is known and has been told. But the likes of the Lindbergh baby snatching, the Zodiac Killer, the JFK assassination, the murder of JonBenet Ramsey and the killings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.? They’ll stoke the fire of debate forever and a day.
The kingpin of unsolved murders, though? Without doubt, it’s The Whitechapel Murders. We’re talking about Jack the Ripper.
This year marks the 130th anniversary of the five killings and in all that time, no single crime spree has caused as much debate, theorising, argument or intrigue as these brutal sex worker killings. Who was Jack the Ripper? It’s a question that’s haunted true crime buffs for nearly a century and a half and a subject responsible for a thousand and one books and a million and two articles. So you’ll excuse us if we give discussion of Jack’s true identity something of a swerve here.
Instead, we’d like to focus on another question. Not ‘who?’ but ‘why?’ Why was Jack the Ripper never caught? Or more to the point, why was he never even identified?
Bear with us here. We’ve got a theory.
What if it were xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism which held back the investigation and ultimately saw the East End butcher live out the rest of his days a free man?
A Bit of Background
The East End of London in the late 19th century was a competitive place to exist in. Areas such as Whitechapel may still not be among London’s most desirable now, but compared to Victorian times, they’re positively glorious and gentrified little enclaves of multicultural harmony nowadays. Competition for jobs, houses and food back then was fierce. Employment opportunities existed, but the labour market was saturated.
The Industrial Revolution saw a boom in manufacturing and the docks provided plenty of employment for those unafraid of a bit of hard graft. But East Enders soon had rivals for those jobs. Economic migrants flocked to the English capital looking for work and employers were only too happy to hire them, given their proclivity to undercut the wages of local workers. Soon, there was unrest. Resentment grew and foreign voices were treated with suspicion at best and outright disgust at worst.
The East End didn’t just accommodate economic migrants, though. The eastern and northern boroughs of London were soon home to many refugees, many of which were Jewish and fleeing the pogroms of the Russian empire. As more and more people flocked to London, living conditions worsened. It didn’t take long for the rising resentment, suspicion and disgust to turn rabid. Non-English folk were being blamed for the situation and xenophobia thrived. If you were Irish, African, Italian or Jewish in working-class areas of London around this time, it’s safe to say that you weren’t exactly made to feel particularly welcome.
Savage Crimes Perpetrated by a Savage
"London lies today under the spell of a great terror...A nameless reprobate - half man, half beast - is daily gratifying his murderous instincts..."
That's how The Star newspaper described Jack the Ripper's impact in an article of September 8th, 1888. The mystery serial killer had stalked, attacked, killed and eviscerated five woman that the police knew about (and perhaps more that could not be definitively pinned on him). As Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly were laid to rest, paranoia and fear reigned in the city. Who was this ‘half man, half beast’? His wild and grotesquely ferocious crimes were so alien, people failed to understand them. How could a human being be capable of such atrocities? Furthermore, how could an Englishman be capable...?
The answer was simple: Jack the Ripper wasn’t from these shores. He wasn’t English. Only a brutish and animalistic savage from abroad could be responsible for killing and ripping apart young women in the manner that Jack did. At least, that was the prevailing attitude at the time, anyway. It soon became the overarching theory of everyone, including the newspapers, who were only too happy to detail unsubstantiated reports about the potential nationality of the killer if it helped shift copies. Information, tip-offs and clues would be ignored or honed in on by the press and public, depending on whether or not they backed up the theory that The Ripper was indeed foreign.
"We don't want your sort here, killing our women!"
Only a brutish and animalistic savage from abroad could be responsible for killing and ripping apart young women in the manner that Jack did.
People often used the murders as a stick to beat migrant workers with. It became a rather useful insult and seemed to justify the indignity that many Londoners felt about the worsening social issues they perceived as being made worse by immigration. It became almost convenient to common folk that the murders remain unsolved, as rumours and whispers about a killer from a ‘less civilized’ country lingered in the air. Especially as most working class people had nothing to fear. Provided they didn’t court their wares in an ankle-flashing dress in Whitechapel at midnight, they were safe from the butcher’s knife.
Only one 'witness' ever saw the Ripper and even then it was only from behind. Yet in the police report, the assailant was noted as being 'of foreign appearance'. Perhaps the woman who claimed to see him believed what she said. But was it true? Could it be true, given her rather limited view of the man? Maybe. Or perhaps she merely made an assumption about how The Ripper looked due to her conceivably xenophobic Victorian values.
While the public had seemingly made up their mind on the kind of person that Jack was, surely the Metropolitan Police remained open-minded and focused on his capture? Well, no. Not quite. The adamant belief in a moral superiority that was inherent to the English didn’t stop at the door of the local police station. Unfortunately for everyone concerned (with the exception of the killer), bigoted attitudes seem to have blighted the police investigation from the get-go.
It’s no great secret that the Met rather bungled the investigation. Granted, they didn’t have the modern policing techniques available today, but they did have basic police methods and best practice, which was often not followed. It could be argued that had they spent more time investigating the crimes effectively and less time looking busy and orchestrating a smear campaign against the Jewish community, they could well have caught their man. Instead, it seems that the majority of the assigned officers were far too busy spreading rumours and focusing most of their attention on false leads.
Police sketches of The Ripper all looked like Yiddish caricatures too, with laughably exaggerated features designed to make the culprit appear as ‘Jewish-looking’ as possible.
The Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the time said that the killer was Jewish and that his saying so 'was merely stating an established fact.' Based on, it transpires, pretty much no evidence whatsoever. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. So how was it ‘an established fact’ that he was Jewish? Police sketches of The Ripper all looked like Yiddish caricatures too, with laughably exaggerated features designed to make the culprit appear as ‘Jewish-looking’ as possible. The anti-Semitic nature of the police investigation is pretty clear.
If you go through the list of suspects at the time, so many of them were foreigners. It seemed that being born in another country and living in the East End instantly made you a suspect. Polish Jews, in particular, came in for rough treatment at the hands of the law. Scores were hauled in and interrogated. In part as a way to appear ‘active’ on the case and also - it may be argued - due to a certain amount of institutionalized anti-Semitism in the ranks.
It wasn’t just the police that bore the guilt of such deplorable and unhelpful behaviour. The coroner examining the case of the second victim, Miss Annie Chapman, noted in his assessment that the murderer had ‘displayed Judas-like approaches’. Which is hardly a neutral comment on the religion and ethnic background of the man responsible for the foul crimes, is it?
There's an interesting theory put forward by the Australian journalist Stephen Senise, who suggests in his book 'Jewbaiter: Jack the Ripper' that the killings were an elaborate frame-up designed to make Jewish Britons look bad. A false flag, in effect. A British man committed the crimes and intentionally left mocked-up clues to suggest that a Jewish person may be responsible. Because anti-semitism was so commonplace at the time, the public happily lapped up the idea of a Jewish killer, argues Senise, blind to the potential that it may have been a red herring.
The idea here is perhaps not that anti-Semitism was responsible for The Ripper evading capture and identification, but that anti-Semitism caused The Ripper. That anti-Semitism was the very reason behind the murders in the first place.
Is there any credence in this theory? Maybe. Maybe not. If there is, it certainly worked. The public were happy to believe that the butchery that went on was all part of some sort of bizarre 'Jewish ritual'. Still, it seems a little far-fetched.
So, then… Was xenophobia and anti-Semitism responsible for Jack the Ripper never being identified?
To attribute full blame to pervading attitudes towards foreigners and Jewish people in the Victorian era would be more than a little naive. Life is rarely simple enough for such tidy conclusions. But we think that the rising distrust of migrant workers from abroad certainly must have contributed to Jack the Ripper being able to conduct such vicious murders in such a crowded part of London so many times and not only evade capture but go unidentified for 140 years. A smokescreen of hatred was created, in effect. Perhaps the man responsible was smart, maybe he knew how to hide, throw the police curveballs and then disappear without a trace. But consider any of the serial killers that plied their sick trade since 1888. How many of them were Moriarty-style figures of a Machiavellian bent? And how many are just mentally-ill sociopaths that got away with it for so long because circumstances outside of their control allowed them to...?