Violence against women was not uncommon during the nineteenth century, but how did the Jack the Ripper case make this issue a public affair? How did gender and class affect public opinion on the murders?
In 1888, Great Britain was in the middle of the Victorian era and on the height of its international significance, mainly because of imperialistic strategies in order to abide British power by gaining resources from colonies. However, there were substantial depressions due to agricultural problems and foreign competition in regard to industrialization. Not only was the population growing rapidly but also the circulation of newspapers.
This novel media phenomenon led to a huge hype regarding the Jack the Ripper murders, focusing on narratives, Victorian fantasies regarding gender and sex, and a mixture of actual facts and imaginary ideas.
Within ten weeks, five murders of prostitutes took place within Whitechapel, a poor part of Eastern London. The press concentrated on various elements such as setting, mystery and motive of the homicides, possible suspects coming from different classes and circumstances, and the lives of the victims, transforming the case “into a national scandal” (201). Alone where the murders took place fascinated people since Whitechapel was regarded as “an immoral landscape of light and darkness” (193), where sins such as crime, prostitution and diseases were found, but which also represented a place to go to in order to get drunk and party among the working-class Londoners. Violence was quite common among streets in the “East End Murderland” (195) but the Jack the Ripper case focused national interest in the dark and dangerous side streets of Whitechapel. The media set the killings within the so-called “autumn of terror” (194) and was not able to find any precedents in order to judge Jack the Ripper murders. While the literature of the final years of the nineteenth century was pervaded by violence against women (199), the case put those themes into real life surroundings since some of the victims were severely mutilated by the killer. Soon, men, women and children in and around London knew about Jack the Ripper. They either read it in the paper, heard about in the streets or at least saw the big headlines, called out by newspaper boys in the streets.