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Jack the Ripper kicked off the world’s obsession with true crime. But what if we’re wrong about the serial killer?

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He is the subject of films, books, walking tours and high school history classes. His image is splashed across tacky T-shirts and shot glasses. He’s even the inspiration behind a London fish and chip shop called Jack the Chipper. 

But what if everything we think we know about Jack the Ripper is wrong? 

The serial killer who stalked the streets of Whitechapel in 1888 has spent the past century occupying an extraordinary space in Western mythology. 

For some, he is a real-life bogeyman, for others something akin to an anti-hero: The flamboyantly evil psychopath who walked among us, punishing women who had strayed from Victorian values.  

Jack the Ripper was the original cold case, the world’s first true crime obsession, and the reason women were warned against leaving their homes after dark.

But 133 years after his three-month-long reign of terror, some historians are starting to deconstruct the myth surrounding the man — or men — behind the Whitechapel murders. 

The women lost to myth 

Historians and amateur sleuths continue to debate exactly how many women were killed by Jack the Ripper, but it’s generally agreed that five murders in Whitechapel in 1888 were linked. 

The women who lost their lives were Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. 

At the time, many British newspapers harshly judged them, dismissing them as sex workers who paid the ultimate price for their risky lifestyles. 

A newspaper illustration depicts the moment a police officer discovers the body of Mary Ann Nichols. (Wikimedia Commons )

After the body of Elizabeth Stride was discovered in the early hours of September 30, 1888, the Southend Standard attempted to reassure middle-class women that they were not in danger. 

“It may be stated … that, although the miscreant avows to his intention of committing further crimes shortly, it is only against prostitutes that his threats are directed, his desire being to respect and protect honest women,” the newspaper claimed. 

However, one historian insists that only two of the five victims ever sold sex, and all of the women were vulnerable because they were homeless or struggling to find consistent housing. 

A group of women and children sitting outside on a London street, dressed in Victorian garb
In the Victorian era, Whitechapel was depicted as a “den of immorality” by the media, but it was largely occupied by families living in economic stress. (Wikimedia Commons )

“The more I looked for evidence of sex work, the more I found that it just simply wasn’t there,” Hallie Rubenfeld said of her research for a book and podcast on the women. 

“What I found, instead, was a lot of convoluted, confused definition of what prostitution was among the working classes and the poor. 

‘These were bad women, out at night’

Coronial inquests concluded that all the women were found dead in a reclining positions, with no signs of sexual activity or struggle. 

For Hallie Rubenfeld, that suggests at least three of the victims had curled up in a dark corner of Whitechapel to sleep because they could not afford lodgings for the night. 

A black and white photo of a man standing next to a seated woman, both in Victorian garb
Annie Chapman, believed to be Jack the Ripper’s second victim, was once a member of the Victorian middle class, but ended up in Whitechapel after her divorce. (Wikimedia Commons )

Ms Rubenfeld said that Jack the Ripper grips the public imagination because the victims have been recast as moral failures. 

“The media really pushed the idea that these women were asking for it,” she said.

“These were bad women, out at night. They were dispossessed. They were no longer the angel in the house, or a part of marriages and families. Therefore, they needed to be punished.”

What if there was no serial killer at all? 

While the victims are often forgotten in the tale of Jack the Ripper, the killer himself almost always takes centre stage. 

The Ripper has been immortalised — with considerable artistic licence, based on shaky witness testimony and tabloid reporting — as a cloaked gentleman with a dark secret. 

“London lies today under the spell of a great terror … a nameless reprobate — half man, half beast — is daily gratifying his murderous instincts,” the Star newspaper reported on September 8, 1888. 

A cartoon of Jack the Ripper depicted as a phantom stalking Whitechapel
Newspapers depicted Jack the Ripper as a beast, a phantom and a high-class gentleman punishing working class women. (Wikimedia Commons )

Wild theories persist that the serial killer was everyone from famed artist Walter Sickert, to Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor, to author Lewis Carroll. 

While some believe Mary Jane Kelly was the Whitechapel killer’s final victims, others insist his murders continued across Europe for many years. 

However, Trevor Marriott, a former murder squad detective who has studied the Whitechapel murders, believes Jack the Ripper may not have existed at all. 

“If you read the police reports, some say that only five of the victims were attributable to this killer,” ” he told the Mid-Sussex Times.

He believes similar murders in Europe around the time of the Whitechapel killings were potentially copycat crimes or simply coincidences. 

“There just isn’t a Jack the Ripper as such,” he said. 

Letters allegedly from the killer sent to authorities in which he calls himself Jack the Ripper have never been verified. 

An old letter in cursive writing with the address listed as "from hell"
A letter sent “from hell” to the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee has never been verified as communication from the killer. (Wikimedia Commons)

While some historians question the ongoing obsession with Jack the Ripper, the mystery remains a lucrative industry. 

A tourism operator who took joggers on a 10-kilometre running tour of the Whitechapel murder scenes this year was slammed online as “tasteless”, but went ahead anyway.

And self-described “Ripperologists” — amateur sleuths who study the murders — sell tickets to annual conferences to debate the identity of the killer.

However, for Hallie Rubenfeld, the identity of Jack the Ripper is irrelevant, and those interested in true crime should be more acquainted with the victims. 

“They died in hell, but they lived in hell, too — not least because they were female,” she wrote in her book. 

“Their worth was compromised before they even tried to prove it.”

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