My Dissertation; An Analysis of Newspaper Representations of the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 and the Role the Media Played in the Infamy of Jack the Ripper


The dissertation was an 8,000 word analytical research project on the topic of newspaper representations of the Whitechapel murder cases of 1888. The dramatic and at times obsessive way the topic has been reported over the last 119 years, coupled with a personal interest in the case, it was compelling to conduct a research project into a subject of deep cultural significance to the history of an industry. Before carrying out this detailed project, personal experience was limited between the Ripper case and as a trainee journalist, the media industry. However, through the detailed research conducted, it has now been possible to combine two interests into one topic. With research particularly restricted to textbook and online sources due to the amount of time that has passed since the case, it soon became evident that the newspaper industry and the Ripper brand-name relied on each other to create a single media phenomenon. The critical outcome of the investigation has suggested that the media representation of a group of murders helped characterize a murderer into a commercially viable character.

Introduction & Background Information

The infamous Whitechapel murder spree of the autumn 1888 was a horrifying event that subsequently gave rise to the figure that is globally referred to as ‘Jack the Ripper’, a pseudonym first referenced on a letter sent to the Central News Agency on the 25th September 1888 and thus repeated on every newspaper the following morning (Evans & Skinner, 2001:16). The unidentified perpetrator, even one-hundred-and-nineteen-years later despite the advent of forensic tests such as DNA, committed five appalling acts of murder on local prostitutes in the squalid and run-down East London borough.

The typical murder by the serial killer was perpetrated on the street or alley in a public place; the victim was strangled to unconsciousness before the victim’s throat was cut, almost to decapitation, The London Times (Sept 1, 1888) reporting “Her throat was cut almost ear to ear” (Brown, R.J., 2005). Finally, perhaps most chilling of all, the body was mutilated. The removal of a couple of internal organs with such anatomical skill has led to the common theory that the perpetrator possessed good surgical knowledge, often leading to suspicions that the killer was a butcher or a doctor; “in the opinion of most of the surgeons who examined the bodies, most believed that the killer had to have some degree of anatomical knowledge to do what he did” (Ryder, 2006). Since he was never apprehended by police, this murderer has become one of history’s most infamous figures. A recent poll by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) revealed that “Jack the Ripper has been voted the worst Briton of the last 1000 years” (BBC News Online) underlying the lasting legacy of his actions. The Metropolitan Police themselves state “the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ has become the most famous in the annals of murder” (Metropolitan Police, 2006).

The media holds a unique control over the country and as such has the ability to influence and manipulate public opinion on a subject. The Political editor of the Sun Trevor Kavanagh was once “called the most powerful man in British politics” (Marr, 2004:186) by former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, which whilst an exaggeration underlines just how influential members of the media can.  During the late Victorian age, during the period which includes the Ripper reportage that shall be studied later on, the press industry held a great deal of power and their published work was taken seriously by a generation without internet or TV to offer them a different perspective on events unfolding. Curran (2002) states:

 during the nineteenth century the prestige and influence of press proprietors increased as a consequence of the growing circulations they commanded and an increased measure of political autonomy. Leading proprietors and editors were assiduously cultivated by government ministers and a growing number of them entered parliament (Curran, 2001:63)

Boyce (1978) further states that newspapers held a “claim for a recognized and respectable place in the British political system”. Known as the ‘Hypodermic Syringe Model’, “the relationship between media and audiences is conceived as a mechanistic and unsophisticated process, by which the media ‘inject’ values, ideas and information directly into the passive receiver” (Jewkes, 2006:9). This thesis shall analytically explore how representations of the media have thus influenced the continuous intrigue into the Whitechapel murders through its ‘injection’ of ideas to its audience. “Every day newspaper headlines scream for our attention with stories about crime designed to shock, frighten, titillate and entertain” (Jewkes, 2006:3). Using prominent representation theorists such as Stuart Hall and Nick Lacey, together with actual replications of newspaper reports from the Jack the Ripper killings this thesis will compose and construct a thesis on the particular representations of a sadistic killer and the role the media played in transferring an actual event into a global brand name. This dissertation will also aim to, using detailed research and analytical methods (refer to Methodology below) investigate the role of the media in the creation of a figure dubbed “Jack the Ripper”, in particular how specific newspaper representations of the murders helped fuel a cult following.


In order to effectively answer the question and satisfy all criteria, extensive research into the topic was needed, and formed the basis of the investigation.

Research can be defined as “an attempt to discover something” (Dominick & Wimmer, 2006). In reference to this investigation, the attempt is to discover how the media portrayed and represented the killer known as Jack the Ripper. This chapter will essentially be a critique on the methods, and the advantages and disadvantages of said methods.

Despite the actual murder case being 118 years old, the current plethora of books, magazines and theories being distributed and released each year provided a helpful introduction to the subject. The other aspect of the investigation, namely Representation Theory, suggested a harder, more detailed search for literature and as such required more effort. As defined by White (2003) “Research should be focused, not general” (White, 2003:21). On the basis of this academic observation, this analytical thesis was focused primarily on the representations of the murderer as depicted by the nation’s media of the time, as opposed to other, vaguer factors in the case.

Major methods in constructing a thesis come from undertaking concise and detailed primary research. This form of research, as the name may suggest, “involves firsthand observation and study by a researcher” (Berger, 2000). A noted problem in undertaking primary research was the difficulty in locating actual primary sources regarding the Jack the Ripper case. With a century elapsing since the event, much of the material generated from the killings has long since been rendered lost and/or destroyed. A major event which has adversely affected research on the case was World War Two. “The City was heavily bombed during the blitz. All four stations in the Square Mile received direct hits” (20th Century London, n.d.). This resulted in the research restricted to chiefly secondary resources and essentially literature. A piece of primary research that was possible however was the location of actual newspaper articles that were essential in analytically evaluating to understand and decode newspaper representations of the crime. For the purposes of reliability, the London Times, the so-called ‘paper of record’ for Britain and a paper historically connected with a high level of journalism, was used for this task.

With a case of such notoriety though, research on the case study Jack the Ripper was not difficult. Background information was essential in establishing a detailed case study capable of being integral to this dissertation. A major part of the research was many hours of intense reading on the subject of Jack the Ripper. As a character very much in the public eye, evidenced by the Johnny Depp –led Hollywood production From Hell (Smith 2006), information was fairly easy to come by. Within a period of twelve months, twenty-one books were released on the subject (Schachner 1996). Further investigation unveils that:

 since the appearance of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger in 1911, Jack the Ripper has inspired almost one hundred books and pamphlets, as well as countless articles, more than twenty films, a few operas, and at least one ghoulish comic book (Perry Curtis Jr, 2001:27)

With the plethora of books readily available, it was essential to purchase certain books to gain a wider understanding of the subject. Excursions to such book retailers such as WH Smith, Wetherstones and Borders offered little substance. Popular and commercial books such as ‘Uncle Jack’, ‘Ripperology’ and ‘Jack the Ripper: 150 Suspects’ offered little or no insightful observations of the media, preferring to focus on the intrigue and mystery of the brand name to sell rather than detailed theory. One particular book that was purchased as it was deemed a popular book written by reputable authors was Jack the Ripper: Letter from Hell (Evans & Skinner, 2001). The book is an analytical study on the famous ‘letters’ from persons claiming to be the killer, and investigates the legitimacy of the letters. A major aspect of the text is the role the press played in the letters and thus were they responsible for the creation of a media image through their representations of the letters. The book’s claim and investigation of journalists’ motives in possibly inciting a persona of the serial killer for their own purpose ensures the book’s importance in determining how the killer was represented. “Viewed in the context of the great press build-up, the true ‘Jack the Ripper’ can be seen as a bogeyman created by a sensation-hungry media” (Evans & Skinner, 2001:45). The book was also the cornerstone of the research process, as the content was varied, encapsulating different aspects of the case such as police suspects, journalist reports, police reports etc. A favourable review of the book which led to the purchase of the text was from the Centre of Metropolitan History: “It is an admirable example of the imaginative presentation of original source material, and of considerable interest to cultural and social historians generally, as well as Ripper enthusiasts” (Creaton, 2003)

Further searching was essential to unearth rare books that will offer greater emphasis on the topic that this dissertation is the focus on. Whilst bookshops do offer a great range of information, a drawback is that it takes time to go visit a bookshop, and even then they may night have the book in stock. An advantage of undertaking research in the 21st Century is the almost universal access to the Internet. Bradley (2002) states

The internet can be a very fast and effective way to communicate with other people or to retrieve information. A company report can be obtained in seconds, a bibliography can be compiled in minutes, and research that would otherwise take days may be completed in hours (Bradley, 2002:5).

With the lack of particular texts relevant to the investigation, the Internet offered an alternative method to locate rare texts. With many popular websites such as and offering millions of texts, (Bradley, 2002:111), it was possible to purchase books recommended by leading academics such as Steven Ryder of These online bookstores were also of use as they “sometimes also provide reviews of the books and links to books on related subjects” (Berger, 2000). Many of the books located and thus bought were rare books, some no longer in production. An example of this is the Quarterly Subscription Book Ripper Notes (Evans et al, 2005), which was purchased from and which is unavailable in the UK. Another text purchased through this method was ‘Jack the Ripper & the London Press’ (Perry Curtis Jr, 2001). As the name suggests, this book was integral to the research process as it focused primarily on the relationship between the killer and the press as one discussion, as opposed to two elements separately. As cited earlier about research being focused, this text was thus considered essential. A notable review of the book by Christopher Flaying, Rector of the Royal College of Art, London was featured on the back cover, “Jack the Ripper & the London Press gets behind the headlines and steel engravings to the ways in which the story was originally constructed: it is a major contribution to cultural history” (Perry Curtis Jr, 2001, Cover). Two chapters of note in the book were Chapter 3: The Theory and Practice of Victorian Journalism and Chapter 4: Sensation News. These two chapters helped gain an insight of the sensationalism nature of journalism which led to the representation of a murder as the Jack the Ripper persona. The following paragraph alone provides evidence of the sensationalist representations of the newspapers about the killer.

In the autumn of 1888, reporters dwelled on the ‘thrill of horror’ that ran through the country as a result of the atrocities taking place in Whitechapel. After dipping his pen in purple ink, one journalist wrote: “Horror ran through the land. Men spoke of it with bated breath, and pale-lipped women shuddered as they read the dreadful details. People afar off smelled blood, and the superstitious said that the skies were of a deeper red that autumn”. No doubt such hyperbole reflected the horrors of the Ripper’s mutilations. But when combined with the clinical details revealed by the police surgeons at each inquest, the resulting catalyst enabled most Fleet Street papers to attain new peaks in circulation (Perry Curtis Jr, 2001:77)

A slight disadvantage of this method is that some of the text’s are imported from America which thus drives the waiting time and the cost up, however this is a small inconvenience to gain valuable literary research on the topic.  A further advantage of the internet is the advent of online journals and texts, many of which are of a detailed and focused nature compared to books, as they tend to be shorter and to the point. As with searching for books online, the content of online journals tend to be more focused and as such can provide a more detailed and introspective theory. A downside however, is the questionable validity of the articles. Bradley (2002) mentions “you cannot automatically trust the information that you find on the web. Since no one is in charge of it, anyone is free to make available almost any type of information they wish” (Bradley, 2001:114).  It is considerably harder to secure a book publishing contract than it is to publish an article on the internet. Due to this, it was important to only find articles and other online texts through websites of good repute, such as Google Scholar, Athens and other academically supported institutions. Stebbins (2006) states that one must stick to ‘published resources’ on the net, scholarly texts which “has generally undergone some type of vetting process including editing, fact-checking, or peer review, making it a more reliable resource” (Stebbins, 2006:7). This peer review method, which involves “experts in a field reviewing and providing feedback on the work of other scholars before the publishing process is completed” (Stebbins, 2006:7), ensures the resource is valid and can thus be relied on to provide an accurate opinion.  Entering the name of the two prominent representation theorists Nick Lacey & Stuart Hall brought up a number of articles on their opinions which provided background information and valuable research on the topic. However, it was essential to ensure that all articles were trustworthy, which was done by making sure that they were referenced or recommended by an site.

The internet, as stated earlier, is a source of endless information on subjects as obscure as one can imagine. Hock (1999) states that “on an extensive study of the degree to which search engines cover the total content of the web, in the study, the researchers estimated that the web contains 320 million pages of information” (Hock, 2001:13). On a well-known topic such as Jack the Ripper, the amount of basic information available is endless. Entering “Jack the Ripper” alone into a universal search engine such as Google displays 1,540,000 potential results. This shows the internet has a large scope for information regarding even the vaguest of topics. However, there are downsides to this method; the search engines tend to return all the data they can receive, hence out of the 1.5m results, perhaps only 200 of them are relevant. “The search engines are unable to make any qualitative judgments on the value or authority of the information they find” (Bradley, 2002:9).

A prominent part of the research was the extensive and detailed library search. Library searches are critical to a detailed thesis, and help to “gain as much information as we can about a given subject before narrowing down the focus for our particular research project” (Berger, 2000:21). Numerous libraries were frequented in order to broaden the search for relevant information; however the two libraries of particular help were the University of Chester library and the University of Liverpool. An advantage of frequenting these libraries was the vast array of academic texts, as opposed to the more commercial offerings in the public libraries. A helpful aspect of a library search is that generally books of a common topic tend to be stacked together on same shelves, thus locating one book of interest leads to numerous other texts. As university libraries, a distinct advantage also was free use of the facilities, thus ensuring costs were negligible, allowing extensive hours of research on the topic at no inconvenience. The high-tech implementations at the library, namely the use of computer searches, also allowed focused research. Academic texts such as ‘Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices” by noted theorist Stuart Hall (1997) would be difficult to find unless bought from a specialist bookstore, however would be at an inflated price., an online bookstore noted for located rare books and selling at discount prices, lists this book on sale for £20.89 [1], whereas it is accessible for free from the University library.

Despite being a secondary research-based thesis, a form of primary research conducted would be the acquisition of actual newspaper reportage from autumn 1888 concerning the Ripper killings.  The newspaper clippings were then used as a form of content analysis in order to uncover and analyse representation. Content Analysis is “any systematic procedure devised to examine the content of recorded information” (Dominick & Wimmer, 2006). Combining this analysis with representation theory as retrieved from the secondary research helped ascertain a satisfactory evaluation to the thesis.  A disadvantage of this method is that whilst the available clippings available online are helpful, they still do not provide a complete historical record.  Due to circumstances beyond control, there were a few notable methods that were omitted. One such method that theoretically could have been of help would be interviews. Interviews are generally an integral part of researching a topic, as they help “find out about people’s ideas, their thoughts, their opinions, their attitudes, and what motivates them” (Berger, 2000:113). A further advantage to this technique is that “one can generally record interviews and thus have a written record that can be analyzed in detail” (Berger, 2000:113). Various disadvantages of this method is that interviews are difficult to conduct and involve a great deal of work, and the “information gained is always suspect” (Berger, 2000:125). A problem relevant to this thesis was the difficulty in contacting the relevant people. Representation theorists such as Nick Lacey and Stuart Hall could not be contacted, whilst the journalists that created the Ripper Reportage are now deceased.

Chapter 1: Theoretical Chapters

Chapter 1a: Introduction to General Representation Theory

Representation as an idea covers many broad areas, from Politics to Art, and from Law to Psychology. Within this thesis, the particular emphasis of representation will be on its effects in and around the Media world. Representation is partially defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The action of placing a fact, etc., before another or others by means of discourse; a statement or account, esp. one intended to convey a particular view or impression of a matter in order to influence opinion or action”  (Simpson & Weiner, 1989:659). Using certain facts, how a person can manipulate these facts, or concepts, into an opinion which can thus be used to influence and determine a third parties’ action is the basis of this thesis, with particular attention to the practice of representation in the media. Hall (1997) states that

Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language. It is the link between concepts and language which enables us to refer to either the real world of objects, people or events, or indeed to imaginary worlds of fictional objects, people and events (Hall, 1997:17).

It is an idea which allows people to ‘make sense of’ the world, to understand each other through their representation of a common subject. Representation allows people to express a complex through between each other.

“To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind by description or portrayal of imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in the senses” (Hall, 1997:16). Taking Hall’s perfect example, Christianity is a prime area of where representation is consistently in occurrence. Angels, Demons, Biblical Figures and the like are not characters of a common everyday occurrence to the average person, and as such Christianity, like the other main religions, relies on symbols and their ‘representation’ of what that symbol has come to mean. An example would be a Cross is a ‘representation’ of Jesus Christ, thus meaning a cross is used to depict Jesus in general everyday life as opposed to the physical person.

The cross simply consists of two wooden planks nailed together; but in the context of Christian belief and teaching, it takes on, symbolizes or comes to stand for a wider set of meanings about the crucifixion of the Son of God, and this is a concept we can put into words and pictures (Hall, 1997:16)

To take language as an example of representation and how it works, the separate elements of language i.e. sounds, words, gestures etc are meaningless when considered on their own. Individually they have no purpose. Collectively they construct a meaning and can portray an idea, they become signs; “they are the vehicles or media which carry meaning because they operate as symbols, which stand for or represent the meanings we wish to communicate” (Hall, 1997:5). Therefore, words are signs that represent ideas and feelings, and can thus be interpreted in any number of ways, from person to person and from language to language. It is vital to note that representation is crucial in helping to separate different cultures and nationalities. A ‘sign’ or ‘symbol’ in one culture/nation can be totally misinterpreted in another culture.  Hall states: “Visual signs and images, even when they bear a close resemblance to the things to which they refer, are still signs: They carry meaning and thus have to be interpreted” (Hall, 1997:19). A prominent example of this misinterpretation between cultures is evident with the Swastika. Traditionally a Sanskrit symbol loosely symbolising “well-being and good fortune” and travelling the “world as a good luck symbol” (Boxer, 2000), it is regularly featured on religious paraphernalia, particularly in Buddhism and Hinduism. Many temples feature the Swastika prominently and even on Indian currency [2]. In recent history the Swastika has been linked with the German Nazi party and Adolf Hitler, and as a consequence of the party’s racist ideology and the Holocaust has remained one of the most controversial and offensive motif’s in history [4]. As a consequence, the Swastika is still revered as a holy symbol throughout the Hindu world, whilst in western civilization the symbol is closely identified with white supremacy and racial hate, often resulting in confusion when the two cultures collide. In 2002 toys from China featuring the Buddhist symbol were mistaken in Canada as the Nazi symbol, causing distress to the families whom received the unfortunate gift [3]. Such is the difference in the representations of the Swastika, whilst one culture identifies the simple symbol as a holy item which is government-approved, Germany determines the symbol to be illegal as defined by its Criminal Code: “means of propaganda, the contents of which are intended to further the aims of a former National Socialist organization, shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine” (Dannemann, 2001). Hence, the Swastika is a prime example of an image and word which has substantially different interpretations depending on the culture the receiver hails from.

Chapter 1b: Media Representation

A subgenre of the umbrella-term ‘representation’ is media representation, simply representation with particular emphasis on the media industry. “Representation, in the press as in all other kinds of media and discourse, is a constructive practice. Events and ideas are not communicated neutrally, in their natural structure, as it were” (Fowler, 1991). The press, due to restrictions such as the particular editorial structure of each paper, is partially forced to alter its writing style and can thus alter the reality of the situation. Mackinnon (2001:24) states that there are many differences and contradictions between life as shown in the media and the lives lived by the majority of people. The Ideology and discourse used in creating the press can indeed help to “shape, rather mirror the world” (Fowler, 1991:4). With the media commanding a sizeable amount of power, as stated earlier, it is possible for them to construct news that is not entirely retrospective of the event that has taken place, and can thus influence the reader into accepting and digesting values and ideologies that are not entirely true. Fowler (1991) believes that the perception of newspaper coverage being hard facts is wrong, but is rather ideas. Ideology is a world view, considered a coherent system of beliefs which are thus used to make judgements about society. There exists a dominant ideology, “which inflects everybody’s perception of the world” (Lacey, 1998:98). Lacey (1998) further states that it is impossible to know the real world, there are only different ways of interpreting what is happening, ‘ways of seeing’ the world using different ideologies. Ideologies are often a set of ideas which only give some account of the social world, usually a partial and selective one for the benefit of the person/organisation supplying the idea.

An example of an ideology with different interpretations between cultures is the physical appearance of a person which in the developing countries can signify malnutrition and starvation. Presently, a toned slim body in the western world can signify a careful diet and affluence to afford healthy food and gym memberships. Similarly, certain newspaper groups have ideologies that are apparent in their writing style. They use their ideologies in for their own gain. A prominent example of a newspaper changing ideologies for their own personal gain would The Sun, a newspaper which had generally portrayed the right-wing ideas of conglomerate owner Rupert Murdoch. In 1997, possibly sensing the change in government from Conservative to Labour, and the need to maintain co-operation with a new government for political purposes, as well as the need to maintain its now-primarily Labour-supporting readership, Murdoch instructed his paper and its journalists to support Labour Leader Tony Blair (Street, 2001:133). It can be considered that the lexical content of the newspaper “is constructed according to the stylistic and ideological conventions for editorials” (Fowler, 2001), the voice is institutional rather personal. This implementation of ideologies from editors onto their journalists creates writers constituted by the discourse which is in turn a reflection of the ideology.

Discourse is a group of statements which provide a language for talking and representing the knowledge about a particular topic (Hall, 1992:291).  Discourse can be considered ideology in action. An idea of the current bourgeois ideology is that education is an essential part of life, thus the discourse of this ideology would be subjects of education, namely English, Maths and so on (Lacey, 1998:106). Using the previous example of the Sun, their discourse in the run-up to the 1997 General Election reflected the ideology of the paper, supporting Blair and running down the opposition. Such a statement as “it is Blair’s final election and he deserves one last chance to fulfil great promises he keeps making” (Hall, Burt & Symon, 2005) reflects the paper’s thoughts and can attempt to influence reader’s opinions. An aspect of discourse analysis that is particularly useful in determining the representations of a subject in the media is linguistic analysis. “Words convey the imprint of society and of value judgements in particular – they convey connoted as well as denoted meanings” (Richardson, 2007:47). The use of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs all help to create meanings to the text, to influence, persuade and offer ideological views about the subject. Adapted from Richardson (2007:48), an example upon where discourse is used to shape an actual event is the reporting of the Iraq war. Whereas it could be argued that Britain and America have conquered Iraq, the adjective ‘conquer’ suggests mass murder and an unlawful invasion, which would be counterproductive to represent Britain as the good people. The word ‘liberate’ is used instead, suggesting Britain are freeing the people in an act of goodwill, thus altering the representation of the war to paint Britain as the ‘good guys’.

Sex attacks often use discourse to influence the reader and to portray, or represent, the perpetrator as an evil man incapable of adapting to a civilized social life. Perpetrators, despite a lack of intimate knowledge of the person in question, are regularly described as ‘maniac’, ‘monster’, ‘fiend’ or even ‘beasts’. The terms, which would suggest the person of having sub-human and animalistic characterizations and tendencies, helps to create a represented image of the attacker, oblivious to the full facts of the case. The use of adjectives and verbs by the newspaper industry also help create ideas in the mind of the reader about the subject, thus creating or enforcing representative views about the subject. The Sun ran a headline on March 2, 2005 of ‘This illegal immigrant drink-driver killed a boy in an uninsured motor. The sentence in 8 weeks’. The editor had decided that the wickedness of the man’s action was not enough; he felt the need to destroy the man’s character and to represent the driver as an illegal immigrant, despite evidence further into the article which suggests he was not technically illegal by governmental criteria (Richardson, 2007:51). This use of discourse to create representation is a conceptual tool named the ‘Ideological Square’ by Teun van Dijk. It is essentially a way of perceiving and representing the world, prominently through ‘our/us’ and ‘their/them’ methodology. The square states that generally ‘outsiders’ of various types will traditionally be negatively represented whilst ‘insiders’ receive a positive representation. Negative characterizations of the outsiders are prominently featured, whilst the positive characteristics of the insiders receives attention. This is featured clearly in the press industry, where lexical discourse such as “sneak attacks”, “without provocation”, “demented”, “their” and “kill” were used to describe Iraq during the Gulf War whilst terms such as “we”, “liberate”, and “our boys” provide positive representation of Britain in the British press, part of an overlying paper ideology of Britain-good, Iraq-bad (Richardson, 2007:48).

Re-presentation has also been used by the media to depict figures and persons, to the point where public opinion through this media re-presentation is convinced that it is fact. Certain objects, and individuals, will carry specific ideas and connotations and will become associated with signs and particular meanings. The President of the USA possesses connotations of power and world leadership, emphasised through the media as the importance to which every detail of his leadership is diligently reported (Lacey 1998:132). The media will take a person or a group and will then re-present it in their own vision, possibly for their personal gain. To once again use the example of The Sun, they re-presented Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 General Election as the man to drive Britain forward, possibly with the personal gain of a close relationship with the new Prime Minister. A prominent aspect of media representation is stereotyping. This concept emphasises that however realistic media images may seem, they never present the world direct, rather they are always a construction, a re-presentation of the real (Branston & Stafford, 2006:141). Stereotypes are widely circulated ideas or assumptions about a particular group, generally a categorization of people with similar features or behaviour. A student is stereotyped as lazy; sexually promiscuous; into soft and hard drugs; dress scruffily; poor; and politically left-wing (Lacey, 1998). This stereotyping, just as they often are, is commonly erroneous in content but remains rigid and does not tend to change. MacKinnon (2003:23) debates that the dominant ideology controls and determines attitudes, and will not only dominant, but will ‘normalize’. Thus the stereotypical view of a topic/person will become the universal and natural idea. The purpose of stereotypes is to enable each person, using their cultural maps detailed earlier, to gain an understanding from everyday life and to navigate through the wide mix of different people with different cultural maps.

Without stereotypes, particularly in the media, it would be hard to inform the reader of a particular person or event taking place and the meaning behind it. As with discourse, stereotyping can be linked to ideology as “Stereotypes are not true or false, but reflect a particular set of ideological values” (Lacey, 1998:139). Racism is still a prominent aspect in stereotypical views, where black people have great athletic prowess or are criminals, German people have no humour and Indian people are all doctors. Lacey (1998) believes that black people’s suffering of racism is stemmed from the ideological concept that during slavery they were characterized as docile, lazy, untrustworthy, ignorant and simple, characterizations that still persist today despite evidence to the contrary. Media representations also tend to reflect the dominant ideology of the time and era, presenting the event in a way that they consider the general public would feel about it. For example, the Indian film industry has regularly portrayed sexual violence in their films, with a sizable amount of this perpetrated by the hero, as evidenced in a study done by Oliver & Ramasubramianian (Carter & Weaver, 2006:218). The incidence of sexual violence against women is common in India, as it tends to be in “societies that have male-dominated ideologies and a history of violence” (Carter & Weaver, 2006:210), and as such this is reflected in the media. With men regularly considered the dominant person in a relationship on the Indian subcontinent, the films reflect this portrayal leading to feminist scholars particularly concerned that “popular films in India too often portray women in stereotypical roles of subordination – accepting sexual violence as a normal part of relationships with men (Dasgupta & Hedge, 1988:209). The consumption of numerous instances of this violence on women has led to it becoming a minor deal, thus desensitizing the recipient. The way the media represents the women, whereupon the woman is attacked yet still accepts the perpetrator into her life, leads to a lack of sympathy for the victim as it is something that is expected to happen. We shall now use a case study to examine this theory.

Chapter 2: Case Study

 After analysis and understanding the wide variety of representational theory, it is time to apply a specific case study to the theory and evaluate how concise the theory actually is. The case chosen, as outlined in the introduction above, is the Jack the Ripper case of 1888, a case inundated with newspaper reportage throughout the prevailing century since, allowing evidence to be gathered without too much difficulty, thus allowing the results to be more concise. Jack the Ripper was a killer during a time where the East End was a poverty-stricken slum. Jacob Adler, a noted actor of the time would once state: “Never in Russia, never later in the worst slums of New York, were we to see such poverty as in the London of the 1880s” (Adler, 1999:232).

In such an area, the cesspool of British Victorian society, murders were not a rare occurrence. Six months before the first of the Ripper’s ‘canonical’ killings, prostitute Emma Smith was viciously murdered by three unidentified ruffians in Whitechapel, and three weeks before the first of the Ripper’s victims Martha Tabram was found stabbed 39-times, once again by an unidentified assailant (Evans & Skinner, 2001:2). Despite the deaths, the media and its reporting did not accord any great significance to what was a fairly common occurrence, which makes the future media circus more significant. Beginning with the third murder in Whitechapel that year, the press suddenly abandoned more mediocre political reporting and, at the birth of the new era of sensationalist journalism, adopted the Whitechapel murder’s as their lead story. Despite spreading his five killings over three months, the enterprising reportage of the journalists ensured papers were selling record amounts. “In the wake of Annie Chapman’s murder, the Star’s circulation soared to 261,000 copies a day, then dipped down to 190,000 in mid-September, and rose again to 217,000 during the first week of October, the third murder” (Perry Curtis, 2001:59). During the five-week interval between the ‘double-event’ and the final vicious murder of Mary Kelly the press kept the story alive using their intuition and inventive theories, filling the news with anecdotes, rumours, false reports and conjectures. How they achieved this is through their representative notion of a killer; they created a stalking demon armed with a knife who was unattainable.

“National sensations were comparatively few until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the removal of ‘taxes on knowledge’ made newspapers affordable for the first time to the less privileged – who were particularly sensation hungry” (Diamond, 2003:1). With sensationalism seemingly now selling newspapers by the hundred-thousand, editors subsequently demanded a new ideology from their writers, they demanded crime news take the lead from politics, or with the Conservative papers using crime to enforce political reform. The conservative papers altered their ideology to include the Ripper case, using it to demand drastic reform of Scotland Yard whilst accusing the government of failing to solve the investigation (Perry Curtis, 2001:116). With Whitechapel considered one of the worst slums in the civilized world, an area with no law and no order, rampant with alcoholism and prostitution, the newspapers had been long calling for governmental intervention. They were also infuriated with the lack of police cooperation with their reporting, who kept the newspapers at arm’s length and used this irritation to highlight the lack of police action in their articles (Rumbelow, 1988:72).

With the Ripper killings catching the imagination of the nation and in particular the higher classes and aristocracy, the ideologies of the newspapers changed to shine a light on the poverty of the east-end. The Morning Post of September 12th, 1888 focused on the hideous conditions that underlay the murders, stressing “the daily sins, the nightly agonies, the hourly sorrows that haunt and poison and corrupt the ill-fated tenants in those homes of degradation and disease” (Perry Curtis, 2001:134). The brutal murders had helped to tear away the veil hiding the misery of tens of thousands of people in the richest city of the world, finally supplying the press with the ammunition needed to appeal to the higher classes for reform. Perry Curtis (2001:51) further states that journalists use news of criminal or deviant behaviour to convince readers that a serious problem afflicts society. The press implemented Van Dijk’s ideological square theory of “you/us” and “them”, reporting of the degradation of the lower classes (them) to the middle/higher classes (us/you) in their push for economical reform. Although the newspapers’ push for reform was not entirely successful, it did help to publicise the disgraceful conditions of supposedly the ‘greatest city in the world’ and slowly but surely the conditions were improved. Fowler (1991) stated that the press did not simply provide hard facts, but ideas and the media provided the idea that an evil ghoul was in Whitechapel, partially created through the  reality of murders and their own agenda of reform.

A principle way they created the mystery surrounding a killer was through the discourse they used in their work. As stated earlier, Hall (1997:5) considers the collective usage of words to create an idea that is then consumed by the reader. Richardson (2007:47) pertains that the use of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs all help to create meanings to the text, to influence, persuade and offer ideological views about the subject, all evident within the reportage of Ripper journalists. The first murder report in the August 10th London Times [5] was fairly innocuous as the series of murder’s were not yet evident, restricted to an impersonal (terms such as ‘the deceased’ and ‘life extinct’) reference to the woman, whilst containing a small element of mystery with the statement “Witnesses saw no footmarks on the staircase, nor did he find a knife or other weapon” . The second murder however began to garner some attention from the media as it was a second killing in quick succession as well as the morbidity involved in the murder. With the adjective “another” in the title of “Another Whitechapel Murder” from the September 1st edition of the Times [6], the journalists appear to attempt to create a small degree of panic amongst the reader, captivating the recipient. They additionally inundate the article with many place-names including “Buck’s Row, Whitechapel”, “the church and at the corner of Osbourne Street” and “Windsworth Common”. The references to such places helps add familiarity to the reader, making them aware that this murder is in places they are likely to have heard about or even frequented. The numerous references to these places had the ulterior motive of informing the higher classes and aristocracy of where exactly these horrific murder’s were taking place, enforcing the media’s ideology of attracting attention on the slums of the east end of London. With a secondary ideology of selling newspapers through reporting of crude events, various adjectives are in use in the article which began to shape the killer’s persona, such as “murder of the foulest kind” and “with what motive is at present a complete mystery”, reflecting Fowler’s (1991:4) observation that the media shape rather than mirror the world. The media had begun to create a myth. The Victorians took a morbid interest in the injuries sustained by their unfortunate contemporaries, Perry Curtis (2001:77) reasoning that “graphic gore attracted readers of all ages and both sexes”. This need for gore and images of violence had helped propel the newspaper industry into the sensationalist era and helped fuel the dramatic rise in paper circulations.

The Ripper reportage contained vast amounts of descriptive prose on the mutilations suffered by the victims, subsequently selling newspapers and feeding the publics lust for blood whilst creating a ‘bogeyman’ figure. With each passing murder, the newspaper reportage increased in quantity and description, culminating in the report after the death of the final victim Mary Kelly. The report in the London Times on November 10th, 1888 [7] was the culmination of the reportage, particularly with the gruesomeness attached to the article, a by-product of entertaining the reader whilst adding to the infamy of the killer. The introductory paragraph helps link the other killings to this one, adding to the growing myth around the murderer – “The character of the mutilations leaves very little doubt that the murderer in this instance is the same person who has committed the previous ones, with which the public are fully acquainted” [7]. The article partially states “her throat had been cut from ear to ear” as well as “the kidneys and heart had also been removed from the body, and placed on the table by the side of the breasts. The liver had likewise been removed and laid on the right thigh”. This form of detailed grotesque reporting was shifting newspapers in record amounts and pushed the papers to cover their papers with any form of reporting about the case, from editorials and articles to interviews and letters.

The press exploited the murders to the fullest extent. Perry Curtis (2001:200) states that the most obvious feature of Ripper news was the “sheer volume of space assigned to the slayings, the inquests, and the police investigations”.  All the column inches had the purpose of using descriptive discourse to represent the killer as an evil character. Despite the obvious observation that the killer was a person with a ruthless streak, the press appeared to overdo the reporting and cast the killer almost as the devil reincarnate, thus re-presenting a savage, although not particularly unique, murderer. Regular verbs and adjectives were used in reference to the killer included “a most revolting and fiendish character” [7] and “the man must have been a perfect savage” [6] whilst commonly using adjectives such as “fiend”, “ghoul”, “monster” and “assassin”. When the first of the infamous stream of letters was published, the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was thus gleefully used by the media around which they built their media personality. Despite the actual killer not strictly being a stereotype as he is unknown, it is true that the murdered was used to convey a set of ideological values as evidenced by Lacey (1998:139). With the press regularly representing the killer as a fiendish character and a ghoul, with the name Jack the Ripper they began to characterise the unknown killer and inadvertently created a degree of infamy around the event. The reporting regularly stated the killer wore “a black moustache, a black silk hat, a black coat” [7]. This view, regularly reported over the autumn gave rise to an idea of what the killer was like and was judged by some to be a stereotypical view of a Jewish man at the time, who where amongst the prominent suspects at the time. The media “conjured up a generic male suspect – dark-complexioned, black-bearded, black-coated, and ‘foreign-looking’ – in short a stereotypical Jew living in the East End” (Perry Curtis, 2001:16). As Lacey (1998:139) believes that black people’s struggle with racism today is down to centuries-old ideas about their characteristics, fitting in with the ideological square theory about positive notations for ‘us’ and negative for ‘them’, the murderer’s burgeoning characterisation in the press of the day has over the intervening century seemingly become fact, indeed, it has attained infamy. Such modern films as the Scream series, an unidentified slasher with a knife in a draping black costume, achieved success in the mid-90’s as has the whole ‘whodunit’ industry, all of which can be attributed to the original representation, and thus creation of the character through reporting designed to sell newspapers. Despite the last killing considered to be in November 1888, the next few years every murder in the east end was an attempt by the press to link to the Ripper and squeeze a few more sales from the case (Perry Curtis, 2001:210). This would actually continue to the present day, the ‘brand name’ considered a money-maker in the industry.

An interesting development of the representation of the murders was that in the future, serial killers were subsequently afforded persona’s if they as yet unidentified, famous ones include the Son of Sam and the Boston Strangler. A current event in the British press is the ‘Ipswich Ripper’, which despite this killer having never ‘ripped’ or stabbed his victims, the obvious link has been perpetrated with newspaper sales and familiarity the editorial ideology behind it (BBC, 2006).

A curious observation of representation and the effects of it in this case is the subsequent modern portrayal of the Ripper as a hero-villain, evidenced by the continuous stream of books and studies as well as the growing memorabilia around what is critically a murderer. This sort of representation has not been afforded such a killer as Ian Huntley, who is portrayed as a beast. This could be down to the cross-representation of their victims. Huntley victims were represented as two happy and loving ten year old girls innocently lured to their deaths by the evil Huntley (BBC, 2002). The Ripper victims however were prostitutes, which at the time were an undesirable class at the bottom of London’s society, and the paper’s stereotypically represented them as such. Regularly using the adjective “unfortunate” [7] before woman, they were ensuring that readers were aware that these were not women of class, and as such sympathy was not rendered an emotion when reading. This led to growth of the Ripper phenomenon without attention being diverted away to emotional attachments to the women. The women’s reputations were regularly tarnished with quotes such as “addicted to drink”, “living an immoral life” and “walking the streets”, an euphemism for prostitution. Such representations may have indicted a sense of misogyny that the journalists were trying to convey to the chiefly male readership. As understood earlier, this could be a portrayal of a male-dominated ideology in a male-dominated society which the Victorian Era was (Carter & Weaver, 2006:210). As with the Indian Film Industry, the media reported the killings in a way they felt the blood-lusting public with no sympathy or respect for the prostitutes would want. It was purely factual based, how they were killed and who they were. There were no sympathetic feelings or grief over the death or the effects for the victim’s family.

As stated earlier, the press, due to restrictions such as the particular editorial structure of each paper, is partially forced to alter its writing style and can thus alter the reality of the situation. The Ripper case was so extravagantly reported that reality may have become blurred with ideology. Perry Curtis (2001:266) considers that the popular image of Jack the Ripper is of a killer wearing a top hat and black coat, seamlessly wandering in and out of Whitechapel leaving behind a mutilated prostitute. The press also regularly changed its mind on the ethnicity of the killer from Jew to eastern European or a gang of English ruffians. All of this could have had a bearing on the outcome of the case, with their interruption and critical analysis of police failures all contributing to the infamy of the unknown killer.  Mackinnon (2001:24) states that there are many differences and contradictions between life as shown in the media and the lives lived by the majority of people and with the plethora of newspaper reporting, the reality of the killer could be much different from the historical perception.


Jack the Ripper has become a staple of British history, enshrouded in mystery, myth and folklore throughout the 119 passing years. The killer has reached such notoriety that he was named in a BBC poll as the ‘worst Briton of all time’ (BBC, 2005). A simple search on renowned online bookstore for Jack the Ripper supplies 4,707 books [8] whilst a further indication of the killer’s infamy is that a search on returns 1,330,000 results. This is roughly half the results of arguably one of the world’s most famous faces of the modern age, David Beckham [9]. In 2001, the Ripper was further immortalised in a big budget Hollywood movie “From Hell”, introducing him to a newer generation of people.

The plethora of other form of mediums through which the Ripper name continues to survive includes the ‘Chamber of Horrors’ waxwork at Madame Tussauds, the number of memorabilia websites and even daily Ghost Walks around Whitechapel to take in the scene’s of the murders for yourself. Jack the Ripper continues to be a money-making brand name for all involved and continues to be as interesting as ever for so-called ‘Ripperologists’. It is debateable however just how notorious this case would be without the extensive media involvement. Without the way the media covered the five murders, which whilst still brutal were not an isolated occurrence of Victorian Britain, Jack the Ripper would merely be a Victorian era killer possibly forgotten within a few years of his attacks or until the next batch of murders was committed in a rough and poverty-stricken East End. The case happened to occur during the rise of the sensationalist tabloid era and with the media particularly displaying displeasure to the government and police about the social and economical afflictions with a poverty-stricken East End, the case provided a convenient basis for their action. The Jack the Ripper phenomenon does not appear to be slowing down soon, a testament to the true power the media holds. As Ryder (2006) states: “The press was also partly responsible for creating many myths surrounding the Ripper and ended up turning a sad killer of women into a ‘bogeyman’, who has now become one of the most romantic figures in history”



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2 thoughts on “My Dissertation; An Analysis of Newspaper Representations of the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 and the Role the Media Played in the Infamy of Jack the Ripper

  1. marion trestler

    Hi, just wonder whether you came across an archive of the Star evening newspaper, defunct now since 1960?
    It would be a great help to me if you have –
    many thanks

    • Rachael Preedy

      Hi Marion

      I am also doing a Jack the Ripper dissertation, and I went to Colindale Library (Edgeware) to view the microfilm of the Star during the Autumn of 1888. You can make copies of pages and articles too.


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