These five women, all prostitutes by profession, were victims of an unknown assailant commonly referred to by the epithet Jack the Ripper, forming an official canon which excludes at least thirteen other cases around the same period of time. As Jack the Ripper was never identified or caught by the authorities, he has attained an almost supernatural status in London’s history and literature, somehow immortalised alongside other iconic figures such as Sherlock Holmes. And his killing ground, the East End suburb of Whitechapel, has become notorious in its own right.
In this article, I will discuss how Whitechapel developed as a Gothic location through the body of literature devoted to the Whitechapel murders of 1888, known as “Ripperature.” I will begin by speaking to the turn of Gothic literature towards the idea of the city as a Gothic space, before arguing that Whitechapel’s development into a Gothic location may be attributed to the threat of Jack the Ripper and the literature which emerged during and after his crimes. As a working class slum with high rates of crime and poverty, Whitechapel already enjoyed an evil reputation in the London press. However, it was the presence of Jack the Ripper that would make the suburb infamous into contemporary times.
In the nineteenth-century, there was a shift in the representation of space in Gothic literature. From the depiction of the wilderness and ancient buildings such as castles as essentially Gothic, there was a turn towards the idea of the city as a Gothic space. David Punter attributes this turn to Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s 1886 novel ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ The wild landscape is no longer considered as dangerous as the savage city of London, and evil no longer confined only to those of working-class status. However, it has been argued by Lawrence Phillips and Anne Witchard that Charles John Huffam Dickens may have been the first author to present London as a Gothic city, in particular, his description of Seven Dials in Bell’s Life in London, 1837, where the anxiety and unease of the narrator are associated with the place.
Furthermore, Thomas De Quincey uses Gothic imagery in his descriptions of London in his 1821 book ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,’ calling the city a “vast centre of mystery” (217). This was followed in 1840 with Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Man of the Crowd,’ in which the narrator follows a stranger through the labyrinthine streets of London, experiencing its poorest and most dangerous areas. At the end of the story, Edgar Allan Poe calls the stranger “the type and the genius of deep crime (…) He is the man of the crowd.” This association of crowds with the crime is also used by John Griffith London in his book ‘The People of the Abyss,’ published in 1905, where the author spent time living in the slums of the East End. Even William Blake could be considered to have used Gothic imagery in his description of the city in his poem London, written in 1794.
The Gothic city became a recognisable and popular trope in the fin-de-siècle, or end-of-century Gothic literature, in the last few decades of the nineteenth-century. This fin-de-siècle literature reflected the anxieties inherent in increasing urbanisation, wherein individuals lose their identity through their relationship with the city. Examples of fin-de-siècle Gothic literature include ‘The Beetle’ by Richard Marsh, published in 1897, and Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula,’ published in the same year. Evil is no longer restricted to foreign countries in these stories, but infects familiar city streets with terror, in a technique that is described as “everyday Gothic.” The Gothic city “is constructed by man, and yet its labyrinthine alleys remain unknowable (…) evil is not externalised elsewhere, but rather literally exists within,” said Woodford.
Prior to the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, Whitechapel had already been given an evil reputation in the London press, heavily influenced by William Thomas Stead’s reports for The Pall Mall Gazette, entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,’ in 1885. In these reports, Stead revealed how women and children were being sold into prostitution in suburbs such as Whitechapel. William Thomas Stead used extensive Gothic imagery in his writing, one of the most enduring being the image of London as a labyrinth with a monstrous Minotaur at its centre, swallowing up his helpless victims.
Counter-narratives about Whitechapel do exist, an example being Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, who attempted to demystify the East End by walking the streets of Whitechapel and interviewing its inhabitants in the 1860’s. Another is Arthur G. Morrison, who in 1889 dismissed the graphic descriptions of Whitechapel by other reporters as amusing to those who actually knew the area as a commercially respectable place.
However, the Jack the Ripper murders in the autumn of 1888 ensured that the Gothic image of the East End would become the dominant image in journalism and literature for centuries to come. Whitechapel was a working-class slum, associated with poverty and crime, and had a large Jewish and migrant population. Indeed the claim was made that “had Whitechapel not existed, according to the rationalist, then Jack the Ripper would not have marched against civilisation.” Whitechapel was known as London’s “heart of darkness (…) the ultimate threat and the ultimate mystery” as well said by Peter Ackroyd. Therefore, the reporters of the London press who visited Whitechapel during and immediately following the murders understandably imbued the suburb with a Gothic atmosphere in their articles.
One such newspaper article, ‘An Autumn Evening in Whitechapel,’ released in November of 1888, demonstrates these characteristics in its description of Whitechapel. The anonymous reporter, writing during the Jack the Ripper murders, describes the suburb as a terrible dark ocean in which there are human monsters, where a man might get a sense of what humanity can sink to in areas of poverty. This view was shared by many, including author Margaret Else Harkness, whose 1889 book ‘In Darkest London’ described Whitechapel as a monstrous living entity, and as a place of vice and depravity.
Gothic literary tropes were also already widely used in print media to describe murders and other crimes that happened in London, such as in the sensationalist newspaper The Illustrated Police News. An example of this is an illustration published in this newspaper after the murder of Marie Jeanette Kelly, showing the woman letting Jack the Ripper into her lodgings, with the caption “Opening the door to admit death.” Jack the Ripper is depicted as a manifestation of Death itself, with a grinning skull for a head and clutching a doctor’s bag filled with surgical instruments with which to perform his crimes. In the magazine Punch, Jack the Ripper was depicted as a phantom, the “Nemesis of Neglect,” representing the poverty of the East End, floating down an alleyway with his knife looking for more victims.
The Jack the Ripper murders were explained by London newspapers as “the product of a diseased environment where neglected human refuse bred crime.” Whitechapel became a Gothic space upon which civilisation projected their inadequacies and fears, as if “it had become a microcosm of London’s own dark life.” And in the wake of Jack the Ripper, this writing of Whitechapel as a Gothic space would only continue, with the birth of “Ripperature,” the body of fictional and non-fiction literature devoted to the murders.
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