Under the slayer’s sway ourselves, Fred J. Abbate, a philosopher, and I, a literary critic, wanted to find out. We took popular interest in Jack the Ripper to be a given. Buffs are everywhere, populating groups like the Whitechapel Society and Internet sites like the JTR Forums and Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Yet work on the case had long been dominated by these so-called Ripperologists, with academic involvement lagging behind. Despite some scholarly work going back 25 years, only in the past 10 (with two dissertations listed in the MLA Bibliography in the past three) has an academic literature begun to accumulate as the cultural turn in the humanities intersected with a widespread interest in true crime. Jack the Ripper is arguably the first publicly recognized “serial killer” (though the term was not coined until the 1970s), and the Whitechapel murders—as the Ripper case is decorously known—may be the first modern true-crime narrative.
A brief description of the case should make clear why it tantalizes not just true-crime addicts but sociology, cultural-studies, political, economic, and literary experts too, enough so that Abbate and I have planned a scholarly conference, “Jack the Ripper Through a Wider Lens,” to be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia on October 28 and 29.
Between August and November of 1888, five women, all allegedly prostitutes, were murdered in the impoverished Whitechapel district of East London. The victims—Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly—all had their throats cut, and, following their death, were all (with the exception of Elizabeth Stride, where the murder is postulated to have been interrupted) eviscerated with a brutality that became more extreme with each victim. The five murders displayed a similarity in technique and came to be referred to as the “canonical” Ripper murders—though there have been plenty of noncanonical ones, committed before and after, that might be the work of the same hand. Some Ripperologists include the 1907 Camden Town murder in North London; others maintain that Jack the Ripper left England after the Whitechapel killings, and that murders committed in South America bear his “signature.”