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How Jack the Ripper Worked

The Legacy of Jack the Ripper
The "Dear Boss" letter, which gave Jack the Ripper his name, on display in London in 2008.
The "Dear Boss" letter, which gave Jack the Ripper his name, on display in London in 2008.
Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

When the ghastly handiwork of Jack the Ripper began turning up around Whitechapel, it marked the appearance of a new brand of killer. Jack wasn't the world's first serial killer, but he was undoubtedly the product of an increasingly industrialized Western society and the anonymity and isolation it produced. He didn't kill for money, to eliminate an enemy or punish a spouse -- the usual reasons for murder. The killings seemed random, and he caught the London police forces completely off guard [source: Sugden].

To catch this new breed of killer, criminology had to evolve. What is arguably the first crime scene photo was taken at Miller Court of Mary Jane Kelly, now standard procedure in police investigations [source: Fox News]. The technique of comparing the bodies of victims to establish M.O. was also borne out of the Ripper investigation [source: Gray]. One can argue that all modern forensic investigation techniques find their cradle in the Ripper murders.

The Ripper murders are also characterized by the media coverage they received. This was the first time a serial killer was given international coverage. The exposure spurred a rash of hundreds of letters. Although there's no proof that any of the Ripper letters were written by the actual murderer, they would prove to be a lasting legacy. Later serial murderers like the Zodiac Killer of the 1960s corresponded with the very media outlets that presented his crimes to the public. The press and serial murderers came to form a symbiotic relationship -- the media provide the renown many serial killers crave, and the killers provide fodder for reporters.

Jack the Ripper also had an immediate effect on London by exposing the existence of the poverty stricken lower classes. Prior to the murders, the wealthier classes were aware of social unrest stirring in the East End. A riot and a widespread demonstration by the poorer classes had spilled outside of East End two years before. But the slayings focused an international lens on this district and the quality of life of the people who lived in the developed world's slums. The playwright George Bernard Shaw pointed out that the gruesome murders succeeded where social reformers failed by managing to attract widespread attention to the area's conditions [source: Time].

Perhaps the most obvious legacy of Jack the Ripper is the lasting interest in the case, which has never really waned. The Ripper has remained a consistent draw in movies, at newsstands, on television, in tours and exhibits. The field of Ripperology is taken very seriously by those who do more than dabble in it. Many Ripperologists have written successful books, some of which have proven definitive sources on the subject of the murders.

This still doesn't fully explain why the Ripper's legacy endures. Certainly, the fact that a century later his identity has yet to be uncovered points to the continued interest. But a darker perspective was suggested by Alex Murray in 2004. We assume that the more civilization has developed, the more we've left behind our nightmarish capability of exercising brutality. Having emerged from the slums of developed society, Jack the Ripper stands as our best reminder of the potential violence latent in each one of us, no matter how civilized we become. As Murray writes, "The only thing to be revealed in the investigation of Jack the Ripper is ourselves" [source: Critical Survey].

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