Friday, October 9, 2015

Who was Jack the Ripper, and does it matter?

I was a bit stuck for a blog post, and then I thought - what about the greatest historical mystery of them all? Have they really discovered the true identity of Jack the Ripper?
I think they have, and to be honest, it wasn’t my favourite candidate. But it works, and it’s convincing enough for me. But I think a lot of folks have got it wrong. It wasn’t the identity of the killer, it wasn’t even the horrible nature of them. The reason the case became so notorious was because of something else.
People have gone nuts looking for the identity of the first documented serial killer, the first one to be classified as such, but if you start looking around the case, at the history behind it, the picture gets a lot clearer.
The Ripper murders took place in the 1880’s, a decade of change for the police force. The new-fangled idea of a civilian police force had come into society after Peel’s Act of Parliament in 1832, but the demands for one had started long before that. However, by the 1880’s, two pressures were starting to demand changes. The legal system had gone through huge changes. People were now locked away in large prisons as punishment, a new way of looking at correction procedures. The decade of reform in the 1870’s had changed the way society looked, and the way people viewed things. It was becoming obvious that the large, industrial conurbations required more vigorous policing than they had before.
Before the Ripper stalked the East End, other murder cases had seized the public imagination, but these were generally not of the gruesome kind. The Bartlett case, the Maybrick case (James Maybrick was another candidate for Jack the Ripper until his “diaries” confessing the crime were shown to be fakes) and the mystery of the Red House were domestic cases involving characters and social concerns. They had a story.
The Ripper case had nothing. Even the perpetrator was a mystery, and in all likelihood, if he was exposed, his name would have been unknown to most. The women who were savagely murdered were the lowest in society, the ones who barely survived by selling their bodies, and having sordid encounters in the streets.
But the extensive reporting, especially in the Police Gazette drew public attention to a series of murders that might have been swept under the carpet before. That’s the real mystery, and one I don’t have an answer to. Why those? Why not the other women who were found murdered in London, especially prostitutes?
I think it was probably an accumulation of events. The prominence the papers gave to the case was certainly one. Then there was the other novel element. Photography. The Ripper case was the first in which photography was an official part of the case, used to record the appearance of the women in the morgue. There was no thought to recording the scene that way, or the body as it was found--all that came later--but this was a real start to what would become a police science.
Although the photographs weren’t officially released at the time, they were known about, and it became obvious to the officials in the case that the camera was a vital tool in investigations.
Shortly after the Ripper case, fingerprints were collated and began to be used officially. It was a science in its infancy, but by the end of the nineteenth century, was becoming well incorporated into the investigative procedure.
One aspect of the Ripper case also pointed up a weakness in the policing of London. For one of the murders, another force was involved. The police connected with the case came from two areas, and they didn’t work together too well. After the case, a huge reform of the Metropolitan Police took place, paving the way for the modern policing era.
The Ripper case was probably the last one in which the only way to prove the perpetrator did the deed was to catch him red-handed. After that, the collection of evidence was improved until it became possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt who did the deed.
That’s why the case is important. It’s what it set in train, not the events themselves.
Oh, the identity? For me, the DNA evidence on the shawl owned by one of the victims tends to put the final touch on the murderer’s identity. Kosminski, a Polish immigrant, was in the right place at the right time, had the right kind of background, ie he fitted many of the profiling points associated with serial killers, and he had a certain skill at butchery, which would have enabled him to remove the kidney from one victim and the uterus from another in clean, straight sweeps of the knife.
But in truth, it doesn’t matter. Because the man who did it (most agree that it was a man) is long dead. It’s almost certain that he wasn’t anyone important, nobody famous or wealthy, and someone whose name means nothing to us, except when he was associated with the murders.
What happened afterwards is more interesting.

Lynne Connolly
http://lynneconnolly.com
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