In 1888, a terror gripped London as a mysterious series of grisly murders took place in Whitechapel. Dubbed “Jack the Ripper”, the mysterious killer murdered five prostitutes in the area and his identity was never discovered, even with Scotland Yard developing several new crimefighting techniques. London found itself in a near-panic over the killings, though that wasn’t as much the Ripper’s doing as it was the city’s newspapers sensationalizing his work. It’s believed that even the famous letter that gave the Ripper his name may have been the work of a journalist seeing to increase his paper’s circulation. Whether that’s true or not, it was London’s newspapers that transformed Jack the Ripper from a serial killer into a legend.
By the end of the 19th Century, tax reforms made it easier to publish inexpensive newspapers that were able to achieve a wide circulation. With some papers costing as little as a half-penny, it was easy to get news into the hands of the people and turn even the smallest of stories into city-wide gossip. The first strange murder that took place was that of Martha Tabram (or Turner) on 7 August. While not a member of the canonical five, Tabram’s death was the first reported in the news. Her body was discovered in George Yard near the Whitechapel High Street with 39 stab wounds, which is why her death was not considered canonical as the Ripper’s signature came to be the slashing of his victims rather than stabbing. The Daily News was the first to report the murder on 10 August, which reported, even more, the next day along with the East London Advertiser.
It was on 31 August that the first official victim, Mary Ann Nicholas, was found in the early hours of the morning on Buck Row. Nichols’s throat was slashed and her abdomen ripped open, making her the first canonical victim. The London Times appears to be the first paper to report on her murder on 1 September, reporting Nichols’s name as well as the gruesome details of her death and her occupation as a prostitute. Police began canvassing the area and interviewing Whitechapel’s prostitutes, who claimed that a man they called “Leather Apron” had been extorting them for money. It wasn’t long after this that a relatively new newspaper, The Star, reported on “Leather Apron”, suggesting that a single killer couple be responsible for the gruesome murders. Other papers picked up on the “Leather Apron” angle, adding stereotypically-exaggerated Jewish characteristics to their illustrations of this character, fueling anti-Semitism in the city. Police ultimately found no evidence identifying “Leather Apron” or pointing the finger at him for the murders, but the image created by the press remained.
Speculation on the killer, especially by London’s newspapers, would only grow as another body was discovered a few days later on 8 September. This would be the second canonical victim, Annie Chapman, who was killed in exactly the same manner as Nichols. The Guardian tied Chapman’s murder to the two previous killings and gave rise to the idea that London legitimately had a serial killer on its hands. In the meantime, police had arrested a man they believed to be “Leather Apron”, but he had alibis for the previous slayings and was released, putting to bed the idea (at least in Scotland Yard’s mind) that “Leather Apron” was the killer. Illustrated Police News was a popular periodical due to its easy-to-understand format, and it carried drawings to cover the murder from the condition of Chapman’s body to the locations under investigation.
It was during September that the first letters began flooding into the police and the newspapers. While some were meaningful attempts to help solve the crimes, there were many letters claiming to be the killer, adding fuel to the fire of hysteria. One letter in particular, which came to be known as the “Dear Boss” letter, would become one of the more notorious. The Central News Agency in London received it on 27 September, who passed it onto Scotland Yard. The letter was notable for its red lettering, its claim to “clip a lady’s ears off” which was proven true when Catherine Eddowes was found with her earlobe missing, and most famously, the signature of “Jack the Ripper”. The Metropolitan Police then released it on 1 October, in an attempt to discern if anyone recognized the handwriting. Facsimiles were published in multiple papers, and “Jack the Ripper” quickly replaced “Leather Apron” as the killer’s nickname. After the murders had ended, police stated their belief that the letter was a hoax from a local journalist, and one journalist supposedly confessed to drafting it and the “Saucy Jack” postcard to help increase business. It would become almost a standard practice for journalists to give nicknames to serial killers to increase the sensationalism surrounding their murders.
The horrific killings would continue through at least early November, with the last canonical victim being Mary Kelly on 9 November. Other killings would take place, but the methods or location would vary, leading police to believe they were not the work of Jack the Ripper. However, despite an end to the murder spree, the Ripper would live on in legend as his identity was never discovered, leading to an abundant number of conspiracy theories, nonfiction books, and fictional retellings of the Ripper murders. Jack the Ripper would become the first well-known serial killer in history, mostly because of the massive reporting on the murders both in London and beyond. Truly, it was London’s newspapers that helped to sensationalize the Ripper and give him eternal infamy.