Not of This Earth: Jack the Ripper and the Development of Gothic Whitechapel

Hannah Irwin


On the night of 31 August, 1888, Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols was found murdered in Buck’s Row, her throat slashed and her body mutilated. She was followed by Annie Chapman on 8 September in the year of 29 Hanbury Street, Elizabeth Stride in Dutfield’s Yard and Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square on 30 September, and finally Mary Jane Kelly in Miller’s Court, on 9 November. These five women, all prostitutes, 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 time. As the Ripper was never identified or caught, he has attained an almost supernatural status in London’s history and literature, 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 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 that would make the suburb infamous into contemporary times. 

The Gothic Space of the City

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 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 (Punter 191). However, it has been argued by Lawrence Phillips and Anne Witchard that Charles 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 is associated with place (11).

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 Allen 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, Poe calls the stranger “the type and the genius of deep crime (...) He is the man of the crowd” (n. p). This association of crowds with crime is also used by Jack 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 Bram 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’ (Paulden 245). The Gothic city “is constructed by man, and yet its labyrinthine alleys remain unknowable (...) evil is not externalized elsewhere, but rather literally exists within” (Woodford n.p). 

The London Press and Whitechapel

Prior to the Ripper murders of 1888, Whitechapel had already been given an evil reputation in the London press, heavily influenced by W.T. 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. 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 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 civilization” (Phillips 157). Whitechapel was known as London’s “heart of darkness (…) the ultimate threat and the ultimate mystery” (Ackroyd 679). 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 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 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 Mary Kelly, showing the woman letting the Ripper into her lodgings, with the caption ‘Opening the door to admit death’. Jack 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 (Johnston n.p.). In the magazine Punch, Jack 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 Ripper murders were explained by London newspapers as “the product of a diseased environment where ‘neglected human refuse’ bred crime” (Walkowitz 194). 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” (Ackroyd 678). 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. 

The Birth of Ripperature: The Curse upon Mitre Square and Leather Apron

John Francis Brewer wrote the first known text about the Ripper murders in October of 1888, a sensational horror monograph entitled The Curse upon Mitre Square. Brewer made use of well-known Gothic tropes, such as the trans-generational curse, the inclusion of a ghost and the setting of an old church for the murder of an innocent woman. Brewer blended fact and fiction, making the Whitechapel murderer the inheritor, or even perhaps the victim of an ancient curse that hung over Mitre Square, where the second murdered prostitute, Catherine Eddowes, had been found the month before. According to Brewer, the curse originated from the murder of a woman in 1530 by her brother, a ‘mad monk’, on the steps of the high altar of the Holy Trinity Church in Aldgate. The monk, Martin, committed suicide, realising what he had done, and his ghost now appears pointing to the place where the murder occurred, promising that other killings will follow.

Whitechapel is written as both a cursed and haunted Gothic space in The Curse upon Mitre Square. Brewer’s description of the area reflected the contemporary public opinion, describing the Whitechapel Road as a “portal to the filth and squalor of the East” (66). However, Mitre Square is the former location of a monastery torn down by a corrupt politician; this place, which should have been holy ground, is cursed. Mitre Square’s atmosphere ensures the continuation of violent acts in the vicinity; indeed, it seems to exude a self-aware and malevolent force that results in the death of Catherine Eddowes centuries later. This idea of Whitechapel as somehow complicit in or even directing the acts of the Ripper will later become a popular trope of Ripperature.

Brewer’s work was advertised in London on posters splashed with red, a reminder of the blood spilled by the Ripper’s victims only weeks earlier. It was also widely promoted by the media and reissued in New York in 1889. It is likely that a ‘suggestion effect’ took place during the telegraph-hastened, press-driven coverage of the Jack the Ripper story, including Brewer’s monograph, spreading the image of Gothic Whitechapel as fact to the world (Dimolianis 63).

Samuel E. Hudson’s account of the Ripper murders differs in style from Brewer’s because of his attempt to engage critically with issues such as the failure of the police force to find the murderer and the true identity of Jack.  His book Leather Apron; or, the Horrors of Whitechapel, London, was published in December of 1888. Hudson described the five murders canonically attributed to Jack, wrote an analysis of the police investigation that followed, and speculated as to the Ripper’s motivations. Despite his intention to examine the case objectively, Hudson writes Jack as a Gothic monster, an atavistic and savage creature prowling Whitechapel to satisfy his bloodlust. Jack is associated with several Gothic tropes in Hudson’s work, and described as different types of monsters. He is called: a “fiend bearing a charmed and supernatural existence,” a “human vampire”, an “incarnate monster” and even, like Brewer, the perpetrator of “ghoulish butchery” (Hudson 40). Hudson describes Whitechapel as “the worst place in London (...) with innumerable foul and pest-ridden alleys” (9). Whitechapel becomes implicated in the Ripper murders because of its previously established reputation as a crime-ridden slum. Poverty forced women into prostitution, meaning they were often out alone late at night, and its many courts and alleyways allowed the Ripper an easy escape from his pursuers after each murder (Warwick 560). The aspect of Whitechapel that Hudson emphasises the most is its darkness; “off the boulevard, away from the streaming gas-jets (...) the knave ran but slight chance of interruption” (40). Whitechapel is a place of shadows, its darkest places negotiated only by ‘fallen women’ and their clients, and Jack himself.  Hudson’s casting of Jack as a vampire makes his preference for the night, and his ability to skilfully disembowel prostitutes and disappear without a trace, intelligible to his readers as the attributes of a Gothic monster. Significantly, Hudson’s London is personified as female, the same sex as the Ripper victims, evoking a sense of passive vulnerability against the acts of the masculine and predatory Jack, Hudson writing that “it was not until four Whitechapel women had perished (...) that London awoke to the startling fact that a monster was at work upon her streets” (8). 

The Complicity of Gothic Whitechapel in the Ripper Murders

This seeming complicity of Whitechapel as a Gothic space in the Ripper murders, which Brewer and Hudson suggest in their work, can be seen to have influenced subsequent representations of Whitechapel in Ripperature. Whitechapel is no longer simply the location in which these terrible events take place; they happen because of Whitechapel itself, the space exerting a self-conscious malevolence and kinship with Jack. Historically, the murders forced Queen Victoria to call for redevelopment in Spitalfields, the improvement of living conditions for the working class, and for a better police force to patrol the East End to prevent similar crimes (Sugden 2). The fact that Jack was never captured “seemed only to confirm the impression that the bloodshed was created by the foul streets themselves: that the East End was the true Ripper,” (Ackroyd 678) using the murderer as a way to emerge into the public consciousness. In Ripperature, this idea was further developed by the now popular image of Jack “stalking the black alleyways [in] thick swirling fog” (Jones 15). This otherworldly fog seems to imply a mystical relationship between Jack and Whitechapel, shielding him from view and disorientating his victims. Whitechapel shares the guilt of the murders as a malevolent and essentially pagan space.

The notion of Whitechapel as being inscribed with paganism and magic has become an enduring and popular trope of Ripperature. It relates to an obscure theory that drawing lines between the locations of the first four Ripper murders created Satanic and profane religious symbols, suggesting that they were predetermined locations for a black magic ritual (Odell 217). This theory was expanded upon most extensively in Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, published in 1999. In From Hell, Jack connects several important historical and religious sites around London by drawing a pentacle on a map of the city. He explains the murders as a reinforcement of the pentacle’s  “lines of power and meaning (...) this pentacle of sun gods, obelisks and rational male fire, within unconsciousness, the moon and womanhood are chained” (Moore 4.37). London becomes a ‘textbook’, a “literature of stone, of place-names and associations,” stretching back to the Romans and their pagan gods (Moore 4.9).  Buck’s Row, the real location of the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, is pagan in origin; named for the deer that were sacrificed on the goddess Diana’s altars.  However, Moore’s Whitechapel is also Hell itself, the result of Jack slipping further into insanity as the murders continue. From Hell is illustrated in black and white, which emphasises the shadows and darkness of Whitechapel. The buildings are indistinct scrawls of shadow, Jack often nothing more than a silhouette, forcing the reader to occupy the same “murky moral and spiritual darkness” that the Ripper does (Ferguson 58). Artist Eddie Campbell’s use of shade and shadow in his illustrations also contribute to the image of Whitechapel-as-Hell as a subterranean place. Therefore, in tracing the representations of Whitechapel in the London press and in Ripperature from 1888 onwards, the development of Whitechapel as a Gothic location becomes clear. From the geographical setting of the Ripper murders, Whitechapel has become a Gothic space, complicit in Jack’s work if not actively inspiring the murders. Whitechapel, although known to the public before the Ripper as a crime-ridden slum, developed into a Gothic space because of the murders, and continues to be associated with the Gothic in contemporary Ripperature as an uncanny and malevolent space “which seems to compel recognition as not of this earth" (Ackroyd 581). 


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gothic; whitechapel; literature

Copyright (c) 2014 Hannah Irwin

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