whitechapel murders

Ripper tourism and violence against sex workers

Eye-Popping Days Out poster featuring a top-hatted figure reading a newspaper with the headline 'Ripper Strikes Again' I've written before about my beef with Jack the Ripper tourism, and I recently revisited the subject at an event at Oxford House.*

We talked about why the Ripper myth has such a hold on people, about the other stories it overshadows, and about the breathtakingly insensitive marketing decisions made by the Ripper tourist trade, from cocktails and cupcakes to burgers and selfies with 'Jack'.

The latest of these sidled into my browser a few days ago: an interactive performance from Apocalypse Events. As you can see from the screencap below they initially used a picture of the Bow Matchwomen with their faces scrubbed out to illustrate their event page. Below this was a picture of Annie Chapman, one of the women killed by 'Jack', also with her face scrubbed out. Women's history literally being erased by Ripper tourism.

Thanks to historian Louise Raw the company have now changed the images and copy on their website for this event, but this is far from the only example.

Apocalypse UK screencap

Violence against women and failed justice

The obsession with the Whitechapel murders means that the story most people associate with east London is one of violence against women and failed justice.

Violence against women hasn’t gone the way of gaslights and top hats. It is incredibly common and frequently lethal, and Ripper tourism helps to trivialise it.

The never ending fascination with 'Jack' is especially galling for many women working in the sex industry, as the five women killed in the Whitechapel Murders - Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly - were all working as prostitutes at the time they were murdered.

In 2015 Laura Watson, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, told the Guardian that:

“We object to the Jack the Ripper tours because they present the gruesome murder of five women as an exciting, tantalising event, glorifying the man whilst invisibilising the women... What a distortion and abuse of our humanity that five women who were tortured to death are of less interest than the monster who killed them.”

Women working in the sex industry, particularly those selling sex on the street, are some of the most vulnerable to violence:

  • In a 2001 study of three British cities, it was found that 81 percent of street workers had experienced violence (Church et al 2001).
  • A 1999 study of 193 street workers found that 68 per cent had experienced physical assault (Ward et al 1999).
  • In 2004, a study of 125 street workers in five cities found that three-quarters had experienced physical violence (Hester and Westmarland 2004).
  • A 2004 study of 71 street workers in Bristol (Jeal and Salisbury 2004a) found that rape and physical violence using weapons such as guns, machetes and chainsaws had been experienced by 73 percent.
  • Between the early 1990s and early 2000s, at least 60 sex workers were known to have been murdered in the UK, most working on the street (Penfold et al 2004, p.366).
  • It has been estimated that street sex workers are twelve times more likely to die from violence at work than other women (Sanders and Campbell 2007, p.2).

Red umbrella with slogan: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers December 17th'[Source: Phipps, A (2013) 'Violence against sex workers', in Lesley McMillan and Nancy Lombard, eds., Violence Against Women (Research Highlights in Social Work Series), pp87-102. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers]

Alia, a sex worker working in Mile End was quoted in the same Guardian article saying that:

“Rape and torture, let alone the murder of women, shouldn’t be fetishised into an intriguing murder mystery... I know about violence. I’ve been raped and robbed – and when I reported it the police did nothing, and then threatened me with prosecution for prostitution.”

Stigma and whorephobia

The practical vulnerability of street workers is compounded by stigma, 'whorephobia', and police harassment which prevents many women from seeking help or reporting violence.

One of the most famous examples of whorephobia comes from a statement by the Attorney General at 'Yorkshire Ripper' Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” **

Attitudes like this, whether conscious or unconscious, are common and insidious. The silent distinction between 'prostitutes' and 'innocent victims' has surely contributed to the widespread acceptance of the Ripper story as entertainment, and as the defining moment in east London's history.***

The single story

Violence is part of women's history as it is part of women's present, and it's a story that needs to be told. But it must be done with sensitivity, respect, and context, otherwise we're just feeding the problem by reinscribing misogyny.

And there are so many other stories we could tell about east London. It's on a rather different scale of course, but author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken brilliantly about the danger of the single story with reference to the story of Africa.

If the single story of our community is about the brutal, unsolved murders of five working class women, how does that shape the way people see us? How does it shape the way we see ourselves?

The aim of our museum is to present an alternative, to amplify some of the stories you haven’t heard before, to show how and where more might be found. By shifting the focus away from 'Jack' we can start to tell a richer story.

 

*Also on the panel was historian Fern Riddell, who live tweeted her visit to the Ripper Museum which you should read if you haven't already.

**Joan Smith wrote a fantastic essay about the coverage of the 'Yorkshire Ripper' case in her 1989 book Misogynies. You can read most of it on Google Books but it's worth getting hold of a copy if you can.

***If you'd like to read more around this I can't recommend City of Dreadful Delight by Judith Walkowitz highly enough.

Mary Jane Kelly

A sketch of Mary Kelly from 1888Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick in 1863 and her large family moved to Wales when she was young. Her father John worked in an iron works, and Mary had seven brothers and at least one sister She was a tall (5’7”), pretty girl with blue eyes and though she may have been illiterate was reported to be very clever and to have some artistic ability.

When she was about 16 she married a coal miner named Davies, who was killed about 1881 in a mine explosion. Mary stayed for eight months in an infirmary in Cardiff, before moving in with a cousin and starting to work as a prostitute.

Mary moved to London in 1884 and found work in a West End brothel. Reportedly, she was invited by a client to France, but returned to England within two weeks, having disliked her life there. Gravitating toward the poorer East End of London, she lived for a time near the Commercial Gas Works in Stepney. When drunk, Kelly would be heard singing Irish songs. A friend commented that "she was a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

In 1888 Mary moved in with Barnett, they lived in a single room at 26 Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Barnett worked as a fish porter at Billingsgate Fish Market, but when he fell out of regular employment and tried to earn money as a market porter, Kelly turned to prostitution again to pay their rent.

She was only 25 when she was found brutally murdered in Whitechapel on 9 November 1888. Mary Jane was a Catholic, and she is buried in St Patrick’s cemetery in Leytonstone.

Fed up with Jack the Ripper

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Post originally published in Sept 2013 on Bad Reputation. Jack the Ripper is kind of a big deal in East London. Whether it’s a plaque in a pub, a BBC film crew or yet another walking tour, he pops up all over the place with his spooky hat and cloak. And to be honest, it’s pretty tiresome.

Morbid stories

The Whitechapel murders of 1888 are grimly fascinating, and the question mark over the killer’s identity is a magnet for myths and stories. The study of the murders and their legacy illuminate the historical and the contemporary context in valuable ways. One example is Judith Walkowitz’s superb book, City of Dreadful Delight. And Madame Guillotine has a great post exploring her interest in Jack the Ripper as a feminist.

But there are other tales we could tell. There are plenty of morbid stories to choose from (our other major historical export is the Krays) and it might even be nice to talk about some East London history that doesn’t involve murder. Although we know nothing about him, Jack the Ripper overshadows a cast of amazing East End characters, and the Whitechapel murders draw far more attention than any number of incredible events.

How about the Matchwomen’s strike which launched the modern trade union movement? Thanks to the efforts of Louise Raw, on the 125th anniversary of the walk out there was a commemorative event at the Bishopsgate Institute and a bit of media coverage. But will we be tripping over Matchwomen walking tours in Bow?

Jack and his victims

It’s not just the extent of it but the tone. Jack the Ripper is everybody’s favourite mystery serial killer. There is endless speculation about his identity, his knowledge of anatomy and even admiration for his ability to evade capture. In contrast, the women he murdered are reduced to objects for study or criminal evidence for analysis.

For example: my local paper recently contained a special 12 page Jack the Ripper supplement including a page entitled “The victims: How women met their gory deaths”, featuring detailed descriptions of the last movements and mutilated bodies of five women who were murdered – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly – complete with pictures of their faces taken after death.

Where is the respect for these women? Poring over details like how drunk they were and how deep the gash in their throat was or how their intestines were arranged may be one thing in a history book, but why is it being printed in the Newham Recorder, along with photographs of their corpses? I don’t want these intimate and gruesome details exhumed for my entertainment.

Missing the big picture

Like almost all media coverage of the subject the article fails to connect the Whitechapel murders to any kind of context about violence against women then or now. Another article highlights the fact that six other women were murdered in the same area in the same year, three also working in prostitution and killed by punters (Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett), three killed by their husbands (Hannah Potzdamer, Susan Barrell and Elizabeth Bartlett).

Sadly this article reads like a masterclass in how to subtly blame victims and excuse perpetrators:

“ordinary people driven to the ultimate crime by circumstance, a fit of anger or a desire for revenge” (this is a quote from author Peter Stubley, included in the article)

“her throat is slashed… in a jealous rage”

“Hannah had left him and moved in with a bootmaker”

“Robert, suffering from delirium tremens, also shoots himself”

“she refused to give him money for drink”

Over a century on it’s felt necessary to include details like this which serve to exonerate the killers. I wish I could afford to send every journalist a copy of this guide to responsible media reporting of violence against women (PDF).

Ripper chic

Whether blasé or breathlessly excited, the tone used to talk about Jack the Ripper almost everywhere makes me feel queasy. Have a look at this New York Times article about how All Saints clothing store makes use of “the romance of Jack the Ripper” and its location in “the Ripper’s hallowed stomping grounds”. Big stomper was he?

And did you know the Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields (where one of the victims had been drinking before she was killed) was at one point called ‘Jack The Ripper’? They used to sell T-shirts, and a blood-coloured cocktail called Ripper’s Tipple. Tasteful. Obviously there’s a difference between the crimes of one serial killer and the carnage of the First World War, but that has an anniversary coming up too – can you imagine a WWI-themed bar serving ham and mustard gas sandwiches? Although I guess we’re getting close with ‘Blitz parties’, but that’s a rant for another day.

Ripperology

Many people do seriously study the Whitechapel murders without celebrating ‘Jack’, but as this article explains, unintentional sexism abounds in many Ripperologist circles. The focus is firmly on the suspects and not the victims, whose suffering is silent or sensationalised. The LIFT campaign in Tower Hamlets have subverted this with an alternative Ripper tour which talks about the lives and the communities of the women who were killed. There are some interesting tweets from the walk in this Storify.

Here’s a classic response to criticism of Ripperology:

We do not celebrate, we commemorate. We do not idealise, but we condemn him. We examine the harsh realities of that world to allow us to understand where we came from, how society has changed and why we should be thankful for these changes, and recognise where it has not and strive to put this right.

While this may be the aim, and I fully admit I haven’t had time to research this post very thoroughly, I haven’t seen many campaigns by Ripperologists striving to end violence against women.

Violence against women

That is the issue at the heart of this, and the reason I can’t join in the fun: violence against women is epidemic, often lethal but frequently trivialised. The most uncomfortable parallel I found between Ripper fandom and damaging contemporary attitudes to violence against women was this, on the London Dungeon's profile page for Jack the Ripper:

DOs and DON’Ts

DO look over your shoulder.

DO dress conservatively.

DO go unnoticed.

DO NOT flirt.

DO NOT walk alone.

DO NOT accept his offer to buy you a drink.

This is advice that is seriously but unhelpfully issued to women today in the guise of rape prevention. It is also a classic example of the victim blaming which prevents many women reporting violence let alone seeing their attacker convicted. Repeated in this context it’s ghoulish, and not in a good way.

Now, as then, women working in prostitution are particularly vulnerable to violence – especially trans* women and migrant women. A woman working in prostitution is 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population. While I don’t want to be a party pooper, I can’t get that figure out of my head. I’ll sign off with this quote on ‘Jack’, from feminist academic Deborah Cameron:

The question for society is not which individual man killed, but why so many men have done and still do.