University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The ‘Whitechapel Horrors’ – Victorian newspapers report Jack the Ripper as gothic fiction

The ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders in East London in the late Victorian period have become infamous. In this piece, first year UoP history student Seamus McLoughlin looks at how an article in a Victorian newspaper was of its time in choosing to ignore known facts about the case, or any compassion towards the victims, in favour of speculation, sensation and gothic horror.  This piece was originally written for the first year ‘Fragments’ module, which looks at primary sources, and is taught by Dr Maria Cannon and Dr Katy Gibbons.

Over a hundred and thirty years later, Jack the Ripper’s murders are still regarded as some of the most infamous acts of ‘horrific brutality’ in British history. [1] The serial killer’s relevance in popular culture, described as ‘Ripperature’ by L. P. Curtis, is evident from at least thirty books and countless articles published since 1960 dealing with the Ripper’s exploits and identity, as well as recent adaptations and parodies of the Ripper’s crimes for television, such as ITV’s “Whitechapel” or BBC Two’s “The Fall”. [2]  While the crimes were gruesome; Jack the Ripper’s infamy and terror was largely perpetuated by the Victorian press.

Illustration of discovery of the first Jack the Ripper victim, as published Famous Crimes Past and Present, 1903

Illustration of discovery of the first Jack the Ripper, as published Famous Crimes Past and Present, 1903

As described by Beth Fisher, the lack of evidence surrounding the Whitechapel case led to ‘more potential than normal for speculation and sensationalism’.[3] This is especially evident in The “Jack the Ripper” Story, an article from 1894 (six years after the murders) which explores the Ripper’s identity with very little if any factual information. [4]  The article reflects the sensationalised nature of Victorian newspapers, the ‘irresistible’ fascination surrounding Jack the Ripper’s true identity which newspapers capitalised on to sell copies, as well as the lack of sympathy the Victorian press had for Jack’s victims: women; specifically prostitutes.[5] Ultimately, this gives us an insight into the limited factual merit and objectivity of newspapers, illustrating Stephen Valla’s view that newspapers as a medium have ‘influenced’ society just as much as they have ‘recorded’ it.[6]

Within the pamphlet the article was published in, The “Jack the Ripper“ Story is far from the front page, occupying the fourth and final page of the pamphlet.[7] While this could imply that, six years after the murders, Jack the Ripper isn’t as notorious as he once was, this is ultimately undermined by two key aspects: this is a pamphlet from Huddersfield citing The London Sun, implying nationwide interest in the case, and the article positioned within the page to occupy a majority of one of the two central columns. [8] Visually, the title is very apparent to any reader as The “Jack The Ripper“ Story is displayed in large bold font, and placed very near the centre of the page.[9] The centrality of the article implies importance, suggesting that this particular placement was deliberate, which demonstrates to us the cultural relevance of Jack the Ripper and how this was likely recognized by the editors as an article that would catch readers’ attention. The placement of certain articles within pamphlets and newspapers throughout history are ‘(done) so with intent’, as described by historian Stephen Valla’s study of newspapers, further supporting this interpretation.[10]



Mock-up of Victorian newspaper Police News.

© Pierre André, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The unnamed author makes several admissions throughout that readers should ‘read between the lines’; and that most of the alleged evidence has either been ‘soften(ed)’ or has ‘not (been) mention(ed) at all.[11] In addition, all names of people and specific streets involved have been redacted; the lack of any factual evidence creates a highly speculative tone which greatly reduces the article’s factual merit, limiting its overall use as a news source.[12] The lack of any evidence, however, is very useful at demonstrating the sensational values of Victorian newspapers surrounding the ‘myth’ of Jack the Ripper, which is further illustrated by the article’s content. [13]

The sensationalist tone is exemplified by how the author dubs the murders ‘The Whitechapel Horrors’, which sounds like the title of a gothic novel and illustrates an attempt to fictionalise real life events.[14]  This is consolidated by the use of ‘story’ in the article’s title which further adds to the fictional tone.[15] The tone is then perpetuated throughout the article by the use of hyperbole; words such as ‘loathsome’, ‘diseased’ and ‘mutilated’ create an exaggerative and suspenseful tone, allowing the description of the alleged criminal to be read more like a horror story. [16] The fictional nature of the article is evocative of the ‘sensation-horror’ used in New Journalism; a methodology described by Rachel Matthews as ‘a bid to attract as many readers as possible’ by creating compelling stories as oppose to straightforward news reporting. [17] She notes how reporting on Jack the Ripper ‘contributed to the creation of an appetite for more salacious content in the reader – something which was largely exploited’ by newspapers.[18] This is made most apparent when the author deems the Jack the Ripper case as ‘irresistible’, which conveys how the ‘hunger for sensation-horror’ in the Victorian press overcame any repulsion over the murders,[19] almost as if journalists and readers were infatuated with these types of crimes. [20]


The conscious decision to prioritise fiction over facts within the article is further evident by what’s been omitted: any details surrounding the five victims. The victims are only referred to as ‘mutilated women’ and ‘homicidal offences’; thus depriving them of their identities, which is reflective of the dismissive and unsympathetic attitudes the Victorian press had towards the victims because they were prostitutes. [21] L. P. Curtis notes how deliberately gory descriptions of the bodies found in news articles ‘reinforced (the victims’) utter lack of power and also their objectification by the male gaze’.[22] Examples of objectification are also evident in other newspapers, like how The Telegraph labelled Polly Nichols (the first victim), despite having little information on the victim at this point, as degenerate, noting how she was ‘the worse for drink’ on the night of her murder, essentially blaming Polly for her own death. [23] The fact that many articles, including The “Jack the Ripper” Story, deliberately chose to speculate details while ignoring and disrespecting the victims illustrates the Victorian press’ desire for spectacle and sensationalism. [24]  It’s also ironic, as the victims’ identities were some of the only factual information available about the case, yet these are ignored by the article as it fantasises about the unknown identity of the killer; reflecting the larger issues of how newspapers were more focused on ‘amplify(ing) Jack the Ripper’s terror’ instead of reporting the news. [25]

Wedding photograph of one of the victims, Annie Chapman, 1869

The article’s closing remark is also ironic. The author hopes that the article will contribute to ‘the most rigid investigation’ into the murders’, yet the article is a speculation piece with redacted names / locations and is deliberately sensationalist in parts. [26] As Stephen Valla describes, newspapers are themselves a ‘commodity’.[27] By prioritising ‘story’ and sensationalising the gory details of the case, we can identify how this was The Huddersfield Chronicle’s (and by proxy The London Sun) attempt at creating a compelling, ‘irresistible’narrative in order to sell newspaper copies; reflective of how ‘newspapers are, above all things, human institutions: fallible, imperfect, with material or ideological interests of their own’. [28]

[1] Paul Begg, Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History (Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2005), IX.

[2] L. P. Curtis, Jack the Ripper and the London Press (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 127.

[3] Beth Fisher, “Reporting on The Ripper,” History Today 68, no. 9, September 2018, 9.

[4] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story: His Antecedents and Characteristics’, Huddersfield Chronicle, 19th February 1894, 4.

[5] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[6] Stephen Valla, “Newspapers” in Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History, ed. Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2020), 217.

[7] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[8] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[9] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[10] Stephen Valla, “Newspapers”,  226

[11] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[12] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[13] Fisher, “Reporting on The Ripper”, 9.

[14] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[15] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[16] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[17] Curtis, Jack the Ripper, 154; Rachel Matthews, The History of the Provincial Press in England (New York: Bloomsbury Academic and Professional, 2017), 92.

[18] Matthews, The History of the Provincial Press, 95.

[19] Curtis, Jack the Ripper, 216.

[20] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[21] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[22] Curtis, Jack the Ripper, 213.

[23] Beth Fisher, “Reporting on The Ripper,” History Today 68, no. 9, September 2018, 11.

[24] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[25] Beth Fisher, “Reporting on The Ripper,” History Today 68, no. 9, September 2018, 9.

[26] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4.

[27] Valla, “Newspapers”, 219.

[28] ‘The “Jack the Ripper” Story’, 4; Valla, “Newspapers”, 226






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