Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jack the Ripper

Perennial Thriller

Jack the Ripper! Few names in history are as instantly recognizable. Fewer still evoke such vivid images: noisome courts and alleys, hansom cabs and gaslights, swirling fog, prostitutes decked out in the tawdriest of finery, the shrill cry of newsboys - and silent, cruel death personified in the cape-shrouded figure of a faceless prowler of the night, armed with a long knife and carrying a black Gladstone bag.

—Philip Sugden, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper

Johnny Depp in the movie From Hell
Johnny Depp in the movie
From Hell

By today's standards of crime, Jack the Ripper would barely make the headlines, murdering a mere five prostitutes in a huge slum swarming with criminals: just one more violent creep satisfying his perverted needs on the dregs of society. No one would be incensed as were the respectable families of the pretty college students that were Ted Bundy's victims, or the children tortured and mutilated by John Wayne Gacy. We have become a society numbed by horrible crimes inflicted upon many victims.

Why then, over a hundred years later, are there allegedly more books written on Jack than all of the American presidents combined? Why are there stories, songs, operas, movies and a never-ending stream of books on this one Victorian criminal? Why is this symbol of terror as popular a subject today as he was in Victorian London?

Because Jack the Ripper represents the classic whodunit. Not only is the case an enduring unsolved mystery that professional and amateur sleuths have tried to solve for over a hundred years, but the story has a terrifying, almost supernatural quality to it. He comes from out of the fog, kills violently and quickly, and disappears without a trace. Then, for no apparent reason, he satisfies his blood lust with ever-increasing ferocity, culminating in the near destruction of his final victim, and then vanishes from the scene forever. The perfect ingredients for the perennial thriller.

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