The destination for history

Jack the Ripper and the tabloid press


Initially the term ‘tabloid’ was used to describe a small, easily digestible tablet produced by the London pharmaceutical manufacturer Buroughs Wellcome & Company, who would later become GlaxoSmithKline. The first record of it being attributed to the easily digestible form of journalism was in the early twentieth century.

However, before tabloids became commonplace journalism still played a vital role in Victorian society, in particular when it came to dealing with murders and other gruesome crimes. The plethora of newspapers, ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ and other cheaply produced publications meant that each story had to scream at a passer-by in order to be sold. For the first time publications such as The Illustrated Police News were created for the sole purpose of reporting on heinous crimes, ruthless criminals and tragic victims. This lurid period of history is often cited as the true beginning of press sensationalism.

The tabloids would often print horrendous images of mutilated bodies and crime scenes alongside equally graphic accounts of the event that had taken place. Shots of murder victims lying brutally disfigured in a morgue became common place and the stories would regularly grip the nation as they developed. If the perpetrator was caught and sentenced to execution then thousands would often turn out to see the dramatic finale to their favourite story.

Sensational murder reports were not something new to the Victorian age. But with a rise in readership rates, particularly in the late 1800s, these reports became more focussed on entertaining readers rather than just informing them. This interest spread to a global level at the time of the Whitechapel Murders, with the stories being printed around the world in countries such as Jamaica, Australia and the United States.

Crooked journalists would often fake evidence, create witness accounts and mislead the police to create racy and sensational stories. As they did this the panic that was sweeping through the streets heightened; for example, on the 20 October 1888, Mrs Mary Burridge apparently dropped dead after reading a lurid Ripper account. Whether or not this was true adds to the enigmatic nature of truth in tabloid journalism in the Victorian period.

The press played a pivotal role in creating the public image of the Whitechapel murderer. Armed with his horrifying nickname, ‘Jack the Ripper’, journalists quickly fashioned a terrifying figure to cast blame on. Without a clear target, the press were forced to label the killer with haunting titles such as ‘monster’ and ‘fiend’, adding an almost supernatural element to the killer’s reputation. Through these fleeting descriptions racial and social tensions were heightened. The few eyewitness reports to be printed often labelled the man as having a ‘dark complexion, black-beard, black coat and foreign-looking’ – a description of a typical Jewish man living in the East End at the time.

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books