Jack the Ripper documentaries on UK TV

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

The legend of Jack the Ripper has an eternal fascination. Headlines were made every time a new suspect entered the frame and it is still happening 120 years after the crimes took place. Medical records released from Broadmoor hospital caused a media frenzy last year after they shed “invaluable light” on Thomas Cutbush’s role in the killings. Proof, if it were needed, that over a century later the Ripper can still make headlines.

The same could be said for documentaries. Two programmes hosted by journalists have just aired in the UK.

London Mayor Boris Johnson announced recently that he supports proposals for a “Blue Light Museum”—an attraction which would tell the history of the capital’s emergency services. The plans would involve opening the doors, in effect, to the notorious “Black Museum” housed at New Scotland Yard.

While the Crime Museum, as it is officially known, would still remain closed to the general public, items from the clandestine chambers could stock the new institution. He said in a City Hall debate: “There is a huge opportunity for us to look at the scope for a Blue Light Museum which would actually incorporate some of the elements of the Black Museum, which is completely unseen by the public at the moment. The police have a fantastic reservoir of cultural material.”

An Inspector Neame kick-started the transportation of crime scene artifacts from court room to crime museum after Parliament gave the police authority in 1869, with the first visitors inspecting the museum in 1877.

This most ghoulish of museums is a real-life archive of Britain’s criminal past and holds the most macabre collection of historical artifacts in the world (suspected to be approaching 20,000). As the museum is so difficult to visit—used instead as a lecture theatre for the curator to train law enforcement officials in forensics, pathology, and investigative techniques—it has been enlisted for a host of outlandish conspiracy theories. One such was that the museum contained a secret file revealing the true identity of Jack the Ripper.

Indeed handwritten notes by the man who led the hunt for the Ripper naming Aaron Kosminski as the chief suspect were donated by relatives of Chief Inspector Donald Swanson in 2006. And now—fifty years on from when Horrors of the Black Museum hit cinema screens—Crime Museum: New Scotland Yard gives cable viewers exclusive access to the notes in a book about the memoirs of Dr. Robert Anderson, Scotland Yard's assistant commissioner in the 1880s.

“Jack the Ripper”—one programme comprising Nick Ross’s thirteen-part, thirty-minute series—unfortunately fails to deliver anything revelatory though. This will be of no surprise to the Ripperologist considering it features only Donald Rumbelow, a known skeptic of the Kosminski theory.

Yet the same Ripperologist could not fail to be enthralled by our second programme: “Jack the Ripper: Tabloid Killer.” The timing of Kelvin MacKenzie’s opening hour-long edition of his new series, Revealed, is just as apposite given that the British Library published the archives of 19th-century newspapers online only last week.

The Whitechapel murders, it must be remembered, came at a time of ever-increasing literacy among the general populace, when the press was beginning to become an effective tool for social change, and the Illustrated Police News and Pall Mall Gazette caused what we would today recognize as a media frenzy.

On September 8 1888, the Pall Mall Gazette reported the discovery of a fourth corpse under the headline: “Another Murder - and more to Follow?”. It denounces the police inquiry branding the force an “absolute failure.” Newspapers had a field day and readers were spared little when it came to the nightmarish mutilations: “The murder perpetrated this morning shows no indication of hurry or of alarm. He seems to have first killed the woman but cutting her throat so deeply as to almost sever her head from her shoulders, then to have disembowelled her, and then to have disposed of the viscera in a fashion recalling stories of Red Indian savagery.”

But it is a newspaper whose archives were not published by the British Library which comes under the scrutiny of MacKenzie, who separates fact from fiction and Fleet Street boardroom from East End brothel. The Star was an up-start evening newspaper for Londoners launched, curiously enough, in 1888 for the newly literate lower classes. This fledging paper was desperate for sales and rapidly found a way to increase them. In a sensational new angle, The Star’s pioneering editor, T.P. O’Connor, linked Mary Nichols’ murder with the death of two earlier prostitutes.

But had this scandalous disregard for the truth and the creation of a fictional serial killer not only given birth to “new journalism” but spawned a very real serial killer? After all, the murder of the second victim, Annie Chapman, had occurred in the middle of a media storm. In order to find out, the former tabloid editor examines the evidence connecting the Nichols and Chapman murders. His verdict is that publicity drove the killer onto new victims and as for the “Victorian-buying public, they couldn’t get enough.”

In a further shocking move the paper “injected anti-Semitism” for a popular angle. “Just like their serial killer angle, The Star’s Jewish theory turned out to be a circulation winner.” And after sales plummeted the “Dear Boss” letter was published which revealed for the first time the chilling soubriquet that would become legendry.

It is only in the last quarter of the programme that MacKenzie focuses on revealing the “truth”—not the truth behind the identity of the Ripper but the truth behind the identity of the Ripper author. This goes some way to explaining the array of non-Ripperologists interviewed, if not the misleading title.

A previously unseen document from the major shareholder of The Star to the new editor in 1890 suggests that senior figures at the newspaper knew one of their journalists, Frederick Best, had sent the “Dear Boss” letter to Central News. Elaine Quigley of the British Institute of Graphology certified the letter as being in Best’s hand, but added that he appeared to be writing to someone else’s dictation.

Although historian Andrew Cook, author of Jack the Ripper: Case Closed (2009), merely confirms what the Ripperologist already believes about the letter's authenticity, “Jack the Ripper: Tabloid Killer” was novel insofar as it reveals The Star’s editor as the man behind the biggest newspaper hoax in history. But did O’Connor only have ink, not blood, on his hands?

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