Jack the Ripper: Tabloid Killer – Revealed

The documentary series revisiting famous historical events and figures returns to Five this week, beginning with a fresh look at one of the most infamous serial killers in history. Former tabloid editor Kelvin MacKenzie examines the role that the press played in making Jack the Ripper a media sensation – and finds out just how far the papers went to ensure the Ripper remained headline news.

When alcoholic prostitute Mary Ann Nichols was found murdered in London’s East End, her death made the news – despite being an unsurprising fate for a Victorian woman in a risky profession. The headlines were the work of The Star, a new paper desperate for sales. The Star’s editor, the pioneering Thomas P O’Connor, decided to sensationalise the murder by linking it to two others – in reality entirely unconnected – and make a terrified public believe a serial killer was at large.

In the middle of a circulation war, O’Connor wanted his new publication to be cheap and racy – catering for the newly literate lower classes. Its content was an example of what the Victorians called ‘new journalism’ – later to become tabloid reporting. As cultural historian Christopher Frayling says, it was “dramatising, simplifying and personalising stories in ways that hadn’t been used before” – regardless of whether they were true or not.

Soon after the Nichols murder, reality began to mirror The Star’s fiction when a second prostitute was murdered in a similar way. The press eagerly pounced upon the case, reporting every grisly detail of Annie Chapman’s death. “Was the publicity actually driving the killer on to new victims?” wonders MacKenzie.

Delighted with the huge sales generated by their lip- smacking headlines, The Star and other publications were anxious to keep the killer in the news and spread unfounded anti-Semitic and xenophobic theories about his identity. The Star even came up with a snappy moniker for the killer: ‘Leather Apron’, a term prostitutes used for rough clients. However, the paper was accused of libel by an innocent, outraged man with the same nickname.

When the killer then laid low for a few weeks, newspaper sales began to plummet – until a shocking letter was delivered to the Central News Agency, addressed ‘Dear Boss’. Apparently from the killer, the macabre missive taunted police and gave gruesome details of the murders. It was signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ – but two more murders took place before the name was made public.

The two victims were prostitutes Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, killed within an hour of each other. Desperate for clues, the police allowed the press to publish the ‘Dear Boss’ letter – and the name Jack the Ripper became what veteran crime reporter Martin Brunt describes as “manna from heaven for headline writers.” As newspaper sales shot up once more, the police began to wonder if the letter was actually the work of an unscrupulous journalist. Historian Matthew Sweet agrees: “It’s just too perfect,” he explains.

Jack the Ripper wasted no time in living up to his new nickname, slaying 25-year-old prostitute Mary Jane Kelly and leaving the most gruesome crime scene so far. The papers continued to salivate over the details, naming suspect after suspect – and the public’s fascination with the mysterious killer has never gone away. How far did the papers go to keep it that way? Was the ‘Dear Boss’ letter really a journalist’s ploy to get sales up? Determined to uncover the truth, Kelvin MacKenzie joins forces with historian Andrew Cook to find out more – and is soon rocked to the core by what is revealed…

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