The tabloidization of contemporary Victorian media


It is ironic that the cruellest murder of this case created the greatest silence and despite the frenzied efforts of the Fleet Street, several details were not revealed for such a long time. The British press was rather a hypocrite in its use of words and omitting the obvious. They had served the ‘baser’ needs of their readers with the nature and origin of their reports. But naming parts of the body could have meant that their readers had to face that the true root and causes of these crimes may lie behind their own need. By omitting the publishing of certain words, the Victorian Press saved its readers from feeling shame – and gained enormous amount of money by serving the higher-brow community’s well-hidden needs. Later, as the circulation was growing, journalists discovered the opportunity in this kind of material – this was one of the first steps on the road that led to the mass media hypes of the 20th century.

All in all, the Whitechapel murders gave newspapers an opportunity they did not want to miss. In the age of gothic horror novels and plays people demanded more and more ‘real-life’ horror stories. Serial murders surely had occurred before, but the publicity the Whitechapel case got opened new horizons for the media industry. As the Stamp Act, the tax on newspapers was finally repealed in 1855 due to the lobbying of the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee, the route to the working-class’ wallet was clear.

Initially Londoners did not and could not accept that the murderer might have been a British person, a Londoner, one of them. Most of the reports were focused on a ‘High Rip gang’, on a ‘savage’ or ‘Malay’ as the press – and of course the people – found the idea of an Englishman slaughtering women unacceptable and rather preposterous. But as the murders continued, they had to accept some facts. It was the time when the Fleet Street started to concentrate on the poor women and their conditions in the Whitechapel.

Urban legends started to emerge in the autumn of 1888. Poor, but honestly living women began to pass down family stories about a ‘stranger’ accosting ‘Mother’ who had been forced to go out on a dark night, of course only to get ailment for a sick child. After being ‘interrogated’ by the man about the cause of her late walk, he realized that she was a poor, but honest woman therefore he ‘let her go’. In the morning, the body of a prostitute was found on that same road. Even the working-class women wanted to distance themselves from being mistaken as a prostitute. They had two main reasons. Naturally, they wanted to survive, but they also tried to establish their own respectability.

The radical press knew that street walking prostitutes did not attract much from the public’s sympathy therefore they had to form public opinion and convince their readers. Earlier press crusades, such as Stead’s ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ had attacked child prostitution but those subjects had been innocent and exploited. On the contrary, the victims of Jack the Ripper all were aging and alcoholic prostitutes who obviously had chosen their profession. In their own interest they had to dispel the concept of a gang or gangs blackmailing prostitutes in order to be able to cover the murder without depending on the public sympathy.

Eventually, reporting on cases such as the Jack the Ripper murders meant only one problem – the question of wording. Awkwardness and hypocrisy often were obstacles for radical journalists. Tiptoeing around a dilemma, namely whether writing about crimes involving lust and sexual aberration, naming the true nature of a crime or not became only a temporary border in the late 19th. As a result of the Education Act of 1870, a new and larger public was emerging. It was the new literate working class, whose needs were centred around the half-penny press. As circulation grew, publishers took sensation-horror news into consideration. By the end of the autumn of 1888 the clear division in the wording of published materials became distinguishable. The Jack the Ripper case and its coverage was one of the first milestones and a major breakthrough that later led to the tabloidization of the press. The press realized that publishing gore had only one rival – and that was publishing about sexual deviance.

The line from the Jack the Ripper literature (‘ripperature’) might have been created for Hollywood based on the original Ripper letters, but it has never been truer for the media events around him:

‘One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century’