Jack the Ripper Tourism

Melanie Kay Smith (Budapest Metropolitan University, Hungary) & Titanilla Virág Tevely (Alexandre Lamfalussy Faculty of Economics, University of Sopron, Hungary)

The mysterious figure of Jack the Ripper haunts the streets of London and the minds of countless people interested in murder mysteries. He (presumably a male) was an unidentified serial killer in Whitechapel, London, in 1888. He murdered at least five women and removed their organs with surgical precision. He killed in a small geographical area, chose low-risk victims who were easy to capture in a secluded area and dehumanised them in their deaths. The “Canonical Five” victims, Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly, are most likely his victims (according to the most widely accepted accounts), but there were other alleged victims as well, up to twelve. He was never caught due to insufficient sound evidence (Hoffin, 2023).

The circumstances around the gruesome murders and the anonymity of the killer provide the foundation for numerous myths and stories that surround Jack the Ripper. These range from murder mysteries through supernatural fiction to evidence-based historical accounts. Thompson (2018: 56) refers to “two separate entities: Jack the Ripper of the real world and Jack the Ripper of sensational legend”. It has been suggested that his true identity is not even that important (Hurren, 2016) and concern has also been expressed that his image has been ‘sanitised’ and far removed from the misogyny and sadism involved (Gray, 2018).

Books, movies, series, videos, podcasts and documentaries are still produced about the facts and speculations (Duperray, 2012). Even at the time when the killings took place, Thompson (2018: 59) notes that “murder was lucrative” in the form of newspapers, novels and so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ – small, cheap books published in weekly instalments. The persona of Jack the Ripper was later represented in literature and film with the appearance of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s book The Lodger in 1912, followed by silent movies and film adaptations of the novel such as The Lodger by Alfred Hitchcock in 1926 (Hansen & Wilbert, 2006). However, the whole phenomenon could be placed in a much earlier literary genre of the Gothic novel and its focus on fear, horror and death combined with romance and seduction (Thompson, 2018). The media’s role in the widespread fascination with this serial killer is considerable, and it inevitably sensationalises the gory murders, mixing facts with deliberately false information, and exaggerating the stories to generate more consumption (Marsh & Melville, 2019). ‘Ripperologists’ – people who study the serial killer – share ideas about the murderer from existing evidence to far-fetched theories, positioning him more as a literary character like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, rather than a real criminal of the past (Andrew, 2019). 

The entertainment industry capitalizes on this phenomenon, offering Jack the Ripper themed gift shops, museums, guided tours, and other attractions (Hoffin, 2023). London contains a variety of dark tourism attractions, many of which are connected to Jack the Ripper. These attractions are quite mainstream, offering mildly macabre entertainment for all types of visitors. However, Gray (2018: 8) criticizes the “tawdry and exploitative venture” represented by museums and various other tourist attractions, which (he argues) provide a callous and glorified experience of the killings rather than an academic representation of history.

Hansen and Wilbert (2006: 2) described Jack the Ripper tours as “by far the most popular guided walks in London”. However, it was noted by Seaton and Dann (2018) that people known as ‘Ripper Trippers’ started to be attracted to the sites of the murders shortly after they took place, and the first Jack the Ripper walking tour was established as early as 1905. Hansen and Wilbert (2006) suggest a revival of interest in walking tours in the 1960s and 70s when a move away from the heritage of royalty and aristocracy took place in favour of a focus on London’s popular culture. Ongoing interest in Jack the Ripper is still connected to a desire to depict the reality of the lives of ordinary people in Victorian London (Gray, 2018).

The guided tours follow in the footsteps of the killer, and tour guides offer different levels of drama to interested participants, sharing myths, legends, stories and facts about the murders. Some of them utilise technological advancements, such as projecting images onto the murder sites, some dress up as the killer himself, and some share the bloodiest parts in great detail. The museums, such as the Jack the Ripper Museum or the City of London Police Museum, are more fact-based information sources, where visitors can learn the details of the police investigation, the possible motives behind the murders, the history of Victorian-era London and the people living in Whitechapel, as well as the possible suspects (Smith & Tevely, 2023).

The main motivation for visiting these places is curiosity, but visitors variously want to experience something unique, to learn about the details or to understand history better. They are interested in the living situations of the common people in the Victorian era, as well as the mystery behind the case (Smith & Tevely, 2023). Most visitors do not visit the tours because of death itself, but because of the mystery and a general fascination with the enigma of serial killers, including the desire to play the role of an ‘armchair detective’. Others visit these places to understand more about human behaviour, the psychology behind the criminal acts or to get to know the real-life horrors better (Andrew, 2019). One research study analysed the motivations, experience and evaluations of participants on Jack the Ripper walking tours, confirming the importance of the mystery of the case and potentially solving it, interest in the victims, the psychology behind the serial killing and historical aspects of the location. Scaring oneself is not a significant motivation but trying to experience the ‘dark atmosphere’ of the location(s) can be appealing (e.g., doing the tour at night). Ambivalence concerns whether the tour is or should be ‘entertaining’ (Birrien-Philpott, 2020).

Overall, Jack the Ripper tourism is based more on myths and legends than on historical truth with conclusive evidence. Hansen and Wilbert (2006) suggest that tourists ‘drag’ certain references from film and other media sources into specific locations to make sense of Jack the Ripper experiences. As a result, the figure in people’s minds is more of a fictional character than a real person. Thus, Jack the Ripper tourism is more closely connected to literary tourism than to dark tourism. What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that it still has real-life implications. The portrayal of Jack the Ripper tends to glorify the mysterious serial killer, rather than commemorating the victims (Gray, 2018). Stone and Morton (2022: 7) argue that the victims are just “props for his story” in all of the depictions, and other media types also focus on the male characters rather than the women who suffered. They only exist as graphic evidence and macabre attractions rather than humans who deserve to be shown respect. Moreover, it is agreed that there is a tendency to feed the entertainment industry with macabre myths rather than unsolved case details, adding fuel to the ‘celebration’ of misogynist serial killers (Gray, 2018).

How to cite this dictionary entry: Smith, M.K. & Tevely, T. V. (2023). Jack the Ripper tourism. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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