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October 26, 2021 31 mins

Annie Chapman’s murder sparked fears that a crazed killer was on the loose in London, prompting the burgeoning newspaper industry to flood Whitechapel with reporters. Those journalists wrote the first draft of Jack the Ripper’s history, and much of it survives in the story we tell today. But can we really believe those newspaper reports?

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:15):
Pushkin. No one living within earshot of the enclosed yard
at twenty nine Hanbury Street reports hearing anything particularly untoward
in the night. No scuffle, no cries, no screams. A
neighbor thinks he hears someone say no. But when residents

awake on Saturday, September eighth, they catch sight of Annie
Chapman's body. A local tradesman goes to fetch a canvas
sheet to throw over Annie and her horrific wounds. When
he returns, the police have arrived and a crowd has gathered.
Is that woman who sells her crochet work at the marketing?

Thank you very much. The gentlemen of the press are
not far behind. A painful sensation was created all over
London today when it was known that early this morning,
another shocking murder was perpetrated. Again. The victim is a woman. Again,
there has been a fearful mutilation of the body. Journalists
swarm Whitechapel, and soon the grim details of Annie's death

are splashed across newspapers hundreds even thousands of miles away.
The head of Annie Chapman had been nearly severed from
her body by one stroke of a sharp knife, and
her mangled remains have been disposed about her in a
way that suggested a delight in the slaughter for the
slaughter's sake. Panic grips the east End and it spreads.

A murderer is on the loose, and he's not just
roaming Whitechapel in print. He lurks in the homes of
readers everywhere. But are they getting the facts or fiction?
I'm ribbin Holt, you're listening to bad Women. The Ripper

retold a series about the real lives of the women
killed by Jack the Ripper and how we got their
stories so wrong. One side, money plenty, and friends too.
By the score. Then fortune smile upon me. Now one

pass my time, Anny, and not well her lie seems
to larn me. I'm com free root. The story of

Annie Chapman's life is a tragedy. Interludes of hope and
good fortune were crushed by the loss of her father
to suicide, her siblings and children to sickness, and her
husband and home to the shame of addiction. Lighted by alcoholism.
Annie was penniless, alone and sick were tuberculosis when she

curled up in a White Chapel yard That was where Jack,
the ripper found her. There is nothing in Annie's story
that might explain what happened after her body was discovered.
A police officer writing up as initial report listed her
occupation as guess what, prostitute. The police, who were inclined

to call almost any woman out alone at night a prostitute,
already had a theory the White Chapel murders were being
committed either by a gang that was extorting money from
prostitutes or by a lone killer on a murderous campaign
to punish them. A grimly predictable move, they immediately linked
Annie Chapman with the sex trade across the Atlantic. The

New York Times even took up the story. The latest
murder is exactly like its predecessor. The victim was a
woman streetwalker of the lowest class. Annie's murder came right
on the heels of Polly Nichol's death. These similar killings
whipped the papers into a frenzy. The blood of the
murdered women in the East End still cries for vengeance.

If the murderer is still at large, and if, as
there is every reason to suppose, he is a maniac,
we may look for fresh deeds of blood at his hands.
As the press reports multiplied, so too did theories about
the murderer's identity. According to coverage of the autopsy, the
killer had removed Annie's womb and part of a bladder,

so some were certain that he had to be an
expert with a knife. A shadowy figure called leather apron,
a slipper maker, became the prime suspect. Leather workers, after all,
used wickedly sharp knives to ply their trade, and a
leather apron had supposedly been found in a yard near
Annie's body. One newspaper gave the following description of him.

He is five feet four or five inches in height.
He's thick set and has an unusually thick neck. His
hair is black and closely clipped, his age being about
thirty eight or forty, He has a small black mustache.
The distinguishing feature of his costume is a leather apron,
which he always wears and from which he gets his nickname.

His expression is sinister. His eyes are small and glittering.
His lips are usually parted in a grin which is
not only not reassuring, but excessively repellent. He's a slipper
maker by trade, but does not work. His business is
blackmailing women late at night. He has never cut anybody
so far as is known, but always carries a leathern knife.

Local leather worker John Piser was front and center in
the leather apron theory. According to the Penny Illustrated Paper,
Pyser was arrested and then released. He later gave a
full account of his whereabouts at the time of both
Annie and Polly's murders to the coroner, with a long
list of those able to back his version of events.

It is only fair to say that the witness's statements
can be corroborated. The press swiftly backtracked on the significance
of that leather apron discovery. A large knife stained with
blood and a leather apron, it was at first reported,
were discovered near the body. But this is not so.
There was, it's true, an apron, but that belonged to

a young man who lives in the house and uses
it in his work. The apron theory had been attempting one.
It played to powerful Victorian prejudices that a Jewish tradesman
was bound to be behind the murders. Readers sitting at
home in their parlors were soon coming up with their
own replacement theories and writing into the papers to share them.

Armchair detectives, it turns out, aren't just a modern phenomenon.
I think that the murderer is not of the class
of which leather apron belongs, but is of the upper
class of society. Sir, I would suggest that the police
should at once find out the whereabouts of all cases
of homicidal mania which may have been discharged as cured

from metropolitan asylums during the last two years. The slaughter
ground of the East End abounds with lodging houses, each
victim of the last six months being an inhabitant of
one or other, and their murderer is probably at this
moment sheltered in this alsatia of the East. The murderer

is a leather worker. He's a rich man or an artist.
He's a ruffian. He's an escaped lunatic. He's a doctor.
He's a foreigner, an outsider, a jew. For some whoever
he was, he was doing good work by murder during prostitutes,
like a surgeon cutting out necrotic tissue. To the editor

of the Times, Sir, the horror and excitement caused by
the murder of the Whitechapel outcasts imply a universal belief
that they had a right to life. If they had,
then they had the further right to hire a shelter
from the bitterness of the English knight. If they had
no such right, then it was on the whole a

good thing that they fell in with an unknown surgical genius, he,
at all events, has made his contribution towards solving the
problem of clearing the East End of its vicious inhabitants.
I'm not actually interested in Jack the Ripper's identity. I
never have been. But it's hard to research the lives

of these women without coming across all of these theories.
I wondered about the primary evidence that was out there,
What gave rise to all of these theories. It had
to be something incredible, right, So I looked. I looked,
and I found nothing. Nothing credible. That is, the official
transcripts of what were said at Annie's inquest, as well

as most of the police documentation, hasn't survived. Pretty Much
everything we think we know to day about Annie Chapman's
time in Whitechapel and about her murder is drawn from
the newspapers can we actually trust anything they say or
was it all fake news. Let's start with some of

the most simple details that the press got wrong. In
the Observer and the Pall Mall Gazette, that friend of
Annie Chapman's from Whitechapel, Amelia Palmer, is misnamed as Amelia Farmer.
She's quoted as saying that Annie was not in the
habit of frequenting the streets. Instead, Annie eked out a
living by selling flowers, matches and decorative fabric covers for chairs.

By contrast, the Star newspaper quotes Amelia as saying, quite
the is it? I am afraid the deceased used to
earn her living partly on the streets, And in the
Daily News Amelia says Annie is out late. Sometimes we
may see this as a euphemism for prostitution, or we
may not. There are many reasons for such disparities in

reporting in eighteen eighty eight, including physical distance between reporters
and their subjects. There's a lot of different ways that
news travels in the nineteenth century. There are many hundreds
of newspapers just in England alone. Every town has its
own newspapers, and usually several newspapers what obviously they can't
do is have a journalist in every location. Historian Bob
Nicholson is an expert in nineteenth century journalism. Newspapers across

the world were hungry to report on the Ripper case,
but without their own journalists on the ground in Whitechapel,
they will clip directly from other newspapers. That's why you
cut and pacers we now think about on computers is
describing a literal historical practice done with citizen glue. And
that's where you see word for word the same things
appearing in newspapers on opposite sides of the country. Because
they're part of this network of news, provincial editors had

no way to query or fact check these reports. This
helped inaccuracy blossom and spread. They are taking it on
trust in much the same way that we do when
we see these things online now, and it's so easy
for misinformation to spread when things go viral or move
around the internet. It's exactly the same in the nineteenth century.
Once at context, at connection with the original source has gone.
How do we know By eighteen eighty eight, the electric

telegraph was being used to transmit information all over Britain.
The Empire and beyond. As a result, the Whitechapel murders
became a shared experience for millions. It's not just something
that's happening in London and then trickles down many weeks
later to the rest of the country. It's almost live.
It's almost as rapid as we would experience with the
Internet or with twenty four hour news. There are telegraph

cables under the Atlantic Ocean two, which means that The
New York Times could report on Annie Chapman's murder the
day after her body was found. All day long, Whitechapel
has been wild with excitement. The detectives have no clue.
The London police force is probably the stupidest in the world.

This technology was revolutionary. Distant events were suddenly much closer,
the world smaller. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in eighteen
sixty five, people in Britain were unaware of his death
until a ship brought the news. Fast forward to Andrew
Garfield shooting in eighteen eighty one, and journalists were telegraphing
hourly updates across the ocean. Within the space of fifteen years,

we go from America been a week and a half away,
to a point where you can feel the pulse of
a dying president in the Times every couple of hours.
But rapid coverage of the Whitechapel murders also meant feverish,
frenzied coverage. Every journalist was searching for a unique angle
on the story. At this point, They've got to file
that copy. They've got to get that story in within hours.

Every day. You've got to feed the beast. That press
needs a new story, It needs another fact, it needs
another theory. Some journalists were cross differencing and corroborating their facts,
but some were simply intent on filing the story that
would sell, creating the perfect environment for rumors, guesswork, and
mistakes to creep in. And all of this means that

these newspapers simply cannot offer us a perfect representation of
the events of eighteen eighty eight. The ripper retold will
return shortly. The marketplace for and competition among newspapers also

helps to explain the coverage of the Whitechapel murders. The
eighteen eighties was the dawn of what at the time
was described as the New journalism. Growing literacy rates and
improved printing technologies had given rise to a new mass
reading public. In Britain. It was also cheaper to produce newspapers.
The government stopped taxing them, which meant you could buy

a paper for a penny, placing them within most people's reach,
and that public was clamoring for news. You had all
that stuff together and it basically mounts to an enormous
gold rush of people trying to get in on this
new market, trying to be the ones who are going
to sell a paper. And there are an astronomical number
of papers in Britain at this time, in every town,

and a lot of them are incredibly short lived. They'll
last for a couple of weeks and then die. They're
a bit like you know, blogs or podcast There are
all sorts of the things now. Everybody's rushing in to
get into that market, and some of them last, some
of them make a hit, others, you know, wither away
straight away. If you were in London in eighteen eighty
eight and you walked up to a newsstand, you would
see dozens of papers all covering the same story. Publishers

had to compete. For some newspapers, like The Times, that
all important selling point was accuracy. For others, it was sensationalism.
The Times has been around since, you know, the seventeen eighties.
By this point, why do people buy something else instead, Well,
it's because it's more entertaining, it's because it represents their politics.
When you cut that kind of public hysteria around the

Whitechapel murders, where everybody's clamoring for information that intensifies, you've
got to be the paper that has that latest discovery.
You don't have that somebody else will. In some cases
what filled the column inches with pure invention. Lurid illustrations
were often given prominence over words. You could now illustrate
a knife plunging into someone's chest, or draw the bodies

of these women and print them on the front page.
The most famous example of this was the Illustrated Police News,
a lowbrow paper that served up extended a breathless coverage
of crime. So they basically said, we know people like
reading about crimes, Let's make an entire paper out of it.
And the front page of the Police News was packed
with lurid illustrations of whatever have been going on in

the world of crime. That front page would be pasted
in shop windows and crowds would gather to gork at
the images. At one point, the illustrated Police News does
it before and after of Annie Chapman's face, that is,
before and after her murder, and even though no one
really knew what the ripper looked like. The paper also

depicts suspects, some of them mustachioed and wearing bowler hats,
others hook nosed and bearded. An enormous amount of the
paper's content was pure fabrication. They covered the White Shoper
murders every week for months, and a lot of the
images actually that you will now find if you search

for images linked to the case, come from that newspaper.
How we imagine the Whitehoper murders now has been shaped
in an enduring way by those incredibly lurid, sensational illustrations
that they produced. Papers such as The Police News had
their critics even in eighteen eighty eight. Some in the
establishment were convinced it was a corrupting force that glamorized

violence and agitated legions of new readers. A lot of
the things that we now see as being very modern
anxieties over how information spreads, who has access to it,
who gets to have a public platform, All of the
things are being explored and played out in the nineteenth
century too. What happens if you live in a society
where suddenly millions of people are reading who weren't reading before.

A lot of these people now have the vote who
didn't have it before, And just like now, we might
be worried about the influence of Facebook, how is that
shaping our elections? In the eighteen eighties, people are also
worried about how journalism might be changing the fabric of
British politics and culture, because suddenly it's reaching people in
a whole new way. Some newspaper owners relish the opportunity
not just to make profits, but to push their own

moral and social agendas. One pioneer of new journalism, WT Stead,
talked about using newspapers to channel the steam of public
opinion and thereby force social change. Although readership was opening
up in the eighteen eighties, newspapers still tended to reflect
middle class values and agendas. Reporters were generally drawn from

society's more respectable wrongs, and they brought their class prejudices
along with them. This is not the view of people
who've lived in Whitechapel, who understand it, who are part
of that community. These are papers from the West End,
journalists who had stable homes, a good education. They're literate,
they're working, and they're reporting on the lives of people
who haven't had those opportunities. At all times, one who

strolls through this quarter of town, especially by night, must
feel that below his ken are the awful deeps of
an ocean, teeming with life, but enshrouded in impenetrable mystery.
As he catches here and there a glimpse of a
face under the flickering, uncertain light of a lamp, the
face perhaps of some woman bloated by drink and distorted

by passion, he may get a momentary, shuddering sense of
what humanity may sink to when life has lived apart
from the sweet, health giving influences of fields and flowers,
of art and music and books and travel, and intercourse
with the educated and the cultured. And in many cases

these are people who would ordinarily never go to Whitechapel.
They would never go east. It is described in so
many of these reports as if it's a foreign country.
The comparison that Victorian reporters often make in their language
is with deepest, darkest Africa. They see it as almost
this kind of imperial frontier, another place inhabited by another people.
The White Chapel of the newspapers as a one dimensional portrait,

a place of social danger and destitution. But while many
people in Whitechapel were poor and had no fixed address,
others had permanent homes and open businesses and restaurants. The
sun shined in White Chapel occasionally, right, people fell in love.
They had all sorts of rich and complex lives. But
in the press it's depicted as just a place that's dangerous,

and a danger that might spill out into somewhere else.
It's worth noting that these weren't the first murders and
Whitechapel to be reported in the press. Previous stabbings, poisonings,
and beatings were retold with relish. One paper even describes
the Ripper killings as a culmination of horror. Jack the
Ripper simply cemented White Chapel in the popular imagination as

the archetypal hotbed of crime, murder, and disease. When the
first journalists arrived to report on the White Chapel murders,
they already knew the type of women they were likely
to encounter there, they were almost certain to meet the
fallen woman, who could be found in the popular fiction
of the era, in the books of Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens,

and George Elliott. All it takes is for a woman
to slip up in some kind of way, to have
an affair, or to to do anything that steps outside
the boundaries of respectable living. She ends up dead in
all of these things, in melodramatic paintings, in poetry, in stories,
either her guilt drives her to throw herself off a bridge,
or her continual sort of bad decision making, as they
would put it, leads her into a situation where she

might be murdered. By the time the White Chapel murders happened,
people know this narrative. They've seen it a hundred times.
Journalists naturally drew on these stereotypes to explain the deaths
of the Ripper victims. These women would doubly outcast, doubly fallen.
Not only were they out alone at night rather than
by the hearth with a husband, they had also been
exiled to hellish Whitechapel, a place beyond the pale. Crucially,

these tropes for the needs and the agendas of newspaper proprietors.
They could tease these events into narratives that would channel
the steam of public opinion and force politicians to act.
If you're interested in social reform, or if you're interested
in trying to rescue sex workers, all of this plays
into that, and the actual lived reality of these women

become secondary to the kind of symbolic role they play
in explaining the wider social problems. At the time, readers
were also accustomed to murder reports that followed a set routine.
The discovery of a crime was followed by the apprehension
of the criminal, then there was a trial, and then
in execution everything would be neatly wrapped up. What was

quite different about the Whitechapel murders, of course, famously, is
that we don't know who committed them, whether it was
one person, multiple people, whether all the same person. We
don't know. It's a void, it's a silence, and into
it flooded all of the things that Victorians society was
worried about, their fears, their anxieties, their politics. It fills
that gap. It's a blank canvas on which they can
paint all of these different priorities, anxieties, thoughts and feelings.

So whether it's about anxieties about immigration in the East End,
now you can speculate, could he be Jewish, Maybe he
could be a doctor, what if he's an upper classman.
It leaves this incredibly open space for people to speculate.
In their speculation, journalists and their readers reveal truths not
about Annie Chapman, but about themselves, their own prejudices, obsessions,

predilections and fears. There are two things in parallel. Here
we have the reality of the White Chapel murders and
the reality of the lives that these women lived and
what happened to them. And then we have something else
happening in parallel, which is Jack the Ripper. If you
need any more convincing that the Ripper was a myth
spawned by the Victorian press, then look no further than
the or of that immortal Moniker. In the wake of

Annie's death, a letter written in blood red ink arrived
at London's Central News Agency. In faltering sentences. It mopped
the police investigation. The arrest and release of John Pyser,
the Leather Apron suspect, prompted particular mirth. That joke about
a leather apron gave me real fits. The author knew

Piser was innocent because the author said that he was
the killer. Grand work the last job was. It was
signed by Jack the Ripper. The note was handed to
Scotland Yard, but also swiftly published in the papers. The
letter was boastful, graphic and callous. It was also apparently

a hoax, a journalistic fabrication to keep the story going
and sell more papers. But the catchy name of Jack
the Ripper stuck, as did the letters. Meeting capsulation of
the murders armed down on oars and our sharp quick
ripping them, the Ripper be told, will be back in

just a moment. Somehow, the stories told in the newspapers
of eighteen eighty eight, with all of their competing, contradictory
and confusing quotes, have over time haddened into the facts

of the case, with no proper evidence from the case files,
deeply flawed newspaper reports on the basis of all kinds
of theories. Jack the Ripper was a German sailor, a
royal doctor, a post Impressionist painter, a Polish barber. An
absence of reliable evidence from primary sources has left gaps,

and colorful invention has rushed into fill these empty spaces.
It's not just cranks who are pumping out these theories.
Foremost among Ripper sloths is the crime writer Patricia Cornwell,
the creator of the forensic genius K Scarpetta. Her website
says she sold over one hundred million books. She also
has her own pet theory about Jack the Ripper's identity.

The Ripper says Patricia was none other than German born
painter Walter Sickert, and her evidence includes Sicott's own paintings,
which depict violence against women. Patricia also says she spent
roughly seven million dollars on her quest to solve the
Ripper case. I'm not sure what this endless naming of
suspects really achieves. In an effort to get my head

around it, I sat down to watch a documentary that
Patricia made back in two thousand and two, Patricia Cornwell
Stalking the Ripper. It interweaves scenes of her real life
investigation of Siccot the dramatization of the Whitechapel killings. One
particularly gruesome scene focuses on the fifth victim, Mary Jen Kelly.

So we've got a reenactment of a man walking down
a dirty East end lane with lots of women selling
their bodies, A laughing woman opening the door to her
one room. This is Mary jan Kelly lighting a candle,

and the ripper takes off his cloak and reveals himself.
Oh oh dear, lots of blood, lots of stabbing, candle
flickers the moon. Patricia is on a mission to bring
justice to Jack the rippers victims. The only way she

knows how to do that, she says, is to identify
the person that committed these murders. At one point, she
reconstructs what she believes would have been the action of
the ripper's blade as it plunged through his victim's clothing.
She does this on a kitchen table with sides of meat.
Lay us a cloth and a knife, and I'm going
to cut open a little bit here. Oh my god,

gross out everybody. I'll stick a little bit of soft tissue,
soft tissue in here. We'll put something yucky in here
like this. Okay, Now what we're gonna do is she
had on about six layers of clothing. Oh my god,
this is insane. And all of these are natural fibers
because they did not use Oh my god, Oh my god,

this is what shocked me. She's piling meat on a
table and then putting clothes over it, and she's going
to stab through it. This is all through clothing. If
this person cut through clothing as opposed to ripping through it,
what is this telling us? This is telling us nothing.
What are we learning from this? If I'm really honest,

Patricia's documentary left me feeling quite confused. To me, this
quest for justice, with its focus on blood and dead bodies,
didn't seem to offer the victims any sort of dignity.
Each woman was so much more than a stack of meat,
and surely justice for each woman lies in knowing who
she truly was. That documentary is roughly twenty years old.

Since its release, Patricia has published a new book on
Walter Sicket, but perhaps a position on justice for these
victims has changed over time. Whenever Patricia talks about the Ripper,
the world listens. A plan was forming in my mind,
So I rang my producer, Alice. She's clearly interested in
the victims and sees herself as being a kind of

a voice for them. It's just you're approaching it from
very different angles. I just disagree with her, and I
respect her as a person. I don't understand. I mean,
what this comes down to is I really really don't
understand why she's taking this position on Jack the Ripper,
what logic she's using. I don't understand the obsession. Does

this documentary make you interested in talking to her? I
want to know what justice really means in her perception,
and I would also really like to see if I
could help change her mind, or even if she'd be
interested in meeting me halfway and maybe direct some of
her efforts towards some sort of restorative justice for the victims.

In other ways, some sort of interest in what the
victims legacy is, because that is something we can do
that is actionable today. In eighteen eighty eight, newspapermen hurriedly
set down a version of the Whitechapel murders that was
full of inaccuracies. But pick up a newspaper today and
you'll still read the same old, recycled mistakes. Whenever Patricia

Cornwell tells journalists she's closer to cracking the case, the
victims are always described in a way which would have
been totally familiar to a Victorian reader. If that's ever
going to change, it require the help of people like Patricia,
So I've decided I need to track her down. Bad

Women The Ripper Were Told is brought to you by
Pushkin Industries and me Hallie Rubbinhold and is based on
my book The Five. It was produced and co written
by Ryan Dilley and Alice Fines, with help from Pete Norton.
Pascal Wise Sound designed and mixed the show and composed
all the original music. You also heard the voice talents
of Soul Boyer, Melanie Guttridge, Gemma Saunders and Rufus Wright.

The show also wouldn't have been possible without the work
of Mia LaBelle, Jacob Weisberg, Jen Guerra, Heather Fane, Carlie Migliori,
Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morano and Daniella La Khan were special
thanks to my agents Sarah Ballard and Ellie Karen Do
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