The paucity of criticism on the photographic evidence of Jack the Ripper’s murders is striking and surprising, particularly given that these images amount to one of the first visual documentations of what are now called sex crimes.
Even Robert McLaughlin’s pioneering study The First Jack the Ripper Victim Photographs falls short of adequately decoding what’s really going on in the pictures themselves, in part because he seems less interested in the content of the photographs than in the biographical details of the photographers who created them. This essay hopes to address and correct this interpretive gap. Through a close analysis of the few Ripper photographs that still survive, I seek to recover the representational codes governing the visual, spatial, and gender politics of these images. In the first section I examine the postmortem portraits of the victims. In the second, I explore the continuities I see between the full-body mortuary photographs of the victims and a broader Victorian art aesthetic. In the third and final section I study closely the single crime-scene photograph of the body of Mary Kelly (the Ripper’s fifth victim).Order now
ISuren Lalvani argues that in the nineteenth century, photography was believed to be an “apparatus of insight” (50) that could reveal, in the words of Naomi Rosenblum, “personality, intellect, and character . . . through the depiction of facial configuration and expression” (Rosenblum 39). The human face was believed to confess the corruptions of the soul—if not always to the naked human eye, then to the camera, which was thought to possess a magical power to elicit our darkest secrets.
The conviction that criminality could be detected from photographed features was central to the assembling of the “rogues’ galleries” of police photographs of criminal suspects in England, France, and America. The bulk of the Ripper photographs resemble criminal mug shots in that the camera seems to gaze steadfastly at the victims’ faces and focus on little else—we rarely see a full-body picture, and certainly none (barring the Mary Kelly photograph) of the body located within the crime scene itself. Disconcertingly, by fixating on the victim’s facial physiognomy, the camera transforms these forensic photographs into pure portraits purged of nearly all crime-scene traces. The effect can imply that crime is somehow resting immanently within the physiological contours of the victim herself, as if there were something in her appearance that led to her victimization. The prostitute thus becomesless the crime’s victim and more its provocation. Read in this light, the ghostly portraits of the Ripper’s victims seem to operate more as mug shots for a police lineup than as bodies photographed for details of the injuries they have suffered.
Furthermore, they resemble portraits of sleeping women, photographed clandestinely, voyeuristically, without their knowledge. All that is required of us, the viewers, is a slight associative legerdemain, and the sleeping women transform into the women who sleep around. The mortuary photographs, in that case, function less as objective documents that supplement textual inventories of violence committed by the Ripper and more as an archive profiling streetwalkers—a female counterpart to the predominantly male mug-shot compilations of criminal types. What is being diagnosed through the markers available inside these photographs is not the Ripper’s sexual pathology, but rather the provocative sexual profligacy of his female victims. These portrait photographs thus offer a moral explanation for why these prostitutes were killed—precisely because they were prostitutes. Lalvani points out that Victorian photography was entrenched in the politics of upward mobility.
Lower-class men and women made their way into studios where they could “momentarily conceal their working-class backgrounds and be made visible in the light of their aspirations” (69). This privilege of temporarily inhabiting desired social identities is typically not extended to sex workers, however. In fact, the Ripper victim portraits do just the reverse: they everlastingly freeze these women, who from all accounts were part- rather than full-time prostitutes, into a singular identity. Jennifer Green-Lewis suggests that “every instance of photography has a potential to be used against its subject” (180); the photographs of the Ripper’s victims are, indeed, used against them as a means to typecast them, to pin them down as prostitutes—as criminalized and illegal citizens.
IIImages of the faces of dead women were, of course, far from unusual in Victorian England. In Idols of Perversity, Bram Dijkstra lays bare the nineteenth century’s “cult of feminine invalidism” (28), in which physical vigor in women was associated with “dangerous, masculinising attitudes” (26) and women were encouraged to appear starving and consumptive as proof of their superior breeding, feminine refinement, and spiritual purity. The sheer number of paintings that depict women in various “stages of abject physical degeneration” (28) offers a parallel and complementary narrative through which to read and understand the Ripper photographs. Paintings that mysticized and eroticized dying women may appear sedate, exalting, and even alluring in comparison to the unbridled maniacal violence suggested by the Ripper photographs. Still, a certain affinity between them should not pass unnoticed.
Nineteenth-century art had consolidated and celebrated a sadistic culture that pushed women into self-sacrifice to the point of death—a process that transferred responsibility for the woman’s wellbeing to her husband. Women’s self-chosen degeneration in marriage thus was the key to their husbands’ spiritual and physicalsuccess and long life (Dijkstra 30): behind every successful man is a decaying woman. And painters and poets relentlessly recorded and disseminated images commemorating and in effect validating the slow, sacrificial decay by which women of virtue waste away. This kind of artistic violence that aestheticizes dying women, I would argue, resembles the necrophiliac, murderous outpourings of the Ripper photographs. The full-body postmortem photograph of Catherine Eddowes could easily be replaced by Albert Von Keller’s 1885 painting “Study of a Dead Woman,” and we would barely notice the difference. Their gaping mouths, sagging breasts, and sunken abdomens allow these visual documents to function as paired mirror images of one another.
What is remarkable about this surgical iconography is that it cuts across distinct modes and genres of visual documentation. Both nineteenth-century medical portmortem photographs and painted portraits intended for galleries and drawing rooms share many of the same characteristics. These shared codes of representation produce a hybrid form characterized at once by a pseudoscientificexactitude in painting and by a morbid aestheticization in medical and mortuary photography. In the case of the Ripper mortuary photographs, the images attest to the obliterative “artistic” might and agency of the Ripper, while also acknowledging the technical prowess of medical personnel, the doctors and coroners engaged, with just as much skill as the Ripper, in reassembling these dismembered and mutilated female bodies. As Judith Walkowitz notes in City of Dreadful Delight, the Ripper murders exacerbated popular suspicion of anatomists.
Given this atmosphere of hostility toward medical men, the surgeons involved in conducting postmortems on the Ripper victims were eager to differentiate their profession and medical knowledge from the Ripper’s handiwork. They humbly asserted that they themselves could not perform such injuries as efficiently and quickly as the Ripper had (Walkowitz 211). The postmortem photographs may thus be understood as participating in and contributing to the medical community’s attempts at moral selfrehabilitation. The victim photographs are evidence of the salutary functions of medicine, its ability to piece and suture back beleaguered body parts and recover a semblance of the human contours of a woman disfigured and mutilated beyond recognition. The doctors may not have had the knowledge to inflict injuries as masterfully as the Ripper, yet they had the expertise and know-how to reverse the damage, to repair the bodies left in his wake. The photographs therefore transform these women into canvases upon which men—with competing motivations—prove their aesthetic and scientific mastery.