When anti-Semites Screamed Out Jack the Ripper

Literary stereotypes paved the way for the belief in 19th-century England that the serial killer was Jewish.

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London News for October 13, 1888:  "A Suspicious Character"
London News for October 13, 1888: "A Suspicious Character"
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

When I tweeted the news that Jack the Ripper had been identified as a Polish Jew, the first response was almost immediate (and misspelled): “this is an antisemetic trope published at an opportune time! y r u repeating this libel?”

The tweeter, unfortunately, has a point. During fin-de-siècle England, a heady brew of xenophobia and anti-Semitism combined to spread stories that Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

The public’s knowledge that ritual slaughterers butchered kosher meat, coupled with the murders in the East End, where most London Jews lived, led to the conclusion by many in 1888 that the murders might have been the handiwork of a skilled Jewish butcher.

The newspapers’ description of Jack was vague but stereotypically Jewish: dark beard and moustache, dark jacket and trousers, black felt hat, foreign accent and hooked nose. Consequently, many suspects interrogated by the police were Jews, given the size of the Jewish community in the Whitechapel district, where Jack did much of his work.

It was almost irrelevant whether Jack the Ripper really was Jewish. (And the evidence is still not definitive despite recent claims, based on DNA evidence, that the killer was Polish-born Jewish hairdresser Aaron Kosminski.)

This is because the figure of Jack the Ripper played into a long-held stereotype in 19th-century England: the criminality and sexual deviancy of the Jew. Svengali, Dracula and other stereotypes of English literature fit this characterization. They would have spoken to their 19th-century audiences whether classified as Jewish or not.

This Jew was the product of Christian theology, medieval anti-Jewish polemics, religious art and latterly anti-Semitic propaganda. In medieval times, for example, the Jew was sometimes viewed as a sexually predatory monster; a debased lecher yearning for Christian girls (preferably virgins). Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and his supposedly sadistic demand for a pound of Christian flesh can be understood in this light.

This stereotype found its way into Victorian English literature. Mr. Isaacs, the cruelly caricatured Jewish theater manager in Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1891), was a sexual predator who controlled the fate of the Christian heroine, Sibyl Vane.

In Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” (1838), the implied sexual deviancy toward the child associates of Fagin, who was explicitly named as Jewish, also paralleled Ripper’s perversions.

Svengali, the Jewish antagonist of George du Maurier’s “Trilby” (1895), was a dirty, sinister and predatory figure, selfishly manipulating the innocent heroine through mesmerism or hypnotism. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897) would have been understood by contemporary audiences as Jewish, whether explicitly revealed or otherwise. As an immortal yearning for the life force of the virtuous Christian women under his spell, he embodied the Christian blood libel.

Similarly, if we turn to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his description of Moriarty, there are clear echoes of anti-Semitic descriptions of “the Jew.” In the 1893 short story “The Final Problem” he wrote:

“But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers.”

As Conan Doyle put it, “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized.”

Allegedly, Conan Doyle based Moriarty on Adam Worth (1844-1902) a German-born Jewish criminal who operated in America and Britain and who was nicknamed “the Napoleon of the criminal world” and “the Napoleon of Crime.”

All these characterizations fed into the real-world perception of Jack the Ripper, a trope that refused to go away. Such a figure was embodied by Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, the protagonist of Veit Harlan’s 1940 propaganda film for the Nazis, “Jud Süss.” But more contemporary examples can be found, such as in the novel and films of “Lolita” and the various versions of Dracula and the vampire mythos.

If one looks closely enough, these echoes can still be detected and they might very well explain at least one reason for the continuing fascination with Jack the Ripper.

Illustration from the 19th century about the Jack the Ripper mystery.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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