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  • Henry James, Jack the Ripper, and the Cosmopolitan Jew: Staging Authorship in The Tragic Muse
  • Sara Blair

I can’t look at the English and American worlds, or feel about them, any more, save as a big Anglo-Saxon total, destined to such an amount of melting together that an insistence on their differences becomes more and more idle and pedantic and that that melting together will come the faster the more one takes it for granted and treats the life of the two countries as continuous or more or less convertible, or at any rate as simply different chapters of the same general subject.

—James to William James, 1888 1

In society, as in nature, the structure is continuous, and we can trace things back uninterruptedly, until we dimly perceive the Declaration of Independence in the forests of Germany.

—Lord Acton, A Lecture on the Study of History, 1895 2

In the fall of 1888, as Henry James began to compose his “study of a certain particular nature d’actrice,” the print culture of Anglo-America was sensationalizing a real-life drama, the serial murders of Jack the Ripper. 3 Staged in London’s East End, the site of a heavily concentrated population of immigrant Jews, the Ripper’s crimes participate in a heightened theater of Anglo-Saxon character, racial history, and destiny. Animated by gathering anti-alien sympathies, the local populace was quick to read the Ripper murders through the lens of racial anxiety. When the body of Catharine Eddows was found by a Jew on 30 September 1888 outside the International Working Men’s Educational Club, a virtual pogrom threatened to erupt in the East End. The East London Observer reported that “the crowd who assembled in the streets began to assume a very threatening attitude towards the Hebrew population of the District. It was repeatedly asserted that no Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime as that of Hanbury Street, and that it must have been done by a JEW.” 4 On a wall in Goulston Street, near the spot where a bloody apron connected with the Ripper had been found, a message was scrawled: “The Juwes are The men That Will not be Blamed for nothing.” 5 [End Page 489]

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Figure 1.

“Sketch of Supposed Murderer,” Illustrated Police News, September 1888.

England’s official narratives follow a similar script. The description released in aid of the police search described the murderer as a man of “age 37,” with “rather dark beard and moustache, dark jacket and trousers,” and “black felt hat,” who “spoke with a foreign accent,” while the Illustrated Police News, a popular crime sheet, figured the suspect in virtual caricatures of the semitic “type” [Fig. 1]. 6 Sir Robert Anderson, who spearheaded the massive Ripper manhunt, retrospectively declared: “One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sexual maniac of a virulent type . . . The Police had made a house-to-house search for him, investigating the case of every man in the district whose circumstances were such that he could go and come and get rid of his blood-stains in secret.” The “virulent” and perverse individual who could “go and come” with such stealth would hardly be one of England’s own; “the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were low-class Jews.” 7 A high proportion of suspects detained and questioned were Jews, and an “alien” Jewish worker was briefly arrested in September 1888. Ironically, it was the Ripper himself who intervened to suspend the fantasy of racial impurity that could be expunged from the Anglo-Saxon body politic without a trace. In a rhyming missive sent in 1889 to Sir Melville McNaughton, Chief of the vaunted Criminal Investigation Division of Scotland Yard, he wrote with characteristically insouciant dispatch:

I’m not a butcher, I’m not a Yid, Nor yet a foreign skipper, But I’m your own light-hearted friend, Yours truly, Jack the Ripper. 8

As Judith Walkowitz and Sander Gilman have argued, the Ripper is virtually made to order as an icon for Anglo-America’s imagination of...

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