Kevin Riordan: At Drexel, a Jack the Ripper conference

Hosting the two-day conference at Drexel were faculty members Paula Marantz Cohen and Fred J. Abbate. Their goal: To attract scholars as well as "Ripperologists."
Hosting the two-day conference at Drexel were faculty members Paula Marantz Cohen and Fred J. Abbate. Their goal: To attract scholars as well as "Ripperologists." (GIANNA VADINO / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 30, 2011

Jack the Ripper became a media star almost immediately upon slashing his first throat in the London of 1888.

Nearly 125 years later, the first modern serial killer - who was never identified, much less tried and convicted - still inspires books, films, songs, and TV shows, like BBC America's new Whitechapel.

The Ripper is also a frequent subject of academic interest. A Drexel University conference about him drew 100 participants and concluded Saturday.

"We wanted to attract scholars as well as [amateur] Ripperologists," says author and philosopher Fred J. Abbate, using the term for people fascinated by one of history's most infamous, and mysterious, murderers.

Abbate (pronounced abbott) co-organized and cochaired "Jack the Ripper Through a Wider Lens" with the novelist and English professor Paula Marantz Cohen.

The two Drexel faculty members are longtime Moorestown neighbors, and saw Halloween as the perfect time of year for such a gathering.

"When Paula and Fred came up with this idea, we were thrilled because it's fun and different, while still intellectually solid," says Dave Jones, dean of Drexel's Pennoni Honors College, which cosponsored the conference with the university's College of Arts and Sciences.

"Our idea was not the usual, 'Who was Jack the Ripper?' stuff," Abbate explains, citing sessions on topics such as "perceptions of insanity," "the condition of women," and "theatrical depictions."

He and Cohen see the Ripper as, yes, a lens - a means to more clearly view Victorian history, criminology, psychology, and social issues.

"It's a way to look at various aspects of culture, including our own," Cohen says. "I'm very interested in the 'outsider' figure in the Victorian period. . . . Many of the suspects [in the case] were Jews and other immigrants.

"Another dimension of the case is the psychology of serial murder . . . the whole notion of [sexual] repression, and the ways of acting out in a repressed society," she adds.

Lurid details of the killings of "fallen" women riveted newspaper readers of the era.

The frenzy of coverage was "an early example of a media spectacle," says Craig Monk, a professor at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, Canada, and one of the speakers at the conference.

"The books started coming out the very year it happened," Abbate says. "The climate of fear was amazing."

No wonder writers were interested: The killer strangled his victims, slit their throats, then partially eviscerated them. All of his victims were poor prostitutes.

"That's part of the allure," Cohen says. "You're dealing with prostitutes, and murder, and secrecy, and poverty, and all these sort of repressed aspects of the culture."

The Ripper's catchy nickname came from hundreds of letters the killer himself supposedly wrote to the newspapers. Along with much of the lore around the case, the provenance of the letters is, to say the least, suspect.

"Some may have been written by the newspapers themselves," Abbate says, adding that print accounts nevertheless are still a key to research.

"We have to rely on newspaper reports because a lot of the records are stolen, or missing," he notes. "And Scotland Yard still refuses to release many of the records.

"There are two new books out, with two new suspects. It happens every year," he says.

And "because it's unsolved," Cohen notes, "you can always come up with a new theory. It can always give rise to new interpretations."


Kevin Riordan:

For video, go to www.philly.com/ripper


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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