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Hallucinations & Delusions 3: Jack the Ripper & Victorian Society

The Whitechapel murders of 1888 are of particular interest in relation to what responses tell us about late Victorian society. Popularly considered the first “modern” serial killer, mass media coverage of the Ripper case ensured that discussions of poverty, crime and “sexual danger” permeated Victorian society; from autumn 1888, the delusions of many Bethlem patients centred around the “Whitechapel murders.” What is particularly clear in the Bethlem casebooks is the way in which the Ripper “sensation” affected men and women differently. Male patients worried that they were suspected of being involved in the crimes, or even that they were accused of being “Jack the Ripper” himself, while female patients feared mutilation, regularly identifying themselves with the prostitute victims.

This divide reflects that indicated in histories like Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight. The Bethlem casebooks also validate Walkowitz’s claims that the sexual fears raised by the murders continued well after the case itself: 1888 and 1889 may see a proliferation of Ripper delusions at Bethlem, but they continued at least until the end of the century, and possibly beyond. The articulate story of one patient in particular deserves further attention. Louis Box, a London writer, was 25 when he was admitted to Bethlem suffering from mania. Although Box, like other male patients, identified with the murderer rather than the victims, he also claimed that he had “dressed as a woman and so committed the murders in Whitechapel," an interesting subversion of gender roles.

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Admission Register, showing Louis Box's admission to Bethlem. To view more nineteenth-century admission registers, visit our online archive.