Whitechapel and the limits of history

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/a39e15cfbbce6cf71875f6844b7446de.pngThe show Whitechapel began airing over a dozen years ago, but I am only now getting around to seeing it on the advice of a friend. Normally, I don’t watch shows with a lot of violence — I prefer the victims to be dead when I get there — but given the Victorian connection I decided to simply avert my eyes (and turn down the sound) when attacks occurred.

The first season focuses on a Ripper copycat. Gee, haven’t we done that before? I liked it better when it was the real Ripper (and H.G. Wells) jumping into the future, in Time After Time. But in this case, the historical connections are part of the story, with a Ripperologist providing deep information that could help the police predict the murders.

Since Hallie Rubenhold’s wonderful book The Five wouldn’t be published for another ten years, it wasn’t surprising that all the Ripper’s victims are considered to be prostitutes. Rubenhold did away with that bias in her 2015 book, because the actual evidence about the victims shows it wasn’t true (in fact, the main commonality seemed to be problems with alcohol).

The Ripperologist in the show makes a living off of his book about Jack and the Ripper tours he conducts in the East End of London. An ethical question that emerges is the extent to which he is contributing to the copycat murders by providing so many sordid details in his books and tours. But aside from the issue of whether information influences behavior, what was most interesting was the way the police (with his help) attempt to prevent the third, fourth and fifth murders by knowing a version of what’s going to happen.

——Spoiler Alert—— (in case you haven’t watched TV since 2009)———

They fail to stop two of the murders, the first one because the copycat idea isn’t fully accepted by the police. For the second one they get very close, but a diversion keeps the police away from Mitre Square, where Catherine Eddowes was killed in 1888. What I saw happening was not the diversion, which was blamed on the Ripperologist, but the difficulty of using history to predict what’s going to happen. Even with the fullest sets of facts available, and the closest similarity to those facts, history does not repeat itself.

Naturally I spend much time watching mystery shows, and anything with a Victorian setting. Whitechapel had just a bit of Victorianism to it, mostly in digging up the past to solve a modern crime. Although hardly any of the locations of the 1888 murders look the same now, the production designer did a great job using streets in Whitechapel that have a 19th century feel, so one got the sensation of history overlapping. It was definitely worth a watch.