Innovative True Crime YouTubers:
Journalism or Entertainment?
Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad.
Student name: Sofia Manouki Student ID: s3791416 Supervisor: Prof. Dr. S.I. Aasman Second reader: Dr. Frank Harbers MA Journalism, University of Groningen Hand-in date: 22/12/22
Table of Contents
2. Theoretical Framework
A. Historicizing the True Crime Genre …………...
A.1. True Crime – Dark Cautionary Tales for Adults ……….......
A.1.1. Non-Fictional Murder Narratives, aka True Crime . . . More or Less ………....... 9
The Struggle for Definition ………. 9
Adapt or Perish! ……….. 10
A.1.2. Murdering Subject: The True Crime Canon ………..... 13
The Romantic Element of True Crime ………..….. 13
The Sexy Poet-Murderer Pierre-François Lacenaire ……….. 13
Murder as an Aesthetic Experience ……….. 16
The ABC’s of Selling True Crime ………..... 17
Jack The Ripper: The World’s First True Crime Obsession …………. 20
The Butchery of Female Bodies ……….….. 22
New Journalism – “Luxury of Panics” & The Legend of Jack The Ripper ...... 24
The Lust Murderer …………. 28
True Crime’s Favorite Criminal Subject ……….….……... 32
B. Situating the Debate: YouTube & Journalism
B.1. YouTube – Opposing Interests Clashing On “Neutral” Digital Space ……….….... 38
B.1.1. The Platform, The Community, and You (Tube) ………..... 38
YouTube Diplomacy 101: The Platform Discourse ……….... 39
Convergence Culture ………….. 40
Early YouTube Research ………..... 41
Participatory Video Practice Threatened by YouTube ………... 42
A Community of …Watchers? ………..…... 44
Participatory Rhythms ……….. 45
So, What Is the Message? ……….. 45
Self-Branding: The U.S.A. Case ……….….. 46
B.1.2. Making Money as A YouTuber ……….. 47
Entrepreneurship & Power Asymmetry on YouTube ……….. 47
Monetization & Alternative Sources of Income ……….. 50
B.2. Journalism – Values in Crisis, Always and Forever ………...….. 52
Introduction ……….. 52
B.2.1. Objectivity ……… 53
Blast From The Past ………. 53
In The Eye of The Beholder ………... 55
Objectivity 2.0. ……….......... 56
B.2.2. Public Service ………... 58
The (Un)informed Citizen ………... 59
The (Un)informed Journalist ……….…… 59
ii) Institutional Conflict of Interest …………… 60
iii) Cyber-Dystopia …………. 61
iv) Falling on Deaf Policy-Making Ears ……….…… 62
v) Profitability & Commercialism: Is Caring About Democracy Profitable? ….... 62
B.2.3. Ethics ………... 63
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words ……….….... 63
Sensationalism ……….….. 65
Characteristics of Sensationalism ………...... 66
True Crime & Infotainment ………… 67
Current Media Environment ………..….. 69
3. Methodology ……….. 71
Research Question ……….. 71
Sampling Criteria ……….. 72
Research Design …………. 74
4. Video Analysis ………... 78
a) Video Title ………..…. 80
Introduction ………..….. 80
Actors ………... 83
Language & Rhetoric ……….. 84
Discursive Strategies ……….. 85
Ideological Positioning ………........ 86
b) Video Description ………………. 87
Actors …………. 88
Language & Rhetoric ……….. 91
Discursive Strategies ……….. 92
Ideological Positioning ……….. 94
c) Video ……… 96
Actors ………. 97
1. Video Hosts (Ryan, Shane, Bailey Sarian, Antphrodite) …………. 97
2. Murder Victim (Elizabeth Short, Black Dahlia, Jane Doe) ………. 102
3. Suspects ………..… 107
4. “Witnesses” ……….. 118
5. Law Enforcement & Experts ……….. 127
6. The Press / The media ………... 132
7. The Viewers ……….…. 135
Language & Rhetoric ……….... 137
Discursive Strategies ………. 145
Fact – checking ………... 153
Ideological Positioning ………. 158
Visual Elements ………. 161
Top 5 Comments ……….. 164
5. Conclusions, Reflections & Future Research Recommendations ……… 166
Conclusions ……….. 166
i) Objectivity ……….……….. 166
ii) Public Service ………. 172
iii) Ethics ………... 174
Methodological Limitations ………..... 181
Future Research Recommendations ……….. 182
6. List of Tables & Infographics ……….... 183
7. References ………. 184
8. Appendix ………. 203
True Crime is a dynamic genre, whose historical evolvement through news media narratives is strongly connected to technological and ideological developments in the journalistic field.
Specifically, even though True Crime differs from news coverage, it concerns real-life stories; as such, the genre involves journalistic responsiveness, which ultimately allows for the expression of societal anxieties within a strongly profit-oriented context, meaning that True Crime has historically treaded a fine line between exploiting violent, sexual stories, and raising awareness about serious social issues.
Taking into consideration the representational treatment of male murderers and female victims in the dominant cultural discourse, the power asymmetry to which platform-dependent entrepreneurs adapt their income diversification and self-branding strategies, and the conceptualization of journalistic authority as a privileged notion for narrative legitimation, this thesis examines how “amateur”, innovative YouTubers navigate the video presentation of real-life murder while establishing their entrepreneurial brand, as far as adhering to historical, enduring, and presumably normative journalistic values pertaining to Objectivity, Public Service and Ethics is concerned. Qualitative close reading of two videos by “amateur” True Crime YouTubers who have pioneered the genre, and one video by BuzzFeed -whose infotainment format will be considered paradigmatic-, is employed to address the particularities of each YouTuber’s method. The analysis calls attention to the diverse conceptualizations of what sensationalism is and how the media are perceived to utilize it, as well as the categorization difficulties that a marketable niche skill which is inherently speculative, but acknowledged by the viewers as authoritative despite lacking the legitimacy of education- or work-related expertise, such as being a psychic, presents, when it is used by a content creator in order to interpret the True Crime case.
Since journalistic values -upon which journalistic authority depends in order to legitimize narratives-, as well as the overall conceptualization of Journalism as the democracy-protecting Fourth Estate are currently being challenged and, at the very least, complicated due to increasing pressures over profitability, I will be examining the pervasiveness of journalistic values pertaining to Objectivity, Public Service and Ethics in True Crime narratives, in a highly competitive environment, where independent entrepreneurs face tremendous institutional pressures if they are to successfully to monetize their content.
To this purpose, the representational choices, self-branding methods and entrepreneurial strategies in the videos of two “amateur” innovative True Crime YouTubers and a video by the BuzzFeed Unsolved Network -which will be used as an infotainment paradigm-, will be comparatively analyzed in a qualitative close reading, in order to answer the research question
“How do innovative True Crime YouTubers navigate the video presentation of real-life murder while establishing their entrepreneurial brand, as far as adhering to journalistic values pertaining to Objectivity, Public Service and Ethics is concerned?”.
The dominant discourses and semiotic representations of the videos will be examined in accordance with Anabela Carvalho’s (2008) textual analysis framework for researching media discourses -with a few adaptations in order to account for intertextual elements (e.g. links, imagery) and format differences-. Moreover, the way in which viewers respond to the YouTubers’ narratives and conceptualizations will be of particular interest, because the co- construction of meaning-making with audiences is a pertinent theme to the discourses about True Crime, digital platforms such as YouTube, and participatory journalism.
The following chapter, which constitutes the Theoretical Framework of the thesis, is split into two parts: Firstly, I historicize the True Crime genre in order to introduce its historical connection with journalism, and the public’s fascination with the allegedly “exceptional” male murderer of female victims whose subjectivity is markedly absent in dominant representations of sensational crime. Afterwards, I situate both the debate regarding the power asymmetry between YouTube and platform-dependent entrepreneurs, as well as the debate concerning the purpose, legitimation and problematizing of journalistic practices.
A. Historicizing the True Crime Genre
A.1. True Crime – Dark Cautionary Tales for Adults
In this chapter I set out to discuss the definitional issues pertaining to True Crime, and the genre’s historical evolvement through visual media and connection to journalism. Moreover, by examining the Jack the Ripper case, I will be contextualizing the public’s fascination with the
“exceptional” male murderer, and the misogynistic treatment of the female victims of sexual murders, which gave rise to the prevalence of such representations in True Crime.
A.1.1. Non-Fictional Murder Narratives, aka True Crime . . . More or Less
The Struggle for Definition
Ironically enough, it is easier to define the genre of True Crime -whose origins as a term are obscure (Schmid, 2010)-, by virtue of what it isn’t, rather what it is; In comparison to news coverage for example, characteristics such as a lack of interest for contemporary newsworthiness or an emphasis on entertainment values (Biressi, 2001) easily stand out. The issue apparently lies with the fact that True Crime simply isn’t a uniform concept (ibid.). On the contrary, both the genre’s creators (e.g. authors) and its audience (e.g. readers), may partake in the reproduction of different “formulas” and conventions, which also illuminate the dynamic discourse on crime itself (ibid.).
Furthermore, Biressi (2001) argues that even if we are to accept a rather general definition according to which True Crime pertains to non fiction narratives which stress the authenticity of the covered events while targeting an audience interested in entertainment, such narratives are organized arbitrarily to begin with (for example by killer or victim type, method of killing, period, and so on and so forth). Murley (2008), who goes to great lengths to trace the genre’s development all the way from 1920’s pulp magazines to contemporary content, agrees that
True Crime is conceptualized differently, depending on the context of the historic period and format in which it appears. This hardly comes as a surprise, as discourse formation closely follows cultural struggles over meaning among audiences, and the medium itself may be influencing the production/consumption of media messages (Hall, 2003).
Going back to definitional issues then, Murley (2008) argues that instead of emphasizing on a specific, fixed definition, what matters is the audience’s interpretation and interaction with True Crime -because this is what ultimately shapes it-, and opts for the acknowledgment of cultural specificities which may or may not be getting picked up, in some way, by modern audiences.
For the purposes of this thesis, True Crime is defined as a dynamic genre which focuses on entertainment, differs from news coverage -yet pertains to authentic, real-life murder stories-, and, as far as interpretation and reproduction is concerned, depends on audience meaning- making.
Adapt or Perish!
“The human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”
- Truman Capote (Plimpton, 1966)
True Crime has proven itself to be an extremely resilient genre on both sides of the Atlantic, by consistently keeping up on social changes through a wide variety of media outlets starting from pamphlets, newspaper articles, detective stories and criminal memoirs, all the way to include the latest technologies not only in print, but also broadcasting and the Internet (Franks, 2016). In fact, Campbell (1993) underlines the marketability and adjustability of the genre, by suggesting that less mainstream formats such as fanzines, tapes or even collector’s cards shouldn’t be overlooked.
Interestingly enough, even though True Crime has frequently experienced periods of renewed interest, it has never quite been out of fashion, by “building synergistic relationships with other media that might otherwise have been damaging sources of competition” (Schmid, 2005, p.175), ever since the publication of In Cold Blood: True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences1. In fact, Smith (1994) argues that instead of simply covering a contemporary case, True Crime authors often take advantage of the publicity that high profile criminal cases generate, and sell in large, yet short lived peaks that become highly lucrative for any newspapers serializing such content, as well.
Additionally, the entanglement with journalistic responsiveness (and responsibility) doesn’t end there, as the very label “true” and the purported factuality of True Crime narratives create ethical questions due to the de facto aestheticizing of (the) murder(er) by creators and audiences alike (Browder, 2010). In view of this dark particularity, True Crime can actually be seen as a form of documentary, albeit a “dystopian” one (Browder, 2010, p.125), since it usually offers a window into the deviant’s mind, without identifying the social causes that lead him to that point .
In fact, Bruzzi (2016) argues that True Crime documentaries such as Making a Murderer (2015-2018), which, incidentally, share title sequence stylistic similarities in “their uses of double exposure and exaggeratedly slow cross-fades between enigmatic and poignant images that will later feature in the series, a graceful moving camera and an intrusive musical score”
(Bruzzi, 2016, p.279) with crime (entertainment) series such as True Detective, constitute their own emerging genre. Either way, ever since Making a Murderer’s astounding success, True Crime documentaries2 have greatly contributed to the current popularization of the True Crime genre because of their binge-worthy value3, making Netflix invest in its own True Crime
1 True to form, in his journalistic classic which constitutes a 20th century landmark for the modern non-fiction treatment of crime (Browder, 2010; Schmid, 2005), Capote synthesized already-existing tropes from 1950’s true crime magazines and books (Murley, 2016).
2 Podcasts constitute another notable True Crime trend, but because this thesis focuses on the analysis of video (visual) material, I have purposefully chosen to not go into detail about them.
3 Netflix renews its shows based on completion rate, which means that it is more interested in how many people actually finish a series, than in general viewership numbers and critical acclaim (Rodriguez, published on July 30, 2018 and last updated on July 21, 2022). Moreover, not even showrunners and producers are given detailed
originals (Modell, 2018), such as The Raincoat Killer: Chasing a Predator in Korea (2021), Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (2021), Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021), and American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020), to name but a few recent examples.
Table 1. Netflix True Crime originals produced after Making a Murderer. List not all-inclusive.
Making a Murderer 2015-2018
Amanda Knox 2016
Casting JonBenet 2017
The Keepers 2017
The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist 2018
The Staircase 2018
Don’t F**with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer 2019
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes 2019
The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann 2019
American Murder: The Family Next Door 2020
The Raincoat Killer: Chasing a Predator in Korea 2021
Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer 2021
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel 2021
The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness 2021
Murder Among the Mormons 2021
Girl in the Picture 2022
Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes 2022
Worst Roommate Ever 2022
Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi 2022
Catching Killers 2022
My Daughter’s Killer 2022
information about how their shows are doing and what kind of metrics are prioritized for show renewals; this appears to be the case with streaming platforms in general (VanArendonk & Adalian, 2022).
A.1.2. Murdering Subject: The True Crime Canon
The Romantic Element of True Crime
In a 1975 interview with “Le magazine littéraire”, Michel Foucault discussed (the concept of) a criminality which is discursively constructed as a literary phenomenon appealing to popular aesthetics (Foucault & Brochier, 1977). He went on to specify that in the 18th century and up until the mid 19th century, there were two distinct “formulas” of crime, one centering around the crimes of a regal figure -preferably a king- and one narrating the crimes of an othered character finding himself in the opposite end of the social spectrum (ibid.). The latter is typically the type of criminal who fascinates the masses exactly because he goes against the established order as a social outcast - for example, a “Robin Hood” type- (ibid.).
According to Foucault, the appearance of a new type of criminally heroic figure can be placed around 1840. This new archetype transcends the limits of a strictly aristocratic or strictly commoner nature and originates from the bourgeoisie, which created for itself the image of a representative, enemy-of-the-poor criminal type (ibid.). The bourgeois origins of this new criminal are especially evident in the juxtaposition between his protagonistic role as the brains of an operation, and the more peripheral and frowned upon role of the lowly henchmen who do his bidding, in 19th century detective novels (ibid.).
The Sexy Poet – Murderer Pierre-François Lacenaire
“Je tue un homme comme je bois un verre de vin”
[I kill a man with the same ease I drink a glass of wine]
- Lacenaire (Laccasagne, 1882, p.16)
Pierre-François Lacenaire, a fascinating figure of 19th century France that captivated the imagination of literary giants such as Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, best exemplifies the bourgeois criminal that Foucault alluded to (Downing, 2013), because his story challenges his era’s assumption that a working-class insubordination leads to delinquency (Chevalier, 2007).
Lacenaire, who was born in 1803 and executed on the guillotine in 1836, started his criminal activities during the first years of the July Monarchy in France. (Un)Interestingly enough, his criminal career was neither particularly prolific nor particularly exceptional, since he was a thief, scammer and murderer, ultimately tried for a double homicide. However, his socioeconomic background (he was not just educated, but an accomplished student), physical characteristics (in his trial, he looked like a well-to-do young man, completely different from his brutish accomplishes whose appearance was in line with the physiognomic criminology theories of the time),
Illustration from 19th century physiognomy book.
Pierre François Lacenaire.
and, above all, the fascinating attribute of being both a cynical, remorseless murderer and a poet4 make him a unique figure, capable of inspiring his own cult of personality (Irving, 1901;
Downing, 2013). This notorious, real-life personification of dissidence by and for the bourgeoisie/ artistic elite, certainly finds its predecessor in the cynical villainy of 1820’s Byronic heroes who prepared the ground for the emergence of a Romantic, dandified and intellectual criminal, allowing for the re-invention of crime as another expression of privilege (Foucault, 1979).
4 Lacenaire insisted that his crimes were a form of legitimate defense, a self-inflicted social death stemming from a distaste towards social injustice; in his writings, he claims to take a life as apathetically as he is ready to give his own.
Murder as an Aesthetic Experience
In “On Murder Considered as a Fine Art”, brilliant classicist Thomas De Quincey -who also made sure to cover sensational murder stories as an editor of the Westmorland Gazette (1818- 1819)-, canonized the aesthetics of murder in literature, by satirically relinquishing conventional morality (De Quincey et Morrison, 2006; Biressi, 2001). Indeed, according to De Quincey, “the final purpose of murder, considered as a fine art, is precisely the same as that of Tragedy, in Aristotle’s account of it, viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror’” (De Quincey et Morrison, 2006, p.32). Furthermore, building upon Foucault’s observations on the 19th century romanticization of the bourgeois criminal, Black (1991) distinguishes between the tradition of depicting the criminal as an artist -most notably achieved by Baudelaire-, and the tradition of depicting the artist as a criminal, a movement launched by Oscar Wilde’s 1890 “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.
This Romantic conceptualization of the criminal is culturally relevant because, having both captivated and provided the West with the archetype of the gentleman-criminal (Downing, 2013), it eventually transmogrified into fascistic justifications for violence. Specifically, seeing greatness in the transgressional individual has informed Fascism in the sense that the logical extension of “endowing” the Übermensch with above-average traits also meant providing him with the right/privilege to function beyond normal limitations (Taubin, 1991; Fuss, 1993). This Aryan “privilege”, a natural brainchild of the Aryan aesthetic, comes dangerously close to the notion of a killer who exterminates social outcasts (Biressi, 2001); Arguably, the Aryan “right” to commit crimes in accordance with which the racial policies of Nazi Germany culminated in the Holocaust of “inferior” populations, finds its modern equivalent in the fictional and non- fictional narratives that depict male WASP5 serial-killers as fascinating, above-average murderers who take it upon themselves to “cleanse” society of undesirables (ibid.).
5 White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
The ABC’s of Selling True Crime
Whereas it is difficult to understate the social and religious impact of the 1450 invention of the movable printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, it is important to note that the rise of the printing society and all that it brought about, was a gradual process (Briggs et al., 2020), akin to William’s “Long Revolution” (Williams, 1961). In other words, it should be seen through the prism of understanding modernization as a long revolutionary process with equally important interrelated political, economic and cultural subsystems. Consequently, according to Carrabine (2008), with the obvious exception of the elite, the majority of Europe’s population actually remained illiterate or semi-illiterate well into the 19th century.
The perfection of the rotary drum printing press -which came to be known as the “lightning press”-, by American inventor Richard M. Hoe in 1846, dramatically increased printing speed (Meggs, 1998; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022). The subsequent demand for a cheap type of paper lead to the widespread use of wood pulp, which neither had the longevity nor the elegant appearance of traditional rag paper (Hunter, 1978). What it did have, on the other hand, was the potential to be used for mass-produced books sold at astoundingly low prices.
One such example is the 19th century U.K. publishing phenomenon of “penny dreadfuls”, which were weekly publications of 8-16 pages with a black and white illustration in the front page, that told sensational stories of adventure and cost a penny, each. For the purposes of comparison, it should be noted that each part of Charles Dickens’s serialized novels cost 12 pennies, an already especially low price, considering the standard book price of 31 shillings 6 pence (UCSC, n.d.). Moreover, already in the late 1840’s with the first appearance of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but especially in the 1860’s, true crime and detective stories became the center of focus in penny dreadfuls (Flanders, 2014).
The character “Sweeney Todd”
originated in the story The String of Pearls, which was serialized in penny dreadfuls from 1846-1847.
Todd is a murderous barber who kills and robs his victims. His lover, Mrs. Lovett, then disposes of the bodies by baking them into meat pies and selling them in her pie shop. An unwitting orphan boy is hired by the pair to serve the pies to unsuspecting customers.
Victorian sensationalism at its best.
That being said, penny dreadfuls by no means represented the only medium that made (sensationalized) true crime stories accessible to the public, in the 19th century. According to Knelman (2016), crime narratives came in many different options, depending on the spending power and literacy level -the latter had increased by the 1850’s thanks to philanthropic associations, dame schools, church schools, mechanics’ institutes etc.-. Criminal biographies, ballads and gallows dying speeches were consumed by the masses; pamphlets and penny dreadfuls were preferred by the literate working class; and crime reports in newspapers or compendiums of criminal careers were read by the more bourgeois (ibid.). Nevertheless, all these media were focusing on sensational stories (ibid.) and profited by the rich visual culture embodied by the diffusion of printed images in illustrated magazines (Anderson, 1991), which, much like religious iconography had previously done, served to inform the illiterate (Carrabine, 2008).
Such publications, which, as aforementioned, benefited from the new printing and paper technologies to quickly and cheaply provide a largely working-class readership with graphic narratives about real crimes, psychologically excited their audience by bringing the criminally threatening and macabre into “safe” social spaces (Gladfelder, 2001), while adopting a didactic tone peppered with religious moral messages, in order to avoid censorship (Carrabine, 2008).
At the same time, they essentially stole readers from the “poor man’s” press, which was already suffering by stamp duty6 and the lack of advertiser interest to be associated with illegal (unstamped), liable for persecutions for inciting libel press (Curran & Seaton, 2003; Allan, 2010).
Unsurprisingly, the end of the Taxes on Knowledge, as their critics called the U.K. duties on newspapers, in the 1850’s, marks the emergence of a new style of journalism (Brake et al., 2009, p.454), characteristic of its “attention to crime, sexual violence and human oddities”
(Williams, 1961, p.195). This change in style from the more ponderous, dry political commentary of the previously middle-class exclusive press to the now tax-free, friendlier towards daily life and human-interest subject matters press, was supposed to be more
6 Stamp duty had been introduced in the U.K. by the Act of 1712 which introduced a tax on newspapers for the purpose of limiting newspaper access to the middle class, thereby forcing out cheap political papers (The key moments that shaped the British press, 2012).
sympathetic to the poor (Carrabine, 2008). However, leaving aside the more sensationally
“juicy” reporting and themes that it borrowed from the poor’s man press, this new format of journalism continued to exploit class prejudice, as the following case best exemplifies.
Jack The Ripper: The World’s First True Crime Obsession
The Illustrated Police News – 8 September 1888. The Illustrated Police News – 13 October1888.
Copyright: The British Library Board. Copyright: The British Library Board.
The Illustrated Police News often featured post mortem portraits and sketches of the Ripper victims even in their coffins (!) (Mary Ann Nichols, first canonical Ripper victim on the left). It is suggested that by learning more about the victim, the crime can be better understood, however, going into the victim’s lifestyle can also result in the subtle obfuscation of the perpetrator’s agency and encourage antifeminist, victim-blaming narratives (Boyle, 2005).
The Illustrated Police News, one of Britain’s first tabloids, was founded in 1843. It consisted of one pictorial and three text pages, and, following the penny dreadful tradition, featured graphic illustrations about the latest scandals to occur in the British Empire and abroad. In 1886 it was voted the “worst newspaper in England” by
readers of the Pall Mall Gazette (The Illustrated Police News, 2016), which itself turned from an upper-class paper into a radical, New Journalism publication aggrandizing the Whitechapel Murder narrative (Begg & Bennett, 2014).
By the late 1880’s, when Jack the Ripper’s gruesome murders gripped the British nation, in great part due to Scotland Yard’s decision to allow the national press to publish his letters7 (Curtis, 2001), the overcrowded, full of Irish and Jewish immigrants parish of Whitechapel in London’s East End was completely looked down on by affluent West Enders who saw it as a breeding ground for perversion, degradation and criminality; in other words, literal as well as metaphorical pollution (Jones, 1976). Given the fact the Whitechapel Murders took place less than a year after thousands of unemployed East Ender workers marched into central London to protest about layoffs and low wages, it follows that the Tory press had an interest in propagating this overly negative image (Curtis, 2001).
Indeed, in the Victorian London -whose population had quadrupled in the 19th century (Begg
& Bennett, 2014)-, expansion and industrialization came at a cost most felt by the residents of the East End slums, who, for all intents and purposes, lived in a separate, “foreign” part of the British Empire’s grand metropolis (Mackay, 1891). It comes as no surprise then, that “apart from such baneful consequences of poverty and overcrowding as alcoholism and physical and sexual abuse, Whitechapel also had a bad reputation for crime” (Curtis, 2001, p.42). It is in this oddly fascinating, if not frightening, for the middle-class environment, where wretched men, women and children lived, surviving on meagre means and often resorting to crime or prostitution, that a series of especially brutal murders perpetrated by an unknown assailant, who seemed to embody the general anxiety over poverty, disease and immorality, took place in 1888. The Whitechapel murders, as the Jack the Ripper slayings would come to be known, have since become an unparalleled landmark for the history of True Crime, due to their seemingly
7 Interestingly enough, the two first and most iconic Ripper communiqués (the “Dear Boss” letter and the “Saucy Jacky” postcard) received by the Central News Agency of London, were considered to be the works of an enterprising journalist (Anderson, 1910; McNaghten 1915), with journalist Tom Bulling being the most likely candidate (Rumbelow, 1979) because his agency had a reputation for fabricating news (Evans and Skinner, 2001;
Begg, 2004). In any case, authorship analysis of the Ripper analysis supports the hypothesis that these two texts were written by the same person (Nini, 2018).
endless ability to fascinate and generate new material well over a century after they were committed (Begg & Bennett, 2014).
The Butchery of Female Bodies
On August 31st, 1888, the still warm body of Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols (42), the first of the five canonical Ripper victims (Abrahamsen, 1992; Begg, Fido & Skinner, 1996; Canter, 2003;
Evans & Gainey, 1998; Fido, 1993; Gordon, 2001; Smithkey, 1998; Sugden, 2002), was found lying on the cobblestones in Buck’s Row, with her skirt pushed up her waist, and a deep cut across her throat -a failed attempt to decapitate her-. The victim, a mother of five and occasional prostitute in order to make ends meet, had been slashed in the abdomen and stabbed in the crotch.
On September 8th, Annie Chapman (née Eliza Anne Smith) (45-47), the second Ripper victim, who was similarly driven to prostitution in order to secure shelter, food and drink, was found lying in the backyard of a lodging house in Spitalfields, with a deep cut across her throat - another failed decapitation-, and her small intestines ripped out and thrown next to her (Keppel et al., 2005). Her belly wall (including the navel), womb, vagina (partially) and bladder were
“Purity groups had closed down two hundred brothels in the East End in the year prior to the Ripper murders, rendering hundreds of women homeless, hence vulnerable to attack, and certainly making the lower stratum of prostitution—where the victims of the Ripper were situated—
even more precarious as a means of subsistence” (Walkowitz, 1982, p. 558).
Between 1888 and 1891 multiple women were murdered in the Whitechapel area of
London. To date, there is still wide debate about which victims can be attributed to the same murderer.
On September 30th, the body of Elizabeth Stride (mid forties), a mother of nine and casual prostitute who was living in lodging houses, was found lying in a courtyard behind the International Working Men’s Club, a hub for lower class Jewish socialists; she had suffered a single throat incision without any further mutilations, leading the police to the belief that the killer had been interrupted. Less than an hour after the discovery of Stride’s body, the horribly mutilated and disfigured body of Catherine Eddowes (mid forties) was discovered in a dark corner in Aldgate. Eddowes, who encountered her killer shortly after being discharged for drunk and disorderly behavior, was found with her throat cut from ear to ear -to the bone-, her intestines ripped out and thrown next to her, her left kidney and uterus missing, her nose severed, and her pelvic area and face slashed. It appeared that the body had been posed, with the clothes drawn up above the waist and exposing the naked thighs (Keppel et al., 2005).
On November 9th, Mary Jane Kelly (24), the last canonical Ripper victim, was discovered in the dingy bedroom of a lodging house frequented by prostitutes. She, too, had suffered a failed decapitation attempt; her face had been mutilated beyond recognition, her breasts and nose had been cut off, her abdomen had been torn open and emptied, her organs had been ripped off and placed next to her, and her heart was missing (Evans & Gainey, 1998; Sugden, 2002;
Evans & Skinner, 2000; Begg, 2004). With this final murder, the only one to occur in an indoors location, the Ripper’s signature8 characteristics of sexualized violence in the form of mutilation, evisceration and posing the body in a sexually degrading manner, escalated in the rageful, total disembowelment of the female form.
The brutality of the Ripper murders, through its representational -misogynistic- treatment of female victims in the dominant cultural narrative, has lead feminist scholars such as Caputi
8 In Criminal Investigation literature, there is a distinction between an offender’s “modus operandi” and his/her
“signature characteristics”. Whereas the modus operandi refers to actions necessary for the completion of the crime and can evolve as the offender adapts his methods to each unique situation, the signature characteristics are actions that are not necessary for the completion of a crime (e.g. overkill, sexual degradation), and function as the distinctive, unique calling card of an offender, which, in its core, remains the same (Douglas & Munn, 1992a;
1992b; Douglas & Olshaker, 1997; Geberth, 1996; 2003; Keppel & Birnes, 1997; Keppel, 1995a; 1995b; Keppel, 2000; 2004).
(1987) and Cameron and Fraser (1987) to argue that the Ripper case is emblematic of the way patriarchal practices dictate the representation of murdered women. Walkowitz (1992) argued that the Ripper slayings -as described by professional men- function as a warning for what happens to women who choose to transgress the boundaries of domestic femininity. This moralistic, controlling mode of representation which was, and still is, so pervasive in the Ripper narrative, also persists in the contemporary storytelling of violent sexual crimes against women (Warkentin, 2010). The absence of female subjectivity and the multilevel exploitation of the mutilated female form -first by the killer and then by the men who tell his story-, will be of interest in the Black Dahlia representation, examined in this thesis.
Leaving aside the subsequent media frenzy about the Ripper case and the enduring public interest in it, it is interesting to note that Jack the Ripper’s signature characteristics truly are extremely rare, because even though slashing and stabbing wounds are not unusual in murders, trauma to the genital area is (Keppel et al., 2005). This particularity posed an interesting problem for the contemporary Victorian press, as I will be discussing in the following section.
New Journalism – “Luxury of Panics”9 & The Legend of Jack the Ripper
“The English have no decency left; they are ignoble exploiters of human flesh”
-Le Petit Journal, 2 October 1888
When taking into consideration the stifling content of Victorian newspapers, which featured primarily political articles in dense, tiny type columns catering to the upper and middle classes, the 1887 term “New Journalism”, which was coined by Mathew Arnolds, puts into perspective the meteoric rise of the de facto commercialized investigative journalism, coming in a reader- friendlier format -shorter sentences and paragraphs, larger typeface- and with an emphasis on
9Lynd, Helen Merrell (1945). England in the Eighteen-Eighties. Toward A Social Basis For Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.225.
human interest stories whose shock value was both sought out and exaggerated (Begg, 2004).
In fact, it is precisely by virtue of this New Journalism that the legend of Jack the Ripper came to be, according to Begg (ibid.). As such, this case merits particular attention not only because its coverage and audience participation (in the form of letters to the press) was groundbreaking for the time, but because it produced enduring, international fascination, that made it a landmark case for True Crime all together.
In terms of subject-matter, Victorian crime reporters eagerly covered crimes that were considered intriguing, especially, for example, if reputable Victorians were involved (Curtis, 2001). This preference echoed the earlier fascination with the gentleman/aristocrat, decadent aesthete-killer following after the model of Lacenaire (Downing, 2013), and was exemplified in the case of the faceless Jack the Ripper -onto whose mysterious figure any narrative could be projected-, with speculations about a mad, upper-class doctor, -a choice which reflected the population’s general distrust of the medical profession (Walkowitz, 1992)-, an aristocrat, or an artist. However, narratives pointing towards the opposite end of the social hierarchy were especially popular among readers and investigators alike, as most early suspects were Jewish immigrants, because contemporary ethnocentric and anti-Semitic views dictated that the vicious, “inferior” Whitechapel foreigner, rather than the ordinary Englishman, was responsible for such atrocious crimes (Curtis, 2001).
Particularly titillating for all standards of Victorian journalism, new or old, was of course the fact that the Ripper’s crimes involved sexualized violence perpetrated against prostitutes. At the time, Victorian journalists navigated mentions of sexual activity or female anatomy by resorting to euphemisms (Curtis, 2001). To give an example, “respectable” Victorian papers such as the Times and the Morning Post referred to the Ripper’s victims as “unfortunates”, a code word alluding to their occasional solicitation (Stevenson & Rowbotham, 2005). In the case of sexual assaults, reporters would use coded/desexualized language featuring double entendres and metaphors (ibid.). The coverage of the first canonical Ripper murder in particular, set a precedent for the subsequent Ripper crimes by focusing on the throat cut rather than the genital mutilation, which was not explicitly mentioned (ibid.) (e.g. Morning Post, Lloyd’s List -Table 2). Already in the second Ripper murder however, the taboo for Victorian
sensitivities removal of organs from the pelvic region was tackled by bringing up “indications of anatomical knowledge” in “serious” papers, such as the Morning Post and the Times (Curtis, 2001, p.220-221), and directly mentioning “absent portions” in the more New Journalism-y Weekly Times (Curtis, 2001, p.221).
The following two articles are showcased here for their readability effect; The visual presentation of the text would have bewildered contemporary readers, given the fact that The Morning Post was printed in dense seven-column blocks of imposing text, whereas the… friendlier-to-the-eye Loyd’s List in a five- column format (!). The originals were impossible to (condense and) display here.
Table 2. Newspaper articles on the discovery of Mary Ann Nichols’s body (1st canonical Ripper victim).
Publication Date Text
Lloyd’s List (p.10 of 16)
1st September 1888
The body of the woman found murdered in Buck’s-row, Thomas-street, Whitechapel, has been identified as that of Mary Ann Nichols, who had led a loose and miserable life, and had at one time been an inmate of the Lambeth Workhouse. The throat had been cut, and she had been otherwise so mutilated as to suggest that she had been murdered by a madman. The police are of opinion that the deceased was murdered in a house, and afterwards carried to the spot where she was found.
Morning Post (p.2 of 8)
1st September 1888
ANOTHER MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL
Within a comparatively brief period two women have been murdered in the streets of Whitechapel, and no clue to the perpetrators has ever been discovered by the police. Now that a third woman has been killed, under equally mysterious but still more brutal circumstances, the inhabitants of the district are becoming alarmed. This latest crime was discovered yesterday morning at a quarter-past four, when Police-constable J. Neil, who was pacing his beat, saw, in Bucks-row, Thomas-street, Whitechapel, a woman- lying on the pavement close to the door of a stable yard leading to Essex Wharf. Buck’s- row is a narrow and badly lit passage containing about a dozen houses of a very low class. Neil at once perceived that the woman had been the victim of a brutal murder, for her face was stained with blood and her throat was cut from ear to ear. The constable called up the nearest residents, who stated that they had heard no sounds of a scuffle— that in fact the neighbourhood had been unusually quiet, and sent for Dr. Llewellyn, who lives in the Whitechapel-road, close by. Finding that life was extinct, although as the extremities were still warm the woman could not have been long dead, the doctor had the body removed to the mortuary in Whitechapel-road. There, on examination, it was discovered that in addition to the gash in her throat, which had nearly severed the head from the body, the lower part of her body had been ripped up, the opening extending nearly to the breast. On either side were two incised
wounds almost as severe as the centre one. The instrument with which the wounds were inflicted must have been not only of the sharpness of a razor, but used with considerable force. The murdered woman is about 45 years of age and 5ft. 2in. in height. She had a dark complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair, turning grey. At the time of her death she was wearing a brown ulster, fastened with seven large metal buttons with the figure of a horse and a man standing by its side stamped thereon. She had a brown linsey frock and a grey woollen petticoat with flannel underclothing, close-ribbed brown stays, black woollen stockings, sidespring boots, black straw bonnet trimmed with black velvet. The mark "Lambeth Workhouse R.R." was found stamped on the petticoat bands, and a hope is entertained that by this her identity may be discovered. A general opinion is now entertained that the spot where the body was found was not the scene of the murder. Bucks-row runs through from Thomas-street to Brady-street, and in the latter street what appeared to be blood stains were, early in the morning, found at irregular distances on the footpaths on either side of the street. Occasionally a larger splash was visible, and from the way in which the marks were scattered, it seems as though the person carrying the body had hesitated where to deposit it, and had gone from one side of the road to the other until the obscurity of Buck's- row afforded the shelter sought for. The street had been crossed twice within the space of about 120 yards. The point at which the stains were first visible is in front of the gateway to Honey's-mews, in Brady -street, about 150 yards from the point where Buck’s-row commences. Several persons living in Brady-street state that early in the morning they heard screams, but this is a by no means uncommon incident in the neighbourhood, and, with one exception, nobody seems to have paid any particular attention to them. Mrs. Colwell, however, who lives a short distance from the foot of Buck’s-row, says that she was awakened early in the morning by her children, who said some one was trying to get into the house. She listened, and heard a woman screaming " Murder, police," five or six times. The voice faded away as though the woman was going in the direction of Buck’s-row, and all was quiet. She only heard the steps of one person. Of course the murdered woman, wounded as she was, would have been unable to traverse the distance from Honey's-mews to the gateway in Buck’s-row, which is about <120 yards from Brady-street, making a total distance of at least 170 f. yards. The assumption, therefore, is that the woman must have been carried or dragged there. On the other hand it is evident from the small quantity of blood which was on the road at the spot where the body was found, that the wound at the throat could not have been given at that point, yet ,with such a gash, it would have been utterly impossible for the victim to cry out in the manner described by Mrs. Colwell. Her statement, therefore, does little to clear up the mystery. The constable, Neil, traversed Buck’s-row about three-quarters of an hour before the body was discovered so it must have been deposited there soon after he had patrolled that thoroughfare. Shortly after mid-day some men who were searching the pavement in Buck’s-row, above the gateway, found two spots of blood in the roadway. They were some feet away from the gate, and they might have dropped from the hands or clothing of the murderer as he fled. The stable- yard and the vicinity have been carefully searched in the hope of finding the weapon with which the crime was committed, but so far without success. A bridge over the Great Eastern Railway is close at hand, and the railway line was also fruitlessly inspected for some distance. Dr. Llewellyn says that from the nature of the cuts on the throat it is probable that they were inflicted with the left hand. He adds there is a mark at the point of the jaw on the right side of
the woman's face, as though made by a person's thumb, and a similar bruise on the left side as if the woman's head had been pushed back and her throat then cut. There is a gash under the left ear reaching nearly to the centre of the throat and another cut apparently starting from the right ear. The neck is severed back to the vertebrae, which is also slightly injured. The abdominal wounds are extraordinary for their length and the severity with which they have been inflicted. Inspector Helm, who has charge of the case, is making every effort to trace the murderer, but there is so little to guide the police, that at present there does not seem much likelihood of success. The theory that the murder is the work of a lunatic, who is also the perpetrator of the other two murders of women which have occurred in Whitechapel during the last six months, meets with very general acceptance amongst the inhabitants of the district The more probable theory is that the murder has been com- mitted by one or more of a gang of men who are in the habit of frequenting the streets at late hours of the night and levying blackmail on women. No money was found upon this woman, and all she had in the pocket of her dress was a handkerchief, a small comb, and a piece of looking-glass. Late last evening the body was identified as that of a married woman named Mary Ann Nichols, who has been living apart from her husband for some years. Her real age is 36, and she has been an inmate of Lambeth Work- house off and on for the past seven years. She was first admitted to the workhouse, seven years ago, as a patient into the lying-in ward, and from this point seems to have entered upon a down ward career. Some few months ago she left the workhouse, after having temporarily sojourned there, to go into domestic service at Wandsworth. She left suddenly under suspicious circumstances, and for the last seven weeks or so seems to have been frequenting the neighbourhood of Whitechapel. On the night of the murder she was last seen in the Whitechapel-road at half- past two, and was then under the influence of drink.
The Lust Murderer
“Well, when the masked thing like a monkey jumped among the chemicals and whipped into the cabinet, it went down my spine like ice. O, I know it’s not evidence, Mr. Utterson, I’m book-learned enough for that; but a man has his feelings, and I give you my bible-word it was Mr. Hyde!”
“A nameless reprobate, half-beast, half-man, is at large, who is daily gratifying his murderous instincts on the most miserable and defenseless class of the community.”
- Star, 8 September 1888
10 In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by R.L. Stevenson, 2003: 37.
Whereas the brutal Ripper crimes were most definitely not the earliest examples of sexual murder or, for that matter, of a serial killer on the loose (Wilson et al. 2015), the case of Jack the Ripper which “achieved the status of a modern myth of male violence against women”
(Walkowitz, 1982, p.544) is of particular interest because it allowed for the emergence of sex- killing as a distinctive, meaning-making category which produced its own discourse about the murderer as an animalistic, sex maniac/ beast (Cameron & Frazer, 1987). Indeed, this new murdering subject was conceptualized in late nineteenth century Europe (Boyle, 2005), and immediately found its prime representative in the face of Jack the Riper, whose case study dominated the contemporary science of sexology (Krafft-Ebing, 1965). Contrary to previous sexual murders that were not perceived as primarily sexual (e.g. sexual intercourse within the context of Satanic worshiping), the new discursive and sexological archetype of the sex murderer was constructed to emphasize the animalistic, excessive sexual perversion of the (male) perpetrator, who ultimately acted as a foil for the rational subject of modernity (Downing, 2013).
Police Illustrated News, 22 September 1888.
Moreover, this choice of representation coincided with the rise of popular press, but can not be seen as its direct byproduct, because discourse is not exclusively shaped by the media in a passive manner; instead, popularized representations give meaning to already existing cultural fascinations (Cameron & Frazer, 1987). In fact, when it comes to Victorian sensitivities and concerns, two hugely impactful books that appeared right before Jack the Ripper entered the public scene are very telling: Robert Lewis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novella “Strange Case of Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” -which tells the story of the seemingly respectable Dr. Jekyll who is nevertheless tortured by evil impulses so much that his duality of character ultimately becomes personified in the split between his normal self and his wholly violent alter ego Mr. Hyde-, and Charles Darwin’s 1859 work, “On the Origin of Species”, which was thought to imply the possibility of a lapse into bestiality and primitive violence (Jackson, 1981/1986). The monstrous animalistic traits, which both appalled and fascinated Victorians, are not just a mark of radical alterity, but represent the fear of the possibly uncontrollable animalistic human side (Ortiz- Robles, 2015).
In reality, the “new” archetype of the Lustmörder ties into the aforementioned (Murder as an Aesthetic Experience) wider discourse on the exceptionality of the serial murderer who transcends normal society while acquiring a somewhat heroic, eroticized status (Boyle, 2005).
According to Cameron and Frazer (1987), in his exceptional deviancy, the sex killer is depicted either as a frenzied sex beast with insatiable, unspeakable desires, or as a sophisticated, intelligent libertine who rebels against a repressive society. The latter representation is still relevant today and can go on to explain both the underrepresentation of non-white serial sexual murderers in popular accounts (despite statistical data that proves they are not, in fact, a rarity -Durham et al., 1995) (Jenkins, 1994), and the way some serial sexual murderers present themselves (Boyle, 2005).
The following table presents various definitions of “lust murder”, by notable experts from the fields of forensic psychiatry and criminal psychology, starting with German psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing who coined the term. Hazelwood and Douglas were pioneer FBI profilers of violent sexual predators.
Table 3. Various definitions of the Lust/Sexual Murder.
Author Term Year Definition
Krafft-Ebing Lust murder 1886 “The connection between lust and desire to kill” (Krafft-Ebing, 1886, p.62)
De River Sadistic lust murder
“After killing the victim, the murderer tortures, cuts, maims, or slashes the victim
*…+ on parts that contain strong sexual significance to him and serves as a sexual stimulation” (De River, 1958, p.40)
& Douglas Lust murder 1980
“Distinguished from the sadistic homicide by the involvement of a mutilating attack or displacement of the breasts, rectum, or genitals” (Hazelwood & Douglas, p.1)
Grubin Sexual murder 1994
“The killing may also be closely bound to the sexual element of an attack *…+ the offender’s control of his victim, and her pain and humiliation, become linked to his sexual arousal” (Grubin, 1994, p.624)
Malmquist Lust killing 1996
“The primary goal is to kill the victim as part of a ritualized attack *…+ the motivation *…+ is the enactment of some type of fantasy that has preoccupied him or her for some time” (Malmquist, 1996, p.295)
Emphasis may be placed on the acts of mutilation, the offender’s need for a feeling of control or his motivation to enact a fantasy. For the purposes of this thesis, the discourse surrounding the murderer’s
representation, rather than the definitional problems encountered in the literature concerning sexual murder, is of importance.
True Crime’s Favorite Criminal Subject
“Crime committed for money or revenge without sex is much less commercial,
so I look for the sex angle, for murder, adjudicated killers, and increasingly for multiple bodies.
The manner of death has to be very violent, very visceral”.
- P. Dinas, editor of true-crime books (Weyr, 1993, p.39)
Having so far discussed the 18th and 19th discursive shifts in the popular representation of murdering subjects and how these became entertaining public consumption material through early True Crime publications in the context of Western modernity, it becomes apparent that a certain type of skilled deviant prevailed. Moreover, the dominating fascination with the dangerous individual who commits spectacularly pathological (and pathologized) murders without -supposedly- showing any abnormal behavior other than the crime itself, is still the case for contemporary True Crime (Biressi, 2001), making this an extremely valuable model against which the YouTuber representations of the video analysis part of this thesis will be compared.
According to the literature analysis so far, the “ideal” True Crime (male) murdering subject exhibits the following traits:
i) An Alleged exceptionality (in terms of organizational skills, intellect, and, if possible, looks), which is romanticized and, in certain ways, celebrated by contemporary popular representations,
ii) A threatening, yet fascinating “invisibility” in terms of being someone who passes as an everyday, normal person,