To better understand the world of fake news, researchers are turning the clock back 100 years to study one of the world’s most notorious serial killers.
Jack the Ripper’s gruesome murders sent shockwaves through London at the turn of the 20th century. Today, the serial killer’s infamous correspondence with police and media may be shedding new light on how society interacts with media outlets.
Following the 1888 Whitechapel murders, London police and media received letters claiming to be written by Jack the Ripper.
A study published in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities suggests two of the earliest correspondences from "Jack the Ripper" were written by the same person and sent to police, media, and various public officials. It’s long been theorized that that person was actually a journalist for the Central News Agency of London who was using the letters to spur sales, a technique called "enterprise journalism".
Forensic linguist Dr Andrea Nini focused on two of the earliest letters, "Dear Boss" – where Jack the Ripper was first signed on September 27, 1888 – and the "Saucy Jacky" postcard sent four days later. Both letters were received by police before being published, ruling out the notion of a copycat author.
Using a forensic linguistic technique called authorship clustering, researchers from the University of Manchester analyzed 209 letters and postcards linked to the case and uncovered shared grammar and vocabulary tendencies, such as the use of “keep back” in two of the texts.
The find doesn’t identify the killer or the authors of the letters, but it does link the first two letters to a third – the "Moab and Midian". It's long been thought that this letter was entirely fabricated by the Central News Agency as the original document was never found or sent to police.
The letters continued for more than a decade, and it’s unlikely one person was solely responsible. Many, like 21-year-old Maria Coronor, became fascinated with the killings and sent mimic letters.
The length of the texts was a limitation in the study, and Nini says it's impossible to know the extent that hoaxers were trying to imitate the style of published letters. Regardless, the findings could help us better understand our relationship with media.
"In the era of fake news, the Jack the Ripper story is a very important one to investigate further as it can teach us a lot about the way our mind works," Nini told Gizmodo. “To me, it would be more interesting to eventually [find] out whether these letters were fabricated by a news agency than who Jack the Ripper – if [he] existed – was."