Originally published October 2018
If your students are anything like my high-schoolers they're probably overly interested in all things gory. So often mine become obsessed with conspiracy theories and in particular, the 'Jack the Ripper' murders in Whitechapel in 1888. These crimes were so horrific that they fascinated and scared the population at the time and even heralded the growth of the tabloid press as the public pushed for more information. The first serial killer he was not, but the first widely reported on serial killer? Yes!
Is it therefore any wonder that our students want to find out more when the crimes have come such a large part of our cultural history?
There is a great deal about the murders on the world wide web, unfortunately much of it is apocryphal and even more is too gory for our kids impressionable minds. However as a history teacher I have had to teach what happened in Whitechapel in 1888 as a coursework unit to 14 year-olds and trying to keep off the gruesome details was hard. I did find a way though; focusing on why people were interested in the crimes at the time, why the police were unable to catch the killer and the extensive press coverage was an interesting way into the story and also allowed links to present day.
But in the end you have to be able to explain what actually happened without freaking students out with the gore or worse still, desensitising them to the horror of what was done to the victims. If you're setting up a web quest the last thing you want children to do is stumble (usually very quickly!) upon an autopsy photograph of Long Lizzy or the scene of Mary Kelly's murder.
Therefore I've trawled the internet to find the most student friendly Jack the Ripper websites that are also factually accurate. This has been no mean feat so I wanted to share the results with you!
The wonderful Russel Tarr's activehistory.co.uk set up in 1998 has some wonderful resources on Jack the Ripper. A few of them require a log in or payment but many are free. Not least this PowerPoint presentation on Life in Whitechapel in 1888. Made by another teacher this uses resources from Tarr's site. It gives a nicely informative background to the conditions in the East End of London in the Victorian Era. And best of all it's freely downloadable!
This BBC page gives a very brief, easy to read overview of some key aspects of the case, including the graffiti and possible suspects. The BBC history site is renowned for accuracy and generally avoids sensationalism.
I absolutely love the National Archive in Kew. Many a happy hour did I spend there during my History degree rooting through the collections on 19th century London. Now you can do the same from wherever you are in the world. (The internet is amazing!)
Our students can now access the original Jack the Ripper materials online including the 'Dear Boss' Letter and the police responses. This link takes you to the resources used for a workshop they held on the police methods in the case. The materials and activities are included and can be used by your classes with very little prep. They can dissect the original evidence individually or in groups. A accurate and informative website.
The world renowned Encyclopaedia Britannica no longer needs to take up three shelves in your book unit. Nowadays the internet version has all that you might need at the touch of a button. This page has some brief details on the the murders, their context and various theories. The best part of this page is the links to further information particularly on London and the East End.
This one is slightly more risky in terms of your students finding some of the more gruesome images. But I've included it as it has some very useful and reliable information. It may be best for you to use while planning your lessons for this reason. This particular page covers what the police focused on when looking for suspects. The page then goes on to list the main suspects with individual headings and pictures.
The 'Jack the Ripper 1888' historical resource site is written and maintained by London author, historian, broadcaster and tour guide Richard Jones. He knows his stuff and is worth a look. If you can keep your younglings off the more gruesome images its a useful site for them too.
Though this list isn't exhaustive I hope it's a starting point for you if you need one or adds to your repertoire!
Below are some resources I love to use when teaching Jack the Ripper and Victorian London. Take look, maybe you can use them too?
A play on Monopoly, history style. This free game is a nice way to engage your students with context for the crimes. Available for FREE at Schoolhistory.co.uk.
History Mystery - Who was Jack the Ripper?
In this lesson they will compare and evaluate 12 possible suspects before deciding on the most likely guilty person. The lesson works as a knockout tournament, comparing two suspects at a time.
It is great for developing higher order thinking skills especially when they have to tease out the strengths and weaknesses of each suspect. It also provides me with some fabulous display ideas using the students work!
How did the press increase fascination with Jack the Ripper?
This worksheet lesson examines sensationalisation in the press at the time and compares the techniques used with more recent press examples.