The author of the infamous "From Hell" letter, who claimed to be Jack The Ripper, addressed his 1888 note to a civilian investigator. "I send you half the kidney I took from one woman, preserved it for you, the other piece I fried and ate it," he wrote. And indeed, George Lusk of Whitechapel Vigilance Committee received the letter accompanied by a chunk of flesh, determined by doctors to be from a human kidney, preserved in ethanol.
On Tuesday, gruesome images appeared on that cesspool of cyber interaction, 4Chan, featuring the strangled, lifeless body of a woman later identified as 30-year-old mother of four Amber Lynn Schraw (also known as Ambler Lynn Coplin). The 4Chan poster, identified as 33-year-old David Kalac, was arrested as the primary suspect in Schraw's murder on Thursday morning in Portland, Oregon.
"Turns out it's way harder to strangle someone to death than it looks on the movies. She fought so damn hard," Kalac reportedly posted alongside the ghastly images. "Her son will be home from school soon. He'll find her, then call the cops. I just wanted to share the pics before they find me."
The alleged Ripper, meanwhile, closed his From Hell missive, "Catch me when you can." The letter was never verified, the Ripper never caught. Kalac, however, has been found and remanded into custody. The cases, separated by more than 125 years, have little in common; Kalac allegedly murdered his girlfriend and shared the grisly evidence with the public, while the Ripper killed at least five prostitutes, slitting their throats in a London slum. But both involve the alleged perpetrators of vicious murders using the communications apparatuses of their day to boast of their morbid conquests — From Hell or from 4Chan.
The online forum played a key role in enabling the despicable leak of celebrity nude pictures, dubbed the "fappening" and rightly deemed a sex crime by one of its victims, actress Jennifer Lawrence. 4Chan is an anonymous image and comment posting site with scant moderation. Primarily harmless, it has also been the site of child pornography postings and violent death threats. Trolls from the churlish to the terrifying find a home in its scantly moderated message boards.
But Schraw's tragic end is not particular to the internet age. Yes, the speed with which images of her corpse were available worldwide, posted online just half an hour before her body was discovered in her apartment, is unique to the technological present. But the true horror of her murder resides in the act, not in its advertisement. This time, we can't blame 4Chan.
It's useful here to recall social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson's critique of digital dualism. Namely, cyperspace is not some separate or tacked-on reality to meatspace — we live fully enmeshed, augmented on-and-offline lives. And as much as concrete cities are home to malice and murder, so are online communities. Whether or not 4Chan deserves censure for enabling the proliferation of horrific content belongs to debate that also predates the internet — how much evidence of human brutality, especially when visually graphic, should be available for public consumption?
It's a complicated debate that won't be put to bed with Schraw's murder, just as the question of censoring or allowing imagery from vicious Islamic State beheadings won't be settled anytime soon. We are not simply asking what role media should play in representing or censoring horror. We are asking what sort of things should be expelled from the online parts of our enmeshed cyber- and meatspace reality. But since these are integrated parts of life, depravity finds expression throughout.
There have been internet killers in a more direct sense than Kalac, murderers who specifically used mass communication technologies and social networking to seek out, contact, and pursue victims. Kalac is not a 4Chan killer like Philip Markoff was a Craigslist Killer (Markoff found his victims through that site's now defunct "erotic services" section). Instead, Kalac used 4Chan like the author of the From Hell letter used the Royal Mail — as a tool with which to send their horrific content.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard