The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold [Book Review]

Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold 

An industry has grown up around the exploits of Jack the Ripper, the mass murderer who stalked the streets of London in 1888. His deeds have featured in more than 40 books and a dozen or so films and TV dramatisations. You can even take a walking tour of his stalking ground; the alleyways and streets in Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

But about the five women he maimed and killed, there is very little recorded beyond the few remaining inquest reports and the highly salacious newspaper accounts that branded them as prostitutes.

In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, social historian  Hallie Rubenhold has set out to correct the injustices done to Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Not only does give them an identity and a history, she also debunks the notion that they were women who roamed the streets picking up clients for a few pennies.

In Hallie Rubenhold’s hands these five women become more than simply names. She gives them back their lives as domestic servants and soldier’s wives; coffee house proprietors and tin plate workers. She shows that above all else, they were wives, daughters and mothers.

in the introduction to The Five, Rubenhold says her intention is not to try and identify Jack The Ripper, but to retrace the footsteps of his victims; to “follow their paths through both the gloom and the light” and to “give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.”

Restoration of Dignity

Starting with scraps of information from coroner’s inquests (only in existence for two women) and the “edited, embellished, misheard and re-interpreted newspaper reports”, she builds the life story of each of these victims. She traces them through parish registers; court registers; birth, marriage and death records and the archives of the London workhouses.

We know from the graphic details in contemporary newspaper reports how these women died. What The Five explains is why; why their hopes and dreams never materialised and they ended up destitute in one of London’s worst slum areas.

The answer lies in a series of misfortunes which drove them to drink. Their lives were marked by the premature deaths of children; illness and income levels that barely covered their needs. Life was precarious and harsh so these women took solace in the occasional “nip” at a local pub . Their visits became more frequent, increasing to a level of dependency which made it impossible for them to hold down any kind of work and marred their relationships with partners and family. Without a permanent home they turned to the workhouse or, when they had a few pennies, to the lodging houses of Whitechapel.

In The Five ,Hallie Rubenhold argues that, contrary to the popular myth that grew up around these women, there is no hard evidence Jack The Ripper’s victims were prostitutes. It was a narrative that suited the newspapers of the day who were “eager to scandalise the nation with graphic details of slum life”; asserting that the Whitechapel lodging houses were brothels in all but name. Any woman that inhabited them (like all five victims) was therefore a prostitute; a conclusion that the public were only too willing to believe.

The extent of Rubenhold’s research is impressive. But the book is a long way from a turgid academic work. She makes it a very human story; teasing out the picture of these women’s lives from small details. I was touched to learn for example that when the body of one woman was discovered, her only possessions were the clothes she wore and the scraps of paper in her pocket.

Two Sides To London Life

One of the strongest aspects of The Five is the way Rubenhold places these cases into a social context. Only the year before Jack the Ripper claimed his victims, heads of state from around the world congregated in London to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the glorious achievements of her reign.

Yet that same year hundreds of homeless and unemployed people (among them the Ripper’s first victim ‘Polly” Nicholls) camped on the streets around Trafalgar Square, having nowhere else to go. They couldn’t even afford a room in Whitechapel, one of the most notorious of the poorest parts of the city; a densely packed quarter of warehouses, lodging houses, factories, sweat shops and pubs where social reformers were appalled by the level of filth, violent behaviour and child neglect. In an area like this it was all too easy for women like Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly to become prey. They had few friends to care about them or even to miss them.

Through The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, they have at last been remembered and given a degree of justice. Rubenhold does have an agenda — the rejection of the misogynist-based myth of the Ripper as a murderer of prostitutes — but her argument is very persuasive and deeply rooted in evidence. The result is an utterly compelling read, made memorable because of the compassionate way in which these victims are given a voice.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie RubenholdFootnotes

This book was published by Doubleday in Feb. 2019. It won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non Fiction the same year and was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.

Hallie Rubenhold is a British historian and author who specializes in 18th and 19th century social history and women’s history. She is the author of Lady Worsley’s Whim, dramatized by the BBC as ‘The Scandalous Lady W’, and Covent Garden Ladies: The Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List, which inspired the ITV series ‘Harlots’. She lives in London.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

22 thoughts on “The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold [Book Review]

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  • February 21, 2021 at 7:58 am
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    One of the few books on the subject I’ve read that actually deals in facts not supposition, speculation or postulation. I’m heartily fed up of the whole industry that’s grown up around this topic. This book comes at it from a refreshingly different angle. Well worth a read.

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    • February 22, 2021 at 9:24 pm
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      I lost all patience when Patricia Cornwell came out with her book claiming she had solved the question of the Ripper’s identity. It was so good to read a book that was based on thorough research and wasn’t aiming for headlines

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  • February 15, 2021 at 4:38 am
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    I have had this on my Kindle for a long time. Your review reminds me that I should read it sooner rather than later.

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  • February 15, 2021 at 4:32 am
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    I love this approach, and I wish it was something we saw more of in true crime, especially for historical crimes like Jack The Ripper where our focus has too-often been on the perpetrator, instead of the victim.

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  • February 14, 2021 at 11:36 am
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    Wonderful review! I’ve read this and thought it was a powerful and timely book that brings to light an aspect of Jack the Ripper (and by extension, most true crime subjects) forget – the victims.

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  • February 14, 2021 at 2:11 am
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    Sounds interesting, even though I rarely read true crime and its connections – and not sure why, as I read a lot of thrillers, and some pretty noir and gruesome

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  • February 13, 2021 at 10:14 pm
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    I thought this was a really well-researched book, and the approach, of giving some dignity to the victims of these appalling crimes was absolutely the right one. Having said that I had two main concerns. First, all the evidence is against the author’s claims that these women were not sex workers. That doesn’t mean they weren’t entitled to the full protection of the law, nor of respectful treatment in death, but even Rubenhold has to accept that they made money from prostitution at some points in their lives. My other concern was that speculation is too often presented as fact – for example that Catherine Eddowes was present at the execution of her cousin. The evidence for this is flimsy at best – the most we can say is that she might have been there – but the author presents this as something that definitely happened, no ifs or maybes.

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  • February 13, 2021 at 7:38 pm
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    This book has had so much praise, and it sounds justified. I’m with the author when it comes to her agenda – the culture of blame has always condemned women during history, and it’s about time the ripper victims were given some kind of proper memorial.

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  • February 13, 2021 at 2:50 pm
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    I’ve read many good things about this study, with its stories that needed to be told. I understand the public’s morbid obsession with the psychology of killers and the salacious details of their crimes, but all victims of serial murderers are human beings deserving of respect and recognition, and this book narrates individual lives and stories which should have been told long before now.

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    • February 13, 2021 at 6:31 pm
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      It’s incredible isn’t it that it’s taken so long for someone to write a book from this perspective.

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  • February 13, 2021 at 12:31 pm
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    This sounds like a very interesting book! Thanks for sharing such a good review – I will definitely be checking out this book!

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    • February 13, 2021 at 6:33 pm
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      I really only touched the surface of the content. I had no idea until I read the book who these women were.

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  • February 13, 2021 at 11:50 am
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    This does sound like an excellent corrective to the sensational, prurient coverage of Jack the Ripper and his exploits over many decades. There seemed to be a wearisome number of new books published every year when I was in bookselling, many probably out of print now.

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    • February 13, 2021 at 6:35 pm
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      It’s tiresome when authors trying to make a name for themselves come out with yet another claim that they can identify him (based on very little new it seems).

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  • February 13, 2021 at 9:17 am
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    Checking this book out. It was always easy to call the women prostitutes – it diminished their lives.

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    • February 13, 2021 at 6:36 pm
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      It absolutely did Judith, it was a way of dismissing them for decades, as if their deaths didn’t matter because of who they were

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  • February 13, 2021 at 4:19 am
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    Must get to this one. I watched a documentary about the “Yorkshire Ripper” recently, where police and media made the same mistake, branding him a prostitute killer, which not only dehumanized his victims, but let him get away with it for longer… and this was in the 1980s!

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    • February 13, 2021 at 6:37 pm
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      I watched that too – the families of those girls branded prostitutes were made to suffer doubly because of the insensitive way they were described. No matter how hard people have tried since to correct the info, it’s somehow stuck in the public imagination

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    • February 13, 2021 at 6:39 pm
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      The level of research is impressive – I had no idea that one of the victims was from Sweden. The author managed to track down her medical records and employment history

      Reply

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