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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.

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