Review: Hallie Rubenhold’s "The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper"

Review: Hallie Rubenhold’s "The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper"

In mid-March, headlines ran with a historic breakthrough: scientists had found the real “Jack the Ripper” using DNA evidence from a bloody shawl found beside the mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes, the Ripper’s fourth victim. The study, stemming from a 2014 book by businessman Russell Edwards, identified the serial killer who had terrorized London in 1888 as Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber. Genetics, it seemed, had finally solved a series of murders that have defied investigators for over 130 years. While the public gaped, scientists and historians quickly discovered critical methodological errors. Not only does the shawl have deeply questionable provenance (it was allegedly taken from the crime scene and passed down over generations, only to emerge at in 2007 when it was sold to Edwards), but the DNA analysis was flawed by incorrectly identifying a key genetic mutation. While the claim was acknowledged as a false alarm, its popularity testified to both the public’s faith in DNA testing and its obsession with Jack the Ripper.

The hunt for the killer has engrossed hordes of self-styled “Ripperologists” who have spent the last hundred-odd years digging through clues to find the man who brutally murdered five women in what became known as the “Autumn of Terror.” It has spawned an industry of Ripper-related books and online communities, and proven a popular subject of television, comics, movies, games, and exhibitions. There are dozens of theories as to the killer’s identity that range from Prince Albert to a conspiracy of political radicals. Yet, until now, there has not been a book-length study of the women who were killed by Jack the Ripper. This week, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper will finally tell the story of stories of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

By casting off the gory mantle of the Ripper and the fascination that readers have with the doings of evil men who prey on women, Rubenhold is able look into the reality of the daily lives of five Victorian women who struggled in a society that was set up to dehumanize and shame its most vulnerable members.

The Five is not a work of true crime but a history whose mission, first and foremost, is to write about the lives of the victims. Rubenhold does not care who Jack the Ripper was or why he committed the crimes, and you will not even find the details of the murders in her book. Instead, it is a compelling social history that is as much about poverty, homelessness, and sexuality as it is about crime or violence. By casting off the gory mantle of the Ripper and the fascination that readers have with the doings of evil men who prey on women, Rubenhold is able look into the reality of the daily lives of five Victorian women who struggled in a society that was set up to dehumanize and shame its most vulnerable members.

The Five has bombshells. Ask anyone what they know about Jack the Ripper’s victims, and they will almost certainly reply, “They were all prostitutes.” Rubenhold shows, however, that only two victims, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly, had been practicing sex workers. Since Victorians saw little difference between a single woman, a homeless woman, and a prostitute, the victims’ supposed profession was assumed, complete with all its stigma. That such an antiquated prejudice has persisted over time shows how much this book is needed. By labeling the women as prostitutes, generations of Ripperologists, students, and the general public have contributed to the idea that these women were out of the mainstream, or, given their assumed illicit profession, that they were aware of certain risks. In fact, these women’s lives were very typical of their time. The Five could just as well document the stories of thousands of women who toiled and scraped together a fragile existence near the bottom of the English social ladder. The five women portrayed here, when taken en masse as victims, are almost anonymous subjects to the Ripper’s mythology. Taken as individuals, their stories recount a wide range of experiences. They came from as radically different places as a quiet London neighborhood and a Swedish farm, and their lives took in a dizzying range of occupations and lifestyles.

The five women portrayed here, when taken en masse as victims, are almost anonymous subjects to the Ripper’s mythology. Taken as individuals, their stories recount a wide range of experiences.

Polly Nichols’s biography evokes the life of the anonymous poor of Victorian London. At a time when independent, single women had no place in either the society or the economy, women had to rely on men for everything from income to status and protection. Rubenhold tracks Polly as she cycled in and out of filthy, degrading workhouses and lodging-houses rife with harassment and assault. The alternative to these institutions, which Polly experienced, was sleeping in the streets or whatever nooks and crannies she could find. In 1887, one might find anywhere between 200 and 600 people sleeping in the open in Trafalgar Square alone. It is far more likely that being so vulnerable and exposed sleeping in the street, rather than her being a prostitute as it was believed, that led to Polly being the Ripper’s first victim.

Annie Chapman’s story looks at a woman’s experience in a society completely unprepared to deal with alcoholism beyond seeing it as a personal failing. The book follows her from a life of relative ease in the Berkshire countryside to sleeping on the streets in Whitechapel, suggesting how a spiraling circle of shame, illness, and addiction put a clever and industrious woman in a position of having to work every day to find money for a bed that night. By looking at census records and poverty maps, Rubenhold shows that poverty and slums were not contained to “bad” areas, but spread throughout the city, revealing a society in far more turmoil than the conventional picture of picturesque middle-class living that dominates our imagination of the period.

The Victorian stigma of illicit sex could ruin lives in ways that were shockingly normalized. In telling the story of Elisabeth Stride, Rubenhold points to the double standard that saw women “ruined” from having a liaison while a man could just walk away. In Elisabeth’s case, being found to have engaged in “lecherous living,” i.e. having a child out of wedlock, meant being put in a public register and subjected to bi-weekly physical exams by police surgeons for signs of venereal disease. When the six-month pregnant Elisabeth was found to have syphilis, she was committed to a hospital where she was likely treated for weeks with applications of acid and hazardous chemicals. After giving birth to a stillborn child, she was discharged, and since she had contracted syphilis, was put on a register of prostitutes, nearly closing her off from finding respectable, well-paying work.

The Five could easily be a story about women who were ground down by ignorance and prejudice, but it is also a story of resilience, resourcefulness, and survival in the face of staggering indifference and adversity. The story of Catherine Eddowes, whose supposed shawl was the basis for Edwards’ 2014 book, was at the time of her death a seemingly well-liked woman living an uncertain life in the slums of Whitechapel. Her story resembles those of many people at the time, who endured unreliable income, infant death, and spousal abuse, as well as what life at the margins of society looked like. When her fortunes took a dire turn and landed her in workhouses, Eddowes was faced with family separation and its resulting shame and acrimony. Yet, five hundred people attended her funeral and many more watched its procession.

History does not know the real name, place of birth, or full story of Mary Jane Kelly, a sex worker who had risen to the higher ranks of the industry, escaped from traffickers, and lived for a time in hiding. During the Autumn of Terror, she took in women off the streets for protection. In her meager home, a bunch of rags stuffed into a broken windowpane served to repair a front door. Rubenhold tracks the “disconnected snapshots” of her career, showing that the realities of sex work are far from the lurid imaginings of Ripper fans, but were often based on courtship, comradeship among peers, and a professional wariness of the many dangers of the streets.

The identity of Jack the Ripper will likely never be solved. The evidence is patchy and incomplete. Most of the coroner’s inquest transcripts, for example, are lost, leaving us with contradictory accounts of newspapers as chief sources. Like the shawl, the provenance of our connection to the murders is tenuous at best. The Five takes a bold step forward in ignoring the crime and choosing instead to look at what the details of the real, known women in history can tell us. The Five is the book that will change how we think about the Ripper murders. It is the book that Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine, Mary Jane, and the thousands who had similar lives deserve.

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