Miscast in the media for nearly 130 years, the victims of Jack the Ripper finally get their full stories told in this eye-opening and chilling reminder that life for middle-class women in Victorian London could be full of social pitfalls and peril.
The “canonical five” women murdered by Jack the Ripper have always been dismissed as society’s waste, their stories passed down to us wrapped in a package of Victorian assumptions and prejudice. But social historian Hallie Rubenhold sets the record straight in The Five. In reality, only two of the victims were prostitutes, and Rubenhold has uncovered entirely new research about them all–in some cases, material no one has ever seen before.
The Five tells for the first time the true stories of these fascinating women. It delves into the Victorian experience of poverty, homelessness, and alcoholism, but also motherhood, childbirth, sexuality, child-rearing, work, and marriage, all against the fascinating, dark, and quickly changing backdrop of nineteenth-century London. From rural Sweden to the wedding of Queen Victoria, from the London of Charles Dickens to the factories of the Industrial Revolution and the high-class brothels of the West End, these women were not just victims but witnesses to the vagaries and vicissitudes of the Victorian age.
I have to admit to a certain amount of boredom when it comes to the subject of Jack the Ripper and whenever crime books delve into the subject it makes me groan because it is so overdone. However, this book intrigued me right from the start because it was focusing on an area largely ignored – the victims.
These women were known as the canonical five as their murders in 1888 were the only ones that could be linked without doubt as Whitechapel was notorious for its attacks on women. While the police were investigating a series of eleven murders between 1888 and 1891, none of them could be linked in the same way as these five. Much has been said about these women over the years, most of it untrue, and Hallie Rubenhold has written this book to give these women back their voice.
Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly are each given their own chapter where Rubenhold explores how they were victimised by Victorian society long before they were murdered. While there isn’t always a lot of information to go on, Rubenhold manages to paint a picture of each woman’s life and how they were eventually derailed by alcoholism and poverty. It’s quite heartbreaking witnessing the decline of each woman knowing it will lead them to the depths of poverty in Whitechapel.
Rubenhold vividly describes the differences between the privileged and the poor against the backdrop of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee where the wealthy came from far and wide to display their finest jewels and clothes while Mary Ann Nichols bedded down with the rest of the homeless in Trafalgar Square. The descriptions of how the poor were forced to live in the most appalling of conditions in Whitechapel make for astonishing reading, as does the humiliation faced when having to resort to parish charity or the workhouse. For a woman trying to survive on her own, the options were few and far between.
While only two of the women had been prostitutes at some point in their pasts, assumptions were made about their moral behaviour in the aftermath of the murders and Rubenhold explains how the newspapers had a hand in spreading these falsehoods simply in their use of language. The newspapers sensationalised the Ripper murders to the extent they were responsible for mythologising the whole story which is probably why people are still so obsessed with it. It seems not much has changed in the newspaper business.
One thing you won’t get in this book are the grisly details of the murders themselves, instead Rubenhold focuses on the last hours of the victims and then skips forward to the effect the murder had on surviving family. This is entirely fitting with the aim of keeping the attention firmly on the women and not their murderer who has had enough of the spotlight. It is really astounding that no one else tried to find out who these women were before they became victims but at least now they have their champion in the shape of Hallie Rubenhold. The haunting stories of these five women will stay with you for a long time and this book is quite possibly my favourite of the year.