The popular narrative is that Jack the Ripper stalked and murdered five prostitutes in Victorian London. The story has always been about him and his mystery, a sensationalized true crime tale meant to scandalize and, at the time, act as a bit of a warning – be a good girl, and he won’t come for you. With The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold seeks to rectify this by removing him from the story almost entirely. Instead, she focuses on the women too long reduced to a single label and returns to them their humanity.
Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane are the names I never knew before I started this book. Honestly, I couldn’t have even told you how many women the Ripper killed before he vanished – but I sure could have told you that they were prostitutes. That particular piece of fiction has hung on longer than so many facts. While much has been lost in the nearly one and a half centuries since they were killed, it seems pretty easy for Rubenhold to make one thing quite clear: these women were poor, often “sleeping rough”, and likely alcoholics, but they weren’t all sex workers. In fact, “prostitute” was really just a label slapped on a woman who’d fallen down in life (and, on occasion, on a woman who was just outdoors after dark without an escort, whoops). Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane were women with families, most of whom had worked in some capacity, trying to escape each in their own way the cycle of poverty that the workhouses enforced. Each of them met a tragic end (though, thankfully, likely while they were asleep) and has been ground under the boot of historical story-telling.
I’m really glad I read this. Rubenhold writes in the same Erik Larson style of narrative non-fiction, bringing each of the women to life in her own story. She also does an excellent job of side-stepping their brutal ends. There’s no lurid, true crime retelling of the violence done unto them, which I appreciated. Overall, definitely recommend.
Bingo Square: History, Schmistory