In 1888 an unknown man became famous. His fame carried on over the decades and then centuries. Not for anything good, not for changing the world for the better, but for his violent murders. There have been countless books written about this shadowy figure. Comics, songs, films and TV series. There are museums and tours in his name. The mystery of his identity is still being investigated today. But his victims have not received the same kind of attention. Instead they have been pushed aside, their lives rewritten to suit whatever narrative is necessary.
They are Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane.
Hallie Rubenfold, a historian, has done an excellent job of giving these women back their stories. In piecing together the fullness of their lives as well as their last days, she paints a larger picture of London during that period. How hard it was for the working classes, especially working class women, and how little opportunity there was for them to escape poverty and often homelessness.
These five women were trying to survive in a time when women of a certain class were almost invisible. And if not invisible then derided, abused, given few if any rights. Women who struggled every day to keep a roof over their heads, feed themselves and their children, working long hours at hard tasks that paid little, because women were cheap labour. Men and marriage were their only security, but even that was a roll of the dice and didn’t mean a life of comfort. And if that man died then they were usually left with nothing. A woman alone was thought unsavoury, a ‘fallen woman’, no matter how she had found herself in those circumstances. There was no social safety net, little to no information on contraception, so large families were common, disease, death, and rampant alcoholism to cope with all of this.
And when these women were killed, they were described as prostitutes. The killer was targeting those who ‘walk the streets’ and so all the women were considered thus. The author says it’s a myth that persists to this day, even though there is scant evidence to suggest all of them did engage in sex work. It was a notion that coloured the investigation then and now. Rubenfold discusses how this lets the murderer be celebrated. If his victims were prostitutes, they were nothing and nobody. ‘Bad’ women. Women who deserved it. He can almost be held up as a hero (and has been in some literature) for ridding the streets of such a nuisance.
While reading it struck me how little has actually changed since the Victorian era regarding perceptions of women. We are still not always believed. Still judged for wearing the wrong thing, for ‘asking for it’, for whether we were drunk. A man’s reputation is far more important than a woman’s truth. It is depressing how little progress has been made. As Rubenfold states:
“When a woman steps out of line and contravenes the feminine norm, whether on social media or on the Victorian Street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place.”
I’m glad this book has finally been written, and it would be nice if more people read it and remembered the women who died, rather than the man who killed them.