People have been fascinated by Jack the Ripper for over a century now, and we’ve long come to accept as fact certain things about the case – more specifically, we all think of his victim type as sex workers. Historian Hallie Rubenhold is here to change that with this incredible book that delves into the lives of Polly Walker, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly, letting us know who they really were while also giving us a window into what Victorian life was like for any woman who wasn’t insulated by layers of wealth and status.
Rubenhold writes with empathy and understanding of the lives of each of these women – only two of whom actually ever sold sex, not that this should make any difference to how their deaths were viewed – illustrating just how hard Victorian society was for the working and lower middle classes. In a world in which a family that were comfortably off could be made destitute overnight through the loss of a male breadwinner (women’s work paid nowhere near enough to keep a person, let alone a family), and in which society’s view of you as a woman was either as madonna or whore (a broken woman was the same as a fallen one in their eyes), there really weren’t many options for a woman who had fallen on tough times.
The workhouses that flourished at the time – designed to humiliate and frighten poor people into not being poor anymore (which I really think the Tories would love to bring back) – touched the lives of every single one of these women, as did the cheap gin that was ubiquitous no matter what class you were (Rubenhold also writes of the sanitariums that were set up to treat the supposedly higher class women who were more than nipping at the gin through boredom). The circumstances which forced each of these women on to the streets (not as sex workers, but as rough sleepers) really were not unusual for the time – the numbers of homeless people that were sleeping in Trafalgar Square alone were jaw dropping – and the realisation that the Ripper wasn’t targeting sex workers but rough sleepers really changed the case for me.
I find it disheartening how little our attitudes have changed – a peek at any comment section, newspaper headline or Tory MP’s speeches are frighteningly similar to those included in the book, with one bastard MP of the time claiming the Ripper was doing society a favour by cleaning up the filth (the amount of newspaper stories I’ve read that focus on the victim not being a virginal saint and bringing her killing upon herself while playing up the good qualities of her killer are countless, and sickening) but this is an angry, informed, and deeply empathetic book that I’ll be talking to people about for a long time.