I’m a fan of historical true crime stories, particularly those that happened before the 20th century; however, I have never read a book about Jack the Ripper. I’m not sure why, as it seems to fall squarely in my area of interest. Most likely, the stories about Whitechapel’s most famous killer are so ubiquitous in popular culture that I never felt the need to delve deeper. After reading The Five and listening to the first episode of Hallie Rubenold’s “Bad Women” podcast, I’m gratified that I never went down that road. Hundreds of books have been written about Jack the Ripper, and I dare say some are worthwhile and well researched; however, many are written by hobbyists, focus on the mystery of who the killer was, and sensationalize the crimes. Very few historians have bothered to shed a light on the victims.
Polly Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elisabeth Stride. Kate Eddowes. Mary Jane Kelly. Ask anyone (including me, circa two weeks ago) who Jack the Ripper murdered, and they will most likely say “prostitutes.” Look on the Wikipedia page about Jack the Ripper (or, don’t, because I don’t want to send more traffic there) and it will confirm this misconception. Yet, of the five women that are generally agreed to have been his victims, only Mary Kelly practiced prostitution as a profession; Elisabeth Stride did, at times, earn money as a sex worker but was not soliciting the night she died; Polly, Annie, and Kate held working class jobs. They weren’t prostitutes. They were poor.
As Rubenhold states in the introduction to The Five, “The fibers that have clung to and defined the shape of Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane’s stories were the values of the Victorian world. They are male, authoritarian, and middle class. They were formed at a time when women had no voice, and few rights, and the poor were considered lazy and degenerate: to have been both of these things was one of the worst possible combinations.”
Most of these women were, at some point in there lives, what Victorian sensibilities would consider “respectable.” But Victorian life wasn’t easy; the loss of a job or a spouse could send someone who was “getting by” into the most abject poverty imaginable. A Victorian woman who separated from her husband had little choice but to attach herself to another man as quickly as possible. Double standards dictated that, while men could divorce, a woman had to demonstrate desperation. That meant that women who found themselves estranged from their husband might not be able to divorce, which meant she became an adulteress, or in official terms “a fallen woman.”
Often, impoverished women and men would “tramp” during the day, moving from place to place attempting to earn or beg enough money for a bed for the night. Times when they couldn’t come up with the fee meant that they would “sleep rough.” This was common among the poor and yet, when Polly Nichols was found murdered on the street, the police and the press embraced the conclusion that she was soliciting. A friend of Polly’s disputed this story, and even her estranged husband was unconvinced, yet “both the authorities and the press were certain of one thing: Polly Nichols was obviously out soliciting that night, because she, like every other woman, regardless of her age, who moved between the lodging houses, the casual wards, and the bed she made in a dingy corner of an alley, was a prostitute.”
Sadly, alcoholism is a common theme across these women’s stories, another affliction of the Victorian poor. Some suggest that alcohol was one of the only ways available for the destitute to dull the pain of their difficult lives, and this is probably true. However, we should also consider the quality of disease-ridden drinking water in Victorian London. Working class people often drank gin and watered-down beer, as it was safer than water. Typically, drunkenness was seen as a vice of the poor and not something that society needed to “cure,” so few resources were available. (For the record, Annie Chapman did attend the Victorian-era equivalent of rehab; had she been able to overcome her alcoholism, her life might have been very different.)
The real story of the Whitechapel murders, the one that Rubenhold has told, is the story of exploitation of poor women through Victorian laws. A destitute woman had little choice but to enter a workhouse (in some cases with her children), a humiliating experience. Women who bore children out of wedlock were considered “fallen” women, whether they were prostitutes, rape victims, or in a monogamous common-law relationship. Rubenhold’s extensive research includes some speculation, but it’s speculation based on what people would have typically encountered in their every day lives in Victorian England.
One reviewer on Goodreads has criticized Rubenhold for suggesting that these women are worthy of our sympathy because they weren’t prostitutes. That is not at all what Rubehold is saying. Regardless of their occupation, the victims were real individuals and deserve to be understood and known. Calling them prostitutes when they weren’t is another way of diminishing them–not because sex workers deserve less sympathy, but because that characterization helps a certain subset of people romanticize despicable acts. On a similar note, Rubenhold never describes the murders in detail. Plenty of other books can provide that service; this one is not about the glamor or gruesomeness of the acts.
Few murderers have been as sensationalized as Jack the Ripper. I can’t imagine it would sit well with society if we were to promote tours of the locations where the Golden State Killer murdered his victims, or if your co-worker dressed as Jeffrey Dahmer for Halloween, yet we are downright gleeful about Jack the Ripper to the point where it has become a fetish. Scores of amateur “Ripperologists” write books and record podcasts promoting their own theories in a never-ending quest to figure out who he was. Until now, few people have tried to figure out who these women really were. This is the gift that Hallie Rubenhold has given us with The Five.