The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold (History/Investigative Journalism, 2019).

There have been countless books, TV and radio shows, movies and stage plays related to the mass-murderer known as Jack the Ripper. Well-known social historian Hallie Rubenhold takes an intelligent, well-researched and breathtakingly original look at these gruesome crimes by focusing on the five women victimized by the infamous Jack. In examining the entire lives of each of the women in turn, Rubenhold brings them to our attention as full-fledged human beings (rather than mere faceless murder statistics). In the process, she also unveils the social prejudices and undeserved assumptions that colored the understanding of investigators (contemporary with the terrible events of 1888 and even into the present day) and society as a whole.

After the useful reproduction of a period map of late 19th century London and a masterful introduction that contrasts the Late Victorian era life of the upper classes with the hellish environs of the poor, the author relates the life stories of each of the women in turn. Rubenhold flatly rejects the odious dismissal of these people as “just prostitutes”–and in fact demonstrates that there was never any evidence that three of the victims (“Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes) had EVER been sex workers. It is possible that Elisabeth Stride (who briefly took up the so-called “World’s Oldest Profession” in her native Sweden) may have occasionally dabbled in it again in England. The last of Jack’s victims (Mary Jane Kelly) was the only one who was active in the sex trade–and of course, she was a person in her own right and merely writing her off as just another dead whore is a vile denial of her very personhood.

By telling each woman’s full life in turn, Rubenhold goes a long way in restoring the human dignity and individuality of the five. Typically, she begins each one’s life story with her parents–who they were, where they lived and worked, their economic and social situations. Then it is on to each woman’s childhood, family life, education (to the extent each was afforded one) and adult lives up to the moments of their violent deaths.

The author vividly illustrates the harsh life faced by the poorest of the poor in that time, and knowingly probes the attitudes of society’s more fortunate toward them–and most especially toward poor women who were alone and, in our modern parlance, homeless. Perhaps the most pernicious assumption of all was that any such female was automatically ASSUMED to be prostitutes (and that they therefore got what they more-or-less “deserved” from Jack’s blade).

Exactly who Jack was is still hotly debated. But by coming to this infamous murder spree with a clear-eyed and fresh focus on the victims, the author has solved a secondary mystery that baffled the first investigators. The first four victims were killed outdoors, in a wildly overcrowded slum area of London. Yet nobody reported hearing anything and, in fact, there was never any sign that any of the women were able to struggle against their attacker. If (as the willfully blind-eyed police thought and headline-hungry newspapers screamed) these were streetwalkers who picked the wrong man to sneak into the shadows with, how was that even possible?

The likely truth: The Ripper’s first four victims were “sleeping rough” (that is outdoors) when he fatally cut their throats. They had no chance to cry out or fight. And when they were dead, the fiend could add in the other mutilations he was known for at his leisure. It is doubly ironic that the one victim who was a working prostitute (Mary Jane Kelly) was the only one with (barely) enough resources to have an actual home. Therefore Kelly died in her bed, apparently after the Ripper broke into the building and, again, slaughtered her while she slept. Not (one sadly still feels it must be said) that she, or any of them, “deserved” their fate.

This strong and forthright book, which also features relevant period photos and artwork (including reproductions of lurid newspaper illustrations) sheds new and worthwhile light on these terrible crimes, and on the society in which they took place.

Something quite different in historical/true-crime/investigative journalism, and strongly recommended.



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