By today’s standards, sadly, a mass murderer or serial killer who kills five women is hardly even worthy of front page news. But mention the name Jack the Ripper and most people will have at the very least heard the name and many will know he was a notorious killer from the late 1800’s, and those who think they are moderately knowledgeable will say he killed five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London.
There is no shortage of books about Jack the Ripper, fiction and non-fiction alike. Author Hallie Rubenhold takes a new direction here however. Rather than looking at Jack the Ripper and his heinous murders, she looks at the five women the Ripper is believed to have killed.
The common perception is that Jack the Ripper murdered five prostitutes. But as Rubenhold asserts in her preface:
There is, and never was, any proof of this either. To the contrary — over the course of the coroner’s inquests, it became known that Jack the Ripper never had sex with a single victim. Additionally, in the case of each murder there were no signs of struggle and the killings appear to have taken place in complete silence. There were no screams heard by anyone in the vicinity. The autopsies concluded that all of the women were killed while in a reclining position. In at least three of the cases, the victims were known to sleep on the street and on the nights they were killed did not have money for a lodging house. In the final case, the victim was murdered in her bed. However, the police were so committed to their theories about the killer’s choice of victims that they failed to conclude the obvious — the Ripper targeted women while they slept.
Using statements made by those who knew the victims best, Rubenhold makes a very strong case for the fact that these women, from very diverse backgrounds, had fallen on hard times (sometimes by their own making) yet none had been actively engaged in prostitution.
This information is essentially covered in the preface, but Rubenhold goes on with exhaustive research into each of these women and shares their life stories – brief as the available information might be. What this does is remind us that these victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly – are more than just names, famous for the terrifying name of their killer. They were daughters, mothers, sisters, wives.
Rubenhold gives us a surprising amount of information about these women, especially given that:
The cards were stacked against Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane from birth. They began their lives in deficit. Not only were most of them born into working-class families; they were also born female. Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, they were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. Their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.
I can honestly say that this changed how I think about the events of the Ripper murders, and it will have an affect on how I think about the victims of violent crimes in the future.
I’ve been fascinated by the Ripper legends for a very long time. It probably started when I first the Star Trek episode, Wolf in the Fold, sometime in the early 1970’s. I then read nearly every book I could find on the subject, wrote papers about it in college, and even wrote a full-length play with my theory of who the Ripper was (that play safely tucked away in a folder, deep in my file cabinet). In all that time, though, I never thought about these women other than as victims and as prostitutes. This book is fascinating and a great reminder that the crimes committed by the Ripper, were committed against people who lived and dreamed.
Looking for a good book? The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold, is a new, very human, approached to the Jack the Ripper murders, looking at the victims, and reminding us, not only were they not five prostitutes, as the media of the time sensationalized them, but women with histories and families and struggling to survive despite the odds against them. Is it incredibly well researched.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
author: Hallie Rubenhold
publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
hardcover, 333 pages