Book Review: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold
In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, nonfiction author Hallie Rubenhold focuses her historian's lens on the lives of the victims of Victorian-era serial killer Jack the Ripper: Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Katherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Although Jack the Ripper was never caught, his legend seems to overshadow his victims, five women who were all written off as prostitutes by detectives and reporters of their time. And while activists today advocate for a new, more respectable reputation for sex work, in 1880s London, prostitution was a maligned and marginalized occupation as well as a convenient excuse to write off the victims of a heinous crime.
The police officers, detectives, and reporters of the Victorian era, like many today, held erroneous assumptions about impoverished women, especially those who were not legally married. All but one of the five victims had been married at some point, but at the time of their murders, they were either separated, divorced, or widowed. Single women who lived in poverty had few options for housing, and earning enough to rent a home of their own was all but impossible. Some spent time in the so-called charity workhouses, but the conditions were so terrible that none stayed for any length of time. These women got by on odd jobs from day-to-day and night-to-night, often earning just enough to rent a shared bed in a boarding house; other times, they slept outdoors in parks or under bridges in the filthy streets of London. In any case, authorities tended to assume that any unmarried woman who took a room in a boarding house was a prostitute, and it was this attitude that ultimately made it easier for police to drop the investigation after the murders stopped.
Rubenhold debunks the prostitution myth, documenting in fascinating detail how these impoverished women came to live and work in the slums of London where they were brutally murdered in 1888. In fact, these women made their meager livings in occupations like domestic worker, coffee house server, print factory worker, balladeer, traveling sales, and more importantly, they were human beings with families, children, husbands, and sometimes lovers. Only one had ever worked as a prostitute, but it was not her full-time occupation at the time of her murder.
As I read of the full, but often heartbreaking, lives of Jack the Ripper's victims, I was struck by how the topic reminds me of the #sayhername movement, a modern-day testament to black women victims of police brutality who would otherwise be forgotten due to their low social standing, criminal records, or breaking other societal taboos. In The Five, Rubenhold's research and storytelling are an effective way to create a new legacy to honor the lost lives of the murdered women -- Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Katherine, and Mary Jane -- who were marginalized by the misogynistic institutions of the late 1880s.