Few crime sprees have captured readers’ imaginations as much as Jack the Ripper’s murders in Victorian-era London. And rarely has one murderer’s identity been more scrutinized. But how much ink has been spent understanding the five women he murdered? Who were they? What were their lives like? What led them to be in Whitechapel in 1888? Were the murder victims targeted or crimes of convenience? Hallie Rubenhold, a British historian and author who specializes in 18th and 19th century social and women’s history, addresses this crime narrative from a previously unapproached angle. In her book, “The Five,” Rubenhold tells the stories of Jack the Ripper’s five known murder victims: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.
“The Five” draws from a wide range of archival and primary sources, including poor house and church records, government documents, coroner’s inquests, and newspaper articles. Rubenhold follows the victims’ lives from their births to their untimely and gruesome deaths. “She asks how is it that these women – all of them somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s lover – ended up alone and destitute on the streets of Whitechapel?” Throughout the book, Rubenhold examines the victim’s lives against the social circumstances that shaped Queen Victoria’s England, such as the stratification of classes, the role of women, and industrialization. She also examines the narrative sources in detail and exposes the truths and lies embedded in all of them. Rubenhold’s most striking criticism is laid at the door of the newspaper editors who she believes sensationalized the women’s lives and deaths as well as the search for the murderer.
The five women were born into hardship. Rubenhold notes that “They died in hell, but they lived in hell, too.” They moved from hardscrabble childhoods into a cycle of childbearing, single motherhood, spousal abuse, alcoholism, poverty, desperation, and at the end, homelessness.
Rubenhold’s book, “The Five,” finally gives these women a voice, a presence, and a legacy beyond their notorious deaths. It is a heart-wrenching read. The lives of Mary Ann, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane are devastatingly sad, even more so because they were women with little or no control over their circumstances and survival as well as their own existence.
“The Five” is the recipient of the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction and is regarded as an “important work of historical detection.” Frances Wilson, a book critic for The Guardian, said the book is a study “not simply about the women who were murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888: it is for them. [It] is a powerful and a shaming book, but most shameful of all is that it took 130 years to write.”
If you’re interested in the impact of poverty and social stratification on women’s lives, or if you want to understand the concept of “hidden women” in history, I recommend you read this powerful study by Rubenhold.
Reviewer Jackie Esposito is the special projects librarian at Penn State University Park.