As an avid reader of anything connected to Jack the Ripper and his victims, I was drawn to this book by Hallie Rubenhold. “The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper” covers the histories of the five canonical victims whose murders were never solved. The killings in Whitechapel, a poor section of Victorian England, were attributed to a serial killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ by the news media. For two hot summers, residents of the area lived in terror as the faceless killer chose seemingly random women to slaughter.
For generations, the women were identified as prostitutes. Other than their lives in Whitechapel, their histories were never discussed and instead they were memorialized as streetwalkers who may have met their bloody deaths at the hands of a customer. Rubenhold has taken the time to pull back the curtain and show us the paths these women traveled leading to their tragic ends.
Beginning with descriptions of Victorian England in the late 1800s, Rubenhold exposes the abject poverty that contrasted dramatically with the wealthy lives of the well-to-do. Whitechapel was unquestionably the last stop for those who had fallen on hard times. Whether driven to destitution by loss of income, ill health, or alcoholism, the inhabitants of the densely packed area lead wretched and often short lives. Saucy Jack’s victims were among these discarded people.
Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth (Long Liz) Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly did not choose to live and die the way they did. Circumstances that stretched back into their early lives sent them on their ways to the horror that awaited them.
In addition to Rubenhold’s extensive investigation into the early years of the women, she writes of their families; parents, siblings, spouses, and children. She vividly describes the environments where they lived, the pitiful conditions of their lives, and the appalling conditions they found themselves in.
Rubenhold’s descriptions of the influence the press had on the public view of the events is an eye-opener. Leading the people of London to believe these five women were doomed to violent deaths by their love of drink and habits of selling their bodies to strange and unsavory men on the streets of Whitechapel cast the victims in a dark light. Police at the time did little or nothing to dissuade the populace of the notion the women almost deserved the horrifying ends they met.
This is a wonderful book for Ripperologists or anyone interested in Victorian London. Rubenhold has done an excellent job of revealing the sad humanity of the victims and how they came to be the subjects of books, movies, and investigations even a hundred years after their murders. Her ability to humanize these historical women makes this a must-read. I highly recommend it.
Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London—the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.
Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.
What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.
For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that “the Ripper” preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time—but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.
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