Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
I don’t know how old I was when I first heard of Jack the Ripper. I do remember being quite young when the sensationalizing and romanticizing of the serial killer started to bother me. “What’s wrong with you?” I would growl at the TV, comics, Halloween costumes, and centuries-spanning obsession about the murderer. Where was the attention on his victims, on the real women who lost their lives? No one seemed to care—in 1888, or now. They existed only to fuel the fascination surrounding the murderer. I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper while doing unrelated research for my Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries series. I knew immediately I had to get my hands on this book. Here, at last, was someone else who felt exactly as I did and set about to rectify the situation. The premise alone makes the book worthwhile, and Rubenhold’s research and writing makes it a must-read.
Rubenhold’s The Five is long overdue, and definitely a welcome addition to the field of Victorian social history. It’s a tough but fascinating read, handled with an equal mix of sympathy and outrage. What this book is not: It’s not true crime. It’s not a whodunit. It makes no fruitless speculation about the identity of the murderer, and it does not linger over the salacious details of the crimes. It is a gripping story of characters who are every bit as fascinating, vivid, and richly drawn as their notorious killer is imagined to be. And it is a stunning social history that spans the mid-late Victorian era and the life and times of working class women. Rubenhold unearths known, previously unknown, and totally ignored details from each woman’s life, and skillfully fills in the gaps with information drawn from other historical records—what life was like for workhouse inmates, laws that targeted and disproportionately disadvantaged working-class women, contemporary commentary from social reformers, and more.
In five sections, arranged chronologically by the dates of their deaths, Rubenhold examines the family backgrounds, childhoods, young adulthoods, and last years of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and the woman who called herself Mary Jane Kelly. She takes readers on a journey across England, overseas to Scandinavia, from the tinworks of Birmingham to the barracks of Queen Victoria’s guard, to ambitious charity schools and factories and homes, the open road of ballad-sellers, the terrifying spectre of white slavery, and the sad backstreets of London’s poorest neighborhoods. In telling the stories of these five individual women, Rubenhold also tells the story of all Victorian women, exploring the ruthless social rules that crippled poor women and condemned them to a downward spiral of poverty and violence. Rubenhold corrects nearly a century and a half of misconceptions and assumptions about these five women (spoiler alert: they weren’t all prostitutes), and restores the truth of their real lives.
There has never been a good time to be poor, homeless, and female. Rubenhold has drawn a tender portrait of one of the most notorious, centered around five particular women that fate and history threw together for the one terrible event they had in common. But in doing so, she reveals all these women had in common: their human struggles, joys, loves, setbacks, and sorrows. Your heart will lift with hope for these girls with such promise, crack with heartbreak as things fall apart for them, and rattle with frustration as you walk in their skillfully uncovered footsteps. No longer a “murder tour” of working class Victorian London, The Five gives us a new and important angle to view ground that has been thoroughly trodden—yet somehow completely overlooked.
Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is available now here at Amazon in a paperback edition. Highly recommended for mature readers, fans of Victoriana, and students of women’s history. People who enjoy the sensationalized deaths of women can look elsewhere.