• Rebecca Norman

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper - Hallie Rubenhold

As a historian, I have been conditioned to stay well away from tales of Jack the Ripper. I was very skeptical of this book and after having seen it around Waterstones for months, I avoided it for fear of gory descriptions of the murders and speculation on who carried out the five murders in 1888 – I genuinely don’t care who committed them and if you do, then this is not the book for you.

The book is precisely about the untold lives of the women who were brutally killed – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary-Jane Kelly – around Whitechapel, London in 1888. They are as much the victims of Victorian double standards for women and a male-dominated media agenda, as they are of the murderer.

Where a voice was denied to them as women, both in life and death, Rubenhold has managed to give each of these women their identity back. In 1888, it suited the male-dominated media narrative to cast these women off as prostitutes, implying that their gruesome end was expected, if not deserved. However, this book highlights that each woman felt the peaks and troughs of Victorian life. Some of them at times enjoyed financial stability within the middle class, they had husbands, children and families, owned businesses and experienced hardship, loss and addiction. Rubenhold does not explore past their final night, and she does not give credit to their killer by describing their murders. Instead, she prompts us to question why we have accepted the narrative around Jack the Ripper for so long and continued to enforce the Victorian double standard. She states, “In order to gawp at and examine the miracle of malevolence we have figuratively stepped over the bodies of those he murdered, and in some cases, stopped to kick them as we walked past.”

Rubenhold has conducted in-depth research with the records available including birth, death and marriage certificates, London workhouse records, census records, coroner’s inquests, and newspaper reports. However, when considering the evidence used, I encourage you to maintain a level of skepticism you’ll no doubt have acquired as law students. Rubenhold argues 4 out of these 5 women had alcohol addictions and were often arrested for being drunk and disorderly. I would instantly question whether these arrests were truly for that reason or whether as homeless women, they were simply assumed to be drunks and, in an effort to get them off the streets, they were arrested. Alcohol addiction also seems a very easy (although entirely plausible) explanation for where they ended up. It doesn’t matter whether they were alcoholics or not, they were homeless and asleep which made them easy targets.

The author also makes some important key points in her conclusion to place the treatment of these women in a contemporary context, referencing the People vs Turner (2015) case where Turner’s father complained that his son’s conviction of rape and sexual assault for “20 minutes of action”, was a steep price to pay. His victim was extremely intoxicated at the time, and it was implied that she brought this attack on herself. Turner served 3 months of his 6-month prison sentence in a county jail, for an offence that would normally carry up to 14 years in a federal prison.

This book makes for interesting lockdown reading if like me, you’re interested in history, or just looking to explore a new angle of an extremely and tiringly over-told and ill-reported historical event. It’s impossible to come away from this book without feeling that although the same attitudes may not be as prevalent in society now, they definitely still exist.

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