The last time I visited London, at the age of seventeen, there was one thing I desperately wanted to do. Okay, two things: buy a lot of interesting old books… and go on the Jack the Ripper Walking Tour. I was prepared for that walk. Heck, I was sure I could lead that walk. Over the past few months, I had read through Casebook: Jack the Ripper, mentally filing away murder maps and reading pages of information on Flower & Dean and Dorset Streets. The case seemed almost like a legend, a macabre Sweeney Todd-style drama playing out on the dim cobblestones of the worst streets in London. As a budding horror writer, I was excited to learn more about this dark chapter in Victorian history, and perhaps learn some new theories about Jack’s identity.
I never did get to go on that walk. Shortly after we returned from England, I lost interest in the Ripper case, turning my focus to writing stories based on Appalachian murder ballads instead. But years later, during the pandemic, I would rediscover the Autumn of Terror––this time, from a sharply different angle.
Throughout my college history courses, I discovered I had a particular (and personal) interest in the history of the marginalised, particularly women. My junior year upper-level history final paper was about the development of the sex work industry in colonial Cambodia & Vietnam. During my senior year, I read Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, a novel about female experiences during the Partition of India. So when I found out that a British historian had written a new and groundbreaking book on the “canonical” victims of Jack the Ripper, my long-dormant fascination with the case rekindled.
The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold, is a masterpiece. It has, as its title suggests, five sections, each delving deeply into the too-short lives of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Eliza Ann “Annie” Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.
Unlike everything else I’d read on the subject, the book barely mentions Jack at all — and I loved it all the more for that. It is the first piece of literature I have encountered which focuses more on the women’s lives than the brutal manner of their deaths. And it is the first which shifts the onus of their demises away from their shoulders. Almost all of the comments and articles I had sifted through all those years ago said, or implied, the same thing: why were those women out so late, at a time when moral ladies would have been asleep in their beds? This is just what happens to sex workers, isn’t it? Aren’t they ultimately responsible for their own deaths? Many forums blamed the women themselves. Dr Rubenhold highlighted a different culprit: Victorian society, which in its cruel treatment of poor marginalised Londoners set in place the very conditions which led to these five women falling through the cracks. Between abusive husbands, no readily accessible system for divorce, a lack of job opportunities for women, and the threat of workhouses — which poisoned their inmates with inedible food and worked them to the bone — Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane were left to fend for themselves. Still, despite illness and isolation, at times they thrived, often leaving behind hundreds of grieving friends and family members. I nearly cried when I read about how close Annie got to a quiet, comfortable, middle-class existence with her coachman husband, before she slid into the depths of alcohol addiction. I could picture Kate’s wild, free existence as a nomadic singer and songwriter, and was heartbroken at the spousal abuse she suffered. Polly was a printer’s daughter and a mother of five; Elizabeth at one time owned a coffeehouse with her husband; Mary Jane was a generous woman who let her houseless friends sleep alongside her in the cramped room she rented.
The book also serves to dispel the sexual element which is so often associated with the Ripper’s ghastly spree. For over a century––indeed, beginning the very hours after their deaths––the nameless murderer’s five victims have been uniformly labelled as sex workers, searching for liaisons. This was used by contemporary newspapers as a form of justification for the gruesome nature of their deaths, with the implication that proper ladies, ladies who guarded their virtue, were safe from the Ripper’s hands. In the modern day, comments on forums freely refer to the five victims as “whores” and “tarts”, characterising them as empty-headed rouged-up ladies whose only significance is their part in the drama of Jack the Ripper. As Dr Rubenhold points out, repeatedly referring to the five as “prostitutes” instead of “women” — like so many “Ripperologist” write-ups do — gives their profession undue importance. The implication is that if they hadn’t been sex workers, out late at night, they wouldn’t have been dead. This notion is both horribly whorephobic and––as Dr Rubenhold uncovers––false. As her research shows, three of the five have no record of sex work at all, shattering the idea that the Ripper only targeted what Victorians would have referred to as the “unfortunate” class. Instead, given that all three were houseless, it seems likely that they were murdered while sleeping out on the street. This is not to say that the two who did do sporadic sex work––Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly––deserved their deaths either. Elizabeth and Mary Jane’s profession did not make them “worthy” targets of murder, just as Polly, Annie, and Kate did not deserve to die for not having access to shelter at night. In short, contrary to what Jack the Ripper’s myth propagates, the five were not killed for their “sexual transgressions” or their “questionable morality”––they were killed for being women in a landscape which let toxic masculinity fester.
I hadn’t realised what I’d been missing until I read The Five. This is a book which, using one historical case, neatly sums up everything wrong with the true crime genre. This is a book which treats the victims of a ruthless serial killer as people who led colourful lives marked with both sorrow and joy, rather than cold bodies on a mortuary table. This is a book which does not lionise a murderer, but instead restores dignity to five murdered women.