During the night of the 30th of September 1888 – almost exactly 131 years ago – two women were struck by a terrible fate that would bind them together forever despite never having known each other in their lifetimes. One of them was Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish immigrant who’d once run a coffee house, and the other was Catherine (Kate) Eddowes, who used to tour the country with her partner, writing and selling ballads.
Today, Elizabeth and Catherine are not remembered for who they’d been during their lives but only – if at all – for the tragic circumstances of their deaths. Everyone, however, will recognise the name of the man who brutally took their lives, Jack the Ripper. The lives of Elizabeth, Kate and the other three women whose murders have been attributed to the Ripper, are rarely considered in any detail, while their killer has been elevated into modern mythology. He has become a legend, and as such still captures the imagination of many, over 130 years after he committed his gruesome crimes. Even in the historiography of the Ripper, the women’s life stories are often little more than a side-note in the quest to uncover the killer’s identity. In death, the women are reduced to mere bodies that serve the sole purpose of illustrating their murderer’s ‘MO’.
In her latest book, The Five, Hallie Rubenhold attempts to redress this imbalance, and offers some truly revelatory insights. Most of what is known about the five women is derived from witness statements given during the coroners’ inquests; however, these are superficial and generally unreliable accounts. Rubenhold therefore delves deep into other forms of archival material, tracing the women’s lives through their ups and downs. By reconstructing their lives from beginning to end as best as the records allow, Rubenhold presents the women in their full human experience. They were living, breathing, feeling beings, leading real lives. They were daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, who have been reduced to empty shells by an unjust, sensationalist society. By tracing the lives of the Ripper’s five victims, the author skilfully untangles the “web of assumptions, rumours and unfounded speculation” in which they had been trapped for well over a century.
Rubehold dispels perhaps the biggest assumption of them all when she asserts that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that three of the women killed by the notorious serial killer – Polly, Annie, and Kate – ever prostituted themselves. What’s more, considering the evidence, she convincingly argues that all of the women were murdered while sleeping rough in the streets of Whitechapel, and not, contrary to what we’ve all previously accepted as fact, after they were lured into dark places for sex. It had been established that the women were killed while in a reclining position, and at least three of the women were known to sleep on the streets on nights when they didn’t have the money for a lodging house. This quite ground-breaking claim is strongly supported by the evidence Rubenhold has uncovered. It also simply makes sense. Even though the police were known to be unable to reliably identify sex workers, the narrative about a killer deliberately targeting women of ‘bad character’ suited them as well as the newspapers. But it seems utterly inconceivable that this narrative has been perpetuated for well over a century without anyone really questioning it, until now.
There have been many glowing reviews of The Five, and in my opinion, it deserves all the praise it gets. It is a triumph. Not only is it thoroughly researched, it is also beautifully written. Rubenhold’s careful assessment of the evidence, compassionate and empathetic prose, and incorporation of wider historic context that is detailed enough to really get a good impression of the era, but not so overwhelming as to lose focus, all make for a spectacular micro-history. The Five not only paints an image of life in that ‘human awful wonder of God’ that was nineteenth-century London, but also seeks to give voices to those who can no longer speak for themselves, or indeed never even had the opportunity to do so during their lifetimes. Rubenhold reveals the complex lives of five women who descended into poverty and shared a fate that was not particularly uncommon among their contemporaries. By telling their stories, re-evaluating the evidence and peering beyond the surface, some humanity is at last restored to Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane.
Having studied the Victorian period extensively, I am familiar with the ‘inner circle of hell’ that was the East End of the nineteenth century. I’ve studied many of the sources on which Rubenhold draws to illustrate the harrowing conditions in this part of town, many of which I found difficult to read, leaving me feeling everything from slightly uneasy to utterly appalled and heartbroken. Reading these women’s stories was certainly not the first time I’d been confronted with the fragility of life in this age, particularly for the poor and particularly for poor women. I’ve come across plenty of accounts in which people’s circumstances changed quite literally overnight, usually with catastrophic repercussions. But The Five just demonstrated all of this perfectly, and its sympathetic narrative is deeply moving even to someone who’d been aware of both the lack of structural support as well as the horrendous conditions in Whitechapel, where, by the end of the nineteenth century, 78,000 people lived crammed into lodging houses. Rubenhold invokes these images in a masterly fashion and takes the reader on a deeply immersive journey. Shifting the focus away from sex to issues such as poverty, addiction and social inequality makes the experience even richer. She has once more shown that the values of the Victorian world were male, authoritarian, and middle-class – nothing new for people who’ve engaged with this period to some extent, rendering the fact that this narrative has not been questioned until now even more inexcusable. Indeed, as I read The Five, I felt disappointed in myself for simply accepting the narrative that’s been perpetuated for so long. But apart from making me feel guilty, it’s also been a great inspiration and is exactly the kind of history I would want to write. For me – and I know I’m not alone in this – The Five is a game changer.
Despite all the praise the book has justly earned, one particular group has taken offence at Rubenhold’s claims. A huge wave of negative comments from the Ripperologist community – self-proclaimed Ripper experts – followed the book’s publication. Indeed, even before that point, they were not too shy to voice their grievances. What seems to irk these Ripper ‘enthusiasts’ so much about The Five is that Rubenhold – an ‘outsider’ – dares to question the conventional narrative, revisits and uncovers evidence, and ends up with new conclusions that happen to conflict with theirs. Their reactions have often been extremely hostile; pages upon pages of attacks and abuse have been written in online forums dedicated to the serial killer, seemingly picking apart every page of the book. And many have, rather impressively, managed to do so without actually reading the monograph.
Not a member of their community, Rubenhold apparently has no right to challenge the ‘facts’ that were established over a century ago. They clearly feel a strong sense of ownership over the Jack the Ripper narrative, and consequently also over these women’s lives. It’s unsurprising that Rubenhold’s assertion there is simply no reliable evidence that three of the women were professional prostitutes causes particular affront to them. They are unwilling to accept the facts that the author exposed because believing that the Ripper’s victims were sex workers, and, as such, fallen women, somehow means that these ‘bad’ women somehow had it coming, or were people for whom getting killed was an occupational hazard, lending the Ripper’s crimes a certain legitimacy. It’s plain misogyny, really.
Although Rubenhold herself said that she’d anticipated some backlash and has proven to be perfectly capable of dealing with trolls – her sparring with the openly sexist Trevor Marriot was particularly admirable – no one could have foreseen the viciousness of these attacks. She has, believe it or not, even been compared to Holocaust denier David Irving. She’s been accused of both pursuing a feminist #MeToo agenda as well as ‘whorephobia’. Not infrequently, it has got very personal. Even as an observer, it’s tiresome to say the least, and I do worry that reactions such as the ones exhibited by the Ripperologist community will deter young historians and writers from re-examining conventionally accepted narratives. But this is important work and a significant part of being a historian. Considering just how well known the Jack the Ripper murders are, and the vast literature and other resources available, it’s shocking that it’s taken this long for a thorough biography of the women to appear. It’s a blatant omission.
Yet, the women whose lives had been considered unworthy of closer investigation have finally had their stories told. And they’re being heard, too. Judging from reviews and comments on social media, The Five has had a huge impact on those who’ve read it. People have organised walking tours that focus on the five women’s lives rather than deaths, teachers have amended lesson content, and many have started conversations about how we view murder victims for our own entertainment. ‘True crime’ shows and podcasts are incredibly popular while serial killers such as, a more recent example, Ted Bundy still exert a peculiar fascination. Rubenhold’s mission to reclaim the women whose disturbing autopsy photos can be easily accessed on the internet from the “pornography of violence” into which their identities have disappeared, and to encourage conversation about this topic is truly inspirational. No amount of online trolling will diminish her achievements, nor will it stop her research from spreading. The truth is out!
Felicia El Kholi is a graduate of the MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London and Heritage Intern at the Association of Anaesthetists Heritage Centre.
Hallie Rubenhold with be giving a public lecture on the theme of her critically-acclaimed book, The Five, at Royal Holloway, University of London on 22 October. Admission is free but spaces will be limited so be sure to book your free ticket online.