Published by Doubleday on February 28, 2019
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.
So often, when Jack the Ripper’s name is mentioned, you might think of the murder of prostitutes or a dashing figure in the shadows, twirling a mustache and flashing a switchblade. The reality is that the five horrific murders took place within months of each other and they stopped as quickly as they began with no answer to the identity of the murderer. It was the perfect situation for a society that lived for the sensational newspaper stories with a lot of imagination and not many facts. In the wake of the murders was a psychological scar on the people of Whitechapel, the erroneous assumption that only sex workers were murdered, and the continued idea that bad things always happen to women who dare to make their way alone.
The Five centers the story of the victims rather than how they died or who killed them. The author obviously did extremely detailed research piecing together maps with public inquiries and loosely factual newspaper articles. Their entire lives are opened to the reader so that even though you know how it ends, a part of you hopes that maybe they’ll avoid their fate this time. Hallie Rubenhold paints a fascinating and chilling picture of what life was like for working class women in the Victorian Era. It was so easy to find oneself alone and at the whim of a patriarchy that gave women the option of being seen as perfect examples of moral femininity or as the harlot who was responsible for the downfall of society. There was no in between. The victims were women with full lives, ultimately tragic, but not defined by how they left the world. The writing was extremely engaging and the details about life in London so detailed, I felt as if I could walk the streets myself. By writing this book, the author has taken back the myth of the Whitechapel Murders and made it about real women with real life and real struggles. It’s been a long time since I have read a book so deeply compelling.