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Life after Death?

The real lives of five women who found fame only in the manner of their deaths: murdered by the man we have come to know as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Mary Kelly in Miller’s Court, London, 1888.
Mary Kelly in Miller’s Court, London, 1888.

In this bold new social history, Hallie Rubenhold explores the lives of five women who found fame only in the manner of their deaths. ‘The five’ of the title are Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, who are remembered as the women murdered by the man we have come to know as ‘Jack the Ripper’. Rubenhold uses a range of archival material and secondary reading to map out each of their individual lives up to the point where they began their descent into poverty, alcoholism, homelessness and, ultimately, death in 1888.

Rubenhold does not describe the murders; nor does she waste any space speculating on the identity of the killer. In fact, ‘Jack the Ripper’ is entirely absent from the book, with the exception of its title and a short discussion of the mythology and industry that has developed around his enigma. Curiosity about the identity of ‘Jack’ shows little sign of dwindling. In recent years, most of the books on the subject that have received media attention have been at pains to name a suspect. Rubenhold’s deliberate decision to focus on the victims is brave. Considering the attention her book has garnered in the media, it is one that has paid off.

The book’s clear central message is that ‘the five’ were real people, with real lives and that they deserve better than to be dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’. Rubenhold makes her case thus: ‘In the absence of any evidence that Polly, Annie and Kate ever engaged in common prostitution, many have taken to claiming that these women participated in “casual prostitution”: a blanket term cast over the ambiguities of the women’s lives that is steeped in moral judgment.’

It is fair to say that it is Rubenhold’s assertion that there is no evidence that three of the victims were prostitutes which has caused the most dissent among ‘Ripperologists’, the collective noun used for those who research the Whitechapel murders. Anyone with a working knowledge of the case will know that plenty of evidence exists to suggest that all of the five, at one time or another, engaged in prostitution. This evidence has been presented by researchers over many years and, while we might reasonably ask questions about police and public attitudes at the time (a point Rubenhold raises), we cannot simply ignore sources that do not fit our particular view of the past.

Describing the media coverage of Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols’ murder, Rubenhold writes:

When the story first broke, before anything substantial was known about Polly’s life, almost every major newspaper in the country carried a piece stating, ‘It was gathered that the deceased had led the life of an “unfortunate,” in spite of also reporting that ‘nothing ... was known of her’.

This is not entirely accurate; what The Times actually wrote was:

It was gathered that the deceased had led the life of an ‘unfortunate’ while lodging in the house, which was only for about three weeks past. Nothing more was known of her by them [the women that lived with her] but that when she presented herself for her lodging on Thursday night she was turned away by the deputy because she had not the money.

The subtle removal of ‘more’ and ‘by them’ from the quote gives the impression that the newspaper was making up the remarks about Polly, rather than reporting what the women who knew her were saying. The revised quote supports Rubenhold’s statement that the press was branding Nichols a prostitute despite ‘knowing nothing about her’, which isn’t how most people would read that evidence. Other information exists that strongly suggests that Nichols did engage in prostitution in the late 1880s and that this is why her former husband, William, stopped giving her financial assistance.

The book is notable both for the new information it highlights about the lives of the women murdered in 1888 and for the information (mostly about their deaths) that it omits. We might ask why it matters whether the women were, or were not, prostitutes. Regardless, they were the innocent victims of a brutal, misogynist killer. As Judith Walkowitz’s work on prostitution in the 19th century has shown, the communities of East London did not denigrate those women who, at times of desperate need, were forced to sell themselves for the price of a bed, a meal or a drink. The sneering tone of The Times certainly condemned those ‘unfortunates’ for bringing such horror on their own heads, but it was equally scathing about most of those living in the Whitechapel slum.

Rubenhold makes an interesting suggestion that the victims were killed while they were sleeping rough. She makes this based on a new interpretation of the term ‘street walking’. The term has traditionally been considered a euphemism for prostitution, but what if it was sometimes meant literally: walking the streets because there was nowhere to sleep indoors? It is a new angle on the killings and one worth exploring. Once again, though, it is not backed up with evidence that effectively challenges the considerable existing material that suggests otherwise. This is partly because of Rubenhold’s laudable decision not to detail the circumstances surrounding the murders, though this is where readers will find information that challenges her assertion.

However, while the central argument is unconvincing, how far does this detract from the book as social history? It undoubtedly leaves Rubenhold open to criticism by those researchers who know a lot about the case. That is a shame, because she has made a significant contribution to the study of the murders in highlighting the lives of the five canonical victims. While there have been studies of the murdered women before – Neal Sheldon’s The Victims of Jack the Ripper (2007), for example – there has never been such a high profile and well written one. As a result of Rubenhold’s book, very many more people will learn the reality of the lives of poor working-class people in late-Victorian London. Introducing these stories to a mainstream audience is important, especially when problems like homelessness, poverty, substance abuse and domestic violence have not been consigned to history.

Rubenhold writes about these women with sympathy. Her ability to bring them to life and portray their struggles in the society in which they lived makes great popular history. She has a novelistic style that fills the gaps left by the paucity of source material on working-class life in Victorian Britain. Any book that engages new audiences has to be a good thing and there is much evidence that Rubenhold’s book has done so, entering the Sunday Times’ bestseller list at, fittingly, number five. Will anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Whitechapel case learn much from it? Maybe not, but if it asks them to question the way they approach the case then that too can only be positive. This is a readable and engaging book about working-class women’s lives and there are too few of them. Rubenhold deserves credit for what she has produced; it would be good to see more efforts in this direction as a counter to the miles of bookshelves dedicated to the wealthy elites that ruled them.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold
Doubleday
416pp £14.99

Drew Gray is Subject Lead in History at the University of Northampton. His new study of the Whitechapel murders, Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, will be published by Amberley in June 2019.

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