The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
by Hallie Rubenhold
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.
If I could give this book a million stars, I would.
I don’t think any non-fiction book has ever given me as much of a gut punch as The Five. Not only is this the best book I’ve read this year, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and, in the realms of history, it’s a complete game-changer.
It’s been 131 years since a serial killer we now know as Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel, and in those 131 years he’s become a staple of London’s history. You can dress up like him for Halloween and take walking tours of where he committed his murders; the places in the city where he butchered five prostitutes.
Right? Well, not exactly. When historian Hallie Rubenhold set out to write about sex work in the 19th century through the lens of the Ripper’s victims, she found something else entirely: there is no evidence that three of the five women were ever involved in the sex trade. And even if they were, why have we forgotten them? Why do we remember their murderer, and not them? How many of us even know their names?
Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Catherine Eddowes. Mary Jane Kelly. In this phenomenal book, Hallie Rubenhold tells their stories.
These women had hard lives, but they were never, including the two who worked in the sex trade, ‘just prostitutes’. Some of them could read and write, some were wives and mothers and devoted daughters, some were lovers and friends and well-liked members of their communities. Most importantly, they were all real people and they were really killed by someone evil who took advantage of their circumstances – namely, how several of them were sleeping rough the night that they were murdered. Their killer targeted lone homeless women, and the Victorian media turned it into a moral tale for its readers by immediately declaring them prostitutes, despite the people who knew the three women who weren’t sex workers constantly saying that their friends weren’t sex workers, because it was easier to blame them for what became of them than to acknowledge how Victorian society failed these women.
With a section on each woman, following as much of their lives as Rubenhold has been able to find records of, Rubenhold not only sheds light on who these women were, but also on what Britain was like at this period of history, and how easy it was for working class women to fall into poverty. The Five is so readable and, oh so refreshingly, very little attention is given to their murderer. Rubenhold doesn’t go into the gruesome details of how these women were killed; she helps us get to know what these women were like when they were alive, and very sensitively sheds light on who identified their bodies after they were found.
I genuinely can’t remember the last time a book left this much of an impact on me, and it’s going to stay with me forever. I want to continue to see more and more history books like this, giving the voices back to the people who’ve been forgotten. Worse still, the people who’ve been forgotten even though the truth has always been hidden in plain sight.
Some of the responses Rubenhold has received from people who call themselves ‘Ripperologists’ (gross, by the way – I understand having an interest in true crime, but the Ripper should never be more important than the women whose lives he cruelly ended) is horrifying. She’s been accused of ‘pushing her feminist agenda’, because apparently treating Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane like people blows their minds, and it shows that we still haven’t come all that far since these murders. We still say victims were ‘asking for it’, we still become obsessed with murderers and remember their names over the names of the people they murdered.
Not anymore. This is required reading. It’s an astonishing, ground-breaking piece of work that I found incredibly emotional to read and so sensitively done.
So thank you, Hallie Rubenhold. I hope Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane can finally rest in peace.