Jack the Ripper. A name immediately recognizable that calls to mind the dark, dirty, and dangerous streets of London in the late 1800s. When I think of Jack the Ripper, I think of one of the most notorious serial killers – a well-dressed man with a top hat roaming the streets of Whitechapel killing prostitutes. A quick Google search will turn up all kinds of Jack the Ripper goodies – coffee mugs, shirts and hoodies, jewelry, artwork, even baby onesies and bibs. Seriously. There’s even a Marvel villain named Jack the Ripper, a parasitic creature who first took over a man in 1888 and caused him to murder five prostitutes. Jack the Ripper – the killer of prostitutes. Or was he? The book I’m recommending is called The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. As you can tell from the title, this book is not about Jack the Ripper and his brutal murders. Actually, very little of Jack the Ripper is discussed. Rather, Rubenhold deep dives into the lives of the canonical five women killed by Jack the Ripper – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. It was eye-opening for me because I admit that the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity and the details of his murders have been of greater interest to me than the lives of his victims. But I now I have a whole new outlook on the Ripper murders because now I think less about Jack and more about The Five.
Rubenhold does a great job of putting together the lives of The Five from their childhoods to their deaths. At times she has to speculate as to their actions or the actions of others, which is expected given that numerous records and details have been destroyed, distorted, or lost over the years and this was well-before the age when people documented their every move for the world to see. However, it is clear that a great deal of research went into The Five, and Rubenhold provides numerous resources in support of her claims. I was surprised to know that Mary Jane Kelly was the only one of the five who regularly engaged in prostitution. Elizabeth Stride briefly turned to prostitution but only after severe mistreatment by the Swedish police left her unable to find work. The reason for her mistreatment – getting pregnant out of wedlock. The other ladies were not prostitutes. I also learned that Annie Chapman at one time lived on a grand estate as part of her husband’s employment, and that Kate Eddowes was an extremely smart child who attended a good school before her parents died and she was shipped to unknown relatives who put her in factory work.
My biggest takeaway from The Five was that these women were from working-class beginnings and good families. But in the 1800s in London, the working class knew little to nothing about contraception. What little money was made had to take care of numerous children and as these children got older they were expected to immediately find work to support their ever-growing families. It becomes easier and easier to see how the five could end up in the deary setting of Whitechapel, not because they turned to a life of prostitution, but because their lives were full of so many hardships and setbacks. One of their biggest hardships was being born a woman in 1800s London. The Five shows that a system was definitely not in place to help the working-class, and particularly working-class women, succeed.
Rubenhold also does a great job of being respectful to the canonical five. She does not go into any details of their murders, and she does not include any photos of their bodies. These details are well-known, and as Rubenhold’s title states she is letting the reader in on the untold lives of these women. Also, at the end of the book, Rubenhold includes a list of all the belongings found on the bodies of the Ripper’s victims. This really brings home that these ladies were not just mere details in the mystery of Jack the Ripper. These ladies were daughters, mothers, and workers whose lives, unfortunately, led them to Whitechapel. Before reading The Five, I would think of these women and how they died. But now that I know them a little better, I will think of how they lived.
Kia is a cohost of the Half Assed Horror Cast. Her favorite horror novel is Scott Smith’s ‘The Ruins,’ fave slasher is Freddy Krueger, and her favorite TV show of all time is ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’