The Five: The untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold, very much does what it says on the tin. Ripperology is an international industry, with scores (hundreds?) of books, films, TV dramas, museums and other media dedicated to the unknown person who killed at least five women in Whitechapel in 1888. Perhaps as a result of this industry, there has been relatively little focus on the women who died. They have generally been described as prostitutes working in the slums of London’s East End – that’s certainly all I could have told you about them prior to listening to this audiobook. Rubenhold describes each woman’s origins and history in detail, starting with her parents’ circumstances and ending with her death.
The Five addresses one of my issues with true crime stories – something that means I read very little of it. There is often so much focus on the criminal that the people who suffered at their hands tend to be dismissed. I’ve tried listening to a couple of true crime podcasts, and found that they made me queasy for this reason. Rubenhold is intentionally and explicitly responding to that with this book. Absolutely no attention is paid to the identity of the Ripper – in fact, outside the title and introduction, I don’t think that Jack the Ripper is mentioned. Instead, the focus is on reconstructing the events of the women’s lives that led them to the circumstances in which they were living when they died.
The stories are fascinating, heartbreaking, and disturbing in equal measure. Although the five women all came from different backgrounds, there were two main threads in common: they were either born in or found themselves subject to financial precarity, and they all experienced alcohol addiction. Other than that, there is little in common. As Rubenhold points out, it is unclear whether three of the five women ever worked as prostitutes, especially according to the legal definition of prostitution at the time. Their stories tell a grim tale of life for the working class in Victorian Britain, especially for women. Like the best in narrative historical nonfiction, this book takes in all sorts of topics that are tangentially related and weaves them in. For instance, I was interested to hear about the origins of the Peabody Buildings. I knew about these as the beginning of social housing in England, but I hadn’t realised there were Peabody estates as early as the 1860s, nor that these were funded by philanthropy rather than the state. One of the women, Mary Ann Nichols, was resident on a Peabody estate during her marriage. This gives Rubenhold an excellent excuse to talk about the history and living conditions in these flats, which would have been palatial in comparison to living quarters for most of the working poor at the time.
The other thing Rubenhold does wonderfully is demonstrate just how loved each woman was by her family and friends. Perhaps the most moving account is the story of (again) Mary Ann Nichols, whose father Ted Walker kept her in school until she was 15 – very rare for a working class girl of the time – allowing her to become literate, and also paid for her to have access to a library out of his very meagre earnings. He also kept her and her siblings with him once his wife died and didn’t remarry, even though this made him a single father, again very rare for working class men of the time. According to Rubenhold, without female company to raise the children, most working class men would have sent them away to relatives or handed them over to the workhouse. In fact, we subsequently see that in the lives of some of the other women. Keeping his children all with him while continuing to work very long hours would have been an act of supreme and sacrifical love on Walker’s part. Similarly, the huge efforts that Annie Chapman’s family went to in an attempt to help her recover from her alcohol addiction were really heartbreaking.
My appreciation for this book, though, comes with a couple of big caveats. It’s possible that, because I listened to this rather than reading it on paper, I missed some of Rubenhold’s sources. However, she does cite her sources in the text sometimes, so I suspect that she simply didn’t use that many. That’s not always a necessity in narrative nonfiction, but, if a big part of the premise is “people have been telling lies about these women for over a century; here is the truth!”, it would have been helpful for Rubenhold to demonstrate that she had interrogated all the source material available – rather than cherry-picking to fit a story. After all, that’s exactly what she accuses journalists and Ripperologists of having done. The last canonical victim, Mary Jane Kelly, has very little information documented about her life, and what she did tell people was wildly contradictory. Based on the fact that she told people she had once been to Paris “and didn’t like the part” so returned, Rubenhold looks at the lives of some of Kelly’s contemporaries who were trafficked across the Channel to work in Parisian brothels. She provides a speculative history about Kelly maybe having been trafficked herself, and somehow escaping back to London. This seems… far-fetched, especially when we know that Kelly gave so many different accounts of herself that they couldn’t all be true. Without sources, it is difficult to take any of it seriously.
The second quibble comes in with Rubenhold’s conclusion and tying together of the stories. In it, she launches into a heavy critique of the madonna/whore narrative that meant that women were discarded the minute they stepped out of line. Yet the story she’s been telling up until that point was of women who were, mostly, deeply loved by their families, who were devastated the decisions of their daughters, sisters, and wives. In the case of Annie Chapman, her respectable middle class family were still – in Rubenhold’s own words – “stretching out a hand” to her until the point of her death. The point of dispute was not Chapman’s sexual conduct, but the behaviour that arose from her alcoholism. In other words, her family loved her, had been trying to help her overcome her addiction for years (including a prolonged spell in an expensive rehab), but eventually had to set some boundaries. It’s not exactly the universal slammed door that Rubenhold implies in her conclusion.
Similarly, Mary Ann Nichols was offered a position in domestic service to get her out of the workhouse by teetotaller Methodist couple Mr and Mrs Cowdry. All we know about that time is that Nichols wrote to her father saying she was very happy with her nice new employers, then absconded two months later with some of their belongings, which she pawned. That’s the information provided by Rubenhold in her chapter on Nichols. Yet, in her conclusion, she talks about the madonna/whore double standard and says “no wonder Polly found living with the Cowdrys unbearable”. Rubenhold provides no evidence that the Cowdrys were judgemental, difficult to live with and work for, or cruel. It’s entirely possible that they were – but there’s no evidence. What’s their crime? That they were teetotallars? She also claims that missionaries to the area only offered a route out “after years of shame”, but that is not borne out by the quotes about the victims she includes from missionaries, which are largely kind and respectful, especially set against the background of the newspaper stories she also includes. Rubenhold really wants to make the case that there was no-one in society who cared about these women as individuals, but her conclusions are undercut by the story she herself has told.
Rubenhold is also keen to link these stories to present day injustices for women. She makes the comparison to the murders carried out in 2006 by the “Suffolk Strangler”. I remember the outcry at the way these women were originally portrayed in the media, followed by the BBC hastily switching from “prostitutes” to “women” in their coverage. But that’s the thing – this time, there was a huge outcry at the portrayal, and things changed. Sexism definitely still exists, but things are better. Rubenhold spends most of her book spelling out the ways in which working class women were unable to live independently because of divorce law, unequal pay, lack of refuge from domestic violence etc. There has been progress on all of these issues. I grew up in a council flat, with a dad who was a builder and joiner. I sometimes had free school meals and second-hand uniform. By most measures, I’m working class. Yet I am sitting here writing this in my own flat, which I pay the mortgage for through my own work. I’ve been to university. I’ve done a PhD. I’ve travelled alone in other countries. Of course, I’ve still had an extraordinary amount of privilege that has allowed me to have this life, but it’s privilege that’s available to me because of progress that has been made in the last century. As a single woman not from a wealthy family, I might have wound up in the workhouse even eighty years ago. Instead, I paid the deposit for a safe and spacious flat, using the redundancy settlement my last employers were required to give me by law. It is dismissive of a century of activism on both women’s and workers’ rights to imply that things are anything like as bad as they were. It also does exactly the thing Rubenhold accuses journalists of having done for a century, and minimises the real suffering of those women who died at the Ripper’s hands.
If you are wanting a parallel to modern day, it’s much more sensible to view this as an account of the difficulty we still have helping people who struggle with substance misuse. All five women drank to excess, and they are likely to have been alcoholics. It meant that they couldn’t hold down jobs or tenancies, that they lost their children to foetal alcohol syndrome or abandoned them in search of a drink, that their marriages ended acrimoniously. Those things are still true of people in the grip of addiction. The women who were killed in Ipswich in 2006 were mostly involved in sex work in order to fund heroin addictions. If a stream of invective is really necessary in the conclusion, make it this: we’ve known that addiction is a disease for over a century at least, and we still are still at a loss trying to manage it, on both an individual and a societal level. Alcoholism was the cause of so much suffering in the lives of all five women – this book could be a clarion call for more research and better understanding of addiction, not a protestation that women still have it just as bad as we once did.