Social historian Hallie Rubenhold presents the harrowing biographies of the Jack the Ripper victims.
The five victims of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – are often assumed to have been prostitutes. This assumption, stubbornly in place for 130 years, has allowed a terrible misogyny to go unchecked. These women it has long been thought were “just prostitutes” who had put themselves in harm's way and were therefore in some way the authors of their own misfortune. While no one deserved to be brutally murdered, that it happened to these women was somehow considered to be understandable.
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold has done a stunning job in getting to the truth of the matter. Researching the lives, social milieu and economic circumstances of “the five” she has created nuanced portraits of Victorian women and the brutal, unforgiving society they had to navigate. It's a story of alcoholism, domestic violence, economic exploitation, sex trafficking, hard labour in workhouses and endless childbearing. Women had only one career option, marriage, which mainly involved looking after a husband and an ever growing brood of children, often on a limited income.
Poverty was the main reason Mary Ann, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane were targets of Jack the Ripper. Most had their throats slit while they were sleeping rough on the streets. One one of the women, Mary Jane, worked professionally as a sex worker. Elizabeth Stride, like many poor and destitute women, reluctantly performed some sex work to keep her head above water, but most likely would not have identified as a prostitute. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes were not prostitutes.
Most of the women had problems with alcohol, some cases severe. The most bracing parts of the book describe some of London's most notorious quarters, with their desperate poverty. Women who lost a male partner or fled an abusive husband could find themselves soon sinking fast, living in crime riddled neighbourhoods and rubbing shoulders with all sorts of unsavoury types. The only other option besides living rough on the streets was to enter the workhouse, often considered a fate worse than death, with its abuses and punitive regimes.
The Five demonstrates how much popular thinking still likes to blame the victim. Hallie Rubenhold redresses this error, bringing to light the many injustices against women of the Victorian era.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold. Black Swan. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books