It is difficult to find someone who has not heard of Jack the Ripper, however far fewer people have heard of Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine (Kate) Eddowes and Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly. These are the names of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, and The Five is their history.
Historian Rubenhold managed to work out something that has bypassed most of us and that is how little is known about the women murdered by the infamous Jack the Ripper. But not only that, how little time and thought has even gone into understanding the lives of these women. History has known them only for their deaths. This book sets out to shine a light on their life stories and restore their dignity. Rubenhold does a remarkably good job at achieving this.
The book is broken down into five key sections; giving space to investigate the life of each of the five. Aside from being an interesting micro history of each person, the book also tackles the ‘fact’ that they were all prostitutes. This was effectively decided upon in 1888 when the newspapers latched on to the more ‘salacious’ details of their lives in order to shift papers. At the time the lines between sex work, coupling up for preservation, and full – time prostitution were so blurred as to be invisible. This was compounded by the fact that homeless women were looked down upon and assumed to be ‘fallen’ or ‘broken’ in some way. In 1887 the Metropolitan police force had been embarrassed when mistakenly arresting a woman for being a prostitute.
“Sir Charles Warrens order of the 19th July 1887 was issued in an attempt to make an official clarification on how the police were to formally define a prostitute. It was stated that “the police constable should not assume that any particular woman is a common prostitute and that the police were not justified in calling any woman a common prostitute unless she so describes herself, or has been convicted as such”.”
I found Kate and Marie Jeanette particularly compelling. Partly because Kate comes from the midlands like I do but also because of her restlessness and desire not to fall into the inevitable path of constant work, childbirth, lack of money and eventually death. She met Tom Conway; soldier, raconteur, chap book writer and seller, and he offered the promise of a different life. They travelled together selling chap books and making up their own songs and stories. Eventually however they fell into poverty and their partnership became strained under the weight of providing for their children, her alcoholism and his violence. It is remarkable how much about her life can be established from surviving records. It is often thought that as most people did not leave behind written sources that little can be known about them, however Rubenhold’s forensic research has given us the bones of Kate’s life that can then be shaded in by what else is known about the lives of women at the time.
Marie Jeanette is the one who the least is known about. At some point in her life she decided to separate herself from the place she came from and forged herself anew in London where she became a sex worker. She told some that she was from Ireland and others that she was from Wales. Her accents, interests, mannerisms and so on suggest that she had a better off start in life than most of her compatriots, so it is not surprising that she wished to keep her past to herself. Only 25 when she died, she had worked in a high – class brothel before being trafficked to the continent. She escaped and found her way back to London where she began working in Whitechapel. It would be fascinating to know more about her but after so many years it is doubtful whether more will be known than in presented here. The Five details all we know and we now have a good source for information about her life, rather than just her death.
The Five made a splash upon publication. Largely because it’s emergence suddenly made it clear how much of Ripper mythology has bypassed the actual lives of the women, but also because so many ‘ripperologists’ became so angry with Rubenhold and the media surrounding the books publication. Although the lives of the women have been written about before, The Five offers the most clear and extensive history to date that focuses on their actual lives rather than how their lives led them to their ultimate fate. It is excellently and diligently researched. This leaves one again wishing that there is a way to access the references with audiobooks. This is a book that is suitable for the historian and casual reader (or listener) alike. One other highlight is the insight it gives into the social conditions of late nineteenth century Whitechapel; a warren of tiny alleyways, cramped, dilapidated accommodation, often the last chance saloon for the down and out, full of alcoholism, darkness and also teeming with life. The Five was recommended to me by a friend and I have no hesitation in recommending it to others.
Fresh, focused and full of information and detail The Five is an important, vital and engaging history read.
Hallie Rubenhold The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper