Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2019, The Five by Hallie Rubenhold Uncovers the Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five reconstructs the lives of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane, five women better known collectively as Jack the Ripper’s victims than as individuals with lives of their own. In this meticulous and highly readable piece of historical detective work and necessary corrective to much of the Ripperology that has emerged since their murders, Rubenhold gives voice to these women and exposes the assumptions and misconceptions made about them.
In the extract below, Rubenhold discusses the importance of putting the women centre-stage, not as victims but as human beings.
When a woman steps out of line and contravenes the feminine norm, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place. Being ‘just a prostitute’ permits those writing about Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane even today to continue to disparage, sexualise and dehumanise them; to continue to reinforce the values of madonna/whore. It allows authors to rank the women’s level of attractiveness based on images of their murdered bodies and to declare ‘Pulchritude was, it appears, of no interest to the Whitechapel Murderer’, before concluding, ‘Mary Jane Kelly was pretty, Stride, lively and...at least attractive...Otherwise, his victims were gin-soaked drabs.’ It gives such authors free-rein to speculate on how frequently these women had sex before they were murdered. It makes it acceptable to dismiss these daughters, wives and mothers as ‘a few moribund, drunken trug-moldies’, which ‘all (Jack) did was execute, (and) then gralloch’. It elevates the status of the murderer to that of celebrity and confers favour on his victims because they ‘got intimate with one of the most famous men on earth’. At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killer’s deep, abiding hatred of women, and our cultural obsession with the mythology only serves to normalise its particular brand of misogyny.
We have grown so comfortable with the notion of ‘Jack the Ripper’, the unfathomable, invincible male killer that we have failed to recognise that he continues to walk among us. In his top hat and cape, wielding his blood drenched knife, he can be spotted regularly in London on posters, in ads, on the sides of buses. Bartenders have named drinks after him, shops use his moniker on their signs, tourists from around the world make pilgrimages to Whitechapel to walk in his footsteps and to visit a museum dedicated to his violence. The world has learned to dress up in his costume at Halloween, to imagine being him, to honour his genius, to laugh at a murderer of women. By embracing him, we embrace the set of values that surrounded him in 1888 which teaches women that they are of a lesser value and can expect to be dishonoured and abused. We enforce the notion that ‘bad women’ deserve punishment and that ‘prostitutes’ are a sub-species of female.
In order to keep him alive, we have had to forget his victims. We have become complicit in their diminishment. When we repeat the accepted Ripper legend in newspapers, in television documentaries, and on the internet, when we teach it to school children without questioning the origins of the story and its sources, without considering the reliability of the evidence or the assumptions that contributed to forming it, we not only assist in perpetuating the injustices committed against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane, but we condone the basest forms of violence.
It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents. By permitting them to speak, by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never, ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and lovers. They were women. They were human-beings, and surely that, in itself is enough.
Hallie Rubenhold is a social historian and an authority on women's lives of the past. She has worked as a curator for the National Portrait Gallery and as a university lecturer. Her books include Lady Worsley's Whim, dramatized by the BBC as The Scandalous Lady W, and Covent Garden Ladies: The Extraordinary Story of Harris's List, which inspired the ITV series Harlots. She lives in London with her husband.