Culture Writer Liv Jones reviews Hallie Rubenhold’s non-fiction book The Five, arguing that it offers a voice to the victims of Jack the Ripper.

Book worm and Modern Languages student
Images by Liv Jones

Content Warning: This article contains themes of sexual violence that some readers may find distressing.

The Five is a non-fiction book that tells the truth about the 5 women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper. It won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize in 2020. 

Most children and adults have learnt about the infamous Jack the Ripper in their lifetime. He is so notorious that he has become a tourist attraction in London. One can go on tours, go to the museum, and even go to the London Dungeon to watch a gruesome re-enactment for fun. But do we actually know the story of the victims? 

Rubenhold dedicates her book to the five women:

  • Polly Nichols, whose failed marriage leads her to take up ‘tramping’ (sleeping rough) in Trafalgar Square.
  • Annie Chapman, a young lady promised a better life who is haunted by alcoholism and ends up in the sanatorium and then, the streets.
  • Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish immigrant, plagued by syphilis, also takes to the streets after a failed marriage and business.
  • Kate Eddowes, the common-law wife suffering from domestic abuse who escapes into the streets.
  • Mary Jane Kelly, whose only income was from selling her body.

Throughout the book, I noticed Rubenhold’s clear annoyance at the fact that the world knows the names of the women and how they were found – disemboweled and with throat lacerations. No one knows, however, the circumstances of the victims and their stories. This is perhaps because Jack the Ripper and his series of murders have become a world-famous mystery and have therefore overshadowed the victims and their identities. 

Rubenhold, a social historian, uses the little number of archives available such as coroner reports, workhouse archives, census books, and ‘a body of edited, embellished, misheard and re-interpreted newspaper reports’ in order to piece together each of the women’s story. She interestingly doesn’t attempt to explain the state in which their dead bodies were left in; instead, she chooses to focus on how it came to be that these women ended up alone and impoverished on the streets of Whitechapel.

She chooses to focus on how […] these women ended up alone and impoverished on the streets of Whitechapel.

The five stories are deeply sad. I found myself feeling so angry for these women who were born into bad luck and could never seem to escape the brutality of poverty.  

But Rubenhold does not only tell these women’s stories; she allows the reader to gain insight into Victorian life. It is fascinating to gain an insight into the daily lives of our British ancestors. In fact, what the Whitechapel murders ended up doing was exposing the horrendously poor living conditions of most of London’s population. 

what the Whitechapel murders ended up doing was exposing the horrendously poor living conditions of most of London’s population

The world has embraced the story of Jack the Ripper and given him the fame (instead of his victims). What Rubenhold so cleverly does is show how the common beliefs about his victims are false. As she puts, ‘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.’ By allowing him such fame and power, we take away the voice of his victims and of women in general who were struggling in 1888 from a set of values that ultimately taught them they were lesser humans. Rubenhold does so well in giving a voice back to the women whilst criticising the obsession over Ripper and his horrific murders.  

This was a very interesting read and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a non-fiction historical book!

See on Goodreads: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

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