Polly. Annie. Elizabeth. Catherine. Mary Jane. Though these women have been unjustly forgotten by history, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper gives them back their voices and reminds us all of their value.
I can’t even begin to express how important this book is. For decades, the world (myself included) has been fascinated by Jack the Ripper and his gruesome murders. There have been numerous films made and books written about him, speculating on who he (or she) could be. There are also tours (one of which I took when I was last in London) that shows tourists around Whitechapel and the area in which he operated, tracking his every move and throwing out conspiracy theory upon conspiracy theory as to who he actually was.
But in all this excitement and mystery, very few of us actually ask who the victims were. What their lives were like. What circumstances brought them to the East End of London and in the wrong place at the wrong time when such a brutal killer was at large.
We’ve never asked or though about them because we’ve never really cared. Not really. After all, there didn’t seem to be nearly the same sort of mystery around them as is around “Jack” himself. We thought we knew everything we needed to know about these women and what we thought we knew was boring. Which, even that sentiment is problematic in so many ways (because just because they’re “boring” doesn’t make them any less human or what happened to them any less horrific), but it’s the one we’ve been operating under.
But we don’t know these five women. Not at all. Not even the police or newspapers who wrongly labeled them all as “prostitutes” and swept them aside like yesterday’s trash knew them (and it was their job to). Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane were all poor and somehow undeserving of justice or even having their whole life stories come to light. And so, everyone with storytelling power in the Victorian era made up stories about them, stripping them of their value and humanity, and convinced us all to do the same.
That is, until now.
I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know the names of the five victims until reading this, but now I’ll never forget them. Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Catherine Eddowes. Mary Jane Kelly. These were women who tried their best to succeed and failed. Women who deserve to be known as more than just Jack the Ripper’s canonical victims and gruesome images in the newspaper.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is a long-overdue investigation that shines the spotlight on these women, giving context to who they were and what circumstances molded their lives. This novel is expertly researched and written with great care as well as detail. Rubenhold takes a deep dive into each woman’s background, going so far as to detail the lives of their parents before they even came in the world just to give a better idea of their place in society and monetary means.
Not only that, but sizable sections of The Five explore the events and cultural shifts going on around the women (such as the celebrations during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee), whether or not they were directly affected by or involved in them. Rubenhold does an excellent job of illustrating the expansive gap between the wealthy and the common folk at this point in time, as well as their views of each other. Her writing drives home the point that Whitechapel and the rest of East London didn’t exist in a vacuum and shows just how impossible it could be to live a “good” life if you were born without means.
One of the aspects I love best about the author’s detailed approach is how she takes the reader on a geographical tour of London while presenting her historical context. Being able to track each woman’s movements (thanks in great part to a detailed map included at the front of the book) made this a much more engaging read than it may have been otherwise. By making note of moves or the locations of doss-houses, the reader is better able to put themselves in the shoes of the women and connect to them on a level we haven’t before.
As someone who has trouble with not skimming details in even the most fascinating works of fiction, I will say that I felt like the details were a bit too granular and slowed the story down sometimes. But, honestly, that’s the point. These women didn’t necessarily live “exciting” lives by our standards, but they lived and that’s what matters here. Constantly having to remind myself of that made me realize just how much a part I’ve played in the glossing over of these women’s identities, which made me appreciate this book even more.
There are so many important and fascinating facets of this novel that I would love to discuss, but don’t have the space to do so in this book review. So, I’d like to focus on the two that stuck out to me and affected me most during my read, the first being the falsehood that each one of these women was a sex worker.
I mean, it’s no wonder that that prejudiced misconception has existed for as long as it has. When such highly credible sources as the Encyclopædia Britannica constantly make the claim that all of Jack the Ripper’s canonical victims were prostitutes, there’s no real reason to think otherwise. At least, not for the general population. But that’s no excuse for Ripperologists who have been studying the 1888 murders in detail for over 100 years. Had they cared enough to take Rubenhold’s approach and deconstruct just what the umbrella term “prostitute” covered at that time, we may have had a more nuanced view of the women before now.
The Five does an excellent job of pointing out the hypocrisy and very plausible all-out lie that Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane were all sex workers. I say “plausible” because Rubenhold presents excellent arguments to the contrary, but some of her conclusions are based on connecting the dots rather than hard evidence. However, I personally believe her stance that these women have been wrongly maligned.
According to the qualifications for being a “prostitute” back in the 1880s, basically all of the women I know would’ve been considered sex workers. Hell, I’d be considered one. It was an unfair umbrella term used to describe all women who took charge of their own lives and didn’t live their lives to the letter of what society expected from them. Out of everything discussed and presented in this novel, I think the conversation around the categorization of these five women is the most compelling and eye-opening. It’s also the most frustrating, but in the best way possible.
The other aspect of this novel that really resonated with me is the fact that The Five focuses solely on the women as human beings, leaving out descriptions of their murders and almost completely removing Jack the Ripper from the story. In fact, there are huge, purposeful holes where the depiction of their murders (or how their bodies were found) should come in to the story. Or, well, “should” if this was a story about Jack the Ripper and not his victims.
But because this book focuses on the women’s lives, there’s no place for those gruesome depictions. The women were no longer themselves when Jack the Ripper chose to take their agency and their lives away. It feels frustrating at times to have that part of the story glossed over, but, again, it’s that frustration that proves just how little we’ve cared for Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane as people rather than details in the Jack the Ripper legend.
While I’m not usually one for nonfiction (I can probably count the number of nonfiction works I’ve read in the last few years on one hand), The Five kept my attention throughout and even brought me to tears a handful of times, especially once I reached the book’s incredibly powerful conclusion and the final section titled “A Life in Objects.” But the conclusion and its thoughts on how our treatment of these five is not all that different from how women (and victims) are treated today wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the deep dive into each forgotten woman.
This book should have been written ages ago (and the in-depth and meticulous research should’ve been completed long before that), but Rubenhold’s storytelling and compassion for these women was well worth the wait. The Five is everything I hoped it’d be and much, much more. It’s a book that I won’t soon (if ever) forget and that I’ll be bringing up in conversations for years to come, prompting others to address their own biases and misconceptions about the Jack the Ripper mythology.
(I’ll also be ordering myself a copy of UK edition because it’s just as stunning and features the women’s names splashed across the cover under the dust jacket.)
Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is an incredibly powerful look at one of the most infamous events in history. It will make you rethink the way you view what happened in 1888 London as well as the way in which you view yourself and your own biases. We’ve let their names and voices go unheard of and ignored for far too long.
Polly. Annie. Elizabeth. Catherine. Mary Jane.
Commit their names (and stories) to memory. These women deserve to be remembered and respected, not just for the fact that they died but, more importantly, for that they lived.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, and your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list!