Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five is easily one of the most important history books of the last decade.
For the first time a book that contains the words ‘Jack the Ripper’ isn’t about the over mythicised serial killer. It’s about the women whose lives were not only brutally ended, but their memory twisted. Over a century they’ve become a carnival sideshow, pantomine prostitutes at tourist attractions like The London Dungeons, pictures of their brutalised bodies on display in a mocked up ‘morgue’ at The Jack The Ripper Museum, they’re the butt of a pop culture joke.
Which is why this book is so important. Restoring the dignity of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane.
Hallie Rubenhold places the women into history, revealing that each women was indelibly linked to a key moment in Victorian history, be that the Trafalger Sqaure encampment or The Princess Alice disaster. Turning the book not only into a story of individuals but one of those forgotten by history, Englands underclass.
Each women’s story is told over the course of multiple chapters and in such a way that even though as a reader you ultimatley know each womens fate, you’re still attached to them. Rubenhold examines their lives with an understanding that for the first time makes these women real people; flawed, good, bad and utterly relatable.
Annie Chapman, leaves behind a traumatic childhood to start climbing the ladder to becoming middle class, only to fall into alcholisim. Losing her husband, children and spiralling further down until she hit the streets of Whitechapel.
Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish farmers daughter whose encounters with sexual abuse led her to London, where she managed to snatch a chance to become an entrepreneur. But in era where one finicial blow could end it all, her buisness failure leads to her downfall. By the end Elizabeth is supporting herself by posing as a disaster victim.
One of my favourite things about the book is that it doesn’t feature any images of the womens bodies. That might sound ridiculous, but when the first google result for these women is their bloodied faces, thats a huge achievement.
Rubenhold also challenges usual perceptions of the women, mainly that each victim was a sexworker (showing evidence that most weren’t) but also calmly tearing down the moral demonisation over the women who were.
In addition Rubenhold argues that it is incredibly likely that the Rippers victims were asleep. The killer targeting down and out women as they bundled up asleep in darkened allies or door ways.
Its a theory that makes a great deal of sense and also one that highlights how history has wanted so badly for the victims to be sexworkers ‘who got what they derseved’, that its been willing to overlook the truth. 130 years on, it’s time we fixed that.
The Five, The Untold Lives of Jack The Ripper’s Victims, by Hallie Rubenhold, is out now.