The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

Jack the Ripper was one of the very first things I remember searching for when we got the internet in our house. It was 2001 and I was 11-years-old, self-importantly hogging the family computer as though I were an officer re-opening the case and not just working on a school project. Now all I can remember is printing a large quantity of pages of unverifiable information (an excellent introduction to the internet, then), wearing out the ink cartridge and feeling a bit creeped out afterwards. 

What I definitely don’t remember is discovering a single thing about any of the women that he killed. In the intervening 20 years little changed. The commonly accepted idea of Jack the Ripper remained one of a romanticised, criminal mastermind, rather than a sad, pathetic man who felt entitled to mutilate women.

The women’s names and stories continued to recede, forgotten and unlooked for. That is until the author and historian Hallie Rubenhold decided to look for them, and rectify a moment in history defined by misogynistic violence rather than the humanity of women. Their names, by the way, are Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane. 

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is a page-turner, a fascinating social history and a feminist reclamation, which rightly won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and has just been shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize. 

But it’s also a particularly apt read for a moment when we, as a nation, are collectively wrestling with the question of whose legacies have been amplified – and at what cost. The removal of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol showed how uncomfortably past decisions sit in a contemporary context – but, also, that they don’t have to remain fixed. Rubenhold herself has advocated for a colourful, celebratory mural painted in East London to remember the five women, throwing into relief the Jack the Ripper Museum round the corner. 

In her charting of their lives, Rubenhold strikingly resists describing the details of their fetishised deaths, other than to explain when and where they happened. Why would she? The rest is so much more interesting. Polly was the beneficiary of an early social housing project. As a teenager, Annie lost four of her siblings to scarlet fever in six weeks – her father later killed himself. Elizabeth sailed on a boat from Sweden to London and set up her own coffeehouse, Mary Jane changed her life story depending on who she was talking to and Catherine – known as Kate – fell in love with a travelling poet.  

Rubenhold writes: “They are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for: they were children who cried for their mothers; they were young women who fell in love; they endured childbirth and the deaths of parents; they laughed and celebrated Christmas. They argued with their siblings, they wept, they dreamed, they hurt, they enjoyed small triumphs.” 

A widespread belief the women were prostitutes is quickly corrected; there is in fact only evidence that two of the women had been sex workers. But all their stories tell a sad – and depressingly still familiar – tale of women fighting to exist in a society built for men. Before their deaths, they were lost and dealing with deep trauma, which caused them to turn to alcohol to self-medicate and blot out the pain. From the deaths of family members to losing children to illness, domestic violence to the lack of legal rights to a divorce, sex trafficking and poverty in Victorian London, each of them were already battling to survive when their lives were taken.  

The almost non-existent space Rubenhold gives to Jack the Ripper feels like a radical and freeing gesture. It is a bittersweet triumph to read instead about the complex and varied lives of women who have faced the double injustice of being erased twice. But most exhilarating to watch is  the longest held misconception about Jack the Ripper put right: it is he, not the five women he killed, who is the moral failure.

Jessie Thompson is the deputy arts editor of the Evening Standard.

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