The Five (CBR12 #27)

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

When I think back to my experiences as an undergrad history major I was often one of very few, if not the only, women in the room. Each course was the same; walk in, pick a position near the front of the room, but off to the side so as to not be considered aggressive but not be lost in the sea of testosterone, and hunker down to have to talk over those who would talk over you. I eventually got to a place of confidence to push back against the mansplainers, the re-staters, and all the other blowhards I ran across. I also had the benefit as a night student of having the same professors multiple times who got to know me and would give me the opportunity to smack down the worst offenders and defend my intellectual territory.

This walk down memory lane of the early 2000s is not navel-gazing, its to show you how I found a kindred spirit on the pages of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper in its author Hallie Rubenhold. Rubenhold spends three hundred pages absolutely thrashing the established, predominantly male, scholarship on Jack the Ripper and his victims and it is a wonder to behold.

“Today there is only one reason why we would continue to embrace the belief that Jack the Ripper was a killer of prostitutes: because it supports an industry that has grown, in part, out of this mythology.”

(Rubenhold, 292)

In this exquisitely researched work (its for sure an academic history monograph trying to hide as pop-history) Rubenhold takes the reader through the lives of the five women from birth to death. In the stories of these five women we find the social history of London in the second half of the nineteenth century – there were several forces at work that placed these women in Whitechapel in the fall of 1888 and in the path of a murderer. Rubenhold slowly and deliberately unpacks the various strands that weave the stories, one woman at a time, all the while lacing in the larger subtext of the time and how it effected their lives, but also the investigating and reporting after their deaths.

“Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, the were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. Their worth was compromised before they even attempted to prove it.”

(ibid, 288)

This was a slightly tough work to read right now – economic insecurity is the main cause of these women’s deaths, the shared thread that puts them in the path of a serial killer. As millions in the United States file for unemployment each week of the COVID-19 pandemic, as I wait to see if my industry survives the inevitable restructuring that will come in how we work as a society, I am all to aware of how the loss of my paycheck, the loss of the support I have in my life, would upend my existence, again, just as it did time after time for the five.

“If a husband, father, or partner left or died, a working-class woman with dependents would find it almost impossible to survive. The structure of society ensured that a woman without a man was superfluous.”

(ibid, 288)

I can easily recommend this one to anyone with interest in the Ripper murders in 1888, or just the general history of the time and area through a different lens than they may have seen it before. Rubenhold unpacks education, poor reform, prostitution laws, the Workhouse system, and the growth and death of industries while telling the very personal stories of five women who lived lives that have been mostly erased by the story of the man who murdered them. In telling their story, Rubenhold also tells the story of the women who lived their lives around them.

“When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place. Labelling the victims as ‘just prostitutes’ permits those writing about Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane even today to continue to disparage, sexualize, and dehumanize them; to continue to reinforce the values of madonna/whore.”

(ibid, 294)

About Katie

Museum professional, caffeine junkie, book lover, student of history, overall goofball.

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