This refreshing take on the women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper offers new insight into their lives while highlighting the striking inaccuracies in the handling of their deaths.
Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane. Five women who never met each other had one thing in common: the fact they were all murdered in 1888 by the same person – a name which still continues to fascinate as to who his identity really was: Jack the Ripper.
But this fascinating and highly detailed book by Hallie Rubenhold doesn’t focus on the manner of these women’s deaths but how they lived from birth to death, while clarifying some of the inaccuracies surrounding the fact they were all prostitutes which is why Jack the Ripper committed his horrendous crimes.
Taking the reader through each of these women’s lives, it is a book filled with heartbreaking tragedy as each of them struggled with poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and abusive relationships that was a common occurrence for many people of the era – particularly for the working class. But on a wider scale, The Five also examines society at the time offering a sympathetic if grim focus of just how appalling the quality of life was for many people of that time.
Written with style, grace and immense detail, Rubenhold highlights just how much these women suffered and were so easily dismissed by the men investigating their deaths and the factual inaccuracies reported by the newspapers that makes the reader feel angry on the behalf of Polly,Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane. The way in which they each felt like they had no other option but to wonder the street aimlessly when there were actual other ways in which they could have lived their lives is utterly tragic to read about.
But Rubenhold also quite rightly points out that our ongoing fascination with Jack the Ripper is wrong on so many levels but particularly as she says in the conclusion “by embracing him we embrace the set of values that surrounded him in 1888 which teaches women they are of a lesser value and can be expected to be dishonoured and abused.” A powerful message to finish a powerful read on. It is enough to make you question just why Jack the Ripper is still so fascinating when his victims are literally more or less dismissed in the story as just being “prostitutes” which could have a variety of meanings as once again Rubenhold points out.
Overall, it is a powerful and important read that offers new depth to a mystery that will never be solved. But by giving the women at the centre of the Jack the Ripper case a chance to be recognised and their stories given new life, perhaps it will make those fascinated with the case a reason to pause and think again with clearer judgement about these victims.
By Emma Clarendon
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is available now.