Book Review #99 – The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

The Ripper targeted women while they slept – Hallie Rubenhold.

I have had an acute obsession (not fully fledged, promise) with the Jack the Ripper murders since a teenager. I don’t know when I first heard about them, but I knew of them when the time came to pick my GCSEs. I’ve always had a love for history which is why I looked at doing it; a piece of coursework on Jack the Ripper sealed the deal. But, it’s so true that – and I am completely part of the congregation who believes this – we are obsessed with knowing who Jack the Ripper was, where he lived, what his profession was, whether he was from Europe or whether he was royalty and the dark, sinister silhouette of his. We want to know why he committed these murders. It takes up so much time thinking about him that we don’t ponder about the victims in the same way. Plenty of people are satisfied with just their names. I don’t even think I remembered all their names before reading this book. I guess that makes me part of the problem. For me, it is the not-knowing, that craving to solve a mystery that has spanned centuries. I guess that’s why I enjoy the likes of Law & Order and CSI so much. Nevertheless, that should never detract from learning about the victims. They were more than names. They were more than Jack the Ripper’s victims. They were women. They were humans. They had their own lives and their own stories to tell. Finally, somebody has told them.

POLLY, ANNIE, ELIZABETH, CATHERINE, MARY-JANE

Each woman had a completely different life to the other and yet they were all thrown in the same alley of prostitute. They came from various parts of England and further afield including Sweden and Wales. They came from various families, married men with good jobs, came from good families, wandered the streets as entertainers, were mothers and wives and sisters and daughters.

It is amazing in a way how much the press and the media hasn’t changed in over 140 years. Once the victims were named and shamed as prostitutes, that is how they were perceived to the general public throughout the investigations and every day since, until Hallie Rubenhold wrote this book. Once the media prints something – even though we know not to believe everything we read – that story sticks and it tarnishes every good, valued quality you have, even if it’s not true. Nothing was said of their eloquence, of their stamina or of their work ethic. Many stories were told of the grotesque way they died or that they loved a drink, had a mouth on them and wandered the streets at night, sometimes going from bed to bed, sometimes ending up laying their head upon a step in a secluded alley.

Not only does The Five tell the stories of the women, from where they were born and into what kind of family, but it comments on the sheer inequality between men and women. For example, if a man committed adultery, his wife would have no grounds for divorce. If she left, the likelihood of her becoming destitute was palpable. On the other hand, if a woman committed adultery, her husband could divorce her right away and would probably come out on the other side without a scratch. Polly’s story is a devastating example of what happened to women who could not divorce, and Catherine (Kate, as she was known) is another for the realities of domestic abuse. Women were left destitute with the worst place of all being the workhouse. Even the slums of the East End were far superior to a night and day in there.

Hallie Rubenhold intricately threads historic facts about what schools were like, what working houses were like, the tiers of the lower classes and how the social injustice of the working class in late nineteenth century London was a pit of infestation for more crime, more illness and more death. She writes about how Annie would have seen glimpses of Queen Victoria because her father was a soldier and the life her family would have had serving Queen and country. She writes about Polly’s living situation in a block of newer accommodation, full of rules and regulations to make sure the working classes lived in good faith and cleanliness. She writes about the sex worker’s life in the West End in comparison to the East End when she writes about Mary-Jane. Hallie Rubenhold recreates a gritty, true vision of nineteenth century London that you can only imagine.

I raced through this book. Each life of each woman gripped me like a vice and wouldn’t let go. Here were the stories to the dead bodies we have seen many photos of: online, in history books and on school sheets. You learn what led each of them to their terrible fate and you imagine at every possible turn, what if she had done something different? What if she hadn’t gone there that night? What if she decided to return home instead of go to the public house for a glass of ale? Sometimes, they didn’t have a choice which ultimately led to their death.

A real, powerful page-turner of history that haunts every murder mystery fanatic and every person who lingers at the horrific tale of Jack the Ripper. It will make you angry, it will make you sad. Not only for the lives of the women who never imagined their fateful ends, but for the fact that they are never highlighted as more than desolate prostitutes in a serial killer’s murder spree. They were more. They are more.

Have you read The Five?

Love, Faye xo

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