Nonfiction Worth Reading: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack the Ripper, that most infamous of serial killers, was never caught or even identified. If he had been, it’s doubtful that his legend would still enthrall people more than a century after he disappeared. Few of us, other than those who call themselves “Ripperologists”, know the names of any of his victims, not even the canonical five. Though it never occurred to me before reading this book, that fact is appalling. But it did occur to author Hallie Rubenhold, who was prompted to remedy that by researching and writing biographies of  the lives of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Written with compassion and scrupulous attention to historical detail,  The Five is as much sociological study as biography. What becomes clear is that these women fell victim to a merciless killer not because of who they were, but because of the horrific conditions the entirety of  working poor had no choice but to endure. All of the women had been born into respectable working class families. With no access to reliable birth control, their economic circumstances worsened appreciably, often disastrously,  as each new child was born into the family.  Their standard of living was appalling. This was the widespread, repetitive  cycle experienced by each of the The Five. They did not know each other but faced the same struggles. Homelessness is a huge problem today in the U.S. just as it was in Victorian England, for many of the same reasons. Add rampant misogyny to the mix, and destitute women were left with few choices. Hallie Rubenhold has done a masterful job of debunking the myths that have masked the humanity of each of them. Among her new findings was the documented fact that only two of them were prostitutes by trade,  but all were reduced, despite their best efforts at subsistence, to regularly sleeping on the streets.  She posits the plausible theory, based upon the absence of defensive wounds and official inquest reports,  that each woman was set upon as she slept. On other nights, any of the multitude of other women who struggled to survive in Whitechapel would have been the victim.

Among the hundreds of books that deal with the Ripper murders, The Five is the first and only to study the victims. In doing so, Rubenhold has removed the onus of immorality from them, showing them for the first time as real women who did not “deserve ” their fate. It is a well researched, evocative study that restores to them their identities and a kind of justice.

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