Hallie Rubenhold – The Five | A Review
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold is about the five canonical victims of one of the most prolific serial killers in the history of England: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Interestingly (or shall I say, quite disturbingly), their names did not really survive in our collective consciousness. We all know who the Ripper is (well, not per se, but we’ve all heard about him), but we know very little about his victims. Correction, we know one thing: that they were prostitutes. Or were they, really? And does it really matter?
Hallie Rubenhold’s extensive research on the subject reveals that more likely than not, the majority of these women were not prostitutes, but merely destitute, impoverished women who had no choice but to live on the streets – thus becoming easy targets for a predator such as Jack the Ripper.
The book does not present the events of these murders. For the purpose of the book, these events are only secondary. What Rubenhold is trying to do is to commemorate the lives of these women. Regardless of their social standing, occupation or unhealthy habits, they were daughters, mothers, sisters, friends – living, breathing human beings who deserve to be remembered for the lives that they led, and not by the horrific crimes that made their killer famous.
There is something very wrong about the fact that we now make little souvenirs that represent this bloodthirsty killer, but we know virtually nothing about the lives that he took.
All of these women’s lives were pretty much defined by the successes of their husbands and by the relationship that they had with them. Most of them were forced on the streets because of their failed relationships. Because women had no other choice back then.
“While a man could divorce his wife for sexual liaison outside the marital bed, a woman had to prove her husband was guilty of adultery in addition to another crime, such as incest, rape, or cruelty.”
Mary Ann Nichols left her husband and her children after finding out that he was having an affair with their neighbour. She knew she could not provide for her children, and the heartbreak their abandonment must have caused her must have been unbearable.
Annie Chapman became an alcoholic after enduring many hardships (for one, her son was disabled) and ended up on the street just like Polly (Mary Ann Nichols).
Elizabeth Stride was born in Sweden. She relocated to England in the hopes of a better life. She led a life of prostitution back in Sweden and despite the fact that she was later employed as a servant, the knowing eyes of her neighbours would never allow her to forget the life that she so desperately wanted to leave behind. Her move to England promised a different, new beginning for Elizabeth. After a failed marriage, Elizabeth, much like the others, found herself on the streets of London.
Catherine Eddowes’s life fell into pieces after the death of her parents. She was sent to live with her aunt, while many of her siblings were sent to an orphanage. Her older sisters could not take care of them all. Eddowes was educated and smart, but made many bad decisions that ultimately led her to a failed relationship and an estranged daughter.
Mary Jane Kelly is the one that we know the most about. She was the only one who admittedly earned her money as a prostitute (a high end one, at that). Also, she was the only one of the canonical five who wasn’t killed on the streets. She was found in her room, mutilated beyond recognition. No one knew much about her because she told different people different stories about herself. At one time in her life, she was sold to a Belgian brothel. God only knows how she managed to get back to London, but her life has never been the same after. While before, she was in a position of being able to choose her customers, after returning to England, she had to hide from her captors and ended up in Whitechapel, just like the other victims.
I really don’t want to tell you more about their lives, you can find out on your own by reading The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. Her research is very thorough, and she provides the context to every situation depicted in the book.
But don’t make the mistake that I made. Don’t think this is a novel. It is basically a history book. It tells the story of these women in the most objective manner possible. At times, it was difficult to read, because of all the tiny little details. While I didn’t really like reading those bits, I understand that those are necessary in order to paint an accurate picture of the times in question.
I only gave this book a three fox rating, because it was hard for me to get through. 🦊 🦊 🦊
But I am very thankful for Hallie Rubenhold for writing it and for trying to commemorate the lives of these suppressed and forgotten women.
What surprised you the most about 19th century London?
Do you think these women could have chosen other paths to follow?
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As always, thanks for reading! 💙