Book Review:  “The Five” Weren’t What We Think

Publication date:  April 2019Book

Review, short version:  Four roses out of four.

Review, long version:

If you’ve heard of Jack the Ripper, you probably heard a version like this:

“Jack the Ripper killed a bunch of prostitutes, he cut their throats and cut their guts open, and he was never caught.”

This is the story that began and then evolved about the murders of five women in London between August 31, 1888 and November 9, 1888.

That the murders were gruesome is true.

That the murderer or murderers were never caught is true.

headline 2
Newspapers didn’t use “prostitute” in their headlines, but that label was clear in the articles.

That all five women were prostitutes…

Was not.

So how did the “prostitutes” label – a fixture in the Ripper story – come about?

That’s the question Hallie Rubenhold answers in her book, The Five:  The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.

This is not – I emphasize – not a book about Jack the Ripper.  There are already hundreds of those.  Nor is it written by one of the countless “experts” with their theories, or one of the conspiracy theorists with theirs, known as “Ripperologists.”

annie and john chapman circa 1869
Victim Annie Chapman with her husband, John; they married in 1869, and were the parents of a son and two daughters.

In addition to the books there are close to 50 documentaries, feature films, or films with Ripper-style murders.

And there’s a Jack the Ripper Museum in London, where you can tour exhibits, and take a guided walk “in the footsteps of Jack the Ripper and his victims.”

Unless you’re looking for gore, The Five is a better choice.

Rubenhold has no interest in discovering the Ripper’s identity; her interest is in his five victims – their backgrounds, their circumstances, and why they had the misfortune of living in the Whitechapel district of London’s East End where they encountered a killer.

And what they had in common:  Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Kelly were “throwaway women.”  They were poor, they lived in slums, and four of the five were considered old – in their mid-40s.

When a victim was discovered, the newspapers weren’t present so they relied on their imaginations rather than reality.

Sometimes they were homeless, and sometimes they slept “rough,” that is, on the streets.

All of that made it easy to call them “prostitutes,” and once that happened, the label stuck.  They were “fallen” women, probably leading disgusting, impoverished and drunken lives and therefore, they mattered less.

The focus of the newspaper stories changed from the tragedy of the murders to the grisly way the women were killed, the inability of the police to catch the killer, and the worry:  You could be next.

And all five were also victims of that sensationalist press.  The goal of newspapers was to sell newspapers, not to tell the victims’ stories.  When the facts weren’t enough, they printed rumors, speculation, and outright misinformation that “took root in the public consciousness as readily as it does today,” says the author.

And today, it’s sadly easy to find the “prostitutes” label still used as a fact:

Prostitute 1 (2)

Prostitutes 2 (2)

Wiki (2) with underline

But Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate and Mary were much more than their deaths, and Rubenhold shows us why.

And in her Introduction, Rubenhold tells us why she wrote The Five:

I do so in the hope that we may now hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives:  their dignity.

Rubenhold doesn’t go into the horrific way in these five women died, and neither will I.

Instead, she speaks to their whole history, how their stories evolved the way they did, and suggests that this marginalizing of women back then…

Is not so different from today.

grave nichols larger grave chapman cropped grave stride fixed
grave eddows grave kelly_01 The throwaway women:  May they rest in peace.

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