Hallie Rubenhold Explores the Other Side of the Ripper Murders
I believe Jack the Ripper is the type of subject which doesn’t need introduction. Having transcended his time, the figure whose identity is still debated found his way into history books across the whole world, taught about in classrooms everywhere. The mystique surrounding Jack is so powerful he has taken on a life of his own in popular culture, his murders being depicted time and time again in books, movies and even video games. However, at the same time this had the extremely unfortunate effect of overshadowing Jack’s victims, who were simply boiled down to prostitutes. In her non-fiction book titled The Five, Hallie Rubenhold takes it upon herself to shine the light of truth upon these unfortunate souls.
Without really dwelling much on the murders themselves or the possibly identity of the Ripper, the book aims to tell us the stories of these five women, from their childhoods to their deaths, how they were treated and portrayed after, and how they ultimately slipped away from the collective memories as the years went by. Focusing on each woman specifically, Rubenhold does her best to connect us with these women and the context of their lives.
Additionally, by telling us the stories of these women and their families, the author also seizes the opportunity to depict life in 19th century Victorian society down to its smallest details, which ought to be noted, is her area of expertise. From the more progressive aspects to the dark and cruel machinations which ruled over people’s lives, we become intimately acquainted with a special microcosm in time and space, one which still has its place in our collective imagination.
Lives Shrouded in Myth in The Five
To start things off, I believe it’s important to address the one somewhat controversial aspect of this book, and it’s the author going against a few seemingly established pieces of knowledge about how the murders happened among “ripperologists”. On the whole, it seems the author reached for a somewhat more far-fetched modus operandi in order to try and identify the women as being homeless vagrants rather than prostitutes when they were murdered. Personally-speaking, I didn’t see the point in this whole ordeal, mostly because it occupied such little space at the start of the book it was in my rear-view mirror before too long.
In other words, this book isn’t about feminism, trying to rewrite history or a thesis on whether or not the Ripper’s victims were indeed prostitutes. On the contrary, this is a historical account of the lives these five women led before their tragically-shared fates in 1888, and in this regard Rubenhold did an amazing amount of research, showing how all of them began their lives in much more promising conditions. We learn about the different paths they walked through in Victorian society, the woes and joys which coloured their lives, and how exactly their fates became so twisted so as to abandon them on the streets.
If there is one main aspect of the five women’s lives which tied them all together, it’s certainly their penchant for alcoholism, and the author makes sure we understand the profound ravages it caused not only to those women, but to Victorian society in a more general manner. We go along for the ride with these women as their decent lives slowly spiral out of control, how promises of normalcy slowly transformed into end-stage tuberculosis and syphilis. In my mind, their progressive suffering and degeneration stood out as the most striking aspect of the book, one the author handled with superb care.
The Misremembered Society
As years, decades and centuries pass, our remembrance of eras past becomes increasingly muddled and simple, boiling down further and further to singular traits and events by which we remember them. As a result, with time our perception of the past we weren’t born to witness inevitably becomes inaccurate and coloured by the few stories and tales which make their way across generations.
I would venture to say Victorian-era England is suffering this exact fate at the moment, being largely remembered as a place of utter strictness where class and politeness were valued above all else. As Rubenhold shows it in The Five, we are definitely straying from reality here. As it turns out, we’ve successfully filtered out the dirt of reality back from those days to be left with a sanitized and pristine image of the past.
As we follow the lives of the five women, we are privy to the many ways in which society was harming them and itself at large, with misogyny and alcoholism running atrociously rampant through the streets. We get to witness in detail just how methodically they were broken down, and how much they had to struggle for the sole purpose of survival. We get quite the extensive look at the lives led by the poorer classes, and the author pulls no punches in describing the squalor they lived in and darkness they had to contend with. While she does balance this out by also pointing out some of the more progressive aspects of the society, such as public housing projects, it was the hopelessness of it all which stuck with me in the end.
The Final Verdict
Though The Five by Hallie Rubenhold may have upset a few Ripper experts out there, I still believe it to be an excellent historical book in its own right, especially since it doesn’t really focus on the murders at all. I don’t think I’ve come across any other book which not only portrayed these five women’s lives with such depth and compassion, but also gave them the respect they deserved and a place in history. If Jack the Ripper is a figure of interest for you, then I would strongly recommend you give this book a read and become acquainted with his victims on a level no other work can offer.
Hallie Rubenhold is a British historian and author born in Los Angeles. She holds an MA in British History and History of Art as well as an Mphil in history from the University of Leeds. Her work is primarily specialized around 18th and 19th century women’s history, and she has most notably conducted an in-depth study of Jack the Ripper’s victims, which she published in her book The Five. Her other published works include The French Lesson, The Lady in Red, and Mistress of My Fate.