The most famous of these is undoubtedly Jack the Ripper, who having evaded capture has become something of a modern myth, and the Jack the Ripper folklore has spawned a micro-economy which trades on the death of his victims for profit; tours of the Whitechapel scenes of the murders, numerous films and television adaptations, even souvenirs with t-shirts and mugs displaying his victims corpses as if they were artworks created by a master craftsmen, not women who lived and breathed.
In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold seeks to go some way towards reclaiming the names of his victims, exploring their histories to restore their identities and humanity. It makes it clear that it doesn’t matter who Jack the Ripper was now, what matters were the complex and varied lives that he snatched. One by one she goes explores the lives of the canonical five victims; Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, from their births to their deaths, revealing far more complex lives than any film or documentary purporting to explore the history of Jack the Ripper has ever revealed.
Rubenhold’s The Five is as fascinating as it is heart-breaking, showing the various factors that brought the women to be living such precarious existences in Whitechapel, and reminding the reader just how precarious life could be in the Victorian era, where an extra mouth to feed could tip a family into poverty, or the loss of a male relative could leave a family of women incredibly vulnerable. Where if you were born into poverty, you had little to no hope of escaping, and even if you were born into the middle classes, one mistake or one small upset would be enough to derail your life.
The Five not only returns a sense of the victims as real people but gives a clear picture of what life was like for women and the poor in the era. I found it a really moving read, and although I enjoy a crime novel as much as anyone else, thought it was an important counter voice to the sensationalism of violence against women for entertainment.