Between August and November 1888, five women were killed in Whitechapel, all believed to be the victim of a single killer. The identity and the behaviour of the killer has fascinated multitudes since to the point where the killer has achieved almost mythic status, the women he killed dismissed as prostitutes, mere footnotes to the story.
In The Five Hallie Rubenhold examines the lives of each of these five women—Mary Anne ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Ann Kelly. She traces their lives from their parents’ backgrounds and their own childhoods through the vicissitudes of their lives—marriages, childbearing, the search for work and shelter, poverty, alcohol dependence, homelessness—to the circumstances that brought them to Whitechapel in 1888. Their lives were not unlike a large portion of London’s working class in the 19th century; it was only the circumstances of their deaths that brought them to public attention. To build her picture of each woman’s life Rubenhold uses a wide range of archival material including parish and public records recording births marriages and deaths; police and court registers; rate books and workhouses registers and the often contradictory and sometimes embellished newspaper reports.
As with any research at this distance, we cannot know with absolute certainty all details of individual lives so small leaps of imagination need to be made. Some non-professional reviewers have considered this to be a flaw in The Five; however, I consider that Rubenhold has done it with great plausibility. For example, we do not know the daily circumstances of Polly Nichols’ life inside the workhouse or when she was ‘tramping’ as an itinerant labourer, but we do have descriptions of these situations from other reliable sources. It is therefore reasonable for Rubenhold to draw from these sources and suggest that this was what Nichols experienced. One of the great strengths of The Five is the other contemporary sources she draws upon including the writings of Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth. These allow her to create a comprehensive picture of the brutal social conditions of the Victorian working class where life was so precarious that a single misfortune could send a whole family spiralling into destitution.
Rubenhold does not permit the manner of the women’s deaths to define them. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for the women’s killer, the only biographical detail offered for the women is that they were prostitutes, much more space is given to description of their murders. (The individual entries for each woman are more nuanced.) The picture Rubenhold puts together of the women shows that only one of them, Mary Anne Kelly, was working as a prostitute in the period of leading up to her death. The others, at various times, had cohabited with men who not their husbands both for safety and out of economic necessity. This was not unusual for women of the working class at this time. All but Kelly appear to have been sleeping rough when they were murdered. Many homeless women slept rough when they didn’t have the money for a lodging house. These lodging houses rented beds by the night and were often dirty and dangerous places but safer than the streets. The fact that these women were not living quietly at home with men they were married to does not mean that their lives deserved to be ended with the viciousness and brutality that they did. They were all someone’s daughter, mother, sister, friend.
The Five is structured with a chapter dedicated to each woman. Hallie Rubenhold’s prose is fluid and, at times, gripping; it brought me to tears on several occasions as she unsparingly described the indignities suffered by women of the struggling working class. The Five is excellent social history and I absolutely recommend this book to anyone and everyone.
A more detailed review can be found here.
Since writing The Five Hallie Rubenhold has been subject to trolling and abuse by a number of self-nominated ‘experts’ obsessed with the murderer. Their anger seems to hinge on her reclamation of the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Ann Kelly, taking them from the easily dismissed category of prostitute. What sort of worldview would drive a person to become incensed at the laudable and compassionate action of returning some dignity to these women and revealing the desperate world in which they lived?