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Book Spotlight: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

In this post I wanted to highlight a new book by author and historian, Hallie Rubenhold. The Five is a history that involves the now infamous story of Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was a serial killer that terrorized Victorian London. In the modern area, it seems his killing spree has almost been glorified through the media and tourist attractions. It is all about Jack the Ripper, his mysterious identity, and his modus operendi. His victims are only remembered as “prostitutes”, but can any of us even recite their names?

With this book, Rubenhold takes a different approach. She is bringing identity back to the five canonical victims of the heinous killer. She breaks the negative stigma attached to these women. She argues that they were not “prostitutes” (a term made popular by the Victorian newspapers) and they were just your average working class women. There is only evidence that one of these women truly considered herself a sex worker. Rubenhold brings agency back to these women and tells their true stories. They are the ones who should be remembered, not their killer. In this book she tells the life stories of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Their killer and then the media for centuries after took away their identities, but in this book they are acknowledged again.

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The last sentence of Rubenhold’s conclusion states that the victims were “daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that in itself is enough.” I love that sentence. I do follow many true crime podcasts, books, etc and in many cases the victim is forgotten over the fuss of who the killer was. This book creates small biographies of each woman and through these Rubenhold brings to life the Victorian era. She draws attention to how the working class truly lived. There is essentially no mention of the killer, it is completely focused on the women.

I loved how this book focused on the working class. As readers of popular history, we are surrounded by Queen Victoria or other nobles/notables biographies. It is difficult to get a picture of how the average person lived when we are constantly reading about those of the upper class. Rubenhold discusses life in an out of workhouses, the neighborhoods these women lived in, the difficulties of disease and alcoholism, raising a large brood of children on almost nothing, and the struggles of supporting oneself as a woman. These five women lived very difficult lives and often made mistakes which led them down the wrong paths. Yet, they were also strong as well.

For example, Polly Nichols was a loyal daughter, a wife, and a mother. Yet, an addiction she could not control took over her life. She was born a blacksmith’s daughter and had the uncommon privileged of attending school up to age fifteen years old.  According to Rubenhold’s research, “it was conventional to teach reading but not writing to working class girls, Polly mastered both skills.” Her life was changed when her mother and baby brother passed away from tuberculosis and she had to take on the household duties. She was lucky her father took responsibility of his children rather than send them to the workhouse after the death of his wife (which seems to have happened often). Unlike most of working class daughters, Polly could not take the normal path of entering domestic service and earn a wage. As the eldest daughter, she was expected to stay at home and care for the domestic chores, her younger siblings, and her father. During these years she grew a special bond with her father.

Polly married William Nichols and had five children rather quickly. They even obtained one of the exclusive and highly competitive spots at the Peabody Building, which was donated by banker,  George Peabody,  to help the less fortune find better living conditions. The strict guidelines to obtain a lease required spotless moral character and cleanliness. This was so much different from the slums of the working class in London where large families would share one dirty room. There were even spaces for privacy in the Peabody Building.

Yet, Polly began to develop alcoholism which may have come about as she discovered her husband was having an affair with another resident in their building. Arguments grew fiercer and Polly made the powerful decision to leave. It was near to impossible for divorce to occur, so many women would have to stick out the choice they made. Polly did not. Polly stood up for herself and left the conditions of where she lived to take on the world alone. Unfortunately, this included abandoning her children, as a woman who left her proper role had no custody. The evidence does not suggest she was ever a sex worker after this split, yet after her death she was described as a “prostitute”. This was because she did not fit into the social morals of the strict Victorian era. A woman leaving a bad relationship and abandoning her children did not fit the mold.


Whitechapel c1849 Illustrated London News. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham .

Another example is Annie Chapman. She was the daughter of a military officer and experienced many of the high points of England during the era as she traveled with the army to various barracks. She would have grown up surrounded by other soldiers and their families as they would all share a common barrack. She was fortunate to attain an education, like Polly, in the schools provided by the military. Yet, tragedy also entered Annie’s life. As a young girl she lost four siblings out of six to the scarlet fever outbreak. This left only her and her remaining sister (though more siblings would be born later). At age fifteen, she had to enter domestic service to send money back to her father. These servants were paid very little for essentially constant work as they lived at their employers’ home.

Her father would eventually leave military service and become a valet for an army officer. Yet, his addiction to alcohol and depression would consume him as he left the constant rhythm of army life. He would commit suicide leaving his wife without the pension income he brought in and small children who had nothing to fund their shelter and food. The only money was what Annie and her sister were bringing in from domestic service. Still, the women survived, and Annie married at 27 years old (desperate to avoid becoming the dreaded “spinster”). She moved to her own home. She married a gentleman’s coachman named John Chapman which was a step up the social ladder. She began to have children and, due to her husband’s rising in the employment ranks, they were about to break into the middle class.

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Annie and John Chapman c 1869

Annie had inherited her father’s love of drink and after living through her family dying and her father’s suicide, she may have felt depression as well. As a wife who did not need to work, there was also boredom and loneliness. Many housewives turned to drink as it was easy to access. It was a remedy for many illnesses which was also a way to easily obtain more. Annie wanted to rise up to middle class and if she was to do that, she had to conceal her drinking by using illness as a cover up.

Yet, her drinking became extreme. Her children began to be born with disabilities related to her heavy drinking, while many died shortly after birth. Her first daughter, Emily, would die of meningitis throwing another difficulty into Annie’s life. She would be found by police wandering around the village in a drunken state. Her sisters (who had dedicated their lives to abstinence from alcohol) would try to support her and many times they entered her into a rehabilitation program. Unfortunately, Annie would always fall back into her habit. Her husband’s employer placed an ultimatum. Either John was to leave his wife, or he would lose his job. He had children to care for and made the difficult decision to separate from Annie, who he had always supported as she went through rehab. He would continue to pay her alimony until his death.

As I read, I realized that alcoholism was a common theme between most of the women and it usually was triggered from a tragic event. Polly’s husband betrayed her, and Annie had lost all of her family to disease. Life was difficult for women in Victoria society, was alcohol the way to dull that pain and make it through each day? Working class women were expected to stay pure (though their male employers in domestic service would use their power to take advantage of them) and they were expected to support many children in a tiny room in the slums of London. They were expected to be married by a certain age and their only ambitions were to be a good mother and wife. Women were expected be obedient to their husbands (even if they had to watch him be unfaithful or spend all their household money on drink), but were seen as a failure if they left their husband because of this behavior. In one of the biographies, I learned that women were almost entirely blamed for the spread of syphilis. Rubenhold concludes that the word “prostitute” was a word used by Victorian society that did not necessarily mean sex worker. Instead, it referred to a woman who did not play by societies standards. A woman just trying to survive in a difficult world.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book. I think it give a great alternative perspective on Victorian England. It creates a picture of Victorian working class life from childhood, education, careers, workhouse, disease, etc. It also focuses on women’s history as well. I can already see that this will be in my top favorites for books read in 2019.


The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

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