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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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Ancient History · english history · european history · history

Roman Frontiers: Antonine Wall

The final season of the popular show Game of Thrones is almost upon us, but much of the world that George R.R. Martin created was inspired by true events. This would include Hadrian’s Wall in England and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. These walls were the boundary of the known world for the Romans during the second century. Just as fan favorite, Jon Snow, looked out into the great unknown from atop the icy Wall, it would have been just as intimidating for the Romans who looked over these historical walls at the expanse of Scotland. They were at the edge of their known world, which could have been very intimidating. So, while there may not have been white walkers, to the Romans, there could have been anything.

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The Wall from HBO’s Game of Thrones

With this post I wanted to pay more attention to the lesser known Antonine Wall rather than the more established Hadrian’s wall. The Antonine Wall was the furthest point that the Roman empire stretched into Britannia. It was only manned for about twenty five years before the wall was abandoned. The wall cut modern Scotland in half as it crossed the land between Clyde to Forth (about 37 miles long). It was made mostly out of layers of turf rather than stone (like Hadrian’s) with a deep ditch that ran along with it. Forts would have been laid out along the wall, including Rough Castle, which would hold the 7,000 men that would have been stationed there. There would have also been a military service road that connected those at the wall with the rest of the empire in Britain. Continue reading “Roman Frontiers: Antonine Wall”

biography · english history · history

Aethelflaed: The Heroine of Mercia

Aethelflaed has received a revival of interest with the popularity of the show The Last Kingdom and other media. She is a fascinating character, but, in this post, I wanted to answer two questions. Who was the actual Aethelflaed and why is she so important to English history? I believe she is an important female figure who is often overshadowed by others during the Anglo-Saxon period. In the year 911, Aethelflaed, known as the Lady of the Mercians, took over the command of the kingdom of Mercia after her husband’s death. She was not just a regent until the next male heir came of age but was viewed as the head of government by her own people. She is known as an effective military commander, diplomat, and a benevolent ruler. By the end of Aethelflaed’s reign, she contributed much to the eventual consolidation of Saxon England.

Continue reading “Aethelflaed: The Heroine of Mercia”
english history · european history · history

A Christmas to Remember: The Truce of 1914

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“All Together Now” by Artist Andrew Edwards.

Christmas Eve, 1914

“It must have been sad do you say? Well I am not sorry to have spent it there and the recollection of it will ever be one of imperishable beauty. At midnight a baritone stood up and in a rich resonant voice sang, Minuit Chretiens. The cannonade ceased and when the hymn finished applause broke out from our side and from the German trenches! The Germans were celebrating Christmas too and we could hear them singing two hundred yards from us. Now I am going to tell you something which you will think incredible but I give you my word that it is true. At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenches on which was written Happy Christmas then, leaving their trenches, unarmed they advanced towards us singing and shouting “comrades!”. No one fired. We also had left our trenches and separated from each other only by the half frozen Yser, we exchanged presents. They gave us cigars and we threw them some chocolate. Thus almost fraternizing we passed the morning. Unlikely indeed, but true. I saw it but thought I was dreaming.” -Letter from a Belgian soldier printed in The Times, 1915

World War I began in July of 1914 with the expectation on both sides that it would be a quick victory. Over the course of 51 months the war would bring a devastating death toll of 15 to 19 million soldiers and civilians. This tragic event would practically destroy a whole generation and cause much pain to the families that had to endure. It is easy to remember the death and destruction this war brought, but it is also just as important to remember the positive points. There were moments that showed there was still hope, kindness, and generosity despite differences. In the spirit of Christmas, I wanted to dive into the unusual occasion of the Christmas Eve truce in 1914. This was truly brought on by the common soldier and the truce itself was unofficial and spontaneous. The men found that despite the death, destruction and bad feelings that had surrounded them since the summer; they could take the opportunity to still share a common experience with their enemy. It seems unbelievable to us now (and definitely to the soldiers then) that Christmas Carols were sung with their enemies. These were the same enemies that had fired shoots at them the day before. This is the story and experience of the Christmas Truce 1914.

Continue reading “A Christmas to Remember: The Truce of 1914”

english history · european history · history

Will the Mystery of the Princes in the Tower Finally Have Answers?

Could the mystery of the Princes in the Tower finally be solved?

In 1674, workers (while remodeling the Tower of London) came upon two child skeletons that were hidden in box under a staircase. Instantly, to the 17th century contemporaries, these bones were assumed to have been the lost Plantagenet princes (Edward V and Prince Richard). Sir Thomas More, in his histories, wrote specifically that the princes were buried “at a stair-foot” (possibly this information came from interviews with those who lived during the time of Richard III or maybe More was just making assumptions). This was enough for Charles II who had the bones buried at Westminster Abbey where they have remained to this day.

But, these bones have never been tested. There is no proof that these were the Princes except that they were found in the last location that the Princes had lived and were bones of children. Now, there might be a chance to solve this mystery once and for all. A direct descendant of Jacquetta of Luxembourg (the prince’s maternal grandmother) has been found and has allowed a sample of her DNA to be used to test against the bones found in the tower. From what I have read, it has been very difficult search to find a direct descendant (which makes sense due to the over 500 year time gap). The only hurdle now is to get permission from Westminster to exhume the bones once again in order to complete this test. Again, from what I have read, it seems that Westminster has been unwilling in the past to allow this, but maybe with having this solid DNA sample they may be more accepting.

Continue reading “Will the Mystery of the Princes in the Tower Finally Have Answers?”

biography · english history · european history · history

Add to Your Reading List: A Testament of Youth

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has tumbled down like a house of cards.”

-Letter from Edward to Brittain in response to the death of their friend, Victor

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Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson

I have spent August reading a memoir from World War I, which really kept me thinking for days after. I believe this is a very important memoir and one most people should take the time to read. It is one of the few accounts from the era that is from a female point of view. Many accounts of World War I are from the men in the trenches, but what about the women they left behind? In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain writes of her life during this era and a bit afterwards. Brittain was born in 1893 and had grown up in northern England. She had one brother named Edward and the siblings were very intelligent and talented. Brittain was very interested in furthering her education and in writing, while Edward was a musician. The two were part of a lost generation and much of the memoir focuses on how their generation was affected by a war of that scale. She discusses how the generations that came before or after could never really comprehend what they went through. They were on their own island.

Continue reading “Add to Your Reading List: A Testament of Youth”

english history · history · Scottish History

Best Escapes from the Tower of London!

So I see you’re a prisoner, thrown into the Tower by order of the King/Queen. What are you in for? Were you a traitor to the crown? Did you fall out of royal favor? Or were you just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Whether you are truly innocent or guilty or whether you are rich or poor; your fate will remain the same. You need to take matters into your own hands and plan an escape! The Tower of London may seem daunting. It may be a heavily guarded fortress surrounded by a moat, but over 40 prisoners have escaped over the centuries. Maybe you can learn a thing or two from them…

Here are some tips and tricks from the stories of four of the greatest escapes from the Tower of London: Continue reading “Best Escapes from the Tower of London!”