Review: The Five
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)
It sounds morbid, but it's not.
This book details the lives of the five confirmed victims of London's Jack the Ripper, not their deaths. Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane were daughters, wives, mothers, friends, and employees, and Rubenhold tells us where and how they grew up, who they loved and who loved them, and how, ultimately, they ended up on the streets of London. In fact, if you don't already know how they were killed (in what manner), you won't find out by reading this book. The focus is squarely on the lives of the women that history forgot in favor of the lasting mystery of Jack's identity. I liked the fact that this book gave each of these women not just a name, but a lifetime's worth of experiences. It reminded me of the importance of remembering and celebrating the victims, not the perpetrators. (Mass shootings, in more recent years, for instance - there has been an attempt to focus on those who were killed, to celebrate their lives instead of filling the news with images of the killer.)
As with many books set on the grimy streets of Victorian era London, the city is also a strong character in the book. Her descriptions feel very Dickensian (in fact, she mentions Dickens a few times, and his visits to some of the same locales), and she highlights the social conditions of working class women, as well as how each of these particular women ended up homeless and living on the streets.
Rubenhold also dispels the myth that all of these women were prostitutes - only one of them was employed in this way for some years, though only by necessity, while a few others sold themselves a couple of times when they had no alternative. She looks at the ways in which there was, and still exists today, a tendency to vilify women who shirk norms - to label them as evil, to conclude that they deserved the punishment they received because they weren't "good girls." And so the fiction arises that since these women were killed on the streets (except for one, who was killed in her bed), they were street-walkers. Rubenhold also points out, however, that no matter who they were and what they did to make ends meet, no one deserves this - i.e. it doesn't matter if they were prostitutes or not, but the fact that they were painted as such is telling in and of itself. And the fact that we only remember and mythologize Jack the Ripper is indicative of our current "cultural obsession with... this particular brand of misogyny. We've grown so comfortable with these stories - the unfathomable male killer - that we've failed to recognize that he continues to walk among us."
The Five was really informative and interesting, and the only major drawback to me was the speculation Rubenhold had to make at times in order to flesh out the story. That said, she clearly did a huge amount of research, and most claims are backed up by it.
UP NEXT: The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo