Can you name them? No neither could I. Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Mary Jane Kelly.
The victims of the notorious killer in London in 1888 were never ‘just prostitutes’ as claimed by many policemen, judges, journalists or wealthy citizens of London (all men of course) but they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers.
The odds were stacked against them on birth in late century Victorian England. They were female. But they weren’t just local Whitechapel ‘ladies of the night.’ They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates. They breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers – as keen then to trick vulnerable and poor young women into the sex trade as they are today.
This is an important historical document and Rubenhold is an award-winning social historian. This book rightly won last years 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non Fiction.
Their murderer was never identified – although many have various theories about who he might have been. But really these are the important names on those police files. Not just the gruesome photographs that horrified and equally attracted voyeurs to this new criminal person – a serial killer.
London was a swirl of poverty, homelessness and despair in many districts but the path that led to the final crime scene and death for these women was one that had tremendous potential in early years. Some had a chance for education and ability to adapt their skills (often those of domestic toil) but valuable to assist in paid employment and a roof over your head. Marriage also allowed the status of women to rise. Polly Nichols and her husband moved into the Peabody Buildings and were one of the first families to be approved as tenants for the charity-operated housing which boasted of many ‘mod cons’. Annie Chapman and her husband could afford a studio photograph session of themselves as newly weds and lived on a substantial country estate as John Chapman was head coachman.
Elizabeth Stride may have begun life on a farm in Sweden but her skills in service brought her to the heart of wealth and privilege in London’s wealthiest streets.
Mary Jane may have very soon had to resort to ‘entertaining’ men but she did so in some of the grandest addresses in the capital city. That she was exploited when she fell on hard times seems of course an all too familiar story.
Anyway even if they had found themselves down on their luck, moving from casual ward to casual ward (ie a bed in a hostel) each night or even for many have spent dangerous dark hours sleeping on the street corners after drinking in pubs this does not at any point lessen their position as real victims not just a collection of somehow ‘less deserving’ murder targets. At the end of the book the author lists the property taken in by the police that was either on the victim’s body or only in one case in her room. It is a pitiful collection of items that shows we need to move beyond this to see the real women that were left abandoned in many cases to their fate.
I found this a sad but extremely skilful book that was powerful in all its elements as a personal read. I think book clubs who want to move from fiction to factual could do now worse than select this brilliant real life thriller with which to explore the real conditions of Victorian life for many women.
Philipa Coughlan 5/5*
The Five (The untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper) by Hallie Rubenhold
978-1-7841-6234-4 Penguin Random House UK Transworld Publishers Paperback 2019