This accessible and intelligent social history examines the lives of the five women murdered in Whitechapel in 1888. Killed by the hand of a man who was never identified nor caught, but who became immortalised in the macabre collective memory. A large part of the on-going fascination with this case has been the search for the killer’s identity and yet, although we know the names of the women who were murdered and the gruesome details of their demise, we have shown no real interest in knowing more about them. That is until now, until Hallie Rubenhold decided to investigate their stories.
In 1887 a young woman named Elizabeth Cass was out shopping for gloves, she also wanted to see the Golden Jubilee illuminations on Regents Street. While out Cass was arrested as a street walker, the case was eventually thrown out by the judge at her trial, still, it must have been a traumatic experience. The incident was indicative of the assumptions and prejudice of the times – a woman alone in the street must be a prostitute. The furore that followed forced the Metropolitan Commissioner Charles Warren to state that:
“the police are [not] justified in calling any woman a common prostitute, unless she so describes herself, or has been convicted as such…”
However, the jumping to such conclusions by the authorities, mischief making by the press and the wild public imagination are features of the perception of the terrible murder spree of 1888 that gave the killer an epithet and labelled the victims as prostitutes too. This is, at least in part, how we define these women to this day. Rubenhold has sought to dispel some of the falsehoods around the women and destigmatise their backgrounds. To a degree, recognising their dignity as human beings and establishing a sense of who they really were, not what we define them as.
Prior to reading The Five I was aware of the names of the women murdered, I have seen the crime scene photos of Mary-Jane Kelly in her small room, read the letter “From Hell” the killer sent to taunt the police and I am familiar with the details of the terrible abuse the victims suffered. None of which is the point here. Rubenhold ignores these macabre details because this is not about the deaths or the killer and his methods but about the, sometimes brutal and always harsh, lives of five ordinary women who struggled with poverty long before meeting their deaths. Rubenhold eschews the photographs and the bloody evidence to take the people out of the crime and to set them in the context of working-class London life.
The achievement of this history/biography is in uncovering the lives of the victims through disparate and incomplete records; reuniting the women for us with their families, their loves and their personal struggles. Each of them, regardless of early background, lived punishing lives and through this book we get a sense of their pain and joy. Rubenhold has ensured that we no longer only know them by their brutal deaths. We see their humanity; religion, education, frailty, alcoholism and suffering – their daily trials. I have chosen a brief detail from each story by way of illustration:
Polly, 26th August 1845 to 31st August 1888. Mary Ann Walker, known as Polly, was the second child of Caroline and Edward Walker (blacksmith). Her mother died of TB when she was seven, leaving her in charge of the family home, her younger brother died shortly afterwards. She married William Nichols in January 1864 at the age of 18. The couple had five surviving children and by the late 1870s were living ‘comfortably’ in a Peabody tenement. However, the relationship was unhappy (counter claims of violence and alcoholism) and William had an affair with a young neighbour, Rosetta Walls. This led to Polly leaving the family home in March 1880, almost immediately appearing at the Lambeth Union Workhouse. This was the beginning of the decline that saw Polly alone, drunk and vulnerable on the streets of Whitechapel on August 31st 1888. Her last letter to her father a few months before her death, “I just write to say you will be glad to know that I am settled in my new place and going alright up to now.” Would that that were true.
Annie, c. September 1841 to 8th September, 1888. Sadly Annie Chapman was an alcoholic like her father (he committed suicide). As a child she had witnessed four of her seven siblings die from scarlatina within a few months of each other. George Chapman was a soldier and Annie married well, were it not for her alcoholism she and her family might have had a relatively comfortable life. The tragic night of her murder, she spent the money that would have bought her a doss for the night on beer. Her family was devastated by her death. She was labelled a prostitute, despite evidence to the contrary.
Elizabeth, 27th November 1843 to 30th September 1888. Elisabeth was the second child of Gustaf and Beata Ericsson born in Torslanda near Gothenburg, Sweden. She was brought up a Lutheran and was schooled. At 17 she left home to work as a servant in the city. The tragedy of Elisabeth’s life is that she fell pregnant and contracted syphilis, which meant she lost her job and was labelled a prostitute, which in turn denied her access to respectable work (not to mention causing her health problems). In 1866 Elisabeth emigrated to Britain, where she met John Thomas Stride. Again, the demon drink played it’s part; arrests for prostitution and other offences increased over the last few years of her life. It possible that she was beginning to show signs of the tertiary stage of syphilis at the time of her death, which would have lain dormant for many years.
Kate, 14th April 1842 to 30th September 1888. Daughter to George and Catherine Eddowes. Her father wound up in gaol after an industrial dispute with his employer, Edward Perry. As an adult Kate lived with Thomas Conway, when she fell pregnant she was forced into the Great Yarmouth workhouse infirmary for the most basic of care. As a chapbook seller (pamphlets, song books, ballads, last confessions, poetry), Thomas travelled a lot. The family were in Stafford at the gaol for the execution of Charles Robinson (a distant cousin of Kate’s, though they may not have been close). By the time of her murder Kate was an alcoholic, released from custody on the night she settled down in Mitre Square only to fall victim to the killer.
Mary Jane, c. 1863 to 9th November 1888. Mary Jane is an enigma, Rubenhold found it much more difficult to garner clear evidence of her life. This is partly because that was the way Mary Jane wanted it. She may have come from a good, well-off background, may have been Welsh or, indeed, Irish. She may have been a mistress or a prostitute. She was trafficked to France and worked in Paris before returning to London and another brothel. She had her own room in Miller’s Court by the time of her death, which was the scene of the crime.
I have to say before reading his account it never occurred to me that the women may not have been prostitutes. However, the labelling of them as such is probably part of the salacious, prejudiced attitude of the authorities, the press and the gentry appalled by working-class life. There is no evidence that four of the women, homeless, poor, starving and alcohol, actually resorted to prostitution at all. Not that such a profession would lessen their humanity but stereotyping has allowed society to separate them from the world we inhabit, condemning them as lesser citizens. As Rubenhold points out, the reason these women were targeted was their vulnerability not their profession, they were on the streets, alone, drunk and probably sleeping when attacked.
As working-class women there is a paucity of detail around these lives. A lot of lies and misinformation came about because of the sensationalization of the murders. Much of what was said at the inquests was nothing more than hearsay. Rubenhold is clear about the limits of her research but she employs a more generic social history to give a sense of what the women would have experienced in their lives; the wages, roles, attitudes, disease, family relations, working class conditions etc. Rubenhold builds a comprehensive picture of the time and place. The poverty and hardship, poor sanitation, diet, life expectancy, and the social standing in the community. In short, the life of the city. These women were victims of circumstance long before they were victims of a vicious killer.
The public wanted “A Gothic tale of a monster on the loose.” For more than a hundred years that is what we got. Rubenhold has now presented us with a social history and the tragic tale of five women’s experience of the Victorian era. This is a powerful read that redresses one of the unforgivable aspects of the history of this case – the fact that we didn’t care about the victims.
Paul Burke 5/5
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
Doubleday 9780857524485 hbk Feb 2019