The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
“Rubenhold does a commendable job in bringing these women on stage and through their stories illuminating the appalling reality behind the veneer of Victorian complacency. For these women, and millions like them, life in Victorian England was not an episode of Masterpiece Theater.”
In its 1991 decision Payne v. Tennessee, the United States Supreme Court held that victim impact testimony was admissible after a defendant’s conviction of capital murder. The court said “[i]t is an affront to civilized members of the human race to say that, at sentencing in a capital case, a parade of witnesses may praise the background, character and good deeds of Defendant . . . but nothing may be said that bears upon the character of, or the harm imposed upon, the victims.” Since the Payne decision, victim impact statements are routinely admitted in death penalty cases to show that murder victims are not, as the court put it, “faceless stranger[s].”
Hallie Rubenhold’s book about the “canonical” victims of Jack the Ripper is, at one level, a victim impact statement. First and foremost, she wants to recover the identity and the lives of these five women who are otherwise grisly footnotes in the Ripper’s story. But she also wants to tell us about the position of impoverished women in Victorian England. What she has to say on that topic is as horrifying as the Ripper’s crimes.
Their names were Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Eliza Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Polly was the daughter of a blacksmith, Annie the daughter of a soldier, Elisabeth a farm girl born in Sweden, Catherine an orphan at 14, Mary Jane a mysterious woman who obscured her origins but demonstrated upper-class refinement. All but Mary Jane were basically homeless.
While they all may, on occasion, have traded sex for money, only Mary Jane could be occupationally classified as a prostitute. The others were simply trying to survive in a society where, as Rubenhold writes, “[t]he structure of society ensured that a woman without a man was superfluous.”
None of them started out on the streets of London, of course. All but Mary Jane were married at one point or another and Polly, Annie, and Catherine were mothers.
Life for poor families was tenuous, at best. A workingman’s wages could scarcely support a small family, but, in the age before contraception, women routinely gave birth to infant after infant, each a new mouth that stretched the family’s meagre resources ever more thinly. Polly had five children, Annie had six (two dying in infancy), Kate had four. Each of the women seems to have turned to drink at some point in her life to relieve what must have been the unbearable stress of their circumstances.
Rubenhold writes that if a Victorian woman’s entire function “was to support men . . . then the women at the bottom were driven like piles deeper and harder into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demand.” She points out that poor women were born into a world where—because they would never be breadwinners—their lives were automatically devalued while simultaneously they were expected to be paragons of “moral and sexual immaculacy.”
In the eyes of Victorian society, once these five were cut adrift by circumstances from their roles as wife and mother, they were fallen women capable of any vice. Thus, newspaper reports of the murders routinely and falsely referred to all of them as prostitutes.
By doing so, the press conjured up a lasciviousness lifestyle in which the implicit message was that the five got what they deserved. Or sometimes not implicit: Rubenhold quotes a letter written by one Mr. Edward Fairfield to the Times of London where he commends the Ripper for “his contribution towards solving, ‘the problem of clearing the East-end of its vicious inhabitants.’”
Rubenhold is an engaging writer though, as she readily admits, these women’s lives were not well documented before they achieved their notoriety, and the reports that followed their murders are not reliable. Then, too, there is a certain grim monotony as we follow the five in their doleful circuit from poor house to flop house to the streets where they would be killed. Still, Rubenhold does a commendable job in bringing these women on stage and through their stories illuminating the appalling reality behind the veneer of Victorian complacency. For these women, and millions like them, life in Victorian England was not an episode of Masterpiece Theater.