Hundreds of books, films and TV shows have focused on Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who preyed on women in 19th-century London and whose identity remains a mystery. His victims were known, of course, yet little ink has been spilled on their behalf. In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), social historian Hallie Rubenhold retells the story through Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane, and in the process reveals a new twist.
“Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes, or so it has always been believed,” Rubenhold writes, “but there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of his five victims were prostitutes at all. As soon as each body was discovered, in a dark yard or street, the police assumed the woman was a prostitute killed by a maniac who had lured her to the location for sex. There is, and never was, any proof of this either.”
In Victorian England, the role of women was circumscribed. A whiff of sexual impropriety meant banishment from polite society. “A poor, dispossessed woman living on the street, or being alone at night—who may have had addiction problems, who was separated from her family—was seen as morally bankrupt,” Rubenhold tells Newsweek. “The police were so committed to their theories about the choice of victims that they failed to conclude the obvious: The Ripper targeted women while they slept.”
By the middle of the 1800s, more than 70,000 people were living on London’s streets. Many struggled each day to earn the 4 pence needed to buy a flea-ridden bed in the hundreds of lodging houses in the slums of the East End—a small step up from the punitive workhouses and single-sex “casual wards,” where the destitute could pick apart the fibers of old boat ropes in exchange for a bed and rancid food. When they couldn’t afford a bed, many, including the Ripper’s victims, took their chances sleeping rough.
“Society at this time was extremely classist. To be born a woman—and to be born a poor woman—was the worst of all outcomes,” says Rubenhold. “They were caught in a poverty trap. You were fighting for your life every day.”
For Polly Nichols, a separation from her husband was enough to force her into vagrancy, begging for money and picking up odd jobs. As Rubenhold reveals, the coroner’s inquest became a hearing “in part to determine whether Polly’s behavior warranted her fate.”
Those inquest reports, as well as inconsistent newspaper accounts, had provided virtually all the victim information before Rubenhold began investigating, among other things, workhouse interviews of incoming vagrants. Kate Eddowes, she found, had ditched a life of factory work to roam the countryside with Thomas Conway, who sold chapbooks (she had his initials tattooed on her arm). Together, they wrote songs lyricizing condemned men and women and distributed them at public executions.
Elizabeth Stride endured terrible hardship in her native Sweden before reinventing herself in England. After losing her job as a domestic servant (possibly for an affair with her master’s brother), she constructed elaborate lies to make money—like posing as the survivor of an 1878 boating disaster to receive charitable donations, and grifting a tailoress into believing Stride was her long-lost sister. “She lied to everybody,” says Rubenhold. “Nobody knew who she really was.”
Thanks to The Five, we have a better idea. Rubenhold makes these women flesh and blood, their stories, in some cases, as absorbing as a picaresque novel. Would Jack the Ripper’s life be as interesting?