This is another one I enjoyed as an audiobook that would have worked just as well in print or ebook — the material is fascinating no matter how you consume it. For a history buff like me who is particularly intrigued by women’s lives that are often marginalized or ignored altogether in recorded history, this was a book I knew I had to read as soon as I heard about it.
The titular five are the five “canonical victims” — that is, the five women generally considered to be victims — of the murderer known as Jack the Ripper. Five women of low social status, indigent and in most cases homeless, killed (presumably) by a single murderer over a period of a few months in London in 1888. This historic serial killer has, of course, fascinated people for more than a century, spawning a whole spin-off industry of “Ripperology” and people trying to do what the police at the time could not do: identify the murderer.
Throughout it all, the unknown killer has become romanticized, while comparatively little attention has been paid to his victims. They are often dismissed with the sweeping statement that Jack the Ripper “killed prostitutes.” In fact, only one of the woman was known and identified by all around her as a sex worker; some of the others may have occasionally engaged in casual prostitution along with begging in order to survive, while others almost certainly never did, but none of them except Mary Jane Kelly, the last “canonical” victim, would have identified themselves or been known to those around them as sex workers.
What these women had in common, based on what we know of their lives which Rubenhold so brilliantly pieces together in this book, is that they were all desperately poor at the time of their murders — although most of them had good starts in solidly working-class families and, in some cases, had the chance to climb a little higher in society, aspiring to a more middle-class vision of security. A combination of misfortune, alcoholism, and laws that made life almost impossible for women after a marital breakup, all worked together to drive these women into abject poverty, moving from workhouses, to “sleeping rough,” to unsafe accommodations. In these conditions, they were easy prey for a brutal serial killer, but Rubenhold, unlike almost everyone else who writes about the Ripper murders, does not dwell on the gruesome details of murder and dismemberment. In fact, she barely touches on the murders at all, choosing instead to focus on the women’s lives from the earliest known information about them, up to the nights of their deaths. This is, as the title suggests, very clearly the story of these five women, not of the man who murdered them nor the things he did to their bodies after death.
There have been, after all, more than enough books written about the murders. What nobody has done before is pay the kind of careful and sustained attention that Rubenhold has done to these women themselves — not simply as “the Ripper’s victims” but as flesh-and-blood women with real lives, hopes, and aspirations. Along the way, we learn a lot of social history about the daily lives of poor women in Victorian England; when information is not available about a particular period in one of these women’s lives, Rubenhold attempts to fill in the story by telling us about the sort of thing that might have happened to a woman in the same position in that era. The entire book is a vivid reminder that while women are generally at a disadvantage compared to men, and the poor always at a disadvantage compared to the rich and middle-class, the very worst thing you can be in most societies is a poor woman. And perhaps the only thing worse than that is to live on forever in a kind of ghoulish historical afterlife where you are rarely even called by your name or thought of as a person, but remembered only for your connection to the man who ended your life. Rubenhold gives these five women the dignity of their own history, and it’s a fascinating read. One of my favourites of the year.