Friday, May 3, 2019

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five is a long overdue look at the women who were Jack the Ripper's known victims: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. We know all the horrid details of their murders, but all we know of them is what's been handed down by newspapers and stories: they were all prostitutes, drunks, and roaming the streets of Whitechapel when they each crossed paths with Jack the Ripper. 

However, as is usual in sensational murders, the victims are often swiftly overlooked, soon becoming less-than. Hallie Rubenhold, a social historian, decided it was long past time to correct what we've all thought about these women. She researched each woman, and tells the stories of their lives. These women were sisters, daughters, mothers, lovers, and wives. Two were known prostitutes; the other three were victims of circumstance and some really incredibly stupid laws in Victorian England. Laws and social customs that kept women down, unable to improve their lives, or even divorce. Marriages broke down, and since divorce was not an option, women oftentimes walked out of their grimy, crowded, disgusting homes and went to the workhouse for assistance. There, they joined thousands of others in drudgery in exchange for a place to sleep and food. Husbands were required to pay a small monthly fee to their wives, but if they could prove their wives were unfaithful, that small payment could end, as it did in the case of a few, leaving them in even more dire straits. 

Hallie Rubenhold has really dug deep into research on each of the women, and it is fascinating stuff. It's also a very sobering look at the lower middle class and poverty level population of England in the 1800's. Childhood, if survived, was brief before children had to go to work to help support the family. If the male head of house was injured, died, or walked away, women and their children were left destitute. So many didn't have any reading or writing skills, it made everything that much more terrible. Polly, Annie, and Catherine all had attended school and knew how to read, write, and have basic skills in math. However, unable to break the cycle of poverty, they didn't have any chance at a better life. Elisabeth Stride was raped as a young girl, contracted syphilis, and the treatments forced on her caused her to give birth to a stillborn daughter. Branded publicly as a prostitute at 18, she was humiliated and never recovered from it all. 

Alcohol numbed each women's pain over losing their children, failed marriages, and poverty. Most of them also lost one or both parents very early in life, leaving grief and no way to cope with it. I found myself getting so angry at the circumstances each woman found themselves in, and the laws that limited them from getting the help they needed, and the laws that branded them as loose, unvirtuous, and not worthy. 

I found this a very interesting book, and yes, it's long overdue. Each of the women, forgotten by society for so long, and now infamous for how they died, deserves this telling of who they really were, the people they loved, and the families they left behind with so many unanswered questions. 

Rating: 5/6 for an incredibly well researched story about five women who became infamous for all the wrong reasons in 1888. These victims deserve to tell their stories, and Hallie Rubenhold is their voice. Whether you are a true crime fan, or a women's history devotee, or just interested in a really good book, pick this one up. You'll never look at Jack the Ripper's five victims: Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane, quite the same way again. And that's a good thing. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

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