Review: The Five – The untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, is a non-fictional historical account of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold is a book in honour of five women who were murdered back in 1888. It is a historical account highlighting the back story of the five women killed by perhaps the best-known murderer of all time, Jack the Ripper.

“There are two versions of the events of 1887. One is very well known; the other is not.” (Page 1)

During the autumn of terror in 1888, “a Whitechapel Vigilance Society was founded by local tradesmen eager to take matters into their own hands” before too many lost their lives.

But what caused the Ripper to strike? The assumption was that all the women he killed were prostitutes because their bodies were found in and around lodgings associated with ladies of a certain persuasion.  Was that really the case though? Or was it simply that they appeared to be ladies of the night because of the area they lived in. Whitechapel at the time was extremely rundown and a haven for poor outcasts. Is it, therefore, better to assume that the individuals murdered were unfortunates, simply in the wrong place at the time Jack the Ripper struck, and over time, as all good stories do, they morph and transform into something perhaps not quite true anymore.

Hallie Rubenhold has spent a considerable amount of time looking into the background of each of the women presumed to be killed by Jack the Ripper in 1888 and within the pages of her book has collated facts that support her argument against them being sex workers.

Who were the women killed by Jack the Ripper?

Polly Nichols

Polly Nichols was a wife of a printer and mother to 5 living in a nice tenement building in Stamford Street. Their building was created by Peabody and Co to help those individuals who were trying to get away from the slums of the East End.

When the family moved to Stamford Street from Dawes Court they had been full of hope for the future. The Peabody Trustees took their time to interview those that would later become tenants making sure that “only the’ most deserving of the working poor’, who displayed an appropriate moral character as well as the means to meet the weekly cost of their rent” were offered accommodation.

To begin with, everything was wonderful. The family had a separate area to cook, internal ablution rooms, a laundry room, and several rooms for the whole family to sleep in which led, finally, to some privacy for the married couple.

However, happiness was not something to be bestowed on the family. Polly’s husband would tell people that his wife had become attached to drinking while Polly believed her husband had taken up with the woman next door. Either way, whatever the truth may be, the marriage fell apart, and saw Polly walk out on her family in March 1880, leaving her husband to raise the children on his own.

Reports say that, with no options left, Polly entered into a workhouse, to live in the inhumane institution amongst others that had lost everything including their dignity.

“Leaving the familial home rendered her unfit, immoral, a specimen of broken womanhood. In parting with her husband, she was also committing herself to the embrace of poverty and further degradation.” 

(Page 48)

Her life spiralled out of control from this point which saw her returning to Lambeth Union Workhouse several times over.

Was it ultimately the breakdown of her marriage and not a life of prostitution that led to her murder?  Polly would still be reliant on her wayward husband to provide a weekly living allowance and if this dried up she would have had to turn to other ways of making money in order to afford a bed in a lodging house each evening. While it is easier to believe that Polly turned to a life walking the streets, she may just have easily become a charwoman. It is known that she became a servant in a middle-class household for a while and was able to read during to her father’s occupation on the printing presses so any number of other occupational roles may have been available to her. After all, not every poor woman automatically sells her body to get by.

Annie Chapman

Annie was born into a respectable family. Her father was a soldier in the Life Guards as a cavalry trooper protecting Queen Victoria which meant she was entitled to a full education and always had a roof over her head.

Having this start in life helped when it came to finding employment. Being an educated girl from a respected family meant that Annie found work as a maid easily and was therefore able to help provide for the ever-growing family.

Things didn’t always go well for her parents though. Four of her siblings were taken at an early age, within weeks of one another after being struck down with Scarlet Fever and Typhus. On top of this, in later years, her father would kill himself causing the family to become practically destitute overnight.

Thankfully her mother’s resourcefulness stopped that from happening and the family was able to remain in Knightsbridge, taking in lodgers.

One of these lodgers, John Chapman, would win the heart of Annie and they would go on to marry.

Annie lived a very comfortable life thanks to her husband and the “course of all their lives might have ended quite differently had Annie Chapman not been an alcoholic.”

Alcohol consumption may have been common amongst the poor but would have been seen as ‘uncouth’ with the working class that Annie and John were part of. If Annie was therefore looking to progress further, and striving to be associated with the middle class, she would probably have tried to conceal her addiction.

Unfortunately, her drinking became too much. She lost nearly all of her children to the effects of substance abuse and it consumed her so much that her husband’s employer gave him an ultimatum – remove Annie from the estate where they were living and working or he would lose his job.

Heartbroken John had no other choice, he sent her to live with her mother. However, like so many addicts, she opted for a life without family, rather than “a life without the substance she craved.”

Not wanting to return to her former home meant that she had to find an alternative way of life. This came in the former of a lover, Job Sievey, who did care for her but lead to a move from her well-heeled London home to Dorset Street in Whitechapel, which was once described as “the worst street in London”. This slide down the social ladder would have hit her hard and would have potentially led to her drinking even more.

The amount she drank towards the end meant that she had no money left for lodgings and therefore would have resorted to living rough rather than giving up the one thing that remained a constant companion in her sorry life.  It is this that resulted in her death – simply sleeping in the wrong place when a vicious person was wandering the streets looking for vulnerable women to kill.

For Annie her demise could have been avoided; the tragedy being her death could have been completely avoided had her addiction not completely consumed her.

Elizabeth Stride

Born in Sweden, Elizabeth Gustafsdotter’s family were farmers in Torslanda, so she would have been far more used to a rural, agricultural life rather than one accustomed to living in the city.

It was when Elizabeth moved to Gothenburg to work as a servant for middle-class families that something happened to change the course of her life completely. While Hallie Rubenhold couldn’t uncover what that something was, it caused her to lose her job and a child. She was then put on a police register for women of a certain persuasion which ultimately led her to lead the life that they had accused her of.

During her time as a prostitute in Gothenburg, things continued to spiral out of control for her until one family offered to take her in. They gave her back a sense of respectability where she was then able to gain work with a good middle-class family in the UK.

Seeing this as an opportunity to start over and turn her back on her former life, Elizabeth jumped at the chance to move away.

It is when she reached England that she met John Stride, an older man who had spent his younger years looking after his father. Unfortunately, their grand plans of running their own business did not succeed and Elizabeth once again found her life falling down around her. 

After losing everything the only option available involved a move to Flower and Dean Street, Whitechapel.

“Flowrydean Street… was no rose by any other name, but rather one of the worst of the East End slums…” (Page 201)

Elizabeth’s story is perhaps one of the saddest because she came to the UK in hope of a better life but it turned out to be even worse.

In order to survive Elizabeth had to develop a cunning side, conning good people out of money and items; deceiving those that did not necessarily have much more than she did herself. Of course, no one deserves to die the way she did, but she is perhaps the victim I struggle to warm to most because of her actions. That doesn’t mean Jack the Ripper had a right to take her life, none of these women should be condemned to death for the way they lived their lives.

Catherine Eddowes

Catherine also known as Kate, was only 9 months old when she travelled by barge with her family from Wolverhampton to London.  Her father, George, worked in the tin trade but had actively got involved with the trade union and was one of the many men that walked out of Edward Perry’s factory to stand on a picket line protesting their working conditions. Violence ensued and her father found himself being sentenced to two months imprisonment for his part in the strike and ‘secret meetings’ inducing men to leave for a price.

The Eddowes family was, therefore, unable to stay in Wolverhampton and continue to make a decent living, so the decision was made to move to London instead.

To begin with, it looked like the family move was going to be a successful and prosperous one, but unfortunately, they continued to expand.  However, this did not stop Kate from getting an education, something very few girls in her position would have automatically received during the Victorian era.

The intention was that the Dowgate School where she was enrolled would educate and prepare her for roles in domestic service. She may have well gone on to be extremely successful as well had her mother not suffered from consumption.

After her mother’s death, their father followed shortly afterward and the family decided that the only way to succeed was to separate; the older girls getting married while the youngster boys were sent to Bermondsey Union workhouse and registered as orphans. The decision was also made for Kate to return to Wolverhampton to live with an aunt.

Things started out ok for Kate when she returned to her family’s home city, her uncle gained her a job working as a scourer at the same factory where her father once worked.  This should have been the making of Kate, however, it seems she was the destroyer of her own future. Over time she became more reckless with her actions which finally led to her downfall when she was caught stealing. Fortunately, because of the Eddowes family standing in the community, Kate was never arrested for her crimes, she simply lost her job.

This led to years of wandering, fleeing from Birmingham before once again setting out for the capital. It is during this period of her life that she meets and becomes the common-law wife of Thomas Conway, a pedlar that wanderer the country selling books. Together they walked the length of the country until one day the couple decided to settle in Clerkenwell, London.

Once again, I am sure Kate would have been thinking her luck had finally changed but this was not to be. Within three years, Thomas was already struggling and has to venture further afield, picking up other jobs to try and make ends meet. To make matters worse, Kate became pregnant with their third child, a daughter that survived no more than a couple of weeks due to malnutrition. This may have been the final nail in the coffin for the Conway relationship and within a few months the couple had split up, and Kate had enrolled herself and her children into a workhouse for the destitute.

This signified the start of many years in and out of workhouses while earning to earn a living in between; along with the cycle of Conway returning for a few weeks before heading off again in search of his fortune. Life wasn’t easy for her during these visits and Thomas normally left only after he had raised his fists once again. It is therefore not surprising that Kate turned to alcohol to forget.

Once again, another one of Jack the Ripper’s victims finds themselves living in Whitechapel and spent her days trying to earn a living for a bed each evening. However, because of her addiction, she often found herself short, instead opting to spend her evenings in the beer houses around the city. It is this addiction that finally leads to her death because in the night in question, she didn’t have enough money for the lodging house and found herself have instead to curl up in Mitre Square.

This tragically would be her last night alive.

Mary Jane Kelly

Mary Jane was the only one actually known to be a prostitute. Sadly, no one seems to really know much about the young lady – where she was from, or any known family connections.

It seems so very sad that not only did she die in such a terrible way, but that no one came forward from her past to say that they knew of her.

She may have been Irish, perhaps Welsh depending on who you spoke to. Each story she told may have been fabricated or perhaps contained a portion of the truth, it seems no one will ever know for sure.  Some believed that she came from a ‘well-to-do family’ because of her apparent higher level of education and one of her landladies did comment on “her high level of ‘scholarship’ while also commenting that she was a capable artist.”  This is a particularly notable comment as art classes would not have featured on an average school curriculum.

Mary Jane may well have been a lady of the night, but not one that would be found wandering the streets night-after-night. Instead, she would have worked for a high-end madam who would procure her gentlemen friends for her to make sure that her customers were of notable stature.

It was one of these madams that also managed to deceive Mary Jane into thinking that she could make a more lucrative living in Paris. Her grand plan for escaping London didn’t last long and she found herself returning to the city, but this time, instead of high-end customers, she found herself walking the streets around Ratcliff Highway making a miserable living plying her trade.

Mary Jane is the only one to openly work as a prostitute but ironically was the only victim of Jack the Ripper to be killed in her own bed.

My Thoughts on The Five

Hallie Rubenhold in The Five has clearly researched this topic extensively and has put a completely different spin on an account that has been repeated time and time again.  Through the pages of her book, I feel like those that lost their lives at the hand of this monster finally get their place in history, They finally have a voice of their own, to tell their true stories rather than the summations that have been rehashed over the course of history. The evidence instead points towards a fabrication of stories and tales by journalists looking to craft a story of assumption rather than an account of fact.

The Five, however, is much more than recounting the truth of those murdered; it highlights the way of life for women during the late 1800s.

Females really did have a rough ride with women’s rights not even factoring back then.  For example, they were seen as solely responsible for contraception, if then they got pregnant that too was solely on them and they would have to deal with the consequences. If there was not enough money to feed the family, it was the female that was to go hungry, even if pregnant. This in turn leads to a higher rate of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infants failing to thrive in their early years. All of which were seen as a fault of their mother.

Feminism definitely did not exist in any form. Females had no rights and needed a man in order to lead a respectable life.

Whilst, through reading these accounts it is easy to see that society has moved on considerably since the 1800s there is still part of me that feels we are still back there with some of the beliefs laid down about women – men working and female homemakers, men earning more than women, the belief that women should have a good man to support them. Yes, we are moving forward but conventional beliefs are still very similar.

In her conclusion, Hallie also mentions that women were condemned for their promiscuity but men didn’t face the same backlash personally I don’t believe this attitude has changed, with females often being condemned for their actions while men get a pat on the back for their growing number of conquests.

 Another thing that surprised me about Hallie’s account was the mention of some geographical areas. She mentioned that places like Chelsea, Fulham, and Notting Hill, all sort after locations today, were described in Victorian times as “down-at-heel neighbourhoods” and “notorious for its working-class housing and deprivation.” I am not sure the wealth of today would be that happy hearing that their expensive homes were once housing the wafts and strays of society.

What I really enjoyed was the fact that rather than once again focusing on Jack the Ripper and how we can further immortalise a murderer, Hallie has focused on those that lost their lives at his hands, something that has never happened before but should not have taken so long.

If you have any interest whatsoever in Jack the Ripper The Five is a book that you must read. It isn’t a boring history book but feels more like a living, breathing account of what happened to five unfortunate individuals.

Have you read The Five? Perhaps you have read other books about Victorian Britain that you feel would interest others (whether Jack the Ripper related or otherwise).

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The Five is a historical account highlighting the lives of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper. See the full review by @tbookjunkie in order to find out exactly what happened to each woman.

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