When Hallie Rubenhold’s book took a different view on the infamous killings, she wasn’t expecting the backlash that followed, writes Marjorie Brennan.
The names Elizabeth Stride, Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes and Annie Chapman will not mean much to most people — but the name of the man who murdered them certainly will.
Jack the Ripper has exerted a lurid hold over the public imagination since the unidentified killer was held responsible for a series of murders in Victorian London.
But while the mystery surrounding his identity has gripped generations, the stories of the women who were his victims have been lost, their identities conflated into a stereotypical melange of downtrodden street walkers whose lives were secondary to the focus on the sensational and titillating details of their deaths.
Historian Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper aims to redress this oversight and is the first full-length biography of the Ripper’s victims.
These women are the “canonical five”, as Jack the Ripper’s known victims are called, and they all died in the autumn of 1888.
Given the acres of print,innumerable television and movies, and more recently online forums, devoted to Jack the Ripper, the lack of focus on the victims seems a glaring omission, to say the least.
“I was incredibly surprised when I set out to do my research,” says Rubenhold.
“I thought, ‘wow, has no one ever thought of this before?’ There is a very short book that was written before, which is basically a kind of genealogical book, it’s more of a pamphlet. But beyond that, no.”
The British historian’s book has come at a particularly opportune time, with a growing appetite among readers for women’s untold stories. She has been in huge demand to give talks on the subject, and this weekend will appear at the Murder One crime-writing festival in Dublin, along with Joseph O’Connor.
Rubenhold’s book pieces together the victims’ individual stories and overturns much of the mythology surrounding their lives, including the commonly-held belief that all of the women were involved in prostitution.
Rubenhold could find no evidence for this in the cases of three of the women — Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes.
Her research found that Polly and Catherine had worked as domestic servants or in laundries, while Annie was supported by her coachman husband.
Rubenhold concludes that all of the women, except for Limierick-born Mary Jane Kelly, who was found inside her home, were killed while sleeping rough. After their deaths, their reputations were viewed through a lens of misogyny and the assumption that they were somehow ‘asking for it’.
“The Victorian view was that a woman without a home was morally degenerate and that meant sexually tarnished as well,” says Rubenhold.
This is Rubenhold’s fifth book and she says working on it affected her profoundly.
“It was a really hard book to write, it took me to some very dark places and there were times I had to walk away because it was depressing and so intense.
"Each one of their experiences, I felt like I lived it with them. Annie Chapman was the one who really gripped me because I think that family just managed to claw its way out of the lower classes into the lower middle class, and things could have turned out so much better if they had that little extra boost.”
For Rubenhold, the resonances with modern society and the cycle of grinding poverty, leading to addiction and homelessness, were obvious.
“Annie was afflicted with alcoholism, her father suffered from it and her brother suffered from it.
"That to me was absolutely tragic…. it’s a story we hear time and time again. It is a story of addiction, and how it tears families apart.”
Rubenhold has also steered clear of speculating about the identity of the Ripper in her book. Various theories have been expounded, pointing to figures including artist Walter Sickert and Prince Albert Victor (son of the Prince of Wales).
“It’s an unsolved murder mystery, and I can understand people’s curiosity and interest in trying to solve that. I don’t share that curiosity. I think people become obsessed with it in the same way they become obsessed with things like the Kennedy assassination.
"I think, for some people, there’s a lot of ego tied up in it, like ‘I’m going to be the first one to crack this case’. But the reality is we’re never going to find out — the body of evidence just isn’t there.”
And even though the murders occurred over 130 years ago, there are still a huge number of armchair detectives obsessed with the case. Rubenhold was taken aback to find herself targeted by ‘Ripperologists’.
“It started eight months before publication, I was completely shocked. Then when the book came out, it just erupted. I was getting people saying to me ‘you can’t say this, you have to clear this with us’. I was like ‘who are you, you don’t own history’.”
Fortunately, there has been validation for Rubenhold in the positive critical and commercial reaction to the book, which has also just been shortlisted for the prestigious Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction.
“It feels really good. I mean, it’s so funny because I think a lot of the Ripperologists are shaking their fists in anger, going ‘the world will find out she has lied’. And that is not what is happening.”
Jack the Ripper has inspired much gruesome and prurient content, on page and screen, and there is a continuing appetite for crime thrillers and true-crime podcasts based around murdered women.
Rubenhold says she’s not a fan and prefers to look deeper into the motivation behind such crimes.
"What were the things that went wrong in this society that allowed this killer to evolve and this victim to be a victim?”
The Five has already been snapped up for a television adaptation, which Rubenhold hopes will contribute to changing the narrative around the victims. She is also gratified at how the book is disrupting the Jack the Ripper industry.
“I’ve had people who come up to me at various talks and said stuff like ‘I went on a Jack the Ripper tour and I had read your book. I started arguing with the tour guide and he got really angry, and said that I was a liar’ and I thought, ‘yeah, the fightback has started, it’s great’.”
Untold Stories: The Five, Hallie Rubenhold, with Joseph O’Connor, Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, Saturday Nov 2, 2pm, as part of the Murder One crime-writing festival.