Book Review

The Five Review

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


Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London – the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.

For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

My Review

Talk about a book that NEEDED to be written, and I’m so glad someone did!

How often do we talk about Jack the Ripper but never more than mention his victims in connection to him? It’s an issue that happens all the time even today in tragic events, but, this is probably one of the most well-defined examples.

The book is divided into 5 parts and then a conclusion and a small wrap up of the objects found with four of the women [the fifth victim, Mary Jane was found in her home, in bed, which is why she had nothing on her person and omitted for this section] upon their death.

For once, someone has tackled the archives and history of these women, to try and hunt information and tell THEIR story and it is a breath of fresh air in Ripperology.

As far as pacing goes, this isn’t a fiction so pacing for me becomes a very low priority factor. [The only time it factors in with nonfiction is if they drag so slowly that their point is lost lol] But the first chapters of each woman tended to be a bit of a struggle for me as it was setting the scene to them; telling their family’s backgrounds and such. At times this felt as if it went into too much detail but by Elisabeth/Elizabeth, I truly enjoyed learning about their ancestry and backgrounds!

This is NOT a book about them as victims, it has little to do with their deaths until the last part of each woman’s story, and even then, we’re not talking about Jack, we’re finding out how their end was met by family or friends, where they may have been buried and under what circumstances. This also does not go into the gory details of their deaths, once more that would put the focus on Jack and Hallie Rubenhold does a fantastic job of keeping her attention on our five women.

‘Haley if you have so much to say about this, why did you rate it 3.5 cups of coffee?’

Well, I’m glad you asked! [lol please forgive me for that lol I had to do it just the once]

The problem is, because the victims were never the focal point, even during the time of the crimes, it means that so much has been lost to time.

There’s really no evidence on their thoughts and feelings, they were from an area of poverty and while not all of them were illiterate, none of them would have been able to keep diaries really. They were mostly homeless and using lodging when they had the coin, this means that there’s actually not a lot of facts about their lives other than the basics. Their names, their backgrounds if available in records and archives, ages, marriages, recorded children, and their times of death.

To me, that means that though I loved the insight that Rubenhold gave us, so much of what she offers upon their points of view/perspectives is not factual -and neither does she claim it to be!- but that does strike a chord with me.

Still, the book is extremely important, because these women were labelled as prostitutes they were not given the investigations that they should have in their deaths. And most of them were NOT even prostitutes, not that it would have mattered if they were, no one deserves to die like that, but this does mean that the Police had Jack the Ripper’s MO wrong. They knew that was a possibility, that by choosing to say they were all prostitutes, they turned Jack the Ripper into a prostitute killer, and that changes how they investigated the case.

We’ll never know if changing the way they investigated the killer based off his victims would have meant a capture of the killer, but, at least now these women have voices. They are recognized for their lives, the role they played in being themselves and not as victims.

Fantastic read, very well written, think of this as a ‘pop’ nonfiction, it’s not dry or academic, it’s there for you to pick up and read as fast or as slow as you want and Rubenhold gets her message across clearly without the use of an overly verbose and dry text.

3.5 cups of coffee from me! I loved it!!

“When a woman steps out of line and contravenes the feminine norm, whether on social media on on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that somone must put her back in her place. Labelling the victims as ‘just prostitutes’ permits writing about Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane even today to continue to disparage, sexualize and dehumanize them; to continue to reinforce values of madonna/whore.”
― Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

By TheCaffeinatedReader

A Caffeinated Reader and Musician, destined to write lacklustre book reviews with the over-ample amount of free time.

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