"Once faceless victims, ‘The Five’ come to life by Rubenhold’s hand"Illustration by ARI CHAN

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of murder, sex work, true crime, and the victims of Jack the Ripper.

When you think of Jack the Ripper, what comes to mind? Maybe a dark and mysterious figure prowling the streets of London, or perhaps a more violent scene inspired by a murder mystery docuseries or podcast. What you likely did not think about are the victims who were killed at his hands. It is this exact problem that Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper sets out to rectify. While Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most famous serial killer in Western history, his victims have melted into obscurity and are often only mentioned in passing. Once faceless victims, ‘The Five’ come to life in Rubenhold’s nonfiction as she traces their lives and individual stories.

"Rubenhold reminds us that these women were people"Hallie Rubenhold, Doubleday Books

Instead of following the classic murder mystery formula by detailing the murderers and the movements of the killer, Rubenhold hardly mentions Jack the Ripper, and does not go into any detail concerning the murders themselves. By contrast, she focuses on the lives led by each of these five women and the circumstances that led them to become the victims of this senseless crime. Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are often amalgamated into one-dimensional, faceless victims. Rubenhold reminds us that these women were people – they had families, hopes and dreams, and were above all, were human beings who have been stripped of their humanity in most examinations of Jack the Ripper. In shedding light on the actual lives of these women, Rubenhold reinstates their humanity and allows the reader to try to understand the mountain of hardships they faced.

“‘The Five’ have been overlooked and ignored since the time of the crimes themselves”

Poverty, alcoholism and a lack of contraception are only a few of the issues these women, and many like them, faced in daily life. Through examining their lives, Rubenhold paints a vivid picture of what life was like for working class and poor women during the Victorian era, and the multitude of circumstances that could lead them to live in a workhouse or find themselves on the street. Although this may seem less ‘exciting’ than books that delve into the theories surrounding the identity of Jack the Ripper, The Five is a gripping read that is difficult to put down. As a reader, you root for these women and hope they are able to overcome their obstacles – despite already knowing how their stories end.

" As a reader, you root for these women and hope they are able to overcome their obstacles"The British Newspaper Archive held by the British Library

Rubenhold also explores the reaction to the murders at the time they happened, using newspaper reports to try to gauge public opinion. While there was the expected fear elicited from the knowledge a killer was on the prowl, many articles sensationalised the murders and seem to imply that since the women were of lowly social and economic status, they were deserving of their fates. This seems to be the opinion that has largely made it into popular culture. There are a multitude of YouTube videos, podcasts and books about Jack the Ripper, the vast majority of which pay little attention to these five women except to describe their bodies after their murder, or dismiss them completely. The idea that they were ‘only prostitutes’ is not only factually incorrect but also maintains ideas that are still present in modern culture that women engaging in sex work are ‘bad women’ and that they are therefore less deserving of our attention and respect. ‘The Five’ have been overlooked and ignored since the time of the crimes themselves.


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While not directly mentioned in the book, The Five illuminates an issue that plagues history and historical books: a lack of women’s history. Reflecting on why we, as a society, have chosen to venerate Jack the Ripper – and not his victims – sheds light on the fact that for the majority of history the voices of women and minorities have been ignored. The backlash against this book from ‘Ripperologists’ , the community that studies the murders, has been quite fierce. This reaction is both disheartening and shows why books that focus on social history and non-traditional narratives are so important. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper then is an important book as it successfully highlights such issues, but also an extremely compelling and engrossing read. If you prefer podcasts, Hallie Rubenhold has just released a new podcast with Pushkin, the producers of Revisionist History, titled “Bad Women: The Ripper Retold”. The Five :The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper not only examines the lives of his victims, but forces reflection on who is left behind by traditional narratives.