Review: ‘The Five’

Written by Mhairi Ferrier.

The Five, by social historian Hallie Rubenhold, tells the untold stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims – the Canonical Five. Painstakingly researched, The Five provides the reader with a view into nineteenth-century society’s attitudes and norms. Traditionally the widely accepted narrative has been that Jack the Ripper, whoever he may have been, was a killer of prostitutes. Rubenhold distinguishes that only two of the victims, Elizabeth and Mary Jane, appeared to have engaged in sex work during their lives. Of Polly, Annie and Catherine, Rubenhold notes from her research that there is no evidence to say they ever undertook any form of sex work. As is suggested in the book, this narrative made such horrific murders more palatable for the public – the idea that they were just prostitutes, seemingly acted as a justification for such killings. What The Five reminds the reader is that these women had their own stories, which deserve to be told. These women had lives, they had families, they had anecdotes and adventures which deserve to be shared rather than the tales of their vicious murders. 

“It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents.” 

Jack the Ripper has developed into an industry in its own right. The name is so entrenched into popular culture, that few would be unfamiliar with the term. This industry has people flocking to Whitechapel to observe the murder sights, buying Ripper themed souvenirs, and so much more. This is done at the expense of the victims and, as Rubenhold points out, hints largely at the misogyny that exists in our society today. Barely a thought is given to the victims, when the public are engaging in this rather unsettling, and quite inappropriate, Ripper culture. One just has to look at the negative reviews of this work, to find that people are disappointed that the accounts of each of the women stops before recounting the details of the murders themselves. Or other reviewers who cannot accept that these women were simply “not just prostitutes,” disregarding the fact that this does not make such killings any less terrible or any more acceptable. Rather, it just highlights why a book of this type is still necessary in order to improve the accepted narratives and views of women. What The Five does so well is that it truly lets the reader engage with the lives of these women. We get an insight into the highs and the lows they faced before their untimely deaths. We gain an understanding of what led them to end up in Whitechapel in the first place. We understand the attitudes which led to them being branded prostitutes in newspaper report after newspaper report. What these women had to endure in their lives – deaths of their children, family suicides, illness, poverty, addiction – makes for heart-breaking, and at times somewhat difficult, reading. But what it does do well is reinsert the human aspect back into their stories. These women were grieved, they were mourned, and they should not be forgotten while the figure who murdered them has become so immortalised. “He” will never be forgotten, so why should they? It is likely to make you feel a mix of anger and sadness – but it truly is a worthwhile read which will hopefully encourage you to reassess your beliefs about Jack the Ripper and his victims. 

Rubenhold, H. The Five. London: Penguin, 2019.

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