Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
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, but 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.

11 pages, Audiobook

First published February 26, 2019

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Hallie Rubenhold

9 books1,102 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
19,581 (40%)
4 stars
18,923 (38%)
3 stars
7,776 (15%)
2 stars
1,845 (3%)
1 star
749 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,021 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,965 reviews294k followers
June 12, 2020
This is the tale of 1887 that most chose to forget.

Tatiana already wrote the perfect review for this book, so a lot of my review is just going to be reiterating her points.

I thought The Five was genuinely hard to put down. Rubenhold takes us back to the grim, dingy streets of Victorian London and attempts to follow the life stories of each of the five confirmed victims of Jack the Ripper. Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane: women who have been largely buried by history, forgotten in favour of obsessing over the mysterious Jack himself. But each was a person with loves, desires, fears, and flaws. Rubenhold is eager for us not to forget that.

Though this is nonfiction, I felt very much transported back to the time and place in question. The ugly visuals of Victorian London create a rich atmosphere, and it was nice to see an author take some of the romance out of the era and focus on the struggles and general bleakness of life for the working class. Poverty, homelessness, dismal workhouses and all manner of infectious diseases were an everyday reality.
The poor were judged to be lazy and immoral paupers who refused to do honest work and bred bastards and enormous families while “living off handouts.”

In fact, I think this insight into life for poor Londoners was the book's strongest point. While I appreciated the author's efforts to give back the humanity to the Ripper's victims, far too little is known about them to successfully uncover their life stories. Some things Rubenhold could tell us for certain, but a whole lot of sentences started with such as "She could have" or "She might have". Some parts were outright guesses. Though I am thankful the author was transparent about what she knew and what she didn't.

In parts, the author urges us to imagine what it must have felt like to be a woman in that situation. Of course, neither the reader nor the author can possibly know what the women really felt, but it was effective. It is so easy to skim over horrors when you, personally, haven't had to live with them, and it felt important to really pause and consider how awful and powerless it was to be a working class woman in 1887, often with nowhere to turn.

As Tatiana also said, the one downside to the book is how long Rubenhold spends insisting there is no proof that all of the women were prostitutes.
Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes, or so it has always been believed, but there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of his five victims were prostitutes at all.

I think she was trying to show how any woman of childbearing age who was separated from her husband, living a “single life”, was depicted as sexually immoral in Victorian England, regardless of the truth. But it didn't come across so well. Even if they were prostitutes, it shouldn't matter at all.

Still, I highly recommend it for fans of history, especially the little pockets of history that have long been glossed-over.

Facebook | Instagram
Profile Image for Julie .
4,031 reviews58.9k followers
August 12, 2019
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold is a 2019 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publication.

"She had been brought into the world along the Street of Ink, and it is to there, riding on the column inches, its illuminated plates, its rumor and scandal, that she would return: a name in print.”

The canonical five Ripper victims:

Mary Ann -Polly- Nichols

Annie Chapman

Elizabeth Stride

Catherine- Kate- Eddowes

Mary Jane Kelly

Ask your friends, relatives, or colleagues what they know about the five women Jack the Ripper murdered and nearly all of them will say ‘they were prostitutes’. However, with one notable exception, there is no concrete proof the other four victims ever identified themselves as such or worked in the sex trade.

What we are reminded of here, is that these women were mothers, sisters, lovers and wives. They had hard lives, bad luck, and little choice or opportunity to change their circumstances. Their lives have been reduced to little consequence, partly because the sensationalism surrounding the Jack the Ripper legend, and tons of unsubstantiated information- but most of all because they were thought of as ‘just prostitutes’.

It has taken us a little over a century to finally restore humanity to these women, to examine the mindset that promoted their sexualisation, and diminished the compassion and respect due them.

The author did a lot of deep digging and research to give the reader an in -depth profile of each of these five women. The laws of the day were stacked against them because they were women, their options were few, forcing them into the streets. They worked legitimate jobs, but society judged their lifestyles, slapping upon them the undeserved label of a ‘fallen woman’.

Many of the historical details are mind numbing. It’s an overwhelming, depressing, and bleak portrait the author paints, proving it wasn’t the sex trade that made these women targets, but their vulnerability brought on by poverty, addiction, and abuse.

The author astutely and determinedly takes us to task for all the ways society had devalued human life. Judgments have been passed based on second -hand information, conveyed by so called reputable sources which eventually became cemented into the lore of Jack the Ripper, and shoving these women so far into the background, they have been cast off like so much rubbish.

The books, movies, documentaries all geared towards discovering the identity of the elusive serial killer, raises him into a cult celebrity status. It is appalling that souvenirs are sold bearing the silhouetted image of a savage murderer!!

Yet, we can’t take the time to mourn the victims, much less remember them as individual human beings. They get lost in the grisly gore, as incorrect information continues to be passed off as the unmitigated truth.

This is an eye-opening book, and a humbling experience. I came away feeling duly discomfited and chastened. While I never viewed these women as ‘just prostitutes’, I never stopped to consider if the information about them was true or not.

That is another reason why this book is long, long, long overdue!! I highly recommend this book to everyone. It is an important book, debunking long presumed facts, but also, at long last, it helps to restore dignity to these women.

It is an educational book, depicting real history. This book is not about Jack the Ripper, and his crimes are not detailed in this book, appropriately so, and there are no theories tossed about as to his identity. I think we've had enough of those types of books already.

If you’ve labored under the illusion that these women were ‘just prostitutes’, this book will pull the wool from your eyes and give you a fresh perspective on the past, one you may not have considered before now.

A must read!

5 stars
Profile Image for Maja  - BibliophiliaDK ✨.
1,078 reviews639 followers
January 22, 2020

Ask yourself this question: how much do you know about the five women that Jack the Ripper killed in 1888? If you answered anything at all, it was most likely that they were prostitutes. You probably don't even know their names. What if I told you that the one thing you thought you knew might not even be true at all? What if I told you that some of these women were actually mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Poor souls who fell on hard times and then got murdered. There's so much we don't know about these women because nobody took the time find out! Well, it's time we begun!

"[...] we have figuratively stepped over the bodies of those he murdered, and in some cases, stopped to kick them as we walked past."


Originality: There is an ocean of books about Jack the Ripper and I dare venture a guess that 10/10 aim at figuring out his identity. In our eagerness to solve the mystery we have completely forgotten the victims of his crimes. Those poor women have become nothing more than footnotes in the myth of Jack the Ripper. Making them the stars of the show is the most original approach to Jack the Ripper I have even seen - and quite frankly, this was long overdue!

New information: I'll admit, before this book I was one of the people who couldn't even really name these women. And I also bought the common belief of them being prostitutes. This book gave me so much new information about these women. I had one aha-moment after the other, revelation upon revelation. These women really lived. Still, we only remember them for their deaths.

Lives: I LOVED that Rubenhold didn't dedicate any time to describing the murders of these women. Because that's all they've been for so long - murder victims. This book is solely about their lives, how they lived and the people they left behind. Want to know about the grizzliness of their deaths? There are a thousand other books you can turn to for that...

Perspective: Why do we remember these women as prostitutes even if that was not what they were. Well, Rubenhold gives and excellent answer to that question. It is all about the attitudes towards 'down on their luck' women in the Victorian era. At that time there was legally, little difference between being homeless and being a prostitute as a woman. It is time we left behind the morality of the Victorian era.

Vindication: These women were little more than numbers in a sequence. With this book they have gotten their lives and their identities back. Rubenhold takes the first steps in vindicating them and righting a wrong that has dominated for more than 130 years.
Profile Image for Ruby Granger.
Author 2 books45.7k followers
March 19, 2021
This is such an important narrative, and one which we have needed for the best part of a century. This book chronicles the lives of the five victims of Jack The Ripper, humanising them and providing an impressively detailed account of each life (the biographical research on show here is honestly incredible!!).
Profile Image for Laura.
198 reviews38 followers
August 12, 2019
I'm glad this book exists. I'm glad it spends next to no pagetime on Jack the Ripper himself, because he's had more than enough press over the years. I'm glad that someone is at least trying to put the victims at the front of the narrative, which is where they should have been to begin with.

But . . .

A big part of Rubenhold's thesis in this book is that four of the five women were, in fact, not sex workers, and that they had been unfairly classified as such due to Victorian prejudice against the working class. That may well be true; I haven't read far enough into Ripperology to confirm or deny it. But the second part of the argument Rubenhold makes seems to be contingent on the first: they were not prostitutes, and therefore they are more sympathetic, more complex, and more multifaceted than they've been given credit for. The idea that these women could have been prostitutes and also been worthy of respect, love, and mourning never really appears in the book. There is little to no sympathy here for confirmed sex workers; even in the case of Mary Kelly, who was definitely engaging in sex work at the time of her death, Rubenhold invents a backstory for her out of whole cloth (she was tricked and trafficked to Paris by dastardly pimps!) to make her profession more palatable. It's an old, tired narrative: sex workers aren't sympathetic unless they were forced into the profession at gunpoint. Does it matter? Can't Mary Kelly be a whole person who also sold sex, no matter how she got there?

(I also have to note that Rubenhold's sources, especially in the Mary Kelly section, are more than a little suspect - she quotes W.T. Stead's "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," a tract that has been widely criticized and discredited since it was published in 1885. Given this level of sloppiness, how well can the rest of her research be trusted?)

I don't know if Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary were sex workers. It doesn't matter. It doesn't make their deaths more or less tragic. It's just unfortunate that, under the banner of advocating for their memories, Rubenhold felt the need to separate them from the "streetwalkers" who are - in this book's narrative - less worthy of sympathy and respect.
Profile Image for Beata.
736 reviews1,112 followers
April 18, 2019
This book is not about Jack the Ripper, it is about his five victims. Written to remember five women who are usually just names in hundreds of books about the infamous serial killer, this book is an attempt to tell their stories and to remind us that they were once babies, daughters, mothers or lovers, who lived lives full of hardship and misfortunes. The amount of research done by the author is imposing and she managed to recreate the lives of women who lived modest and ordinary lives in the Victorian times. A big thank-you to Hallie Rubenhold for her effort to shed light on the victims overshadowed by their most brutal and vicious murderer.
Profile Image for Beverly.
808 reviews292 followers
October 18, 2019
This is an eye opening and revelatory history of the real lives of the women killed by the infamous murderer, Jack the Ripper. One of the most astounding facts presented is that all of the women were killed while in a reclining position, that along with no one hearing anything, and statistics showing that thousands of destitute women slept "rough" every night in London leads the author to the conclusion that all of the women were killed while sleeping, not in the performance of a sex act. In fact these women could not be termed prostitutes, except for Mary Jane Kelly.

They have been linked as such for all the years since 1888 when the first murder occurred. Labeled by the Victorian press in order to sell more newspapers, they have been libeled through the ages as trash, so we don't need to worry about what happened to them. Indeed, the murderer has become a sort of folk hero and treated with a smile and a wink. All of the women suffered tremendously in this life and have been vilified in death. They were all variously, wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and friends. Down on their luck, homeless, without any means of making a living, they turned to "demon" drink, which of course created other problems.

Their problems were exacerbated by the fact that they were women, in the Victorian age and even still today, there is a double standard. Women who slept with a man outside of marriage or drank or even didn't particularly want to work 12 hours a day in a factory for a pittance, were thought of as licentious outcasts beyond the pale of society; whereas, if a man did those things which he often did, the good wife was supposed to bring him back in the fold. Women had the whole onus of being the responsible, upright member of the family and to inculcate those virtues in the children of which a whole other book could be written about the draining, debilitating effect having a child every year did to the poor females of the era.

This is a wonderful book and an enlightening one. I never really realized how horrible the Victorian age was, especially for poor people. You can read the whole of Dickens and not understand it.What this author seeks to do in telling the story of these pitiful, forgotten women is to restore their dignity and that she has achieved.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,401 reviews11.7k followers
May 6, 2020
3.5 stars

The purpose of this work had been to shine a light on the lives of Jack the Ripper's victims rather than the killer himself, and to disprove the popular assumption of all his victims being prostitutes. Did the author succeed?

What Rubenhold uncovered was that only one of the victims was a self-proclaimed prostitute, and the other four - homeless women suffering from mental issues and addictions and making their living any way they could, which included selling themselves or whatever skills they had for shelter or food or a drink. Which begs me to ask - does it matter if they were sex workers or not at all? They were people not deserving of being gruesomely murdered either way. So why spend so much time on this thesis and fudging sources to disprove something that isn't important? These women's lives had value regardless and their life stories are worth being told.

The lack of information about the women turned this book into a pretty good narrative about lives of the poor working class in late Victorian England and a pretty underwhelming one about Jack's victims, IMO. The amount of "it's possible", "she might have", "it's probable" qualifiers of every statement about each woman was jarring. The assumptions about their motivations and decisions based on no more than census data drove me crazy. However, I did gobble up all the info about alcohol dependency and mental health treatments of the time, the lives of prostitutes, living conditions of the poor and homeless, etc. And I appreciated that the gore that still appears to fuel every piece of Jack the Ripper content was mostly excluded from this book.

I am thinking Rubenhold should have tried her hand at writing fiction instead of straining so hard to expand meager primary source info into a 400-page narrative that is largely speculative.
Profile Image for Misty Marie Harms.
559 reviews334 followers
March 14, 2022
I have read so many books on Jack the Ripper, I will rarely pick one up. However, I saw that this book doesn't focus on the Ripper but the victims. The author takes what is known about the women and puts it in a readable manner. I had no idea that not all of his victims were prostitutes. The "media" at the time changed the narrative to link the crimes. All the women endured horrible poverty and suffered from external forces. I recommend this one highly, even if you have read all there is to read on the Ripper.
April 4, 2019
I think this book is absolutely wonderful. It was everything I expected and more. I honestly had tremendous difficulty putting it down! It is very clear that Rubenhold has done her research for this book, and she masterfully keeps a fine balance between telling the story of each of the five women's lives, and the pure, solid research and creating the atmosphere of what life would have been like at that particular time.

I thought the women's stories were very moving. They were written with style, and individuality. I almost felt like I actually knew the women. I have always been interested in the victorian slums, and parts in this book satisfies that, and, gives reference to other works, to enable readers to further their reading.

It was rather interesting to read of the rights that women had, especially in regards to their husbands, in that era. If a married woman hopped into another man's bed, it was seen as adultery immediately, but, if a man did the same, it wasn't so easy for the woman to prove. The man would have had to have committed another crime alongside that, in order to receive any payment or justice of any sense. I really felt for these women, and I cannot begin to imagine what life was like for them.

This book has given Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary-Jane a voice, and I think everybody needs to read this phenomenal book!
Profile Image for Baba.
3,564 reviews862 followers
January 4, 2022
This is one of the most important books you'll ever read. Rubenhold's heartfelt, serious and almost mind blowing 400+ paged declaration that the lauding and sustaining of the Jack the Ripper industry today continues to kick the corpses of these five women again and again.

Rubenhold, begins the road to humanising these five souls by sharing their documented life stories; exposing the bottom tiered quasi existence of lower class women from cradle to eviscerated grave! It always burns me when I hear 'Make America Great Again' or us Brits lament 'The Good Old Days'. When was that then? The majority of people lived, or tried to live by scraping some sort of life whilst a small elite benefited from their labours. This book pulls no punches and exposes the Victorian media, police, double standards, those that own the means of production etc. for what they were, and how the status quo allowed, dare I say enabled the killer the opportunity and provided the victims.

So why not a Five Star read? The argument against the Ripper narrative is that there are so many lies, fabrications, assumptions etc. This book has a fair number of suppositions which I feel were not needed; Rubenhold is honest about them when she uses them and does get a lot of balance; but I just feel the book could have done with less of them, as it contains so many documented facts. But for once the story telling doesn't matter for me (and it's a nicely segmented book, and less documentary than I expected); for once it is all about the message... thank you so much Rubenhold, may this be the start of some sort of historical #MeToo movement where the glamorisation of mostly white male killers, of mostly women is refocused on the victims and the society in many cases that allowed their lives to be dismissed a second time in our historical narratives. 9.5 out of 12.

2020 read
Profile Image for Johann (jobis89).
645 reviews4,267 followers
February 6, 2021
“The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.”

Hands down, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold finally shines the spotlight on the victims of Jack the Ripper.

If you ask most people what they know about his victims, they will undoubtedly reply with “they were prostitutes”. This could not be further from the truth. With the exception of one of the women, there was little to no evidence indicating that the other four were involved in the sex trade at all. Yet we STILL feed off the narrative that the newspapers perpetuated back in 1888.

I love how Rubenhold tells the story of each woman separately - they can finally be given the time and respect they deserve. Each of the women’s stories overlap in many ways - alcoholism dominates, as do the general obstacles and limitations that women of that time faced. Their lives were hard, they had minimal opportunities. Something that stood out for me was that a man was able to divorce his wife on the basis of sexual relations outside the marriage, whereas for a woman, there must be evidence of adultery PLUS another crime such as incest, rape or cruelty. Insanity.

It’s a very bleak and sad read, but so incredibly informative and well-researched, I learnt SO MUCH. I went down into so many rabbit holes researching Victorian London. It has really reignited my love of history again.

In the concluding chapter, Rubenhold ties it all together, pointing out that we still embrace the Ripper by naming drinks after him and putting him on the side of tour buses etc and in doing so we continue to embrace the set of values that surrounded him back in 1888. It perpetuates the belief that there are good women and bad women, and if you step outside the acceptable standard, you are fit to be punished.

If you’re looking for details of the Ripper’s crimes and theories on who he may be, this is not the book for you. For once the monster is pushed into the background and the victims are pulled to the forefront. 5 HUNDRED STARS.
Profile Image for Fiona MacDonald.
697 reviews168 followers
July 15, 2019
I don't really know what to say about this book. It completely blew my mind. I am gobsmacked that there have been no other authors who have described the lives of 'the five' so realistically. The focus until now has really been on the killer himself and the poor women have never been given a voice. But here Hallie Rubenhold does just that - she gives these women their voices back. She brings their unique, raw and gritty stories to life, she stands up for them, she gives them back their dignity, and above all, she makes sure that readers know exactly what sort of women these tragic victims really were. Their stories are fascinating, their upbringings and early life heart-wrenching, and their menial occupations soul destroying. They were never 'just prostitutes' (in fact, only 2 of the 5 were even proven to be so), and 4 out of 5 were alcoholics from a terribly young age (this is more of a link than prostitution ever was). They were poor women (excluding Mary Jane Kelly) with large families that needed looking after, who were usually mistreated and bullied by the men in their lives and sometimes went days without food or shelter. The frequency that these women went through the workhouses was very upsetting, and the demeaning effects of queuing up for a bed with no guarantee of a place for the night must've really broken them.
What I found extremely refreshing about this book was that the attack/the aftermath of the gruesome discovery of the bodies was bared touched upon. It ran maybe half a page at the most. For once, there is a book that instead of glorifiying the disgusting way these women were killed, focuses on their lives and the impact they had on the others around them. Thank you for setting the record straight, once and for all Hallie.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,739 reviews14.1k followers
December 29, 2019
Do we ever remember the names of victims of serious crimes or mass shootings? I seldom do, but I remember the names of the shooters of Columbine, yet not one of the victims. Is it the fault of the media, who continuously report the shooters names, but flash the pictures of the victims only once? We all know Jack the ripper, know he was never caught, and that debates today still ponder his identity. We have read repeatedly that he killed prostitutes, but was this an accurate description of these women? Rubenhold, does a fantastic job describing the lives of these women, as well as how the odds we're stacked against them from the beginning. As it was for many women during this time period.

The author takes one woman's life at a time, chronicling their lives from birth to death. She also show us how life was for those who were poor, descriptions of the workhouses and the lives of those who slept rough. These five women took different paths to their eventual murders, but it is made clear that they could not all be considered prostitutes. Though they turned to drink, some to ease the pain of the lives they were forced to live, and in one case it as drink that caused her to lose her comfortable home and children.

This is a well researched, well told book, and the names of the victims certainly deserve recognition. Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane deserve no less. They were victims of a time and system where some they little choice in their lives, few safety valves and few chances for improvement. They were is essence victims, even before their murders by the notorious Jack the Ripper.

The narration was excellent and I give the narrator Louise Brealey, four stars as well.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,733 reviews12.8k followers
September 8, 2019
Hallie Rubenhold has come up with a fabulous piece of non-fiction with this book, examine one of England’s most notorious unsolved serial killing sprees. The Jack the Ripper murders rocked London (and the world) in 1888, though no one has ever been formally fingered as the killer. With the euphoria of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee still lingering, a number of women were found slain in the streets of London in the summer and autumn of 1888. These women received some press, mostly speculative about their means of living, though few know anything about them. Rubenhold seeks to change that by developing brief biographies of the five women and offering the reader some insight into the lives they lived before being found murdered. While socio-economic means surely shaped some of their lives, one cannot simply lump all the victims as prostitutes and turn a blind eye. Rubenhold seeks not only to personify them, but to offer the reader something about their upbringing and means of living. Some readers will be shocked to discover the information that Rubenhold is able to unearth, while others will feel it only solidifies their already firmly-held beliefs. At a time when serial murder is anything but uncommon, it is refreshing that someone has taken an interest in the victims, rather than sensationalising the killer, who basks in the limelight for eternity. Well-paced and fabulously detailed, Hallie Rubenhold impresses the attentive reader with her research. Recommended for those who love delving deeper into the murders of Victorian England, as well as the reader who loves biographical pieces with a twist.

I came across this book quite by accident, which can sometimes prove to be the best sort of reading experiences. While I am no Jack the Ripper fanatic, I have taken an interest in the murders and was eager to see what Rubenhold had to say. She reiterates the contrast between England’s upper classes who were still celebrating the long reign of their monarch with the lower classes who had little chance of ever seeing riches or notoriety. The seedy underbelly of the streets of this European mega city are not lost on the reader, who is given so much information. As Rubenhold suggests, many simply gloss over the names of the victims and want to learn about this killer, though it is the lives of these women that really makes for something worth reading. Some knew only a life of poverty and disease, while one came from abroad and settled in a new location to begin afresh. The biographies presented are thorough, though not exhaustive by any means, which gives the reader insight into their lives while also leaving much open to interpretation and perhaps further investigation. I am not aware of anyone else who has taken the time to develop a detailed story of the women whose lives helped develop the notoriety that Jack the Ripper earned, heightened makes this unique piece all the more exciting. Detailed chapters flow easily and the five women have their lives contrasted and compared by the reader who has the time to do so. Rubenhold does well to present her approach and does so in a concise and easy to comprehend manner. A great biographical piece about the most unusual topic. Do take some time to check it out. You’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Kudos, Madam Rubenhold, for this insightful piece. I hope to find more of your writing soon, to further my education even more.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for ✨    jami   ✨.
663 reviews3,893 followers
March 30, 2020
At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killers deep, abiding hatred of women. Our cultural obsession with the mythology surrounding Jack the Ripper only serves to normalise its particular brand of misogyny. We've grown so comfortable with these stories - the unfathomable male killer - that we've failed to recognise that he continues to walk among us."

I really really admire what the author did here. The Five is such an engaging book, highlighting not only some of the social conditions of the Victorian period, but also finally unveiling the lives of five women whose names and death are immortalised, but whose lives haven't been of much interest to the public. This book not only examines cultural beliefs and ideologies of the period, and acts as a study into Victorian life, but also creates a fascinating picture of five women who we know nothing about aside from their deaths. I was expecting a story about five lives and I got that - but I also got so many more context and information about the Victorian period that I found fascinating.

Rubenhold doesn't attempt to solve the crimes - she just lets the voices of the women speak without contextualising them in their deaths. I thought the way Jack the Ripper is barely mentioned, except in the conclusion, was a powerful way to tell this story and I really appreciated Rubenhold's dedication and research that has gone into finally telling these women's stories.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was Rubenhold's linking of the mythologies around men like JTR, and the violence and abuse against women that continues to plague society. Rubenhold contextualises the deaths in our current culture well - examining how Victorian archetypes of "angel and whore" persist, and the Victorian media's and publication of the Ripper story which was heavily embedded in the idea that bad girls deserve punishment - has also persisted. Rubenhold critiques the mythology around JTR and similar serial killers, questioning why we praise their ~twisted genius~ in getting away with violent crimes against women, whilst also sweeping the victims lives under the rug.

I think some of the reviews saying this book tries to sympathise the victims because they weren't prostitutes isn't exactly what Rubenhold is trying to do. In fact, she explicitly outlines in the conclusion that it doesn't matter whether or not they were sex workers - they didn't deserve to die and they were complex women with whole lives. I think, however, she's trying to deconstruct the trope that all poor women are sex workers, and Jack the Ripper just hated sex workers (which was used to justify which his murders were okay) - when in reality it's more likely he just preyed on vulnerable women.

"In order to gawk at this figure of malevolence, we have stepped over, and in some cases, figuratively kicked, the corpses of the women he killed.

I can only give it a four-star though - because the author engages in a little bit too much conjecture for me. I appreciate how difficult this would have been to piece together and research but that said, some of the assumptions made felt unfounded to me. "She must have felt this", "she must have done this" and similar statements rubbed me a little bit the wrong way. I appreciated Rubenhold trying to humanise the victims by assigning them these feelings and ideas but it strayed a little too far for me. Some of the conclusions felt like reaches. That said, I still think it's clear an enormous amount of research went into this - so I still really enjoyed it despite a few 'uhh' moments from me.

Overall, I highly recommend picking this up if you have an interest in Jack the Ripper, victorian lives -or just want a great insight into five women's who's deaths have far out shadowed their lives in the public consciousness.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,161 followers
September 9, 2020
Absolutely excellent, and it is astonishing (yet not surprising) that it's taken so long for there to be a book on this subject. The author has done an incredible job digging out the life stories of Jack the Ripper's victims, turning them from a set of faceless prostitutes whose lives only mattered because of the thrillingly bloody way they ended, back into the real people they were. (And of whom just two were actually sex workers, rather than just poor women.)

What comes across most strongly is that these women weren't just victims of a psychopath. They were victims of patriarchy, misogyny, poverty, and biology. All were abused by men at one point or another, most had their lives permanently distorted by pregnancy and birth. They lived in a society that condemned women for having sex and gave them virtually no meaningful opportunity to support themselves without a man. Alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, unstoppable pregnancy, discarding, shaming, desperation, homelessness. Ugh.

This is not a cheerful read but it's a really important one. In part because it gives so much social and historical and cultural context, in part because so much ink has been expended on one inadequate psychopath with a blade that it's blotted out the humanity of his victims.

In order to gawp at and examine this master of malevolence we have figuratively stepped over the bodies of those he murdered, and in some cases stopped to kick them as we walked past.

I thoroughly applaud the author's decision not to speak at all of the actual murders or what was done to the bodies, or even the investigation except in the context of what it tells us about the women and the context. (Mainly that the official decision was made early that all five women were prostitutes and thus not really important. Erase early, erase often.)

I could have lived without the frequent reminders that they were also 'wives and mothers', given that a huge part of these women's shitty life trajectories came down to the fact that they were only ever given significance in relation to men and children. They were *people*, and they all loved and were loved at points in their lives, and it's about bloody time the Ripper narrative was reset, or even better, put to rest entirely. An excellent book.
Profile Image for Rachel  L.
1,830 reviews2,188 followers
December 14, 2022
4 stars!

“It is for them that I write this book. I do so in the hope that we may now hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.”

What a fantastic book!! Instead of focusing on the killer, Jack the Ripper, Rubenhold focuses on those lost in the mystery: the victims. Five women who are mislabeled as prostitutes and who became almost lost in history.

This is a book I’ve seen a lot of buzz about, and it lives up to the hype. I listened to the audiobook and was completely captivated by the stories of these five women, their daily lives, and what ultimately led them to Whitechapel. I loved that the author never shifted attention away from them in the book or gave graphic details about their deaths, because this book was about revealing and giving homage to who they were, and what was lost when they died.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,564 reviews2,312 followers
September 28, 2020
OMG! This book ripped my heart out! I read it twice!

The Five by Hallow Rubenhold is such a deep and moving account of the biography of the last five women killed by Jack the Ripper. It follows each women from birth of possible, on up to death. My heart just ached for each of them. The society failed them. I had to read this book twice. The first time I was just emotional overwhelmed. The second time I was anger. If they had been born at a different time, or had different laws for women, had government programs for the poor that didn't discriminate against women, and others. Frustrating! I felt like I knew these women due to the tremendous writing skills of this author. She really brought out the 1880's so well that it was disgusting!
This book is a gem! I am so glad I found it! This is the same author that has a series on Hulu.
If you love history, the side that is never told, this is for you!
Profile Image for Libby.
583 reviews157 followers
February 17, 2020
4+ stars - Hallie Rubenhold focuses on the lives of the five women who were the victims of Jack the Ripper. Leaving the infamous killer aside, which is just what Rubenhold does, the author creates a three-dimensional picture of the time and places in which these women moved, loved, lived, had children, and eventually died. It is an incredibly fascinating account and one that moves the intellect as well as the emotions. An immersive journey into the history of nineteenth-century England, especially into the lives of the working class and poor, Rubenhold leaves no stone unturned while fleshing out these stories. Some of it is speculative, as it has to be, considering the scant information available, but using primary sources and in-depth research into jobs, skills required, and people who were living parallel lives, the narrative feels intuitive, detailed, and accurate. I could easily follow and believe in the conclusions she made.

It’s an interesting beginning she makes in her introduction, the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s fifty-year reign, celebrated on June 20, 1887, exactly fifty years after the Queen came to the throne. The splendor of attending dignitaries and all the celebratory events are the stories reported in the newspaper, Rubenhold writes, while the other story goes underreported and mostly unrecognized. That is the story of an agriculturally poor season and a spike in unemployment that created an influx of homeless. It is the story of the dispirited poor and the dislocated where those living on the fringe face hardships that are unimaginable. Polly Nichols is among the homeless in an open-air encampment on Trafalgar Square. Her murder will take place a little over twelve months later. The poor are the ones most easy to turn away from; we could turn toward the Queen’s celebration, the glittering lights of money, prosperity, and safety. But look here, Rubenhold says from the page. See these people.

One of Rubenhold’s central themes is that the statement that the five women killed by Jack the Ripper were prostitutes is a false statement. She goes to great lengths to show the steps of each woman through troubled marriages and troubled relationships. Despair often led to the pitfalls of alcohol abuse. The cost of falling from the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder is not a pretty thing. A woman without a man in that era was without protection and most often without recourse to a way of making a living on her own. Undereducated, often illiterate, they were not trained in skills or trades like men were. Expected to keep the home and add to the finances by taking in laundry or doing low paying jobs in domestic work, women were at a distinct disadvantage. While society during the Victorian era accepted that men were promiscuous, women were expected to remain chaste. So when a man left a woman and she was forced to look for another protector to keep from going to the workhouse, she then found herself judged as a failure as a woman, wife, and mother.

Rubenhold posits that the ease in which the women were viewed as prostitutes and the ease in which the villainous Jack the Ripper is glorified says a lot about society then as well as now. Are we still invested in the madonna/whore mythology? I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but there are times when these antiquated notions are stunningly still alive and well. Women are complex and can’t be contained in either/or categories. I felt heartbreak in learning these stories. Polly Nichols, whose husband leaves her for another woman, begins a cascade of irrevocable declines. Annie Chapman, who once lived on a country estate in Berkshire, becomes a fallen alcoholic and ends up in Whitechapel’s slums. Twenty-five-year-old Elisabeth Gustafsdotter, from Torslanda, Sweden follows opportunity and a chance at a new life in London, where she meets and marries the forty-seven-year-old carpenter, John Stride. Kate Eddowes enters a life of insecurity when she falls in love with the peddler and balladeer, Thomas Conway. And lastly, Mary Jane Kelly, a woman of mysterious identity, she recreates herself to suit the occasion. I am glad to have learned so much more about them than just how they died.

While I found this book riveting, there were times I got bogged down. A lot of information is presented and for those unused, as I am, to reading a great deal of non-fiction, it may be somewhat challenging. I believe it is worth the effort as Rubenhold writes so expertly of an always fascinating, frequently sorrowful chapter of nineteenth-century English history.
Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 1 book2,826 followers
November 14, 2020
I absolutely loved this - such a fascinating, moving, clever non-fiction. I highly, highly recommend this, especially for anyone interested in the Victorian period.
October 6, 2021
4 ☆ Honoring the Victims

Having finished The Five, I feel that I have completed an urban sociology course focusing on the working class of the late 1800s England. If you have ever questioned whether Charles Dickens had been exaggerating the bleak conditions for the poor in his novels, wonder no more. He had not, even though he had died before salacious tales of Jack the Ripper murdering prostitutes in London’s East End appeared in the sensationalist “newspapers” of 1888.

Britain in the second half of the 1800s had a highly industrialized economy. Social unrest was gaining momentum however as the “Long Depression” persisted during the 1870s and 1880s. London was frequently bathed not in romantic grey mist, but smothered by the noxious yellow fogs generated by factory exhaust pipes mixed with the dampness created by the Thames River. Even after Dr. Snow had identified a dirty public pump as the cause of the 1854 cholera outbreak, London’s water system remained contaminated in 1888. Nearly everybody including children drank low-alcohol beer because it was safer than water. Cholera, tuberculosis, scarlet fever ran quickly, especially through the poorer districts, claiming parents and children alike. Although industrialization offered people a chance of upward economic mobility, 12-hour work days of physical labor combined with overcrowded and unsanitary housing conditions made them susceptible to disease, which could completely impoverish entire families.

Even within the destitute areas, there were gradations among the bad housing options. If one couldn’t afford a regular room with access to a communal kitchen and toilet, then there was the “doss” house option. This entailed renting a flea-ridden single bed in a rat-infested dormitory. A single bed in 1888 cost 4 pence each night (about 25 pounds today according to an online calculator). If one couldn’t earn, beg, or borrow the night’s fee, then the workhouse was an option. This was the Victorians’ idea of charity - to provide some thin gruel and communal shelter overnight in exchange for a full day of unskilled labor. But first, a family would be separated by gender and kids younger than 7 remained with their mother while the kids under 14 years old went to the workhouse school. To complete the intake process, one surrendered their clothing and bathed with the same tub of water available to all new residents that day (ugh, shudder). The Victorians kept the workhouse in awful conditions believing that it would scare the “lazy and immoral” poor to live the straight and virtuous life. The last option was to “go rough” and during the summer of 1888, as many as 250 to 500 people slept each night at Trafalgar Square, which was outside of the East End.

This was the world in which Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly lived. Most but not all of them had been born into a working class family, which gave them a precarious hold on the socioeconomic ladder. But to be born female meant that one had more social restrictions and fewer economic choices. Life circumstances combined with mostly bad options eventually pushed them all into Whitechapel, which was one of London's worst areas, and into the path of their killer. Polly Nichols’ route to homelessness began when her husband refused to end an affair with their neighbor. Annie Chapman’s hereditary predisposition to alcoholism won the battle of wills. Elisabeth Stride and her husband’s business venture failed and then he died leaving behind debts. Kate Eddowes’s family believed that Kate’s bad choices in men led her astray. Mary Jane Kelly was the only one of the Five who wasn’t homeless, but her room had no lock to prevent the killer from entering and killing her in her own bed.
They were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. They would never earn the income of a man; therefore, their education was of less importance. What work they could secure was designed to help support their families. If a husband, father, or partner left or died, a working-class woman with dependents would find it almost impossible to survive. The structure of society ensured that a woman without a man was superfluous. A woman’s entire function was to support men, and if the roles of their male family members were to support the roles and needs of men wealthier than them, then the women at the bottom were driven like piles deeper and harder into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demands.

Rubenhold is a social historian and she has pieced together the personal histories of these five women. The author didn’t dwell on their purported killer “Jack the Ripper” because he has attracted sufficient coverage and his fame has further dishonored the victims beyond death. They weren’t all prostitutes, i.e. even less worthy Victorian females, as the Jack the Ripper mythology asserts. Looking at how they were killed, I’m not positive that all five had even been murdered by the same individual.

The Five was well written and focused a damning eye at conditions of the working class in Britain and at the grossly unfair social system in which women existed. It was at times heavy-handed and a grim read most of the time, but one thing that I found disturbing was that many of the Victorian attitudes are echoed today and without censure. I’m talking about social attitudes and thus government policies with the same embedded prejudices persisting for 130 years.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,644 reviews598 followers
April 26, 2019
Some time ago, I was incensed enough, after reading one of Patrician Cornwell’s obsessive rants about the Ripper, to comment in my review of her book: “She has a rather naive view of Victorian London,(and) is quite insulting about the people who lived there (they may have been poverty stricken, drunk, uneducated, illiterate etc, but no person deserves to be described as "rubbish").” Of another book of hers, I wrote, “she puts modern judgements on those inhabitants of Victorian London – too drunk, too poor, too uneducated… In fact, considering the distain in which she seems to hold those concerned with the Ripper murders, it is confusing why she seems to so concerned about the murder of a series of women little known for their sobriety.”

As I was pretty cross about the way the victims were treated, by that particular author, I was delighted to read this, in which the victims are put centre stage. This is one of two books which have appeared this year (2019) which tells the story of a true crime case, from the point of view of the victims, rather than the murderer. The other title is: “Somebody’s Mother, Somebody’s Daughter,” by Carol Ann Lee; a book about the victims, and the survivors, of the Yorkshire Ripper. The title of the book is a play upon, “Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son: The Story of the Yorkshire Ripper,” by Gordon Burn, a biography of Peter Sutcliffe.

Going back to 1888, anyone who has read anything about Jack the Ripper, will know that much research is contentious and little agreed upon. As such, author Hallie Rubenhold, wisely sticks to telling the stories of the five, canonical, victims, that are agreed upon as women killed by Jack the Ripper: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Like Carol Ann Lee in, “Somebody’s Mother..” Rubenhold attacks the views of these women, all branded as prostitutes and as sidelines in the story of the Ripper. Women as bodies, shown lying, with mutilated faces in mortuary photographs of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The story is about discovering who the Ripper is, with the women killed mere mentions, of interest only in terms of clues found, or alibis established…

In this book, Rubenhold returns the backgrounds, lives and families, to these women. She also uses their stories to branch off into social history of the time. We read of workhouses, alcoholism, prostitution, domestic violence, of unmarried mothers and syphilis. However, we also learn of education for girls, of the printing trade, life in the army, farming in Sweden, hop picking and Methodist property developers. These women were victims, but they were also mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and lovers. Rubenhold makes sure they are remembered not just for being victims and challenges the perceptions made about them.

Profile Image for Sara.
1,080 reviews362 followers
September 14, 2019
The Five tells the stories of the five supposed victims of Jack the Ripper. Instead of the ‘prostitues’ often depicted in the media, Hallie Rubenhold weaves a tale of destitution, addiction and poverty amongst the streets of Whitechapel and beyond. Far from being ‘fallen women’, these women were mothers, daughters, wives and sisters. Aiming to bring their life to the forefront and remove them from the label of Ripper victim, this is an excellent account of what it was to live and work in the poorest areas of Victorian London.

This is an incredible piece of work, with a lot of research and facts woven into the five women’s lives. It’s a socioeconomic examination on what life was really like for those at the bottom end of the poverty scale - those so poor that they couldn’t afford a roof over their head, often living hand to mouth on a daily basis. It shines a light on their horrific living conditions and the various reasons why these women ended up where they did - unfortunately a lot of the time alcohol addiction played a major role. But, most importantly it should be noted that all but one of these women were not known prostitutes. Rather, the police painted them all with the same brush simply for living, and dying, the way they did. Often thought of with so little regard that the papers couldn’t be bothered to find out their real backgrounds and personal histories, going for salacious and untrue gossip instead.

I honestly couldn’t recommend this enough. Although it was completely different to what I thought it would be, this book completely skims over the women’s deaths and refuses to give more column inches to their killer, instead providing insightful and thoughtful commentary on a difficult historical period for women. Recommend to all.
Profile Image for Bill.
910 reviews161 followers
March 14, 2019
I've probably read far too many books on Jack The Ripper in my lifetime, but Hallie Rubenhold's book sounded intriguing. Instead of covering the actual murders she puts together an excellent narrative covering the lives of the five victims, as well as opening reader's eyes to the social history of London in 1888. Much like Robin Jarossi's book The Hunt For The 60s Ripper (covering eight unsolved murders in the 1960s) Rubenhold treats the women killed with dignity & respect.
The book supplies a huge amount of detail regarding the women's lives, in context with London of the time. Rubenhold vividly brings 1880's London to life & her style is gripping, easy to follow & never dull. An outstanding piece of writing.
Profile Image for Geevee.
345 reviews192 followers
August 24, 2019
Hallie Rubenhold's book is a triumph.

A triumph that results in new information and insight into the victims of "Jack the Ripper".

Ms Rubenhold's work is successful on a number of levels: her ability to research numerous sources to derive background and until now unknown information; her skill in taking what must have been numerous strands and small pieces of often unrelated information and detail together; her craft as an author to weave these together and bring five murdered women to the pages as people and, finally, to then merge all this into a lively, atmospheric and sympathetic but respectful and insightful book about the Victorian Britain they lived, died and were judged in and by.

The common link, and of course the reason for the book, Jack the Ripper, does not feature. There is no exploration of the murderer as a person or his crimes. This is both welcome but also a clever and successful decision as at no point does the "Ripper" overshadow these five women's stories.

Ms Rubenhold shows that the commonly held viewpoint of the occupations of the five women as prostitutes is wrong and far more diverse but with some similarities too.

What she shows, and this is the great success of this book, is that life for women - especially working class women - was rigid, tough, insensitive, traumatic and fragile. Their stories are ones of big and split families, hard work and drudgery, illness, infant mortality, family bereavement, lost jobs, violence and drink.

These conditions lead the five eventually to Whitechapel to live and work; in some cases with prostitution involved, but not all nor all the time.

Each of the five women's lives are naturally in places patchy and by necessity have some suggestion to events or aspects generalised, but this does not detract but shows the work done to piece together what was undocumented or publicised until now.

If you are searching for information, new hypotheses or even gory details about Jack and the murders then this book is not for you.

However, should you want to read about five Victorian era women whose lives, until the moments they were brutally murdered, would be similar to hundreds of thousands, including one's own ancestors, and how society judged and pigeonholed them, then I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Profile Image for Sue.
2,691 reviews170 followers
February 11, 2022
The concentration on these five victims of Jack the Ripper were stunningly put over in a very well presented view.

Thinking of the life back then, the era of a very male dominated life for women and how they were treated, viewed and used made for an overwhelming argument and full understanding that the image that many of us have are of women of the night. Prostitutes......I’ve had that in my mind for years.
Reading this gave me some food for thought.

Outstanding book.

I did listen to this on audio, I preferred that than reading it.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,181 reviews1,941 followers
January 25, 2020
This work finally puts in place what has been missing from studies relating to Jack the Ripper: it focuses on the five women, not on the murderer or the methods of murder. Rubenhold has meticulously done her research and her gaze is directly on the five and not on the Ripper. She dedicates the book to the five. Rubenhold is very clear that the dismissal of the women as "just prostitutes" is entirely wrong. Only one, Mary Jane Kelly, had consistently worked as a prostitute, Elizabeth Stride had periodically, but not for long. In doing so Rubenhold is able to highlight the status of women at the time:
"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"
There are no gory descriptions here and the actual deaths barely merit a paragraph. There is a good deal of analysis of the nature of the workhouse, descriptions of the doss houses where the poor often slept and a look at sleeping rough in the capital at the time. A number of the women worked in domestic service and the precariousness of this way of life is made clear. The role of alcohol was key for a number of the women. All of them had been in relationships, four had married and there were several children. Rubenhold has carefully researched each woman and pieced together the stories. The research is so thorough that when she has to fill in gaps, she does so with authority. A fair amount is known about four of them. The fifth, Mary Jan Kelly remains mostly unknown. We don't actually know when or where she was born or what her real name was. Rubenhold follows all the leads and outlines the various possibilities, but she remains a mystery. But she gives them all agency and a voice, taking the focus off the brutality of their deaths. There are clear descriptions of the lives of the working (and non-working) poor and how their lives were lived. One of the issues Rubenhold has said she wanted to highlight relates to childbirth (and death):
“You have these women with horrible birth injuries from repetitive childbirth and really terrible antenatal care… Women just gave birth until their bodies gave out.”
This is a proper history book, well researched and telling a set of stories to put the spotlight on where it should be in relation to Jack the Ripper; on the five women and their backgrounds.
Profile Image for Eleanor.
632 reviews178 followers
June 18, 2019

The first thing to know about The Five is that it is a book defined by its approach; the second thing is that the approach is long overdue. The facts are these: in the late summer and autumn of 1888, from the end of August to November, five women were murdered in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood. They appeared to have been killed in the same way, and presumably by the same person. That person was never caught, but the persona that solidified around him (though, of course, we can’t know for sure that he was a him) goes by the name “Jack the Ripper”. Victorian society and 21st-century society both possess an unhealthy obsession with the sickening minutiae of Jack’s crimes–the way in which he physically mutilated the women he killed, and the almost supernatural ease with which he seemed to vanish into the gas-lit, fog-bound metropolis. Of the people he murdered, the most that any story about them seems to agree on is that they were sex workers. That “fact” (which is not true) has obscured both the actual lives they lived, and the reality of their murders: that they were not nubile doxies hanging about on street corners with artfully tousled Helena Bonham-Carter hair, but rather were overwhelmingly middle-aged, alcoholic, homeless women whose primary failing was to have been left bereft, in one way or another, of the male protection without which a nineteenth-century woman was considered functionally worthless.

Hallie Rubenhold is redressing the balance. The Five is a group biography; each of the women considered “canonical” victims of the Ripper murders is given a section of her own, which consists of three to four chapters that trace her life history from birth to the night she died. The most deliberate structural choice in the book is that Rubenhold never describes a murder. She’s writing with an agenda about which she is not remotely ashamed: women who are murdered are more than the story of their deaths. Starting with what can be determined about each woman’s early life–her parents, her place of birth, her place in the social hierarchy–she uses a sometimes scanty primary source record, bolstered with intelligently chosen secondary sources that provide contextual information about the experience of working-class life in late nineteenth-century England. Inevitably, she is forced to engage in a certain amount of speculation: in the absence of CCTV or diaries from the women themselves, it’s often difficult to know why they moved house, for instance, or whether the name that appears in parish records is the right one. But she has an excellent capacity for triangulation: she frequently uses that aforementioned historical context in conjunction with a primary source to arrive at a conclusion of what is overwhelmingly likely about a particular woman’s life, and it is convincing.

The most patently false “fact” about the canonical five is that they were all sex workers (or, as Rubenhold calls them throughout the book, “prostitutes”; I assume this is for historical continuity and she is using the word as it was deployed in police reports). There is no evidence that four out of the five women were professional sellers of sex. (The fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, is the one about whom we know the least.) However, every single one of them is known to have struggled with alcohol addiction. Mostly, drinking problems and the resultant financial strain were responsible for the implosion of their marriages or common-law relationships. They were all–again, except for Mary Jane Kelly–murdered outside, in the middle of the night. The unbearably sad conclusion is that their killer was targeting, not youthful sex workers who were lying down to ply their trade, but middle-aged homeless women who were lying down because they were asleep. Rubenhold makes it terribly clear that being a woman “outside” conventional societal roles–a woman separated from her husband or widowed, an addict, a beggar–was conflated, often fatally, with being a woman of loose morals. No distinction was made between the broken and the fallen. Not only is The Five a lucid and frankly addictive group biography (the pages really do turn themselves); it also makes painfully clear that a country whose social welfare programs are limited to the application of shame, humiliation, and a rigid code of so-called morality is not a country anyone ought to wish to return to. (I, like Rubenhold, will leave you to infer the contemporary political resonance.)

It is, in short, an excellent book as well as a much-needed one: it mingles true crime and well-researched history with narrative energy and Rubenhold’s ever-present passion for her subject. It’s going to do well without my help, but you really should read it.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?
Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,021 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.