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.
“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.”
I don’t often do reviews for non-fiction books for two reasons:
A) I don’t read a lot of non-fiction in the first place, something I would like to rectify, and
B) It feels strange rating non-fiction books… like I was rating a textbook or something.
That being said, after reading this book, I just knew I had to talk about it. This was a non-fiction that had me wishing I had been assigned this book in school. It does the thing that I need in this genre to not be bored out of my skull: it was engaging and was never dry, even when the author was reciting data and numbers from Victorian London.
It helps that this book was on a topic that I found singularly fascinating. It focuses on the lives of the women who were killed by the infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. What I loved so much about this book was that it truly focused on just the victims. The killer is mentioned here or there, it would be kind of impossible not to, but there is never a focus on his possible motives or who he might have been. Hallie Rubenhold does an admirable job of making sure the lives of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are what we really dive into throughout the book. I think that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It was refreshing to have the spotlight on the victims instead of the perpetrator.
I also think the author did an incredible job with researching this topic. From what I could gather, it certainly wasn’t easy! Records on all five of the women aren’t exactly as complete as a historian might wish, after all. This does lead to a lot of “Polly may have done such…” and “Elizabeth would have done this…”, which could be a little bothersome. I understood why the author did it, though, because there is no real way of knowing for sure what these women did. Still, I think the author drew some pretty solid conclusions from the information she was able to find.
Final thoughts: This was an incredibly well-written true crime story that put the spotlight firmly where it should be: on the victims. There is quite a bit of conjecture in this book as records weren’t terribly great for the poor in Victorian London, but I think Hallie Rubenhold did a fantastic job researching and writing a compelling book with the information she had. This was intensely readable and I would definitely pick up a non-fiction from her in the future!