Forgotten for over a century, five female victims of Jack the Ripper get their identity back
In the autumn of 1888, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Mary Ann Nichols, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly were brutally murdered by a serial killer in a span of 34 days in Whitechapel district of London. Around the world, the gruesome murders were peddled around the myth of Jack the Ripper while the victims remained largely forgotten. A century and three decades later, a new book has gathered the stories of these women, returning the identity stolen from them by an unequal and unjust society. “For 132 years, nobody cared about these five women. It used to be just about Jack the Ripper,” British social historian Hallie Rubenhold told a session titled The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper at the just concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Rubenhold’s new book, of the same title as the JLF session, exposes the sexism and misogyny that vilified the five women victims as sex workers who were responsible for what happened to them.
On the concluding day of the JLF on January 27, Rubenhold held a packed audience at the front lawns of the Diggi Palace venue spellbound by the untold stories of these women who lived ordinary lives in London. The killings happened in the Victorian era when there was 50% illiteracy among women of all classes. “‘Poverty and alcoholism’ is the unifying story in all five women’s lives,” says Rubenhold, who won the Baillie Gifford Prize for best non-fiction last year for her new work.
In the Victorian era, women were designed to be wives, mothers and carers. “If you failed in being the perfect woman, you contravened the feminine. You were the broken woman and sexually amoral,” says Rubenhold, who was born in Los Angeles, US. “If you were an alcoholic, you were also a prostitute.”
The serial killings in Whitechapel district became so famous that the story travelled around the world. “It became a story of bad women getting what they deserved,” says Rubenhold. “How these women were in part responsible for what happened to them. This is where the term ‘prostitute’ comes in,” she adds.
Rubenhold’s research took her to the Census papers in the archives, which provided her detailed accounts of the social status of the five women. In Victorian society, being a domestic worker was the only way a poor woman could have any control of her life outside marriage. Housemaid, cook and lady’s maid were the high positions for a poor woman in Victorian London. “A man was always the dominant person in any relationship,” says the author.
Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim, was the wife of a printer. As a woman who couldn’t afford a divorce, she suffered from a bad marriage. Annie Chapman, the second victim whose family lived in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood, was an alcoholic. Chapman was committed to England’s first rehabilitation centre. Elizabeth Stride, the third victim, was a Swedish migrant who left her family behind to work as a servant in London. Stride soon found herself in state-organised prostitution after a pregnancy out of wedlock and became a fraudster to survive.
Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim, had a factory job. Both her parents died before Eddowes was 15 years old and she travelled with her boyfriend in a ballet troupe. She suffered at the hands of her violent boyfriend and took up drinking. Mary Jane Kelly, the youngest victim at 25, was trafficked to Paris, escaped to London and was in hiding when she was killed. All the five women were killed in their sleep. They were homeless and rough sleepers. “Four of the five women were in their 40s when they were killed,” says Rubenhold, who also met descendants of the five women during her research for the book. “They were victims of circumstances,” she says. “Their downfall was alcoholism. I believe society didn’t allow them to spiral out of their circumstances,” she adds.
“By writing the book, I have given back their identity as human beings,” says Rubenhold, whose previous books include The French Lesson, which is about a young Englishwoman fleeing from a dishonourable past in London who finds herself alone in Paris in the middle of the French Revolution, and The Scandalous Lady W, a tale of sex, scandal and divorce in 18th-century England.
When Rubenhold began writing The Five… the #MeToo movement hadn’t yet started. When it was published, it soon became a feminist book. “The Ripperology community has accused me of lying, ignoring information,” says the author, who believes a historian’s craft is ‘underrated’. “There wasn’t even factual evidence to prove who Jack the Ripper was,” she says. “The name was invented by the press.” But that didn’t stop a Jack the Ripper Walk or Jack the Ripper Museum from coming up in London. “There is something about Jack the Ripper that hasn’t stopped the imagination of people internationally,” says Rubenhold. “There is a Jack the Ripper industry,” she adds.
“I feel these women didn’t die in vain. We are using them to understand the position of women in our society. As a society, we are obsessed with murder… a murder is about society that makes the killer and the victim. But there is a persistence in the myth of Jack the Ripper,” she says.
The author is a freelancer