It remains one of history’s most notorious murder sprees—and we all know the killer’s name. In the autumn of 1888, Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel district, murdering at least five women before disappearing into the foggy night. The brutal nature of the crimes shocked Victorian England and stunned newspaper readers around the world. And with news breaking just this March that forensic scientists may have uncovered the killer’s true identity, it’s clear that Jack the Ripper still captures headlines over 130 years later.
But what do we know of the five women at the center of the case?
Their names were Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth (or Elisabeth) Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. They hailed from different backgrounds, and each lived lives of hope and heartbreak, hardship, love, and laughter. Within the pages of penny dreadfuls they were reduced to sensationalized victims of the Victorian era: poor, immoral prostitutes—the five canonical Jack the Ripper victims. Now, their true life stories will finally see the light of day.
In her powerful new book, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, social historian Hallie Rubenhold goes beyond the graphic headlines in search of the five women who died at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Thoroughly researched and rich with period detail, Rubenhold delivers a full portrait of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane, free from the misconceptions and moral scolding that so often plagued their lives and tragic deaths. An eye-opening read for true crime fans and "a must for Ripperologists" (Publishers Weekly), Rubenhold’s The Five is a moving work of narrative non-fiction that sets the record straight and gives a voice to the victims of London’s Whitechapel murders.
Read on for an excerpt of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, and then download the book.
Roughly twelve months lay between the Queen’s Golden Jubilee summer and Polly Nichols’s murder on August 31, 1888. She would be the first of Jack the Ripper’s five “canonical” victims — those whose deaths the police determined were committed by the same hand in the district of Whitechapel, in London’s East End. A few days later, on September 8, the body of Annie Chapman was discovered in a yard off Hanbury Street. In the early morning hours of the thirtieth of that month, the Ripper managed to strike twice. In what became known as “the double event,” he claimed the lives of Elisabeth Stride, who was found in Dutfield’s Yard, off Berner Street, and Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, who was killed in Mitre Square. After a brief pause in his spree, he committed his final atrocity on November 9: a complete mutilation of the body of Mary Jane Kelly as she lay in her bed at 13 Miller’s Court.
The brutality of the Whitechapel murders stunned London and newspaper readers around the world. The Ripper had cut the throat of each victim. Four of the five were eviscerated. With the exception of the final killing, these violent deaths occurred in open places, under cover of darkness. In each case, the murderer managed to abscond, leaving not a trace of his or her identity. Given the densely populated district in which these killings occurred, the public, the press, and even the police believed this to be remarkable. The Ripper always seemed one ghostly, ghoulish step ahead of authorities, which bestowed upon the murders something extra terrifying and almost supernatural.
The Whitechapel-based H Division of the Metropolitan Police did the best they could with their resources, but having never before faced a murder case of this scale and magnitude, they quickly found themselves overwhelmed. House-to-house inquiries were conducted throughout the area, and a wide variety of forensic material was gathered and analyzed. The police were besieged with statements and letters from those who claimed to be witnesses, those offering assistance, and others who just liked spinning tales. In all, more than two thousand people were interviewed and more than three hundred were investigated as possible suspects. Even with assistance from Scotland Yard and the City of London Police, none of these efforts yielded anything useful. Genuine leads were certain to have been lost among the swirling wash of paper that the investigators had to process. In the meantime, as the constables scribbled into their notebooks and followed potential malefactors down dark alleys, the Ripper continued to kill.
As the “Autumn of Terror” wore on, Whitechapel filled up with journalists. They hovered over this seam of sensationalist gold with pencils sharpened. Their presence amid the ongoing police investigation and an East End population living in a state of fear proved explosive. In the absence of any conclusive information offered by police, the newspapers posited their own theories about the killer and his modus operandi. As the papers continued to fly off newsstands, journalists grew hungry for more content and new angles on the story. Inevitably, embellishment, invention, and “fake news” found their way onto the page. However, printing rumors and hotheaded opinion pieces that disparaged the efforts of the police did little to quell the anxiety of those who lived in Whitechapel.
By the middle of September, residents were described as “panic-stricken”; most were too terrified to leave their homes at night. “Hooting and shouting” crowds gathered outside the police station on Leman Street, demanding the arrest of the killer, and local tradesmen, eager to take matters into their own hands, founded the Whitechapel Vigilance Society. All the while, the press speculated wildly about the identity of the culprit: he was a Whitechapel man; he was a wealthy “swell” from the West End; he was a sailor, a Jew, a butcher, a surgeon, a foreigner, a lunatic, a gang of extortionists. The inhabitants of the neighborhood began to attack anyone who fit these descriptions; doctors toting medical bags were set upon, and men carrying parcels were reported to the police. Sickened by the grotesque events, many people nonetheless found themselves compulsively intrigued by them. Just as crowds grew outside Leman Street police station, so they also gathered around the sites of the murders. Some stood staring at the places where the vicious deeds had been committed in the hope of finding answers, while others were simply entranced by the horror of the spectacle.
Because the police failed to apprehend and charge a suspect for any of the five murders, the itch to see justice meted out in the form of a trial was never salved. Instead, that which served to offer a few answers and a degree of closure was the series of coroner’s inquests, one for each killing. These were held publicly in Whitechapel and in the City of London in the wake of each murder and covered extensively by the newspapers. At a coroner’s inquest, as at a criminal trial, witnesses are called before a jury to give an account of events; the objective is to piece together a clear and official picture of how a death occurred. Most of the information that currently exists about Jack the Ripper’s five victims appears in witness statements given during the inquests; however, these accounts are problematic. The examinations lacked thoroughness, the juries asked few follow-up questions, and inconsistencies and vagaries in the testimonies were rarely challenged. Ultimately, the information disclosed over the course of the inquests only skims the surface of a far deeper and murkier well of potential answers.
Investigations into the Whitechapel murders did, however, explicitly and convincingly expose a disturbing set of facts: the poor of that district lived in unspeakably horrendous conditions. The encampment and riots at Trafalgar Square were a conspicuous manifestation of what had been chronically ailing in the East End and other impoverished parts of London. It was a cough hacked in the face of the establishment. The emergence of Jack the Ripper was a louder and more violent one still […]
During the Ripper’s reign of terror, newspapers, eager to scandalize the nation with graphic details of slum life, regularly asserted that Whitechapel’s lodging houses “were brothels in all but name” and that the majority of women who inhabited them, with very few exceptions, were prostitutes. In the grip of such terrible events, the public were willing to believe it. Hyperbole became enshrined as fact, although some within the police had come to perceive the situation in another light.
An altogether different perspective is offered in a letter written by Sir Charles Warren, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, at the height of the murder spree. After some rough calculations, Warren estimated that approximately 1,200 prostitutes inhabited Whitechapel’s 233 common lodging houses. More importantly, he qualified this statement by admitting that the police “have no means of ascertaining what women are prostitutes and who are not.” In other words, the newspapers were in no position to make this determination when even the police found distinguishing a prostitute from among her sisters an impossibility. Warren’s figures present another intriguing prospect. If the lodging-house population was comprised of 8,530 people and a third, or 2,844, of those residents were female, and if it were to be accepted that 1,200 of these women could be identified as prostitutes, that would still indicate that the majority of them, or 1,644, were not engaged in any form of prostitution at all. Much like the inhabitants of Whitechapel’s common lodging houses, the victims of Jack the Ripper and the lives they led became entangled in a web of assumptions, rumor, and unfounded speculation. The spinning of these strands began over 130 years ago and, remarkably, they have been left virtually undisturbed and unchallenged. The fibers that have clung to and defined the shape of Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane’s stories are the values of the Victorian world. They are male, authoritarian, and middle class. They were formed at a time when women had no voice, and few rights, and the poor were considered lazy and degenerate: to have been both of these things was one of the worst possible combinations. For over 130 years we have embraced the dusty parcel we were handed. We have rarely ventured to peer inside it or attempted to remove the thick wrapping that has kept us from knowing these women or their true histories.
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. As soon as each body was discovered, in a dark yard or street, the police assumed that the woman was a prostitute killed by a maniac who had lured her to the location for sex. There is, and never was, any proof of this either. To the contrary—over the course of the coroner’s inquests, it became known that Jack the Ripper never had sex with a single victim. Additionally, in the case of each murder there were no signs of struggle and the killings appear to have taken place in complete silence. There were no screams heard by anyone in the vicinity. The autopsies concluded that all of the women were killed while in a reclining position. In at least three of the cases, the victims were known to sleep on the street and on the nights they were killed did not have money for a lodging house. In the final case, the victim was murdered in her bed. However, the police were so committed to their theories about the killer’s choice of victims that they failed to conclude the obvious—the Ripper targeted women while they slept.
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Unreliable source material has always been the obstacle to discovering the truth about these murders. Although a handful of police records exist, the coroner’s inquests provide most of what is known about the actual crimes and the victims. Unfortunately, in three of the five cases, the official documentation from these inquests is missing. All that remains is a body of edited, embellished, misheard, reinterpreted newspaper reports from which a general picture of events can be teased. These documents have been approached with care on my part, and nothing contained within them has been taken as gospel. Similarly, I have also refrained from using unsubstantiated information provided by witnesses who did not know the victims personally prior to their deaths.
My intention in writing this book is not to hunt and name the killer. I wish instead to retrace the footsteps of five women, to consider their experiences within the context of their era, and to follow their paths through both the gloom and the light. They are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for; they were children who cried for their mothers, they were young women who fell in love; they endured childbirth, the death of parents; they laughed, and they celebrated Christmas. They argued with their siblings, they wept, they dreamed, they hurt, they enjoyed small triumphs. The courses their lives took mirrored that of so many other women of the Victorian age, and yet were so singular in the way they ended. 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.
Want to keep reading? Download The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper now.
Jack the Ripper is one of the world’s most notorious killers, and yet, we know next to nothing about the killer or his victims. Hallie Rubenhold’s investigation into the five canonical victims (six other killings are considered linked, but unlikely to have been committed by the Ripper) reframes the narrative around the women whose lives were cut brutally short. Each of the five women were believed to have been sex workers, allowing the Ripper access to them at late hours of the night.
Whether or not they were sex workers, these women’s lives had value. Their brutalized bodies may have been treated as curios and tourist attractions, leading to the many popular Jack the Ripper tours and the scads of merchandise available today, but each of the five deserves to be remembered, as made clear by Rubenhold’s work. Interested in learning more? Purchase The Five today.