Social historian Hallie Rubenbold has won the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction for her book The Five, which explores the lives of Jack the Ripper’s victims.
Here she talks to Ellie Cawthorne about why their side of the story matters…
Your book explores the lives of Jack the Ripper’s victims, rather than focusing on their deaths. Why did you feel it was important to tell this side of the story?
Because it is virtually untold. For many, Jack the Ripper is just a bit of fun. They enjoy dressing up as him for Halloween, or laughing and screaming when he jumps out at the London Dungeon, but they don’t really take on board the victims and their experiences. To most people, the women Jack the Ripper killed are just corpses.
But I wanted to tell a different story – not of these five women’s murders, but of the daily reality of their lives in Victorian England. I don’t believe the actual moments of murder are relevant to that.
The Jack the Ripper case has been widely commercialised and even glamorised. What do you think is behind this obsession?
These murders are considered to be the classic unsolved crime, and people are fascinated by that prospect. It has become a kind of parlour game to see whether we can crack the case once and for all.
From a historical point of view, however, the body of evidence that surrounds the crimes is riddled with problems. In terms of the surviving documentation, the closest we will ever get to effectively bringing the Ripper to trial is the coroner’s inquest. That gathers together all of the witnesses and is a sort of compilation of everything there is to know about the murders. But the evidence is very flawed – for example, the coroner’s documents are missing for three of the five women, meaning that we have to rely on newspaper transcripts. But I found that if you look at 10 different newspapers, you will find 10 different versions of what a witness said at the inquest.
I think that people have been afraid to admit that the available historical documentation is deeply, deeply flawed. I don’t think we will ever solve the murders, so we need to put that idea to bed.
What can you tell us about the lives of these five women?
Together, the women’s stories took me to some very dark places – they include homelessness, alcoholism, domestic abuse and even sex trafficking.
With the exception of Mary Jane Kelly, they were all in their 40s when they died, and all came from working-class backgrounds. The assumption is that “they were all prostitutes who came from Whitechapel”. But what’s really interesting is that none of them actually hailed from Whitechapel, and they were all led there by very different life experiences. So it rather irked me that they have been lumped together like that.
Was life as a working-class Victorian woman unremittingly grim?
In the 19th century, being both poor and a woman was a terrible combination.
If a woman was very poor, she could work as a charwoman, labour in a sweatshop, take on piecemeal home-work, or become a domestic servant. But all of these tasks were incredibly arduous and the hours were very long. The best of that bad bunch was a life in service, where a woman could rise through the ranks if she worked extremely hard. Even so, it was a life of drudgery and hardship.
Victorian society operated on the proviso that women were never designed to be breadwinners. The types of work available to them were very poorly paid – they were never intended to support a family. Women were expected to be wives, mothers and caregivers, not the head of a household. If a woman’s husband or father got ill, died or abandoned her, she often couldn’t bring in enough money to sustain her family. The cards were stacked against her.
Life could be very precarious, and the state safety net was awful. The workhouse was designed to punish people – you would be shamed, it was a terrible existence. It was either that, or ending up on the street.
Listen: Hallie Rubenhold on the women killed by Jack the Ripper
Did any of the women’s stories capture your imagination in particular?
This was the most emotive book I’ve ever written, and all of the women’s stories touched me in different ways.
One that was deeply tragic was that of Annie Chapman. Although she came from a working-class background, Annie had the opportunity to escape the grasp of grinding poverty and move into the lower middle classes. Her husband worked as the head coachman on a country estate, and the family were putting money aside for their daughters to go to decent schools: they were moving up in society. But Annie was a chronic alcoholic, which threw everything off course. Poverty was so truly awful at the time, and to have defeated that fate only to slip back into it is incredibly sad.
Elizabeth Stride’s story is also absolutely fascinating. She found herself caught up in state-sanctioned prostitution in Sweden, before being ‘rescued’ by a woman who took her on as a servant. Elizabeth eventually emigrated to London, where she worked for a wealthy family and married a carpenter. The strength of character that she demonstrated as an immigrant was extraordinary.
How did you go about reconstructing their lives?
We’re fortunate because there were a number of newspaper interviews done with people who knew the victims, so you start with those fragments and corroborate them with other documents like death records or censuses. I could wax lyrical about censuses, because the information you can glean from them is amazing. You can get a very finite picture of who lived in a house and what a neighbourhood was like. Other extremely illuminating sources are Charles Booth’s poverty maps, which graph the geographies of poverty in the capital.
Getting a sense of London’s smells, sights and sounds is actually fairly easy, because 19th-century social investigators and journalists penned prolific amounts of marvellous, colourful material describing the city. When you immerse yourself in all of that, you get a much stronger sense of how people would have lived in that environment, and what psychological state they would have had to have been in to endure it.
All five of these women – whether correctly or not – were labelled as prostitutes. Did this shape how their murders were discussed?
I set out to write this book because I wanted to explore Victorian sex work. And who are the most famous prostitutes of the 19th century? The victims of Jack the Ripper. Yes, both Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly had worked as prostitutes, but what surprised me was that in the other three cases, I could not find any hard evidence to suggest that the women had been sex workers at all.
I think that this misunderstanding has arisen because of a tendency to take everything that the Victorian establishment said about these women at face value. At that time, society saw all dispossessed women as prostitutes. The fact that a poor woman was an addict or out on the street at night was enough to assume she was a sex worker. The concept of homelessness was conflated with that of street prostitution. But I’ve tried to pick apart those two strands to look more accurately at what happened to women when they found themselves in compromised circumstances. At least three of the victims were known to be homeless, and did not have enough money on them for the doss house on the nights they were killed. They were also found in places that rough sleepers were known to frequent, and were killed in reclining positions with no struggle or noise. The fact that we have chosen to ignore these facts for 130 years is very interesting.
There’s also a lot to be said about the fact that Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes all lived with men out of wedlock. In some cases they were still married, but since they were separated from their husbands (something that was surrounded by great shame), they couldn’t support themselves financially. In order to survive they had to shack up with other men. Even though these were often monogamous relationships, they were branded adulteresses and whores.
If you look at the lists of women who were admitted into refuges for ‘fallen women’ at this time, they fell into a number of categories – women who had worked as prostitutes, women who were mistresses, women who were victims of rape and women who were victims of incest. Any woman who had sex outside of marriage was seen as damaged goods. She was like Eve – she had eaten the forbidden fruit and acquired knowledge that was detrimental to her status as a woman.
Do moral judgments still shape the way these women are viewed?
To a certain degree, yes. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, our society still carries a prejudice against sex workers. There is an idea that women who are ‘bad’ deserve to be punished, and that sex workers are somehow lesser women; they are ‘sub-women’. That really hasn’t changed much since the 1880s.
Take, for example, the Suffolk Murders case of 2006. During the trial, the judge asked the jury to lay aside their prejudices about the victims selling sex or taking drugs, because regardless of what they did in life, they did not deserve to be murdered. The fact that a judge still had to say that relatively recently is absolutely shocking.
The book has already sparked a reaction from ‘Ripperologists’. Are you gearing up for a fight?
There is a strong sense of ownership of the material by that said group of people, and I think this is why they are unhappy that somebody from outside the community is writing a book about their subject.
But I also think that it’s a shame people are so worried and concerned. If my book makes people question what they consider to be truths, then a good thing has been done.
Hallie Rubenhold is an author, social historian and historical consultant. In November 2019, her book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (2019) won the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. Her previous books include The French Lesson (2016), The Covent Garden Ladies (2005), which inspired the ITV series Harlots, and Lady Worsley’s Whim (2008), which was adapted into The Scandalous Lady W for BBC Two.
This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine