The Final Chapter
Five Untold LivesBy Malcolm Borthwick
So much is written about Jack the Ripper, but so little is known about his victims. Hallie Rubenhold, whose book won The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, talks to Malcolm Borthwick about why we need to tell their stories
This article originally featured in Baillie Gifford’s Spring 2020 issue of Trust magazine.
There’s the legend and then there’s the reality of Jack the Ripper, explains Hallie Rubenhold. “The Ten Bells sits at the crossroads of both, and has become magnetic north for Ripperologists,” she says. It is at this magnetic north that I meet the author, broadcaster and social historian. The pub is opposite Spitalfields Market, which was built in 1887, a year before the murders, and it stands next door to Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. It’s thought that Annie Chapman drank here shortly before she was murdered by Jack the Ripper. Another of his victims, Mary Jane Kelly, is said to have solicited trade outside the pub.
Much has been written about the gruesome murders in 1888; Ripper tours are widespread; and just around the corner you can even get your hair cut by Jack the Clipper, who describes himself as “London born and bled”. It’s a thriving industry that often blurs fact with fiction. Chapman and Kelly both lived close to the pub but Rubenhold explains: “We don’t know for sure that any of the Ripper victims even came to this pub. It’s about stripping back the layers and trying to figure out what the truth is.” This is what Rubenhold does in her book, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.
Her extraordinary feat of archival research has ruffled the feathers of Ripperologists, with some even comparing her to Holocaust denier David Irving. “Ripperology is a cult and they see themselves as the keepers of the flame,” she claims. “There’s so much sexism and misogyny in this cult, and I’m an outsider. I have become this voodoo doll.” This is clear from the Ripper tour I go on the night before. The guide is critical of Rubenhold’s book, suggesting much of it is based on guesswork, relying heavily on “woulds” and “could haves”. The Ripperologists are lashing out, Rubenhold maintains, because she has disrupted the narrative.
Hallie Rubenhold and Malcolm Borthwick in The Ten Bells, Spitalfields.
The Ripperologists are lashing out, Rubenhold maintains, because she has disrupted the narrative.
The bestselling author, who has written three works of non-fiction and two novels, said she wanted to write something different. “I’m not the sort of historian who is interested in the bedtime stories of history or telling well-known stories over and over again. You see parts of history being colonised by particular writers: Charles Dickens’s London and Jane Austen’s England. The experience of life is much broader, and the experience of history is much broader. I feel determined to get the public interested in the reality.”
Rubenhold’s own determination and love of history are clear. She is both an historian and campaigner for women’s untold stories. The author becomes animated as she talks about wading through census records and ledgers from the Peabody Housing Association to determine who married whom and who lived where. She recounts listening to Philip Glass music into the early hours and seeing these long-dead, long-forgotten people “coming to life through the darkness, in this witching hour”.
This isn’t a book about Jack the Ripper the man, and Rubenhold ignores both the gore of the murders and speculation about the killer. This is about the victims: Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. She humanises the victims by telling their stories as daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. As women and as human beings. It’s a fascinating and at times brutal revelation of what it was like to be poor in Victorian England.
One of the biggest and most malign myths of all, claims Rubenhold, is that the victims were all prostitutes. She maintains that there is no hard evidence to prove this. “Ripperologists don’t evaluate the sources. If you look at the death certificates drawn up after the inquests were heard, only one [Mary Jane Kelly] has prostitute stated under occupation.”
Rubenhold says the reason they were labelled sex workers is that “the Victorians conflated broken women with fallen woman. When a down-and-out woman was found outside, on the street, at night, in the Victorian perspective she was a whore.”
What the five victims did have in common was tragic backstories that were hard to escape from. In the space of just three weeks, Annie Chapman lost four of her siblings to scarlet fever and typhus. Catherine Eddowes was cast out by her family and caught in a cycle of domestic violence with her partner Thomas Conway. Mary Jane Kelly was duped into working in a brothel in Paris and her belongings were stolen. It was with this backdrop perhaps that all five turned to drink.
“One of the things which really dogged the poor was drink,” says Rubenhold. “If you’re not earning much money, the difference between abject poverty and improving your life, or your children’s lives, was that bottle. The money you would spend on drink, the time you would miss off work and the things you’d forget about when you were drunk would prevent you from bettering your life.”
Houses in the adjoining Fournier Street now change hands for over £3 million.
The doors of the workhouse also loomed large for those who fell on hard times. “The greatest shame you could experience was having to darken the doors of the workhouse. Your community will remember you taking your whole family into the workhouse, so when you come out, people will look at you differently and you will have lost a certain degree of respectability.”
Shame is a recurring theme. The Victorians were pioneering in terms of infrastructure, sanitation and education. In Rubenhold’s view “they did what they could but were living in their own religious paradigm. You were given the Bible and told your life would get better if you embraced God. The whole system was designed to shame people because of the poverty that often they were born into. You can’t elevate people out of poverty whilst shaming them at the same time. It doesn’t work.”
After the interview we walk around Whitechapel and look at what remains from the time of the Ripper murders over 130 years ago: the pubs, churches, old merchant houses and cobbled streets. There’s still the buzz of Brick Lane, now famous for its curry houses and street art. The area around The Ten Bells has been gentrified in recent decades and is home to upmarket restaurants and fashion labels. Houses in the adjoining Fournier Street now change hands for over £3 million.
Whitechapel has changed, but it’s striking how relevant Rubenhold’s book is today. It tackles domestic violence, addiction, homelessness, serial killers, immigration and poverty. But we shouldn’t underestimate progress. Rubenhold says: “There are things we don’t like about the 21st century, but there is no better time to be alive than now. We are healthier, we have more options and opportunities than we’ve ever had, especially as a woman.” The stories of the five victims of Jack the Ripper are evidence of this.
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Malcolm Borthwick Editor
Malcolm is editor of Trust. He was formerly the BBC’s economics and business editor in Asia and the Middle East, and vice president of corporate affairs at BNY Mellon.
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