The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27)
Weary of the enduring legend of Jack the Ripper, British historian Hallie Rubenhold has written “a blistering counternarrative,” said Wendy Smith in The Washington Post. Choosing to shift the focus from the notorious and still unidentified London killer to the five women he brutally murdered across two months in 1888, Rubenhold “finally gives them their due,” proving that the lore has badly misrepresented them. In fact, none of the four who were slain in the street were working prostitutes: They were wives and mothers who had fallen on hard times, a fate that was too common and often too punishing in Industrial Age England. At times, the author’s tone can be “slightly overheated,” but she leaves little doubt that the odds were stacked against these women and millions like them.
The killer’s victims “died in hell, but they lived in hell, too,” said Frances Wilson in TheGuardian.com. Because they were women, their options were severely limited when fate left them single. Polly Nichols, for one, was a blacksmith’s daughter and a bright student. But when she left her cheating husband, she could win no financial support without demonstrating destitution by entering one of London’s infamous workhouses. A long slide into alcoholism followed, and at a time when up to 600 homeless people filled Trafalgar Square, she, too, was sleeping on the street on the night she was murdered. We hear similar tales about Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, and Elizabeth Stride.
Rubenhold’s book “brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Victorian values,’” said Daisy Goodwin in The Times (U.K.). But if 1888 London seems “an unfathomably distant time and place,” it shouldn’t, said Kelly Faircloth in Jezebel.com. “Murdered women are still consumed as entertainment,” and the disadvantaged are still blamed for requiring society’s help. However fearsome Jack the Ripper may have been, “ultimately he’s much less frightening than the prospect of a future that re-creates the conditions that put his victims so easily within his reach.” ■