Hallie Rubenhold’s hard-edged, heartbreaking biographies of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper over two months in 1888 offer a blistering counter-narrative to the “male, authoritarian, and middle class” legend of a demonic superman preying on prostitutes. Three of these women were not prostitutes at all, but wives and mothers fallen on hard times. Another had been forced into state-regulated prostitution in Sweden by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; she emigrated to London as a housemaid and later married. Only the final victim worked in the sex trade for most of her short existence. Resurrecting these women’s complicated lives through diligent research in public records, Rubenhold aims to restore them to history as full human beings. Equally important, she places them in context within the beleaguered Victorian working class, struggling to survive in the brutal society forged by the Industrial Revolution.
She opens with a pointed contrast between two 1887 events: Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in June and an encampment of homeless people in Trafalgar Square broken up by police in November. Among those arrested was 42-year-old Polly Nichols; a year later, she was the Ripper’s first victim. On the day she went to jail, Polly was an angry drunk, known to police as a habitual beggar. But she spent her early years in the respectable working class, daughter of a blacksmith and the wife of a printer. Nonetheless, life was hard. Polly had five children, and the ever-expanding family meant finances were always precarious.
Throughout the book, Rubenhold uses the particulars of her subjects’ lives as a springboard to depict social circumstances that shaped millions of lives. When Polly left her husband as the result of his affair with a neighbor, the author reminds us, divorce was economically impossible for working-class women. The only way to get an official separation was to demonstrate destitution by entering one of Victorian England’s feared and despised workhouses; officials might then order the estranged spouse to provide (minimal) support. Polly’s reluctant arrival at the Lambeth Union Workhouse was the beginning of a long downward slide oiled by alcohol. It included a liaison with another man, domestic service, “tramping” as an itinerant laborer, further residences in the workhouse and frequent stays in London’s lodging houses.
These filthy, dangerous dives rented beds for the night to those too poor for regular housing. On the night she was killed, Polly told a friend, “I have had my lodging money three times today and I have spent it.” Because her body was found on the street, police assumed she was soliciting. On the contrary, Rubenhold demonstrates, homeless women often “slept rough” when they didn’t have the price of a bed. Three of the Ripper’s victims — Polly, Annie Chapman and Kate Eddowes — were almost certainly sleeping rough when they were murdered. The sole verifiable prostitute, Mary Jane Kelly, was the only one killed in her room. Elisabeth Stride, the Swedish immigrant, may have been seen arguing with a man before her death and may have been soliciting, but she may also have gone out to drink.
Alcohol and desperation were common denominators among these women. Annie’s addiction propelled her from the top of the working class, wife of the head coachman on a country estate, into a hand-to-mouth existence hawking crocheted antimacassars and flowers. Free-spirited Kate found a sociable refuge from backbreaking labor in a tinware factory at the local public house; drink became a problem and stays in the workhouse a necessity after her marriage to a roving ballad-seller collapsed in poverty and violence. For Elisabeth, alcohol may have eased the symptoms of syphilis acquired 20 years earlier in Sweden. Mary Jane Kelly would have tippled cautiously during her days in a high-end brothel in London’s posh West End, but that ended when she accepted the offer of a Paris trip from a “gentleman” who turned out to be a trafficker. She managed to escape but had to relocate and wound up in a squalid single room in Whitechapel. Mary Jane appeared to be very drunk when a neighbor saw her take a man into that room around midnight the night she died.
Rubenhold does not pretend her subjects were admirable characters, but she makes a compelling case that “the cards were stacked against [them] from birth.” In a society where female employment options were drastically limited, poor women separated from their husbands or otherwise unable to marry often cohabited with men as a matter of economic necessity. All five of the Ripper’s victims did at one time or another, so it was all too predictable that they would be falsely lumped together as “prostitutes,” stigmatized by the same punitive code that considered poverty a moral failing and deliberately made workhouse conditions so miserable that even the worst job — or sleeping on the street — was preferable.
Rubenhold argues that those attitudes persist, although “they may not be expressed freely in general conversation.” Her tone is slightly overheated; it’s unlikely that “we teach [the Ripper legend] to schoolchildren,” as she claims, nor does being fascinated by a grisly series of murders unsolved for more than 100 years necessarily mean “we condone the basest forms of violence.” But she has a point about the legions of books that speculate endlessly about Jack the Ripper’s identity while displaying scant interest in the five human beings he viciously dispatched. Her riveting work, both compassionate group portrait and stinging social history, finally gives them their due.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
By Hallie Rubenhold
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 352 pp. $27