Joanna Scutts is a cultural critic and historian, and the author of “The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.”
Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who terrorized London’s East End in the late 19th century, may be the catalyst for historian Hallie Rubenhold’s fascinating new book, but he is in no way its subject. Readers who wish to linger over the bloody details of the murders or speculate as to the killer’s still-unknown identity will have to look elsewhere, in the rich seam of Ripper lore. This is a story of life, not death — of the ordinary lives of five women, born between 1841 and 1863 and killed in one violent spree in the fall of 1888. By restoring “the five” to humanity and dignity, Rubenhold’s book becomes a passionate indictment of the true-crime genre, with its fixation on the minds of murderers and its shallow, glancing sympathy for the dead.
Annie Chapman, Kate Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly, Elisabeth Stride and Polly Nichols did not know one another. The paths that led them to the back streets of Whitechapel, one of London’s most notorious slum districts, were varied, yet shaped by two immovable constraints. They were poor, and they were female, in a world where that combination meant that “their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.” It meant that their schooling would be rudimentary and as soon as they were old enough, they would have to care for younger siblings. As adolescents, they would be sent out to work as servants in the homes of wealthier families, where they would learn how to manage a household in preparation for the role that was considered the pinnacle of their potential: marriage and motherhood. If they failed, if they “fell,” if they even faltered, the slide into destitution was swift.
These were not the kinds of lives that leave an extensive record, yet Rubenhold is able to weave a vivid narrative of Victorian working-class life from small factual scraps that she unearthed in police records, government reports and church registers. The X marked on a marriage certificate, indicating that the signer was illiterate, helps unfold the history of girls’ education in this era, while closely spaced birth records suggest the lack of access to contraception, and death certificates show the ruthlessness of infectious disease. In an era when trades and industries were closely tied to location, a family’s movement reveals its changing fortunes and pursuit of opportunity. Polly Nichols was raised in the printing and publishing enclave around London’s Fleet Street, while Annie Chapman grew up in an army family, trailing her father through lodgings near the city’s barracks, and Kate Eddowes’s people were rooted in the mining and tin-manufacturing region around Birmingham, where a teenage Kate first found, then fled, factory work. A move to London’s East End indicated a slip down the ladder of security. Wherever they lived, the dreaded workhouse loomed large over the lives of the poor, an institution of last resort that offered a hard bed in exchange for hard labor; bare survival at the expense of state surveillance.
In the wake of the killings, sensationalist newspaper coverage distorted or rewrote the victims’ stories, giving rise to the enduring myth that they were prostitutes, yet Rubenhold finds no evidence that three of the five victims ever exchanged sex for money. Only Mary Jane Kelly, the last and youngest victim, could be considered a professional sex worker, getting her start in London’s upper-echelon West End before somehow being trafficked into a brothel in Brussels. Her escape left her with enemies back home in London and drove her into the less-salubrious hunting grounds around the East London docks. Because of the nature of her work, Mary Jane’s story is the most deeply buried of the five in inconsistencies and half-truths.
Rubenhold suggests that the London police, surprisingly sensitive to a woman’s reputation, were careful about applying the label of prostitute too easily to women they picked up simply while walking along the street. But Elisabeth Stride, a farm girl from rural Sweden, couldn’t escape disrepute. In Gothenburg, where she had moved as a teenager, she fell pregnant out of wedlock, a transgression that placed her on the city’s register of “public women.” This regulated her clothing, movements and behavior and forced her to undergo regular screenings for venereal disease, a system “designed as much to chasten” women like her as to protect their health. Years later, after immigrating to London and getting married and widowed, she was arrested for soliciting. But the charge appears to have been based on nothing more than a suspicion. By then, her life was unmoored from any anchors of community, family or friendship, and like Mary Jane, she survived by making herself “everyone and no one” — a face in the crowd, known only to herself.
The specter of illicit sex still haunts the Ripper story, an unkillable ghost that makes the crimes seem more titillating and their victims more expendable. Rubenhold’s account, however, makes a compelling case that the real monster shadowing these women’s lives was alcoholism. London’s streets were glutted with pubs; most medicines were alcohol-based; and instead of dirty water, children drank low-alcohol “small beer.” Although the temperance movement was gaining ground, booze remained an efficient and socially acceptable way for many working-class women to make their lives a little brighter. Yet it turned others into hopeless addicts — including Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman, whose relatively stable, upwardly mobile marriages disintegrated because of it, and Kate Eddowes, whose taste for drink seems to have been inextricable from her love of freedom and refusal to be tethered to a factory bench.
The book concludes with a list of everything found on the five women’s bodies when they died, including petticoats stamped with the name of the workhouse, woolen stockings, straw bonnets, mirrors, combs, menstrual rags, tins of tea and sugar. These precious scraps are evidence not just of a crime but of a life. Though we know how these women’s stories play out, Rubenhold achieves much here by making us feel genuine sadness and anger at their loss.
By Hallie Rubenhold
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 333 pp. $27