by Hallie Rubenhold
The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
‘The victims of Jack the Ripper were never “just prostitues”; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.’
During the late summer of 1888, death stalked the mean streets of Whitechapel in London. Five women became victims of a vicious serial killer, dubbed Jack the Ripper by the police and popular press of the day. The horrors of those weeks are well known; countless volumes have been written about the murders and about the murderer, who was never arrested or identified.
Frankly, we probably don’t need any more books on the subject! Hallie Rubenhold, however, tells a different story. Instead of focussing on the gruesome details and the hunt for the killer, she traces with considerable success the lives of the five women so brutally done to death. Apart from the manner of their end, they had much in common. All five had succumbed to the evils of alcohol. None came from the upper classes of society that so joyously celebrated Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee the year before. And because they passed their final days in poverty on the streets of London, widowed or abandoned and alone, society at large, including authorities who should have known better, described them as ‘prostitutes’.
As Hallie Rubenhold demonstrates so forcefully in The Five, with one exception they were nothing of the kind.
‘I just write to say you will be glad to know that I am settled in my new place and going all right up to now. My people …. are teetotallers and very religious so I ought to get on. They are very nice people ….’ [Polly Nichols to her father, May 1888, three months before her murder]
Mary Ann, or Polly Nichols was forty-three years old, the daughter of a blacksmith. For around fifteen years married to respectable print worker William Nichols, she had five children by him. By 1878, the marriage was breaking down. William was having an affair with Rosetta Walls, the woman next door. Two years later, Polly could take it no longer and took the drastic step of leaving home, husband and children to take her chances roughing it on the streets or in the workhouse. Alcohol became her consolation and despite her best efforts, she succumbed to its effects.
‘Annie said to [her sister], in words that are redolent with the profound suffering of the chronic alcoholic, “it was of no use, no one knew the fearful struggle …. I can never be free.” ‘
Annie Chapman, forty-six or -seven at the time of her death, was the illegitimate child of Ruth Chapman, a servant girl, and George Smith, a trooper in the Queen’s Life Guards. Her marriage in 1869 to John Chapman (the name is a coincidence), a ‘gentleman’s coachman’, seems to have been a love match. As with Polly, the demon drink raised its ugly head and was the catalyst in separating her from husband and chidren. Her family made every effort to cure her of the habit but without success.
‘The Strides’ marriage marked another fresh beginning in both of their lives. Their union was sealed by the birth of a business venture and a move to another part of town.’
Elizabeth Stride (originally Gustafsdotter, or Gustafson), born in 1843, grew up on a farm in Sweden. Unfortunate enough to contract syphilis from a youthful lover and placed on a register for sufferers of the disease, she emigrated to London in 1866 as housemaid to a well-to-do British family. She married John Stride in March 1869 and they opened a coffee shop together in Poplar. Two attempts at building a successful business failed. Debts built up and John, disinherited by his father, who might have helped – and for no apparent reason, was crushed. The couple split and, though twice reconciled, they parted permanently in 1881.
‘Hanging days were big business for ballad and chapbook sellers, who belted out the rhyming lamentations of the murderer. Executions would have been Kate and Thomas’s bread and butter….. However, this hanging would have been of particular importance to the couple, as [Robinson] was Kate’s distant cousin.’
Kate Eddowes, in some respects the most fascinating character of the first four, was forty-six in 1888. She had enjoyed an interesting life – though not without its hardships – as the wife of a chapman, a pedlar who sold printed material containing stories, poems and songs. Kate’s job was to sing to the crowd while her husband Tom tried to attract buyers of his wares. Kate very likely composed some of the material herself. When times were hard, the couple would earn a few shillings picking hops. Like Polly, Annie and Elizabeth, she was dragged down to street poverty and the workhouse by a love of strong drink.
‘In this quarter of London, it was obligatory for a potential client to make the first approach and for the woman to respond, either with flirtatious feigned horror or acceptance: “Let us get into a cab – “Oh no, I can’t take you home.” ‘
Mary Jane Kelly knew who and what she was, and apparently liked embellishing the truth – and inventing it! Born in 1863 in Ireland, she was the youngest of the murder victims. Often spotted in the smart nightspots of the West End, she enjoyed the company of well-dressed gentlemen of the upper class. Sexual slavery was alive and well, and alcohol was not the only lure set for girls of Mary Jane’s profession. Deceived into travelling to Paris, whether to take up a romantic proposal or to continue practising her trade, Mary Jane escaped but in so doing made enemies. Her domaine was no longer the Café de l’Europe but the Ratcliff Highway, to the east of the Tower of London. From thence, she slipped into the same trap as the other victims.
The Five is a brilliant social history, told with colour, pathos and expertise. In telling the stories of these five women, Rubenhold uncovers the twisted morality of the Victorian era. She demonstrates how easy it was for women, especially working class women, to fall on hard times. A woman’s role then was to be a wife, a mother, or a carer and by failing the expectations of patriarchal society she was doomed to be despised or cast out. Such was the fate of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth and Kate. Mary Jane was the exception that proves the rule.
Reading these five life stories in all their tragic detail made me realise how far we have travelled in 150 years from the grim horrors of Victorian London. But it has also demonstrated how far we still have to travel to make our society a level playingfield for all. In this respect, the horrible deaths of Polly, Annie, Liz, Kate and Mary might be seen as irrelevant coincidence.