The Ripper Gets His Long-Overdue #MeToo Moment
The Five, a group biography of the women that Jack the Ripper murdered in the autumn of 1888, may be a horror story, but it’s not the one you’re expecting. Author Hallie Rubenhold makes the bold choice to leave Jack out of her book entirely, focusing on his victims’ lives, not their deaths. The scares come from Rubenhold’s unsparing recreation of the abject vulnerability of poor women in the Victorian age.
Even the most Dickensian elements have a startling immediacy. Long before they encountered the Ripper, these women battled more familiar demons: homelessness, addiction, domestic violence, family separation, and sexism. “At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killer’s deep, abiding hatred of women, and our culture’s obsession with the mythology serves only to normalize its particular brand of misogyny,” Rubenhold writes. “We have grown so comfortable with the notion of ‘Jack the Ripper,’ the unfathomable, invincible male killer, that we have failed to recognize that he continues to walk among us.”
The Hard Lives of Victorian Women
While society coddled and sheltered the upper-class ladies of the era to the point of infantilization, it stacked the deck against poor women in every way. The few jobs available to them paid abysmally. They could marry for upward mobility, but birth control was nonexistent, and each new mouth to feed lowered the entire family’s standard of living.
Infidelity or abuse alone didn’t provide sufficient grounds for a divorce, even if a woman could afford one. Couples might separate by mutual agreement, but society considered any future relationships adulterous and any future children illegitimate. Women who left their husbands had to prove that they were deserving of public assistance, designed to humiliate and governed by impenetrable bureaucracy. Even a comfortably-situated woman might find herself on the streets if a father, husband, or brother died suddenly. “No real distinction was made between this type of ‘fallen woman’ and acknowledged prostitutes,” Rubenhold notes.
Rubenhold—whose history of The Covent Garden Ladies inspired the Hulu series Harlots—has finally made that distinction. Everyone can agree on the fact that the Ripper targeted prostitutes. “Yet it does not bear scrutiny,” she asserts. The historical record provides no evidence that three of the five were ever prostitutes at all; another was a reformed prostitute, long out of the game. Only the last victim consistently worked as a prostitute.
Not Sex Crimes
But the Ripper never had sex with any of his victims. Moreover, none of the five mutilated corpses showed signs of struggle; in the densely populated slums of London’s Whitechapel district, no one heard screams. The coroner concluded that all of the women had died in a reclining position. “However, the police were so committed to their theories about the killer’s choice of victims that they failed to conclude the obvious,” Rubenhold writes. “The Ripper targeted women while they slept.”
An estimated 70,000 Londoners were effectively homeless at the time, sleeping in temporary quarters or on the streets, then wandering the city in search of work during the day. Three of the Ripper’s victims slept huddled in doorways or slumped against walls when they couldn’t come up with “doss money” for a night in a cheap lodging house. The Ripper killed only one known prostitute indoors in her bed.
Yet portraying all the Ripper’s victims as prostitutes plying their trade had—and continues to have—the effect of making “the story of a vicious series of murders slightly more palatable.” The initial, erroneous assumption that the Ripper targeted prostitutes—though “there were many reasons why an impoverished working-class woman may have been outdoors during the hours of darkness”—tainted the police investigations and media coverage of all five murders.
If the Metropolitan Police and Fleet Street tended to see prostitutes lurking in every dark alley, it may be because there were so few other career options for lower-class women. Unlike men, they couldn’t escape into the military or apprentice in a manual trade. The best they could hope for was a life in domestic service. The less fortunate might end up in a sweatshop or factory. The lowest of the low found work “charring” (doing household chores) for Whitechapel’s Orthodox Jewish community on the Sabbath. Seasonal hop-picking in Kent was “as close as they would ever come to having an actual vacation.”
The truly desperate threw themselves on the mercy of the local workhouse, where they lived on “skilly” (watery porridge) and “picked oakum” (shredded old ship’s ropes to a re-usable pulp) for their keep. The workhouse separated families, permitting mothers “interviews” with their children (who were also put to work) once a week. In the absence of affordable healthcare, these filthy workhouses doubled as maternity wards, where homeless women might seek shelter while they gave birth.
Victims With Actual Lives
Yet the Ripper’s victims led rich and varied lives that, for all their disadvantages, didn’t necessarily have to end the way they did. Polly Nichols was born in the warren of alleyways surrounding Fleet Street; her blacksmith father created type for the printing presses that churned out the works of Dickens and Thackeray. Unusually for her class (but not for that highly-literate neighborhood) she was well educated, staying in school until she was 15. At 18, she married and moved into the Peabody Buildings, a new, modern tenement intended for the betterment of the worthy poor. But just a few years later, her husband’s flagrant infidelity led her to take a shocking step. She abandoned him and their children, throwing herself on the mercy of the workhouse and, eventually, the streets.
Another victim, Kate Conway, bore all the hallmarks of an artsy nonconformist, including a secret tattoo. The physical and financial strain of bearing 12 children (ten of whom survived) killed her mother. Her father died two years later, leaving Kate a penniless orphan at 16, dependent on the kindness of distant—and disapproving—relatives. No wonder she left a stable (if dangerous) factory job to throw her lot in with an ex-soldier turned traveling salesman and songwriter, whose peregrinations eventually led her to Whitechapel.
But the story that affected me most was that of Annie Chapman, who actually achieved middle-class respectability, only to lose everything. She was the daughter of a soldier in the Queen’s Life Guard, who raised her in shadows of palaces. But two tragedies derailed her aspirations.
When she was 13, all four of Chapman’s younger siblings died in the space of three weeks, carried off by typhus and scarlet fever. That misfortune undoubtedly played a role in the next; when Annie was 22, her father committed suicide. He’d become an alcoholic, and so had Annie. Her coveted job as a domestic servant came with a steady supply of “small” (i.e., low-alcohol) beer, a “healthy” alternative to London’s contaminated water. But all was still not lost. At the advanced age of 27, Annie married John Chapman, a coachman, one of the most prestigious service jobs. He found a post on a gentleman’s estate outside the city, and they settled down to raise a family in bucolic comfort.
Annie gave birth to seven children, but only three survived, and they suffered from seizures, paralysis, and what is now recognized as fetal alcohol syndrome. Eventually, Annie’s drinking became a public nuisance. After a long stay in a sanatorium failed to her cure her, John—who, by all accounts, loved her—was forced to send her home to her family of teetotalers or lose his job.
Back in London, Annie fell out with her family and fell in with a rough crowd. When John died suddenly, and her weekly allowance with him, Annie washed up in Whitechapel, where she supported herself by selling her crochet work, picking hops, and begging money from relations. Though prostitution was hardly uncommon or taboo in that neighborhood, “the police could not find a single witness who could confirm that she had been among the ranks of those who sold sex.” But it hardly mattered: “A woman who was ‘drunk and disorderly’ . . . was considered as much of a degenerate as a prostitute.”
Prostitution, however, might be an occasional sideline rather than a full-time career, with sex exchanged for meals, clothing, or a bed for the night instead of cash. Elisabeth Stride likely engaged in both types. Born Elisabeth Ericsson, a farmer’s daughter, she had gone into domestic service, as required by law in her native Sweden, only to end up pregnant, abandoned, and infected with syphilis. In that state, prostitution was the only career open to her. But the Lutheran church gave her a rare second chance, “rehabilitating” her and hiring her as a maidservant by a German couple, who took her to London.
There, she met and married a prosperous carpenter nearly twice her age. But a series of financial calamities eventually drove the couple apart, and drove Elisabeth to drink. On her own in Whitechapel, she became a small-time con artist, and undoubtedly engaged in casual prostitution when she couldn’t get money any other way. However, there is no evidence that she was soliciting on the night she died. A newspaper expressed surprise that she was wearing a worn black dress and bonnet, “entirely absent of the kind of ornaments commonly affected by women of her station.”
Ironically, Mary Jane Kelly, the only working prostitute among the five, was also the most outwardly respectable-looking, according to those who knew her. Instead of a shambolic, itinerant alcoholic, she was “one of the smartest, nicest-looking women in the neighborhood.” Mary Jane’s biography is the thinnest of the five, for good reason. Born into the middle class, she spent “eight or nine months” in an “infirmary” before embarking on her prostitution career. Rubenhold suggests that after she got pregnant, her family sent her to a lunatic asylum, premarital sexual activity being viewed as evidence of a mental disorder.
Rubenhold further speculates—convincingly—that Mary Jane was a victim of human trafficking who managed to escape her captors and subsequently changed her name and story to avoid retaliation. This turn of events would explain how she went from a high-class Knightsbridge brothel to Paris to Whitechapel. In London, “shedding an identity was as simple as moving somewhere new.” In the slums of Whitechapel, people did not ask too many questions.
Not Every Woman Outside was a Prostitute
The Ripper murders happened to occur during a time when society was redefining prostitution. The Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s made it easier, and imperative, for the police to incarcerate prostitutes. But ordinary women also were venturing outside the home more frequently alone and at night. The question of what constituted a prostitute came to a head in July 1887, when police erroneously arrested a dressmaker named Elizabeth Cass soliciting after going out to view the Golden Jubilee illuminations on Regent Street, forcing an embarrassing public reckoning.
The Ripper murders began the following summer. When John Kelly testified that his partner of seven years, Kate Conway, had been “walking the streets” the night she died, he meant it literally. “Many a time we have not had the money to pay for our shelter, and have had to tramp about,” he explained. But the journalists (and jurors) at the inquest took it euphemistically. Prostitution was a hot-button social issue at the time; chronic homelessness, though arguably more widespread, was not.
Rubenhold writes with novelistic detail, her meticulous research enlivened by colorful details from the published accounts of outraged Victorian do-gooders. In the end, though, Jack’s absence proves problematic. Rubenhold (who is British-American and lives in London) assumes a familiarity with the minutiae of Ripper lore that American readers might not share, and the overlapping timelines and vague allusions to the five’s fates are more confusing than cathartic. Tragically, if the Ripper hadn’t killed them, many of his victims would have died prematurely anyway: Elisabeth was in the final stages of syphilis; Annie had advanced tuberculosis; Kate had Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment. But he did kill them, and, given Rubenhold’s deft dismantling of so many Ripper myths, the reader is left wondering what else the investigators—and the history books—might have missed.