I hate True Crime. By that, I mean I hate how the genre often ends up mythologising the names and deeds of violent men (and some women, but that subject deserves an article of its own) who almost invariably prey on women. It is only natural that we are drawn to macabre stories of sadistic monsters hiding behind a human mask.
You know Ted Bundy’s name. But you probably can’t name even one of the at least 36 women he murdered.
If you were to bring a Victorian into the twenty-first century, chances are they would be as addicted to True Crime as the rest of us. The fascination surrounding the identity of the culprit behind a spring of five similar murders in the London district of Whitechapel in 1888 can be seen as the precursor to the popular sensation surrounding the crimes of the Zodiac Killer and Golden State Killer. The media whipped up speculation about the identity of the culprit and whether he might strike again, printing illustrations of the victims and crime scenes, carrying quotes from police sources and the friends of victims. In many ways, it was a very modern murder investigation.
There is much to find interesting about the Ripper Murders: the police investigation, the contemporary response in the media, and the social context in the impoverished East End during the time of the murders. However, much of this is lost in the midst of speculation around the identity of the mythic supposed killer. Also lost among this, are the lives of his five canonical victims. You probably can’t name them, but believe that they were all prostitutes. They have been reduced impersonal silhouettes and smears of blood, women of the night who were preyed on by a shadowy figure who disfigured their bodies beyond all recognition. They were individuals who were victims of Victorian society long before they reached their grizzly ends.
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold undertook impressive amounts of detective work in order to trace the lives of these five women and publish their stories in her 2019 book The Five. Written with the flair narrative drive of a novelist, but with an attention to detail and consciousness of the wider environment in which the women lived which immerses you into the crowded, filthy streets of Whitechapel. In an interview with The Guardian, Rubenhold recounted how she was “so upset and furious” at how the women had been let down by society that divided women into Madonnas and Whores with no shades of grey in between.
What is striking about the women who are remembered simply as “prostitutes”, is how much potential these women had. Many were educated beyond the age that most working-class girls went into domestic service or assisting their mother around the house, and had the potential to make something of themselves. But barriers facing working-class women who sought higher-paying desk jobs (as opposed to low-paid manufacturing and servitude), and a lack of access to family planning locked women like Mary Ann Nichols in a cycle of poverty. Addiction drove Annie Chapman out of her respectable family home into the four-penny hotels and onto the streets of East London. Both Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly were remarked upon for their intelligence and spirit. Little details such as records of where the women lodged and the objects found upon their bodies after death give them a touch of humanity that photographs of their decontextualised mutilated bodies obscure.
Rubenhold’s conclusion which angered many so-called “Ripperologists” the most was that contrary to the Ripper legend, not all of the canonical five victims were prostitutes. This central aspect of Ripper lore, she argues, is due to the Metropolitan Police’s tendency to accuse women who did not conform to the Victorian ideals of gentle femininity, or even went about their daily business unaccompanied of being “prostitutes”. For Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes, Rubenhold could find no evidence they had engaged in prostitution. Mary Jane Kelly was the only victim who was working in the sex trade at the time of her murder. Her glamorous appearance and relative youth were seized upon by contemporary tabloid newspapers like the Illustrated Police News to sensationalise the killing spree. Over decades, the five women have began to merge together in the popular imagination into Mary Jane Kelly’s image.
Elizabeth Stride, the other victim who had engaged in prostitution, only fell into the sex trade after she was accused of being a prostitute after becoming pregnant and contracting syphilis while working as a domestic servant. Whether this was a consequence of a consensual relationship or rape is unknown. But it barred Elizabeth from obtaining any line of work which did not involve fulfilling the prejudices of the Swedish police after they saw a pregnant unmarried woman and assumed her situation based on the puritanical morals of the day.
The titular “five” of Rubenhold’s books were not angels. They were complicated, real women who were victims of society and circumstance long before their brutal deaths led to their names being forgotten in favour of a monikered murderer whose identity will probably never be revealed. Through their lives, we can gain a better understanding of the experiences of real women in Victorian England, women who did not have titles or even the luxury of being able to fulfil the Victorian feminine ideal of the serenely contented housewife.
Women’s history is human history. Learning the truth about the five women who have been erroneously remembered as “just prostitutes” reveals a whole other side of history. How we have remembered (or rather forgotten) the victims of Jack the Ripper and other more recent serial killers reveals that we have not moved as far away from Victorian attitudes as we may like to think.