Who was Jack the Ripper? That’s not the important question

March 6, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Who was Jack the Ripper — possibly the most famous murderer in history?

Decades of evidence and speculation have surrounded that question and provided no definitive answer. But for Hallie Rubenhold, author of the recently-published The Five, that’s not the important question. The really important question is this:

Who were his victims?

We know their names, certainly, and if we know anything else, chances are it’s that they were “prostitutes.”

Rubenhold’s research for the book — recently reviewed by Sian Cain in The Guardian — shatters that bit of wisdom:

Beginning The Five with the idea of focusing on the most famous sex workers in history, Rubenhold was shocked by what she found while searching through coroner inquests, medical, workhouse and police records, and sensationalist newspaper reports – or rather, what she didn’t find. There was no evidence that three of the women – Polly, Annie and Catherine – were sex workers at all. Instead, Polly and Catherine had worked as domestic servants or in laundries, and Annie was supported by her husband, who worked as a private coachman. Source: Hallie Rubenhold: ‘Jack the Ripper’s victims have just become corpses. Can’t we do better?’ | Books | The Guardian

The names of the murdered women were Mary Ann “Polly” Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kell. Each has a story, and Rubenhold tells that story, and she sets those stories in the context of late 19th century London, where as many as 70,000 did not know where they would spend the night from day to day. Women who found themselves in this situation were assumed by many to be prostitutes.

Rubenhold — for reasons not immediately clear — has received a lot of pushback about her findings from the online Ripper communities (who knew, right?), but she has persisted in saying that to get the lives of the victims wrong is to get the whole story wrong.

Rubenhold is the author of a number of novels and non-fiction books about Victorian and pre-Victorian women, most notably The Lady in Red, a history of the marriage and divorce of Lady Seymour Dorothy Fleming and Sir Richard Worsley, which caused much comment and scandal in Georgian England.

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