Image: Getty; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Anybody who knows anything about Jack the Ripper knows this: He killed “streetwalkers” working the roughest area of Victorian London. With her new book, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold complicates that narrative—and wrenches the story away from a serial killer who’s been elevated to the point of fascinated worship.

Rubenhold’s project is very simple, and yet unbelievably rare in the thoroughly picked-over territory of “Ripperology.” For over a hundred years, people have been obsessed with finding and naming the “real” Jack the Ripper. Every few years, somebody comes along with a new theory or new approach that promises to solve the mystery. These approaches are invariably forensic, obsessed with the details of the Ripper’s movements and techniques. These dead women are nothing but evidence and pretext. From day one, their presumed profession has been taken as permission to turn the whole thing into a lurid, sexualized spectacle. The deaths of Elisabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on the same night, September 30, 1888, is often referred to as “the double event,” as though it were two movies for the price of one.

In contrast, The Five explicitly avoids the murderer, the question of his identity, and what exactly he did to each woman when he murdered her. Rubenhold traces the life of each woman up until the night she died; sometimes she discusses the aftermath, but she refuses to rehash the crime scenes themselves and draws a curtain over their deaths.

Instead, we learn that Polly Nichols was born to a Fleet Street blacksmith and lived for a time in a Peabody building, a charitable attempt to provide affordable, high-quality housing for the Victorian working-class open only to the “respectable” poor and maintaining strict criteria for residents. Then her marriage fell apart—her drinking problem likely contributed—and started her on a downward spiral that eventually landed her in Whitechapel, essentially homeless. Annie Chapman followed a similar path. She was initially married to a coachman with a prestigious place, putting her in the upper ranks of the working class—until her drinking, too, became so completely out of control her husband’s boss demanded he cut her loose. She was on and off the streets, despite the efforts of her comparatively prosperous, teetotaler sisters.

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Image: Getty

Elisabeth Stride had been born in Sweden and “ruined” in her late teens; by the end of her life, she made ends meet partly as a sort of petty scammer. Catherine Eddowes had once been a broadside balladeer alongside her common-law husband; the least is known about Mary Jane Kelly, because she had adopted an alias and obscured enough details about her life to make her well-nigh untraceable, but she had been a high-end courtesan—before running into trouble with traffickers who specialized in trapping women in French brothels. She escaped, but she had to hide from their reach for the rest of her short life.

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All individuals with their own specific histories and inner lives, these women were caught in a terrible cycle, with all but Mary Jane trying to scrape together sufficient money for a night’s stay in a “doss” house, temporary lodgings. Otherwise, it was either the workhouse or the street, and the cycle started all over again the next morning. Some did sex work; some maintained steady but somewhat casual relationships with one man. Rubenhold convincingly argues that Polly, Annie, and Kate scraped their money together largely through begging, or “charing” (the lowest, most difficult rung of domestic service), or needlework.

Focusing on their backstories rather than the forensic details of their deaths, Rubenhold puts them back into their larger social context. Despite what contemporaries might have wanted to believe, Whitechapel wasn’t some separate universe, inhabited wholly by alien unfortunates. Victorian society was a game of Shoots and Ladders with very few ladders, and 1880s Whitechapel held a disproportionate number those who’d fallen to the bottom. Rubenhold is explicit about this: She opens with the contrasting 1887 images of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the summer’s much less well-known encampment of the homeless and unemployed in Trafalgar Square, which grew into demonstrations, before finally culminating Bloody Sunday, a clash between protestors and the police.

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Polly, the first of the Ripper’s victims, was among the crowd at Trafalgar Square. She was on the street because she didn’t have anywhere else to go. The economy was depressed; rents were rising in London. Working-class women particularly faced a steep cliff if they found themselves without a husband or some sort of steady male companion who could pay their way. Their employment options were limited, brutally hard, and barely paid enough to keep body and soul together—and often not even that.

Much of the Jack the Ripper story has been one of distance. The women were made into “prostitutes,” cast off into a separate category; the way the story has frequently been told cordons off the Victorian era into an unfathomably distant time and place, emphasizing the overwhelming filth and crime and difference, making the period into a kind of Whitechapel of our own history. Things that happen over there give us a chill and a thrill but don’t really impact us.

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Just as Whitechapel wasn’t some bottle universe, the Victorian era isn’t so far away, either. Murdered women are still consumed as entertainment. And the entire project of the modern conservative movement has been to dismantle social services. Paul Ryan has explicitly been fantasizing since college about gutting Medicaid. This is the logic of the Victorian workhouse, which were deliberately miserable and punitive so that nobody would “take advantage.” They were essentially prisons. Those who couldn’t support themselves faced a difficult decision—submit to the workhouse, or take your chances on the outside, sleeping rough. Women were especially likely to find themselves weighing their options. If your husband died or simply ran off, especially if you were left with children—and in an era before contraception, you likely were—you were almost automatically destitute, unless you quickly attached yourself to another man. Then the cycle began all over again.

Jack the Ripper has often been painted as some near-supernatural genius. But ultimately, he’s much less frightening than the prospect of a future that recreates the conditions that put his victims so easily within his reach.

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