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“The Five” by Hallie Rubenhold

Ted Bundy, the Zodiac Killer, Ed Gein, Jack the Ripper. The names of our most notorious serial killers have become part of our cultural collective conscience. We give names to the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, but who speaks for the victims? Be honest, how many of Ted Bundy’s victims can you name? In “The Five,” Hallie Rubenhold traces the lives of what are recognized in the Ripper literature as the canonical five. These five women may not, as popular supposition would determine, have all been involved in sex work. But what they did share was the fact that they were victims of the grinding poverty of the East End of Victorian London.

Rubenhold’s work provides a biographical narrative of how Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly, the five acknowledged victims of Jack the Ripper, found themselves in the situation they did. In doing so she casts light into the corners of the poverty-infested East End where they all died. We get to see these women as more than the Penny Dreadful prostitutes that popular culture often depicts them. They were wives, daughters, sisters, mothers and friends. They arrived in the disturbingly violent, diseased, and impoverished area of London known as Whitechapel, by various routes. In short, Rubenhold encourages the reader to see these five women not as faceless, lost souls driven to prostitution, but as women who represent the class and gender inequities of late 19th century British society.

Central to Rubenhold’s theory is the ways in which the contemporary press (and the police force) determined who was a prostitute. The idea being that any woman who supported herself could only possibly be doing so through sex work. This is patently untrue.

For many women there was no work, but that does not mean they inevitably turned to prostitution. True, they may well have earned income from the margins of the respectable Victorian economy, and, equally true, Rubenhold acknowledges that Elizabeth Stride was registered as a prostitute in Stockholm, Sweden, but the blanket notion that the Ripper’s victims were all sex workers is a crass oversimplification at best, and errant at worst. We should never forget what they were; they were all impoverished women who society ignored.

“The Five” raises a much more compelling question; how do we prevent the exploitation of the economically marginalized? It was not enough that the Ripper’s victims were exploited for their vulnerability of circumstances, they have been culturally exploited ever since. We should use this excellent new history of the canonical five to re-evaluate how we should give voice to victims, and maybe pay a little less attention to the deplorable individuals who take the lives of people. The appendix to the book is a list of the contents of the pockets of the victims as they were found. It provides those interested in social history with a fascinating insight into the lives of the urban poor. It is equally heartbreaking.

The Five is available as a downloadable item from the Cabell County Public Library’s website, or can be placed on hold and picked up at the drive-through window.

David Owens works at the Cabell County Library.

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