Humane and convincing book debunks the macabre myth around Jack the Ripper's victims

Forget the alleged perpetrator, Jack the Ripper, and the often fanciful identities – from the painter Walter Sickert to a grandson of Queen Victoria – that have been attributed to him. Focus instead on his victims, the “canonical” five women, who were brutally murdered on the streets of Whitechapel in east London over 10 weeks in the autumn of 1888. The police, the press and the public egged each other on in demonising these destitute females as prostitutes – a view that persists in the macabre myth of the Ripper, the crazed killer of sex workers.

Hallie Rubenhold argues in this humane and convincing book that this interpretation is wrong. Only one of these women was a sex worker; another had briefly been so in her youth, and a third may have occasionally indulged in paid sex to keep herself alive in desperately straitened circumstances.

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Those last three words encapsulate the reality of the lives of this quintet. In Rubenhold’s telling, the victims all slipped through the cracks of society into penury. They often tried to make respectable marriages, but their husbands died or were unfaithful, and they were left to fend for themselves and their children in an unsympathetic world.

The Ripper’s first casualty, on August 31, was “Polly” Nichols, the daughter of a blacksmith from the printers’ district of St Bride’s. A step up in the world was signalled when she married and moved to a modern Peabody estate south of the Thames. But after giving birth to her fifth child, she discovered her husband William was having an affair. She went to the Lambeth Union workhouse where, in keeping with the law, she received maintenance of five shillings a week. But this was often not paid, as William claimed she was living with another man, leading to later stories of “casual prostitution”.

The only woman to make a career of vice was the Ripper’s last victim (on November 9), Mary Jane Kelly. In her overview of the Victorian sex trade, Rubenhold says that gentlemen would meet women at louche venues such as the Argyll Rooms in London’s West End, before moving to hired rooms. Or they would go to the more brazen Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, where a police sergeant estimated that, one night in 1878, more than 1,000 prostitutes competed for business.

Limerick-born Kelly’s downfall was sex-trafficking. After meeting a plausible placeur, or recruiter for continental brothels, she worked in a ‘maison close’ in Paris. As happens today, she became a prisoner, since the fine clothes she was given created a debt to her madame that was impossible to pay off. When she finally escaped and returned to London, she could no longer frequent her earlier haunts for fear of being apprehended by her traffickers. So she moved east, to Whitechapel and the vermin-infested dosshouses where she would meet her violent death.

Elizabeth Stride, the third woman on the killer’s hit list, had been a sex worker on the Pilgatan, or “street of many nymphs”, in Gothenburg in her native Sweden. She moved to England to escape, but her marriage to an unsuccessful coffee-house owner turned sour, and she resorted to vagrancy and, occasionally, her former profession.

Catherine Eddowes tried to make the best of a marriage to an abusive chapman, or “flying stationer”, while Annie Chapman, the daughter of a valet, sought to maintain her respectability by marrying a gentleman’s coachman. But after losing six siblings to scarlet fever in three weeks, and with her father committing suicide, she was laid low by an addiction to alcohol (a temptation for most of these women). She also found herself in Whitechapel, where, according to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, 1,200 prostitutes plied their trade.

These stories are not unknown. But Rubenhold fleshes them out with details from court reports, workhouse records, and contemporary sociological studies by writers such as Henry Mayhew. She cleverly incorporates gobbets of social history – for example, on the workings of the Poor Law, or the use of the casual ward or spike in the workhouse – without interrupting her narrative flow. She suggests that one reason why these murders were linked with prostitution was the language used by coroners and police, who implied that because a woman was sleeping rough, she was selling her body. Such hints were salaciously picked up by newspapers, which ironically came to be centred around the “street of print” in St Bride’s, where Nichols grew up.

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