The most consulted file in the National Archive is the Jack the Ripper dossier. So much work has been done in this field we might wonder if there is anything worthwhile left to say. However, the activities of the serial killer who became known as Jack the Ripper have been mostly investigated by ‘Ripperologists’, who strain records of the 1880s to find tiny fragments of fact to support their preconceived theories.
Hallie Rubenhold is not the first professional historian to approach the Ripper story. Philip Sugden, whose meticulous The Complete History of Jack the Ripper came out in 1994, set the standard. But Rubenhold is the first to concentrate solely on the lives of the five ‘canonical’ victims who, we are as sure as can be possible, were all killed by the same violent misogynist (there were other killings ascribed to him, but that just demonstrates the frequency of femicide in Whitechapel at the time).
Rubenhold eschews the types of gory description commonly found in retellings of this story – indeed, there is no person-by-person account of how each victim met her death. This is because she wants to look not at how they died but at how they lived. They came from very different levels of the working class. Polly Nichols encamped at Trafalgar Square in a tent village of the poor, whence she used to venture out begging. Annie Chapman was the wife of a private coachman who worked for members of the aristocracy. Elizabeth Stride was a Swedish confidence trickster who had worked as a servant in some very fine houses. Kate Eddowes was a pedlar (and probably a writer) of chapbooks. Mary Jane Kelly was the only one, contrary to popular belief, who was a prostitute.
Rubenhold is at her best when describing what they had in common besides being killed by the same murderer in Whitechapel between August and November 1888. Four of them were homeless or, in the language of the time, ‘houseless creatures’. All five shared an inability to surmount life’s challenges, such as bereavement or marital separation; all five addressed their problems through excessive drinking.
Alcoholism was a much more important factor in their vulnerability than their sexual behaviour; sex was just more exciting for contemporary journalists to write about. It was also an exercise in victim blaming: those slain by the Ripper somehow deserved their fate for their immoral lives.
Victorian society believed that the inhabitants of fourpence-a-night lodging houses were necessarily of low moral character. Rubenhold says of the second victim, ‘the authorities began their inquiry from a fixed position: that Annie must be a prostitute.’ There was also an early suspicion that the murderer was part of a ‘high-rip’ gang extorting prostitutes to hand over their earnings – a not uncommon phenomenon in Whitechapel.
Rubenhold notes that no signs of struggle or sexual intercourse were noted, that no screams were heard and that all the women were killed in reclining positions; four victims were known to sleep out, another was killed in her bed. The suggestion is that they were more likely to have been killed as they slept, already sedated by alcohol, than lured somewhere for sex.
Rubenhold’s sure-footed pursuit of the material falters only once. The fact that Mary Jane Kelly once went to Paris for a fortnight allows Rubenhold to be spirited off from her main subject, turning for a time to tales of drugging, abduction and the white slave trade, led there by the writings of the notorious self-publicising journalist W T Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette. This is a shame, because most of her research is meticulous and her analysis questioning. The existence of the ‘white slave trade’ was queried at the time by reliable authorities and Stead’s fraud was exposed by a rival newspaper.
Regardless of that, this confidently written book gives a rich insight into the world of the wretched in the late Victorian period. Rubenhold writes in a compassionate but unsentimental style, discussing along the way rat droppings in the workhouse skilly, the Thames pleasure steamer disaster of 1878, labour disputes in the tinplate industry, assignations between dollymops and Life Guards in Hyde Park and the cost of a grope in an East End alleyway (threepence, since you asked).