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The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (2019)

by Hallie Rubenhold

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,2215713,916 (4.22)115
Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that 'the Ripper' preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time - but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.… (more)
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» See also 115 mentions

English (54)  Italian (3)  All languages (57)
Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
Since it’s Nonfiction November, I figured I better catch up on some of the Nonfiction Book Club selections from this year. Though book club is on hiatus until May (I am so burnt out on virtual meetings), it is still a very near and dear piece of my heart that has helped me, and many other members of book club make it through the pandemic.

The Five quickly became a favorite of my coworker, Marielle, who joined Nonfiction Book Club after her own book club, YA for all flamed out. She’s recommended it countless times at the store and made it one of her summer picks this year as well, she absolutely loves it. The book itself focuses on the lives of the victims of Jack the Ripper. Their deaths are barely mentioned and there is no gruesome true crime style recounting of how they died – Hallie focuses exclusively on how they lived. She also does not go into speculation about who Jack the Ripper was, and besides a cursory mention in the introduction, he is not mentioned again in the book. So if you are looking for an actual true crime book about about him, this is not it.

The five women of The Five were a fascinating group of women, most of whom fell to the circumstances of being a woman in the late 1800s – it wasn’t an easy time for women on the whole. Their backgrounds were varied, some had wealth, others poor, one an immigrant, one a pathological liar – they were all people, people with friends and families who cared about them, people who were more than just victims of a terrible crime.

One thing that did tie them all together, however, was that at the time of their deaths, they were all in some sort of destitute situation, either due to circumstances beyond their control, mental health crises, or addition. In book club we had a fascinating discussion about female freedom and oppression as well as the lack of agency women of the late Victorian era experienced and compared it to our own. We’re lucky, in book club, to have a number of generations represented by our members and our best conversations always arise when we get to discuss the different experiences we all had with feminism and sexism growing up.

The Five is a snapshot of London and the lives of the people who lived and worked there in the late 1800s. As we always do when we find a book categorized in a genre that we do not agree with, with discussed in book club where we should shelve it at the store. We made well reasoned arguments for true crime (because that’s where we found it and we may not have found it otherwise), sociology, history and biography before ultimately landing on biography. We found ourselves appreciative that Hallie Rubenhold went on the search she did to reclaim this women’s voices so we found biography to be the best fit. ( )
  smorton11 | Oct 29, 2022 |
Brilliant book. If you’re a traditional “Ripperologist” you won’t like it. But if you’ve an interest in social history you’ll love it. Yes some of the facts and back stories are supposition, but it’s all based on historical fact, known personal details and well researched.
Forget the details of the ripper, the debate over the “double event”, ( it wasn’t by the way, try to convince me otherwise!) and all that stuff. This is an examination and look into the very ordinary, and in some aspects tragic, lives of these poor victims.
Read it. With an open mind and you’ll love it. ( )
  solexine | Oct 21, 2022 |
The five in question are the five "canonical" victims of Jack the Ripper. The author looks at what is known or can be reconstructed (there is an awful lot of "would have" and "must have" involved) of their lives up until the night each of them met her end and how they came to be there, especially as none of them were native to Whitechapel. Nor, despite assumptions then and now, were they all prostitutes. Except for the last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, they were vulnerable because they were homeless.

A fascinating look at what the lives of the poor, particularly poor women, were like in Victorian Britain, what they could aspire to and what failure meant for them. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Oct 13, 2022 |
Let's face it, we'll never find the true identity to Jack the Ripper. This book wasn't meant for you to solve a case. Instead, we focus on what we do know some information about the five. It's kind of nuts how much there is about Jack the Ripper, he's everywhere. Yet most people can't even name the victims. I have interest in the crime genre, but found this book refreshing. I don't feel like I went down some conspiracy rabbit hole. Plus, this book gives a good look at what was going on during 1888 with lifestyle, fashion, and the like with a lot of sources. The only thing I didn't care for was the author's writing, was a little dry at times. ( )
  Ghost_Boy | Aug 25, 2022 |
I think the concept of this book is excellent. Although there were few effective social or economic safety nets for women in Victorian England, that doesn't mean they always turned to prostitution to survive, and Rubenhold sets out to demonstrate that with actual case histories.

Unfortunately, despite the book's promising beginning after a while I found myself slogging through and didn't quite make it to the end. While the amount of detail the author was able to unearth about these five unfortunate women was impressive - no, awesome - eventually it became a tedious read, more like a graduate thesis than a book intended for the general public.

With more judicious editing the author could have "hit it out of the park" (my 2020 baseball deprivation probably shows with that comment), by capitalizing on this moment when the world seems ready to accept the extent to which women have suffered from their lesser status throughout most of recorded history. The most engaging non-fiction authors, whether writing about history or biography, seem to have an innate instinct for what to put in - and what to leave out. Rubenhold's editor should have given her more help with making those choices. ( )
  BarbKBooks | Aug 15, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
These were not the kinds of lives that leave an extensive record, yet Rubenhold is able to weave a vivid narrative of Victorian working-class life from small factual scraps that she unearthed in police records, government reports and church registers ...The specter of illicit sex still haunts the Ripper story, an unkillable ghost that makes the crimes seem more titillating and their victims more expendable. Rubenhold’s account, however, makes a compelling case that the real monster shadowing these women’s lives was alcoholism ... Though we know how these women’s stories play out, Rubenhold achieves much here by making us feel genuine sadness and anger at their loss.
added by Lemeritus | editThe Washington Post, Joanna Scutts (pay site) (May 17, 2019)
 
This book is a poignant but absorbing exploration of the reality of working women’s lives in the late 19th century—and how perilously easy it was for married women with children to find themselves reduced to seeking shelter in the dank courts and alleyways around Spitalfields, where the Ripper operated. It is a book that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'Victorian values.'
added by Lemeritus | editThe Sunday Times, Daisy Goodwin (pay site) (Feb 17, 2019)
 
If the Dickensian emphasis is a touch overdone, the point remains ... Allowing that the documentary record is incomplete—the case files on three of the five murders have gone missing—Rubenhold urges us to see the victims...not as the 'fallen women' of the received record. A lively if morbid exercise in Victorian social history essential to students of Ripperiana.
added by Lemeritus | editKirkus Reviews (Feb 3, 2019)
 
Hallie Rubenhold’s book about the 'canonical' victims of Jack the Ripper is, at one level, a victim impact statement ... What she has to say on that topic is as horrifying as the Ripper’s crimes ... Rubenhold is an engaging writer though, as she readily admits, these women’s lives were not well documented before they achieved their notoriety, and the reports that followed their murders are not reliable. Then, too, there is a certain grim monotony as we follow the five in their doleful circuit from poor house to flop house to the streets where they would be killed. Still, Rubenhold does a commendable job in bringing these women on stage and through their stories illuminating the appalling reality behind the veneer of Victorian complacency.
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hallie Rubenholdprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brealey, LouiseNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won't. -Audre Lorde
Dedication
For May Ann "Polly" Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes & Mary Jane Kelly
First words
The cylinders turned. The belts moved, and gears clicked and whirred, as type and ink pressed against paper.
There are two versions of the events of 1887. One is very well known, but the other is not. -Introduction
Quotations
When you enter the kitchen of a doss-'ouse, it would be a mistake to suppose that all the people you meet there are going to spend the night under its roof. Many of them are reg'lar'uns, who, in consideration of their constant patronage are permitted to spend the evening, or portion of it, before the blazing coke fire, for though the deputy will give no trust, he knows better than to offend a regular lodger. As the evening wears on, however, these poor wretches become restless and moody. They pace the floor with their hands in their otherwise empty pockets, glancing towards the door at each fresh arrival to see if a "pal" has come in from whom it may be possible to borrow the halfpence necessary to complete their doss money. At last, their final hope being gone, they shuffle out into the streets and prepare to spend the night with only the sky for a canopy." - Howard Goldsmid
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Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that 'the Ripper' preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time - but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

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