‘They began their lives in deficit.’ – The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

June 22, 2019 at 2:16 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  I’ve learned to stop describing this book as being about the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. As soon as people hear those last three words they recoil in horror. But wait –

The Five is subtitled, The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. The book is about the lives of those five individuals up until the time of their respective demises in 1888. What it is most definitely not about is Jack the Ripper.

From the Amazon page:

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.

They were orphaned while still underage. They got caught in destructive marriages or relationships. They had a child, or children, whom they worked to support and protect. They often stayed in rooming houses that were at best insalubrious, sharing rooms, and even beds, with strangers. As many as 48.9 percent of English women of the ‘lower classes’ could not read or write.

This book contains many passages that are well nigh brutal in their depiction of what living in poverty did to these women. Even so, moments of great poignancy occur. In this one, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, the Ripper’s first “canonical” victim, is identified by her estranged husband William, in the presence of Inspector Abberline. William and Polly were both entitled to their recriminations; yet they never stopped caring about each other:

Abberline noticed that the color had drained  from Nichols’ face. He was noticeably shaken by the sight and then broke down.
“I forgive you as you are.” He addressed Polly as if she were merely sleeping and the brutish cuts on her body had not ended her life. “I forgive you on account of what you have been to me.”
It took Williams some time to compose  himself. The coffin lid was moved back into place, and Abberline showed the grieving husband back across  the yard and into the station.

Some of  the environments in which both men and women had to live and work were truly terrible. They displayed the results of unrestrained and unregulated industrialization at its worst. Here, Rubenhold quotes a description of a “deadened, scorched landscape” that prevailed in the West Midlands in the mid-nineteenth century:

“On every side, and as far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air.”

(This, from Charles Dickens, who knew a thing or two about such conditions.) Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddoes was sent to live (with an aunt and uncle) and work in this place, sometimes referred to as the Black Country.

Hallie Rubenhold has done prodigious research and produced a fascinating recreation of a particular time and place. But most of all, The Five is a searing indictment of the conditions and expectations foisted upon the poor women of the nineteenth century. From the summing up at the book’s conclusion:

The cards were stacked against Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane from birth. They began their lives in deficit. Not only were most of them born into working-class families; they were also born female. Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, they were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts.

One gets the feeling that this book, meticulously sourced and beautifully written, was in fact written in a mood of barely suppressed rage. The concluded chapter is called “Just Prostitutes;” and in it, the dam of the author’s anger is well and truly breached. She gives vent freely, as in these words:

A woman’s entire function was to support men, and if the roles of their male family members were to support the roles and needs of men wealthier than them, then the women at the bottom were driven like piles deeper and harder into the ground in order to bear the  weight of everyone else’s demands. A woman’s role was to produce children and to raise them, but because rudimentary contraception and published information about birth control was made virtually unavailable to the poor, they…had no real means of managing the size of their families or preventing an inevitable backslide into financial hardship. The inability to break this cycle–to better their own prospects and  those of their children–would have been soul crushing, but borne with resignation.

In the course of this book, the reader is made to witness the terrible struggle on the part of each of these women as they attempt to withstand the conditions foisted upon them, as they endure repeated pregnancies and try to care for sick and dying children, only to fall victim, finally, to the savage ministrations of Jack the Ripper.

One of Hallie Rubenhold’s chief goals in writing The Five is to put to rest the assumption that these women were prostitutes. Selling themselves was a desperate act when no other way of  getting money was available to them. Only the last, Mary-Jane Kelly, resorted to it with any kind of frequency.  The others, including Mary-Jane herself, engaged in any number of other kinds of back breaking labor – anything to put food on the table without resorting to the ultimate debasement. To write off each of these women as “just prostitutes” is a calumny which this author seeks to redress and prove to be untrue. She has succeeded, all the while telling a riveting and ultimately heartbreaking story.

Hallie Rubenhold










  1. whatsnonfiction said,

    Amazing review! I thought this book was simply incredible. She did such incredible work in painting a picture of society in that era and how it shaped their lives. And it just blows my mind that there was so little prostitution actually involved when that’s been the biggest “fact” associated with them over the years. It’s hard to believe the reality was so far off and yet was the accepted, entrenched narrative for so long. Loved reading your thoughts on this!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much for this comment. I agonized over writing this, as I didn’t feel I knew how to do justice to this book. Your remarks make me think that maybe I succeeded, after all!

      • whatsnonfiction said,

        That’s so funny, I struggled with writing my review of it way more than usual for the same reasons. I felt like she’d done so much with this book, and done it so well that any explanation or attempt at thoughtful comments about it would just fall short. But you really hit so many great points about it, you said everything I wish I had. Definitely succeeded 🙂

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