From August 1888 to November 1888, five women were murdered in the Whitechapel area of London by a person (or persons?) known only as Jack the Ripper. There have been countless articles, books and movies of the infamous crimes, with most focusing on the violence and mystery surrounding Jack’s identity.
The Five takes a different view with author Hallie Rubenhold focusing on the five female victims who, for more than 100 years, were labelled as prostitutes. Through tremendously detailed research piecing together the lives of the five – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane, Rubenhold shows readers how and why these depictions of the victims are gravely false.
The book has five chapters, one for each victim, but doesn’t focus on their brutal and well-publicized deaths. Instead, it focuses on their humble beginnings up until they were murdered because these women were so much more than grisly deaths and the misconstrued labels society gave them.
What struck me the most about The Five was the author’s vivid and unflinching look at the lives of the lower class in the 19th century – lives that were often brutal, uncertain and set within horrific living conditions. Rubenhold also focuses on the limitations imposed upon women of the time, especially those of the lower classes.
With no rights and few options available, most women were at the mercy of the men in their lives and could look forward to working to support their family at a young age, getting married, have numerous children (of whom they’d lose a significant number to disease and malnutrition) and an early death. In general life was hard in the late 19th century but was certainly significantly harder for women.
With this unique focus, Rubenhold shines a light not on the vicious crimes of a notorious mad man, but on the five female victims. And while at times the book was a little info-heavy, I applaud Rubenhold for humanizing the victims of these infamous murders that have captivated the world for over a century, as well as shining a light on the hardships of women in the late 19th century.
— Laurie P.