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Jack the Ripper's Victims: What's a Woman Worth?

Photo of Whitechapel two years after the murders.
Whitechapel High Street, 1890. Image copyright London Metropolitan Archives

Jack the Ripper ─ the killer who viciously murdered at least five women in 1888 London ─ lives in infamy. Ripper merchandise, tours of murder scenes and obsessions keep the killer in the public consciousness. Despite the years gone by and subsequent murderers who killed far more people, fascination with Jack the Ripper continues.

Of course, part of the attraction is the mystery. Who was Jack the Ripper? Why did he suddenly stop killing? Or, did he simply move on, perhaps to the United States? It's a mystery that begs to be solved.

But, what of his victims? Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes, they say. And, prostitutes ask for trouble. Killing a prostitute isn't the same as killing an upper-class woman with a home, husband and children, now is it? It's almost like the victims became mere footnotes.

I admit I knew little about the victims. I'd read their names. I saw the grisly autopsy photos. I "knew" they were prostitutes. But, I had plenty of questions. Who were they? Why did they become prostitutes? Did they have families? There was precious little information available about those five women. Until now.

Hallie Rubenhold's enlightening book, "The Five: The Lives of Jack the Ripper's Women" is an eyeopener. Published in April 2019, Rubenhold gives us a window into each victim's life. And, their lives were nothing like we've been told.

Annie & John Chapman in happier times.

Their names were Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine "Kate" Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Here we have wives, mothers, business owners and ballad writers.

Polly Nichols was a delicately featured woman with gray eyes known for her cleanliness. Annie Chapman lived with her husband, a highly-skilled coachman, and children at a country estate for a number of years. Elizabeth Stride was born in Sweden. Friends described her as a woman who "would do a good turn for anyone." Catherine Eddowes was highly educated for a woman of the era. She also liked to smoke a pipe. Mary Jane Kelly was a well-liked blonde, blue-eyed beauty.

They had families they loved and people who cared about them. But, their lives changed dramatically when husbands left or died, they tragically lost children or when mental illness or addiction took hold. Each found herself without a home and ripe for victimization in the fateful late summer and autumn of 1888.

To survive homelessness, they had to attach themselves to a man. Having a male partner was the only way destitute women had to stave off homelessness, starvation and remain relatively safe. Sleeping "rough," outside in doorways and alleys, was common for poor women. A man offered a modicum of safety a woman alone didn't have.

These men were poor and often alcoholics themselves. Each Ripper victim had a male partner at least part of the time she lived on the streets. There was a genuine affection between several of the women and their partners. Sometimes the relationships lasted for years. To the upper classes, of course, they were promiscuous. It was a moral failing to be poor in the first place, but especially so if you were a woman.

The most heartbreaking part of the book for me was the list of possessions each woman had when her body was found. Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols' possessions included a broken piece of mirror and a comb. Annie Chapman had two combs, one small tooth and another protected in a paper case. Elizabeth Stride had combs, a pencil and two small pieces of paper. Catherine (Kate) Eddowes had six pieces of soap, tea and sugar and, of course, her pipes. And, Mary Jane Kelly, the only victim to have been killed indoors, was last seen dressed in a red shawl and wincey dress.

It's clear these women cared about themselves. They gazed at their reflections in the mirror. They groomed themselves. They drank tea and smoked their pipes. They still hoped and dreamed of better lives.

Theirs are the stories of women who had not given up, but of women who mattered. They shouldn't be regulated to mere footnotes in history.

"The Five" - Author Hallie Rubenhold brings these women to life. It's time to hear their voices.


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