This is the first blog post in a new sub-blog, Too Soon, a sardonic look at Jack the Ripper. I’ve wanted to do a Ripper blog or podcast for a long time, but I was finally inspired to start by Hallie Rubenhold’s fascinating podcast Bad Women, and the excellent book it was based on, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.
I’ve read a number of Ripper books over the years, and listened to a few podcasts. A big reason for writing this blog is to give me an excuse to learn more about this unsolved and unsolvable case, and about the Victorians. I’m fascinated by them—I’ve even written a heavily-researched novel taking place in the late Victorian London. But the Ripper story has always exposed the rot in the foundations of Victorian society. And our modern world was largely invented by the Victorians. That rot still exists today, and it exists in America.
The target of my sardonic humor is not going to be the victims, “canonical” or otherwise; nor the impoverished people of London’s East End, circa 1888. These people get my utmost respect and compassion. My humor is reserved for punching up, not down—the police, the Victorian middle and upper classes, charities, religious authorities, and Victorian society and culture in general.
And there’s one more target. I don’t intend to attack the hobby of Ripperology itself. I understand why this subject is so fascinating, and I have no problem with “True Crime” as such. And let’s be honest—as the title Too Soon jokingly suggests, all of the people directly affected by these tragic murders, the families and friends and neighbors, are long dead.
But Rubenhold’s work, and the reaction to it from certain Ripperologists, have revealed rot in the foundations of the hobby. Ripper “fans” and amateur “scholars” (and I consider myself the latter, scare quotes notwithstanding) need to listen to critics like Rubenhold, and those who have spoken out against True Crime as entertainment, not ignore or attack them.
So here I will review The Five, and take a deeper look at some of the more prominent denunciation of it. I’ve already given away that I liked the book very much, but it’s not immune to analysis. And I will take a look at one podcast’s view of the book. Rubenhold mentions this podcast in Bad Women, and it’s the first thing that came up on a Google search of reviews of The Five. It’s problematic as fuck.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)
In my own Ripper studies to date, I’ve come to a number of conclusions, These include:
- The Ripper case will not, and cannot, ever be solved definitively. Maybe someone could someday come up with a suspect academic historians consider reasonably likely, but that has not happened, and is reasonably unlikely. Honestly, anyone who thinks they’ve solved this thing is delusional.
- No direct evidence concerning the murders themselves survives. All we have are police statements and newspaper reports, neither of which can be considered genuinely reliable. I don’t trust modern cops or modern newspapers—why would I believe the Victorian ones?
- While the identity of Jack the Ripper is of interest, it is far from the most interesting thing about this case. And he (or she, it’s unlikely but possible) cannot be brought to justice, so it’s moot at this point. Anyway, whoever Jack the Ripper/Leather Apron was, they were a complete asshole. To say the least.
Hallie Rubenhold seems to largely agree with these points. Certainly she does not care about Jack the Ripper’s identity, or even really about the murders themselves. Her goal in this book is to humanize the five canonical victims, and she does a great job. And while every book I’ve read on the topic opines about how difficult these women’s lives were, Rubenhold lays it out in depressing and sometimes excruciating detail.
I’ve never read anything that so vividly captures the misery and precarity of working class life in the English-speaking world in the 19th Century. The book, while engaging and entertaining, is quite troubling and even depressing—especially since it makes you genuinely care about these women, and then follows them down a tragically unfair and undeserved path into abject poverty, violence, and death.
She is also critical, at the beginning and the end of the book, of previous studies of the topic. She doesn’t mention Ripperology by name, or specific Ripperologists. But she doesn’t like the way writers have focused on the killer and their identity rather than on the victims.
Over the centuries, the villain has metamorphosed into the protagonist; an evil, psychotic, mysterious player who is so clever he has managed to evade detection even today. In order to gawp at and examine this miracle of malevolence we have figuratively stepped over the bodies of those he murdered, and in some cases, stopped to kick them as we walked past.
Rubenhold’s most controversial claim in this book is that only one of the five canonical Ripper victims (Mary Jane Kelly) was a sex worker at the time of the murders, and three (Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, and Elizabeth Stride) were never sex workers at all. Her opinion is that Victorian society considered any impoverished woman without a husband a prostitute, and that the evidence that Nichols, Chapman, and Stride were “unfortunates” is weak.
There were many reasons why an impoverished working-class woman may have been outdoors during the hours of darkness, and not all of them were as obvious as street soliciting.
She quotes Sir Charles Warren, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, admitting that officers “have no means of ascertaining what women are prostitutes and who are not.” He instructed his officers to stop assuming every Whitechapel woman was a sex worker.
Even Ripperologist Paul Begg, author of Jack the Ripper: The Facts (which I’ve read), says regarding the evidence for prostitution, “it may not be particularly good evidence. It may not be strong evidence. It may not be conclusive in any way.” That’s from the podcast I’ll cover below, where Begg is criticizing Rubenhold for ignoring what he calls bad, weak, inconclusive evidence.
I’m fascinated by Rubenhold’s thesis, and was unaware there was any controversy over the idea that all the victims, even the non-canonical ones, were prostitutes. Rubenhold thinks the Ripper was targeting women “sleeping rough,” or in Kelly’s case, sleeping in a room the killer could easily access. That each victim was asleep helps explain why there were no incontrovertible instances of witnesses hearing the victim call out when they were attacked.
This issue does highlight an interesting inconsistency in The Five. The book is full of imaginative suppositions that border on fiction, based on reading between the lines of known documents. These suppositions are what make the book readable and compelling. But Rubenhold wants absolute proof that the victims were sex workers, and won’t read between the lines on that issue.
This is not really any kind of important criticism. Historical biographies do this kind of filling in the blanks all the time. And even academic histories will float a theory by examining the lack of evidence against it, rather than any evidence for it. Rubenhold isn’t doing anything unusual or controversial here. The point is, I didn’t know the evidence for sex work was so weak in three of the cases. Now I do.
As I see it, even if none of the victims were sex workers, it seems likely that the killer thought they were. Certainly the Ripper was targeting women, and certainly they were targeting alcoholics. Was it an ideological motive, or just opportunity? We’ll never know.
Another way to approach this book, and to find the aforementioned rot in Ripperology, is to answer the criticism of it. Let’s take a look at the transcript of the Rippercast podcast from March 5, 2019, where a roundtable of Ripperologists, including Begg, discussed The Five.
The discussion begins quite reasonably and politely. The panelists cover the new information Rubenhold uncovered: Chapman’s sanatorium records, heretofore unknown children of Chapman and Catherine Eddowes, details about the tenement where the Nichols’ lived, et cetera. They point out that some facts presented in the book as new were in fact previously known. They admit that the book is good at giving the lives of the canonical victims context, and is entertaining.
Then it all goes off the rails.
They have some quibbles with the book that are absurdly unfair; they seem to be holding Rubenhold to some standard they don’t even uphold in this conversation. Rubenhold says that H Division, the Whitechapel-based division of the Metropolitan Police, got help from Scotland Yard. The panelists point out that the Metropolitan Police are Scotland Yard. Sure, but Rubenhold clearly knows this. All she’s is saying is that H Division didn’t investigate the murders on their own, they had help from headquarters.
They also go after her for not mentioning the non-canonical murders. Hey guys, the book is called The Five. It’s specifically, and exclusively, about the traditionally canonical victims. That’s not a flaw.
But these quibbles are not the main gripe the panel has.
The panel hates the idea that maybe some victims weren’t sex workers. They admit that the evidence is weak in three of the cases (see above), but blast Rubenhold for not discussing that evidence. They think Rubenhold shouldn’t have shown such confidence in her conclusions, and should have presented alternate (their) views. Rubenhold has complained that Ripperologists do a lot of gatekeeping, and that’s what they are doing here (while insisting they are not).
There seems to be a consensus in this group not that established academic history must be taken into account, but that established Ripperology must be taken into account. I think this attitude places Ripperology on a pedestal it neither needs nor deserves. Ripperology is an amateur field, which is both a strength and a weakness; on the one hand, anyone can participate, but on the other hand, anyone can participate.
Getting a raft of Jack the Ripper books published is a cool accomplishment, and I think even qualifies you as an expert on the topic. But it’s not a PhD., nor is it formal training in history. You guys are not historians. Your writing is not peer reviewed. No one is required to consult you, quote you, or even take you seriously.
Oh, by the way, you know who is a professional historian and has her PhD.? Hallie fucking Rubenhold.
Mark Ripper (!), co-author of The A-Z of Victorian Crime, compares Rubenhold to Holocaust denier David Irving. He immediately follows this with “I am not comparing Hallie Rubenhold to David Irving at all.” Dude. You just spent 282 words (I counted) comparing Hallie Rubenhold to David Irving. Either have the courage of your convictions, or maybe just don’t compare a fellow author to a Holocaust denier. The comparison is ludicrous. No one is being racist or supporting genocide by questioning the conclusion that a Victorian woman was a prostitute.
Amanda Lloyd, administrator of the Facebook group Ripperology Books… and More, accuses Rubenhold of having a “Feminist agenda.” This is a huge red flag. If you’re calling the idea that all human beings are fundamentally equal an “agenda,” then you are the problem. Believing in human equality is the absolute lowest bar for being a decent person. If you’re not a feminist and an antiracist, well then you’re a misogynist and a racist and you deserve no respect.
All this after claiming, as the panelists do at some length, that it shouldn’t really matter if the victims were sex workers or not, they still deserve respect and didn’t deserve to die. Really? Then why are you so upset someone merely questioned the idea that all five were prostitutes? Why defend the idea so passionately? Why are you all so invested in it?
Here’s Paul Begg, in conclusion:
I worried when the book was first announced. Some of the things that were being said, I kind of worried about how the general public perceived us. I’m perfectly well aware that the general public perceives Ripperology as something akin to people who study UFOs and things of that nature. Flat Earth Society, perhaps. And I’d like to have seen what we do respected a little bit more.
So it’s not the facts or the interpretation that are the problem. It’s Rubenhold’s criticism of Ripperology. It’s amateur historians wanting professional respectability. It’s thin skin about a hobby.
And hey, I’m making it my hobby. I even hope to become a Jack the Ripper expert like Begg one day. And as I said, Rubenhold is not above criticism, no one is.
But the criticism in this transcript is histrionic and bigoted. Rubenhold’s right about the sexism and gatekeeping she complains about in Bad Women. Yes, Ripperology has a problem.
This post wasn’t terribly sardonic, but wait until I get to some of the wilder Ripper theories. Next time: Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper Case Closed. Spoiler alert: the case is not closed.