The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
By Hallie Rubenhold
417 pp. Doubleday. £17.
Jack the Ripper is the most infamous serial killer of all time and yet, despite his fame, so little is known about his victims.
If someone had asked me what I knew about the five women killed, all I would have been able to say was that they were all prostitutes. And yet even that sole fact about these women isn’t a fact at all — it’s total fiction.
What is it about villains that so fascinates us? I think back to that oft-heard quote, though I no longer know where it originated, that tells us “a story is only as good as its villain.” For story telling purposes, that is oftentimes very true. A story without a compelling villain just isn’t very compelling.
There’s a reason why “The Dark Knight” is widely considered to be the best of the Batman movies — Heath Ledger’s Joker.
But what do we like even better than a really good villain? A villain we like, who we relate to, whose villainy we don’t just forgive, but revel in.
This sort of character is present in nearly all the best television shows of our era. They take the form of men like Frank Underwood and Tony Soprano, Walter White and Logan Roy.
Do you want men like Walter White to get caught? The man’s a murderer, a drug dealer, and yet despite that you can’t help but want him to succeed.
Much could be written about the inherent sexism in the fact that it is almost always men who get to hold these dual roles, who can be “bad” and yet held up as “good.” We the audience let these characters, quite literally, get away with murder. If there’s a popular female character in films, television, or literature who we allow to get away with similar crimes, none come to my mind.
Though she was by no means the first to pioneer this use of the “bad” protagonist, I credit the American author Patricia Highsmith for popularizing this type of character, and for doing the most with it.
You can’t read The Talented Mr. Ripley or watch the fantastic movie adaptation and NOT cheer for Ripley, a depraved figure who murdered a man, stole his identity, and goes about murdering and deceiving his way across Italy. (Notice, by the way, the similarity of “Ripley” to “Ripper.”)
Highsmith was the master of this genre, and that’s why her “mystery” stories are the best, because we’re almost never dealing with characters whose motivations are black or white. The bad guys don’t wear black hats and have curly mustaches.
Where is the line between a morally compromised anti-hero and a likable villain?
Then there are those villains whose acts were so evil that our minds struggle to understand them. Hitler is the obvious example here, a man whose villainy has managed to overshadow just about every other aspect of the Second World War and, quite possibly, every other aspect of the 20th century.
At some point the struggle to understand, which is the first step in attempting — in our, for better or worse, very human way — to rationalize the actions of bad men, leads to fascination. Curious acts of evil beget intrigue, beget a kind of obsession that at times crosses into a sort of admiration.
Enter Jack the Ripper. The fact that his identity is unknown to us just adds to the fascination, which in turn leads to conspiracy theories to who he actually was, which in turn just ends up feeding the fascination even further.
But Jack the Ripper just killed “prostitutes,” we justify to ourselves, not altogether openly these days. They had it coming. In fact, one could argue, Jack the Ripper was doing society a favor by getting rid of these “undesirables.”
Nevermind the fact that such rationalizations have been used by mass murderers and their apologists to justify genocide forever, from Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés, to Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milošević.
Note, as well, the kindness that time bestows on the wicked.
“Over the centuries,” Rubenhold writes in her afterword, “the villain has metamorphosed into the protagonist: an evil, psychotic, mysterious player who is so clever that 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.”
Because Rubenhold emphasizes that these women were not “just prostitutes” and points to the fact that evidence suggests that only two of the five ever engaged in prostitution at any time during their lives, criticism arose from certain quarters when the book came out that Rubenhold was essentially saying that the lives of Jack the Ripper’s victims were worth mourning only because they weren’t prostitutes. That, if they actually had been prostitutes, oh well, guess they were asking for it then.
Such criticism couldn’t have come from anyone who actually read the book, as Rubenhold clearly despises those in society, both in the immediate aftermath of the murders and now, who have waved the murders of these women off as no great loss.
Rubenhold quotes Justice Peter Gross, the judge in the case of the Suffolk Strangler, who reminded jurors in that 2008 trial of the following:
“You may view with some distaste the lifestyles of those involved … whatever drugs they took, whatever the work they did, no-one is entitled to do these women any harm, let alone kill them.”
That this would have to be pointed out not in 1888, the year of the Ripper killings, but in 2008 is shocking and eye-opening.
This is a fantastic book, marvelously researched, and Rubenhold goes to painful lengths to illustrate to readers that Jack the Ripper was no anomaly, no abhorrent mind working wholly outside the acceptable morals of society, but was in actuality a product of that society, a society in which the life of a woman, and particularly a woman of the lower classes, was worth essentially nothing.
Of Jack the Ripper, Rubenhold writes, “The world has learned to dress up in his costume at Halloween, to imagine being him, to honor his genius, to laugh at a murderer of women. By embracing him, we embrace the set of values that surrounded him in 1888 which teaches women that they are of a lesser value and can expect to be dishonored and abused. We enforce the notion that ‘bad women’ deserve punishment and that ‘prostitutes’ are a sub-species of female.”
It is an attitude that is still all too present today when we comment that a woman was “asking for it” because she was intoxicated at the college party or because she went out dressed a certain way.
“It is only by bringing these women back to life,” Rubenhold continues, “that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents. By permitting them to speak, by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled.”
“The Five” at last allows these women to say their piece, and speak out openly of their pains and frustrations. It is a remarkable work not just of feminist history, but of the history of oppressed peoples everywhere.