Jack the Ripper represents our misogynist culture

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Jack the Ripper represents our misogynist culture

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US $27.00, Pp 352, April 2019, ISBN 978-1328663818

It is highly unlikely you have heard of any of the five women — Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane — who lived in Victorian England. But you must have heard of Jack the Ripper. The only reason why you know of Jack the Ripper is that he is assumed to have murdered these five women in 1888 on the assumption that they were prostitutes. These five women came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. One of them wrote ballads, the other ran a coffee house, the third lived on country estates, the fourth worked at a printing press while the fifth is known to have escaped people-traffickers. The real killer was never caught, but the press gave the credit to Jack the Ripper for murdering these five women. Since 1888, newspapers and historians have kept this myth alive. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold revisits the myth built by the press and historians. Hallie Rubenhold takes us to the world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. Hallie Rubenhold argues that they were killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and they were born a woman.

Hallie Rubenhold argues that there is no hard evidence to suggest that at least three of his five victims were prostitutes at all. As soon as each body was discovered, in a dark yard or street, the police assumed that the woman was a prostitute killed by a maniac who had lured her to the location for sex. There is, and never was, any proof of this either. To the contrary — over the course of the coroner’s inquests, it became known that Jack the Ripper never had sex with a single victim. Additionally, in the case of each murder, there were no signs of a struggle and the killings appear to have taken place in complete silence. There were no screams heard by anyone in the vicinity. The autopsies concluded that all of the women were killed while in a reclining position. In at least three of the cases, the victims were known to have been sleeping on the street and on the nights they were killed did not have money for a lodging house. In the final case, the victim was murdered in her bed. However, the police were so committed to their theories about the killer’s choice of victims that they failed to conclude the obvious — the Ripper targeted women while they slept.

Hallie Rubenhold says that the unreliable source material has always been the obstacle to discovering the truth about these murders. Although a handful of police records exist, the coroner’s inquests provide most of what is known about the actual crimes and the victims. Unfortunately, in three of the five cases, the official documentation from these inquests is missing. All that remains is a body of edited, embellished, misheard, reinterpreted newspaper reports from which a general picture of events can be teased. These documents have been approached with care on any part, and nothing contained within them has been taken as gospel.

Hallie Rubenhold points out that Jack the Ripper may have died long ago but he still lives in the Western culture. We have grown comfortable with the notion of “Jack the Ripper,” the unfathomable, invincible male killer that we have failed to recognize that he continues to walk among us. In his top hat and cape, wielding his blood-drenched knife, he can be spotted regularly on posters in London, in ads, on the sides of buses, bartenders have named drinks after him, shops use his moniker on their signs, tourists from around the world make pilgrimages to Whitechapel to walk in his footsteps and visit a museum dedicated to his violence. The world dresses 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 the female.

The Five is a myth-busting study of Jack the Ripper and his times. It is not only the voice of the victims of Ripper who were murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888 but also the voice of today’s women. It is a heart-touching story of five women which will make you cry and angry. The Five is a harsh indictment of our still partially misogynist Western culture. The Five is a must-read for the little Ripperologists sitting inside almost all of us. This well-researched and brilliantly written book is a thriller.

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