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Setting the Record Straight

Underneath the jacket of Hallie Rubenhold’s latest book, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, the names of five women are printed — Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly — the canonical victims of the unidentified serial killer, who brutally murdered them in and around the Whitechapel district in London in 1888. It is by design, she says, as we sit down for a quick chat in the midst of sessions at the recently-concluded Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. “Over the past 131 years, there’s been such a fascination with the murderer. So much time and effort has been invested in finding out the minutest details of these horrific crimes and yet not much was done to find out who these women really were,” says Rubenhold, who has upset ‘Ripperologists’ with her devastating deep dive into the other side of the horrific killings that continue to captivate lovers of true crime the world over.

“Ripperologists focus on the last days or the final hours of these women; the newspapers of the time were quick to paint them with the same brush and say they were all prostitutes. When I started my research, I failed to see evidence that three of the five were sex workers at all,” says Rubenhold. Identifying the women as such was easy for the police, the papers, for Victorian society at large, for the idea of a woman’s work is intrinsically tied to her worth; the killings were an event that single-handedly vilified sex work, a profession that serves men the most.

Rubenhold describes herself as a “social historian” interested in the lives of ordinary people, especially women in the UK. “How women lived in any particular time will tell you what you need to know about society. For this book, I had to peel back all the conspiracy theories and locate primary sources of information such as birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, census and workhouse records. Poor women, as these women were, have a very narrow range of possibilities in their lives — it helped me trace their journey. The inquests that were held were like morality trials — held not to ascertain the cause of death but to find out if these women merited their deaths,” she says.

Winner of the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction, The Five is Rubenhold’s bold attempt to not only rewrite a sordid history, but also claim a sliver of dignity for the victims. From Jack the Ripper tours in Whitechapel to Hollywood fare like From Hell, the deaths of the five have been capitalised to no end. “The tours have been there since the first murder — these women die over and over again, for entertainment and commerce. The best ammunition to fight those lies is knowledge and an awakening of empathy. I want my book to be the antidote to that venom,” she says.

The London-based writer is now working on her next book, another true crime story that became the biggest newspaper headline in 1910. “It’s about the Crippen murder: Dr Hawley Crippen, an American quack medic, murdered his wife, dressed as a boy and ran off with his secretary, and boarded a ship to Canada. He was caught, brought back and tried for murder and he was hanged. The trial was extraordinary, because nobody could understand how this meek little man could kill a woman much larger than him — she must have ‘asked for it’. But the most incredible thing about this story is how 25 women brought this case to court, helped to catch him, and have him prosecuted. It’s a story of women’s empowerment at the turn of the century, and unsurprisingly, it has been erased,” says Rubenhold.

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