Polly. Annie. Elizabeth. Kate. Mary Jane.
These are the five canonical fatalities whose attacker was the unidentified Jack the Ripper, a Victorian figure whose grossly violent legacy still plagues the streets of the Whitechapel district of East London. With walks, fiction, and periodicals dedicated to the serial killings, these are offences so vicious and folkloric that they and their faceless culprit are the focus of deathly fascination.
The five – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – were left with a far less illustrious legacy. A footnote to their antagonist, canon-fodder for the anecdote, they were scapegoats, accepted as prostitutes without proof, disfigured, disgraced, displayed as photographs of defaced corpses, and, largely, forgotten from their own stories in favour of the surgical details of their deaths.
Forgotten, that is, until The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper: a detailed, evocative work of non-fiction that follows the paths they walked to their tragic fates, focussing on the forces of poverty and deprivation they faced, the influence of fathers, lovers, pregnancies, and deaths, and the effects of drink and violence that echo in every footfall. Authoritative and thoughtful, The Five confronts and fights the preconceptions – from the occupational to the political, the private to the social – that very effectively authorised the silencing of their voices and the assassination of their characters again and again.
Though it is a forceful and affectionate defence, the author paints all five truthfully, with all their faults, from drink addiction to poor decisions (even in the dated light of Victorian ideals), and their effects talked of frankly. Yet, without fawning, painting them as deserving sacrifices or defensively forgiving all flaws, all five are depicted with the truth and decency that their lives and fates so often denied them.
The Five is frank and unflinching – the fact that the flat truth ‘killed‘ is in the title is evidence of its approach to and portrayal of strife and suffering – yet, it’s also loving and thoughtful: the final list of artefacts is a stark and sorrowful look into the lives of the five as well as the larger perceived value of a life that left little other than scraps, a pocket, and a petticoat.
As for Jack? The figure of the Ripper features fleetingly, as the afterthought that the five so often are in tales of the Whitechapel attacks, and The Five is a finer work for it.