Challenging Myth and Misogyny in the Ripper Murders: An Interview with Hallie Rubenhold
In her new book The Five: The Untold Stories of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, social historian Hallie Rubenhold deftly challenges conventional Ripper mythology with an extensively researched deep dive into the lives of his overlooked and stereotyped victims. Through reconstructions of these women’s individual lifelong experiences, Rubenhold counters the long-held assumption that these vulnerable women were “just” prostitutes, and provokes crucial and troubling questions about why their stories were silenced for 130 years. I spoke with the author from her home in London to learn more.
Aja: What inspired you to take a fresh look at a topic that’s almost become a cliché in the true crime world? What inspired you to say, “Hang on, although so much has been done, really nothing has been done on this very important component?”
Hallie: The interesting thing is that I was actually not interested in Jack the Ripper prior to investigating this topic. But what I set out to do was to write a book about nineteenth-century sex workers, because my previous books were on eighteenth-century sex workers and their underworld and what it was like and their experiences. And I wanted to do the same for women in the nineteenth century. And so I thought automatically: who are the most famous sex workers in the nineteenth century? Well, that would be the victims of Jack the Ripper.
I started doing some research and, first of all, what surprised me was that I could not believe that nobody has written about these women. My jaw just dropped; I couldn’t believe it. There was a very small book that was written about ten years ago, which was mainly a genealogical examination, looking at the documents of where the women were born and lived, what children they had. There was no analysis, and it’s like a sixty-page booklet for five women. That’s not a lot of information.
As I started looking at the material, I thought “Where is this fabled evidence that they were sex workers?” I just wasn’t finding it. I found that Mary Jane Kelly, the fifth victim, had a lot of evidence that certainly suggests she was a sex worker. Elizabeth Stride, who was the third victim, had worked as a sex worker when she lived in Sweden and also returned to it at some point in her life after her husband died, but we don’t know if she had gone back to it again when she was killed. And I thought that was really amazing to examine the definition of what a sex worker actually was, and how unclear and gray this was, even for the people living through the era. It was very hard to define. So I thought we definitely needed a book, not only about them and evaluating their lives, looking at the experiences of Victorian women who were poor, but also this whole added dimension that the fact that these legends we’ve been buying into for 130 years, why are we buying into them? Where did this start?
As I was writing this book, it felt like it was becoming more and more important. It started off as an investigation of these five women’s lives and really took on a whole other resonance as I was writing it.
Aja: Does your work always focus on women’s history?
Hallie: I’m really always interested in the untold story, the flip side of history, the underworld, and those who don’t have a voice. And unfortunately, that tends to be women.
Aja: I’m trying to imagine your moment of shock when you realize that nothing has been done in 130 years.
Hallie: From the moment I discovered that, I instantly became incredulous and incredibly angry as well, furious. And it was that anger that drove me all the way through the process of writing this book, because I thought, “This is really, really, really important that this book is written.”
Aja: Finding something that no one’s ever written about: that never happens to historians!
Hallie: I know! Especially when it’s right under our noses. Jack the Ripper is such a major part of our culture, not just in the UK, but everybody in the world knows who Jack the Ripper was. And it’s just astonishing to me that no one has ever asked that really fundamental question: who were the women he killed? And that’s a terrible indictment of us and our society.
Aja: It’s incredibly fortunate that you came across this topic and that you were the one to become the champion for these women’s stories, because as you say, it’s a terrible indictment of us and previous generations who thought these stories were not worth telling because we thought the people they came from were disposable.
Hallie: Exactly. When you start unpacking that assumption, this issue of us not examining who they were and it’s been 130 years, you instantly go to some pretty surprising and awful places about who we are as a society. Why did we never ask? I mean all of us.
We’re okay with consuming the Jack the Ripper mythology. Everybody who comes to London goes on a Jack the Ripper tour. Jack the Ripper is merchandised all over the world, with t-shirts and keychains and people dressing up as Jack the Ripper for Halloween, and nobody stopped to ask, women as well as men.
Aja: When you dig down into it and think of these people as real people and not movie characters or legends, it becomes shocking pretty quickly. It sounds like you went into the world of the Ripperology forums and discussion groups: was that a weird place to find yourself in?
Hallie: I don’t know if you’ve seen it in the UK press, I was at the Hay Festival recently and did an event there and the interviewer asked me about my experiences writing the book. I have been heavily trolled, and it’s been in all the newspapers here since I talked about it. The Ripperologists absolutely hate me and they claim that I’ve lied, that I’ve been dishonest, that I’ve hidden the truth, that they know the facts and that I have distorted them in order to tell the story according to my own “feminist agenda.” So that’s been my experience. They don’t like the idea that I’m saying that for three of the five women, there is no evidence that they were involved in sex work. They cannot stomach that, and there are a multitude of reasons for that. But one of the primary reasons is that one of the foundational truths that Ripperology has been based on is that Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes. And if you take that away, these guys (and they are mostly guys) have nothing. What that then does is present an entire existential threat to Ripperology, because it means I’m questioning the validity of all the documentation. And all of these guys have been studying this stuff in their basements or wherever they are for the past couple of decades, and this is their life and identity. And here comes this woman basically saying “You’ve got it wrong.” And they’re not going to roll over.
Aja: That’s so many layers to dig down into. I can’t imagine, although I have to because this is where we are today, a planet where people would be so upset that you’re disrupting this narrative of violent misogyny. Beyond that aspect, what was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
Hallie: There’s so much. It wasn’t necessarily one thing in particular as much as it was the surprising ability to be able to connect with people who haven’t left diaries and letters and memoirs and things written in their own voices. I knew it was possible, but I think I got a real sense of just how possible it was to reconstruct a life, even when you’re reconstructing the outline of a life, and how it is possible to connect with that human being from another time. Especially with women and poor women in particular, their choices in life were so narrow, so one of the things that I could deduce in my research was, if they ended up here at this particular date, this gave you a sense of what they were experiencing. And even how much of their personality came through, even in these outlines. These were five very distinct people. And I’m not going to pretend I know them very intimately because I don’t, but I do have a sense of who they were. They went from being complete ciphers, just names, to living, breathing human beings. That’s pretty awe-inspiring.
Aja Bain is the Program and Publications Manager for the American Association for State and Local History, where she serves as Associate Editor of History News and blog editor. She holds a Master’s in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and a BA in American history and anthropology from Vanderbilt University. Currently president of the Inter-Museum Council of Nashville, her research interests include Southern migration and the commodification of regional culture in globalized societies.