The Untold Lives of the Women killed Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
In 2015 there was a bit of a hoo-hah in the planning department in London’s City Council. Planning permission had been granted to convert a Victorian house into a small museum which would examine “Women’s History”. As this subject had been woefully under-represented, this seemed an excellent idea.
The planning department, therefore, declared themselves somewhat startled when the covers came off at the new attraction and they found it was named “The Jack The Ripper Museum”. It seemed the only “Women” who qualified to have their “History” examined were those who had died horrible, brutal deaths in and around Whitechapel in 1888. When questioned as to whether they had been somewhat economical with the truth in their planning application in order to get a dodgy old screams and bloody bandage type place past the planners, the proprietors declared themselves shocked and offended. Indeed no – they said. This was just a slight change of focus and the Ripper’s victims would have their lives examined in forensic detail and we would all get to see them front row centre for the first time.
Probably against everyone’s better judgement, the museum was allowed to open and the women’s lives were examined using the medium of several pieces of A4 paper with a bit of descriptive detail but, unsurprisingly, these have not proved as popular as the room which is described as “not suitable for children.”
This is a long introduction to this book which takes the exact opposite approach. (Please forgive photo of book next to remains of lunch – slovenly behaviour). It is about the canonical five women who were killed over a period between August and November 1888. You will, however, find no description of their deaths or the state they were found in, the murderer is not described and there is no speculation as to his identity. Instead, there is discussion around the women – their backgrounds, their families and their lives – and it’s a bit of an eye opener. Despite the way the women are usually described – only one, Mary Jane Kelly was actually a prostitute. The others were women who, when things began to go wrong, found that females had little or no support to get back on their feet.
One lady was an alcoholic and despite the love and support of her family (who sent her to a sanitarium to recover) eventually she relapsed and left her family because the drink became more important. Another, whose husband found the charms of the lady next door irresistible to the point that he moved her in, left her children because she had nowhere to take them. Her husband was supposed to pay her some kind of financial support but, once he proved that she was with someone else, which anyone living on the street needed to be to remain safe, he stopped the payment.
The women moved in and out of the workhouse to get medical treatment and guaranteed food. No-one stayed in the workhouse for very long though because conditions were, intentionally, very harsh. The idea being to discourage anyone who felt that a week in the care of the authorities was preferable to a week of hard work. In reality, for the poor, neither in nor out of the workhouse was a good option. You lose some, you lose some.
These were women who had lived through terrible circumstances and been unable to get out from under them. These women certainly weren’t perfect and they made bad choices but they were not who we often think they were. Under different circumstances, they could be you or me.
I thought this was excellent. The women are interesting and sad and they feel like what they were – real people. There is social commentary – women had few rights and this made their circumstances so much more difficult to overcome. It’s not a preachy nagging thing though – it tells stories about the women and it’s important that they are heard.