British social historian and novelist Rubenhold (The French Lesson, 2016, etc.) improves the reputations of “Jack the Ripper’s five ‘canonical’ victims.”
Alcoholism, poverty, homelessness, abuse: London was awash in social problems in the later decades of the 19th century, a time when, as in New York, tenements were sprouting up, filled by immigrants and migrants from the countryside. Such was the setting against which the grimy life of Polly Nichols, the first victim of the legendary Jack the Ripper, played out. “The poor of that district lived in unspeakably horrendous conditions,” writes the author. It was worse for women than men, since women were more constrained economically and often had multiple responsibilities as mothers and spouses as well as workers. Polly walked away from all that, addicted to alcohol, and took to the streets, where her murderer found her in 1888. “In death,” writes Rubenhold, “she would become as legendary as the Artful Dodger, Fagin, or even Oliver Twist, the truth of her life as entangled with the imaginary as theirs.” If the Dickensian emphasis is a touch overdone, the point remains: Polly would thereafter often be portrayed as merely a prostitute whose death was inevitable. So with the other four, who, argues the author, were not prostitutes and certainly were not complicit in the circumstances of their deaths, even though they have been depicted that way from the moment of their murders to the present—a matter of “guilt by association,” the women left defenseless by the voicelessness of the poor and those who “broke all the rules of what it meant to be feminine.” Allowing that the documentary record is incomplete—the case files on three of the five murders have gone missing—Rubenhold urges us to see the victims as just that and not as the “fallen women” of the received record.
A lively if morbid exercise in Victorian social history essential to students of Ripperiana.