Books

The women killed by Jack the Ripper are finally having their stories told

A new book, opera and TV series explore the lives of the serial killer’s victims. It’s a welcome break from our culture’s obsession with male murderers.

Their names were Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. They were all desperately poor women who lived in the East End of London. They were all homeless at the time of their deaths in 1888. And they were all murdered by Jack the Ripper, one of the most notorious serial killers in British history.

In the 130 years since the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, he has become a key figure in London’s dark history-mythology industry. His killing spree provoked an immediate global media frenzy, and over time, the world’s fascination with Jack the Ripper calcified. The writers of penny dreadfuls – a sensationalist form of illustrated fiction wildly popular in Victorian Britain – began telling macabre stories inspired by the murders in the late 19th century, and by the Twenties, films featuring Ripper-esque serial killers (like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger) had begun to spring up.

Today, interest in Jack the Ripper has yet to wane. He is immortalised in figures in the London Dungeon and Madame Tussauds, and the Jack the Ripper Museum in East London is still open, despite an outcry when it opened its doors in 2015. On Amazon, hundreds of books about the murders are available for true crime fans to peruse. There is even a cocktail named in his honour. 

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But for all the world’s grim fixation with Jack the Ripper, curiosity about the women he killed has long been conspicuously lacking. For over a century, the prevailing narrative about Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly was that they were sex workers who were attacked while out ‘turning tricks’. 

And thanks to Victorian-era attitudes towards prostitution, which framed sex workers as objects of pity or revulsion, the British public generally expressed little sympathy for the Ripper’s victims. There was a sense that they’d chosen their path in life, and subsequently reaped the consequences. At an inquest into Nichols’ murder in 1896, the coroner asked her former workhouse roommate whether she was “cleanly in her habits” – implying that she was a prostitute, and thus may have brought her death upon herself. 

A poster for the 1944 Ripper-inspired film The Lodger, which followed a 1927 silent film of the same name

But now, efforts are being made to shine a spotlight on the women murdered by Jack the Ripper, rather than the killer himself. An opera exploring the lives of the victims, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, is due to run at the English National Opera from 30 March. And in new book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (out 28 February), historian Hallie Rubenhold traces the biographies of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly, exploring how they came to be on the streets of east London in the summer and autumn of 1888.

A week before The Five’s official publication date, it was announced that the book will also be turned into a TV series written by Gwyneth Hughes, whose credits include adapting Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood for BBC2 and William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for Amazon Studios. “By giving voice to the victims, The Five promises to change the way we see the Ripper murders forever,” Hughes said. 

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In The Five, Rubenfold spins a compelling narrative for each of the Ripper’s victims, underscoring the fundamental vulnerability of working-class women in Victorian London. Polly Nichols, the daughter of a blacksmith, grew up on Gunpowder Alley near Fleet Street – an area that inspired Charles Dickens’ description of Fagin’s squalid lodgings in Oliver Twist. As an adult, her husband’s adultery led her to leave her family and seek refuge in a workhouse. When a brief spell as a domestic worker came to an end for unknown reasons, she ended up living on the streets.

Crucially, this doesn’t mean that Nichols turned to sex work. Rubenfold argues that there is no evidence that Nichols, Chapman or Eddowes ever worked as prostitutes, and the police inquiry into their murders was tainted by this assumption. Indeed, it’s worth noting that in the 19th century, the word ‘prostitute’ was not always used in the way we’d understand it today. The term could also be used to describe women who lived with men outside marriage, had illegitimate children or simply enjoyed sex – something that was seen as flouting the Victorian feminine ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’, the devoted wife and mother who endured sex for the sole purpose of procreation. 

A memorial marker for Mary Ann Nichols at the City of London Cemetery

Instead of preying on prostitutes specifically, Rubenhold suggests that the Ripper targeted lone homeless women who were drunk and asleep. Not only did this combination of factors render them physically vulnerable, it also made it very clear that they would not be immediately missed by anyone.

Annie Chapman was one such woman. The daughter of a soldier, she struggled with alcoholism throughout her adult life and began sleeping on the streets of Whitechapel after her husband’s death. Rubenhold notes that Chapman’s alcoholism would have contributed to the general lack of concern about her death. “The female drunkard was considered an abomination,” she writes. “Although [Chapman’s] transgressions may not have been of a sexual nature, Victorian society conflated the broken woman with the fallen woman.” 

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The Ripper’s next victims were Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. They were killed within hours of each other, but never met. Stride, originally known as Elisabeth Gustafsdotter, was a pretty farmer’s daughter from rural Sweden. Her life was marked by venereal disease and grinding employment as a maid before she met her husband John Stride, a carpenter two decades her senior. The pair opened a coffeehouse together – but when that failed, Stride began posing as a shipping disaster victim to extract money from well-meaning members of the middle classes.

By the early 1880s, she and John had separated, and Stride – like all of the Ripper’s victims – became homeless. She was arrested once for soliciting and several times for being drunk and disorderly, and Rubenhold posits that she may have been struggling with mental health issues due to syphilis. Her corpse was found in Whitechapel on the morning of 30 September 1888; her throat had been cut. 

A 19th century drawing of Jack the Ripper depicting him as a ghostly figure, and a news report from the time

Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes was unusual among the Ripper’s victims for being literate, having received a primary school-level education. Aged 14, she was sent to live with her late father’s family in Wolverhampton, and it was here that she met her partner, an Irish balladeer and ex-soldier called Thomas Conway. The couple toured Britain selling chapbooks and had a daughter together, but the relationship later became abusive.

Eddowes and Conway finally split in 1881, and she began seeing another man who – like her – was a heavy drinker. The couple was sporadically homeless, something that led investigators to assume that Eddowes must have been a prostitute; Rubenhold writes that the “prejudices of the era” held that “homeless women and women who sold sex were one and the same”. But the authorities’ lack of sympathy towards Eddowes wasn’t reflected by her family and friends. At her funeral, 500 people turned out on the streets of London to pay their respects.

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Of all of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, his last victim’s backstory is the most enigmatic. Rubenhold explains that “a woman calling herself Mary Jane Kelly” began attending private balls in central London somewhere between 1883 and 1884, although it remains unclear where exactly she came from: she may have been Irish or Welsh. These balls were a surreptitious way of connecting wealthy gentlemen with well-dressed prostitutes, and Kelly later worked in a brothel in west London.

But a terrifying experience with sex traffickers made it impossible for her to stay in the West End, and she relocated to the other side of the city, moving between brothels and boarding houses in Wapping, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. Her mutilated corpse was found lying on her bed on the morning of 9 November 1888. She was just 25 years old. 

An artist’s impression of police discovering one of the Ripper’s victims from French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, 1891

It has been 130 years since Jack the Ripper murdered Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly, but it remains vitally important that we know their stories. In Victorian London, salacious penny dreadfuls transformed male serial killers into fascinating monsters, reducing their female victims to footnotes in the process.

Today, that job is done by Hollywood films and true crime documentaries and podcasts, which build glamorous mythologies around male murderers while simultaneously erasing their victims’ stories and fetishizing the violence they experienced. Few people know the names of Ted Bundy’s victims, but thousands of people are fascinated by the American serial killer – just as the names of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly have been overshadowed for over a century.

By focusing on the women’s complex lives, not their brutal deaths, Rubenhold’s book does a stunning job of redressing this imbalance. “At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killer’s deep, abiding hatred of women, and our cultural obsession with the mythology only serves to normalise its particular brand of misogyny,” she writes. “It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents.”

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold (Doubleday, £16.99) is out on 28 February

Lead image shows Rosetta and Mary Ann Nichols, female relatives of Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, photographed in 1894. Image courtesy of Hallie Rubenhold. Other images: Getty Images