'The Five': A Dissenting Voice

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  • #4980
    RichardB
    Participant

    Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, her account of the lives of Jack the Ripper’s canonical five victims, has created quite a stir. It made headlines before it was even published, and it has climbed the Sunday Times best-seller list. It has received fulsome praise from critics, who have called it ‘an angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth,’ and ‘an eloquent, stirring challenge to reject the prevailing Ripper myth.’ The Five, another critic says, ‘unearths the truth behind the Victorian Age’s most sensational crime.’

    At the risk of being branded a misogynist and a died-in-the-wool member of the forces of male repression, I’m going to raise a dissenting voice. Angry? Certainly. Eloquent and stirring? Oh yes. Unearthing the truth? Well…

    Let me make my position clear from the outset. I approached this book with an open mind. In fact I was looking forward to it. All I knew about it was that it sets out to prove that at least three of the Ripper’s canonical five victims were not prostitutes, as has always been generally believed. I’m always ready to enjoy the debunking of received opinion, and I’m ready to applaud anyone who speaks up for the underprivileged. I agree that there was appalling injustice in the way women, and especially poor women, were treated in Victorian times, that these five have had a raw deal ever since in history, and that it was long overdue for them to be given their own voice. Furthermore, the book is a compelling and fascinating read, and I am in awe of the sheer volume of research that has gone into it. In short, I was already, more or less, on Rubenhold’s side. But I began to have doubts almost immediately.

    In the introductory section she states, ‘The police were so committed to their theories about the killer’s choice of victims [i.e. that they were all prostitutes] that they failed to conclude the obvious: that the Ripper targeted his victims while they slept.’

    I didn’t know when I read it that this assertion is one of the things that has made the book famous and controversial, but I did think it was a bit odd, seeing that what survives of the autopsy and inquest records has been minutely picked over again and again over the years, and I’d never heard of that theory before.

    Well, perhaps Rubenhold’s research had turned up some new evidence. I shrugged and read on, and things became a lot worse than just a bit odd. At the ending of each section on the victims she gives accounts of their last minutes. In each case she has them dossing down (or going to bed, in the case of Mary Jane Kelly, the last victim, who was murdered in her room) in lonely virtuousness. The implication is that they were totally innocent of all complicity in their deaths, victims of unprovoked, random attacks. She doesn’t present these stories as speculation, which is all that they are. There is no ‘perhaps’ or ‘probably’ or ‘may have.’ She presents them as fact (‘Here she lowered herself down, her back against the wall as if it were a chair supporting her.’), and readers who don’t know better have accepted them as such.

    But this reader does know better. I am not an obsessive ‘ripperologist,’ but I have done a certain amount of reading on the subject. And I know that in four out of the five cases these stories are demonstrably untrue. Rubenhold carefully omits to mention that three of the victims – Annie Chapman, Liz Stride and Kate Eddowes – were seen in the company of a man within minutes of their deaths, or that Mary Jane Kelly was seen entering her room with a man around 2.00am.

    I cannot imagine that Rubenhold, after her exhaustive research, was unaware of any of these eye-witness accounts. Her version of the events is not therefore due to ignorance or error. It is not a debunking of myths, or even a reinterpretation of the facts. It is the suppression of hard evidence because it doesn’t suit her agenda. Far from unearthing the truth, it is deliberate misrepresentation. All that is ‘obvious’ to me is that she is, to put it bluntly, lying, if only by omission.

    The sad thing is that, as far as I’m concerned, the lies aren’t even necessary. I don’t care whether or not these women were soliciting, or whether or not they were prostitutes at all. It doesn’t lessen in the least my sympathy for their sad circumstances. If they were prostitutes they were forced to it by the tragedies of their lives, and no amount of interaction they may or may not have had with the Ripper could possibly justify what he did to them.

    I don’t even understand why Rubenhold’s murdered-in-their-sleep scenario is so important to her, unless she is so fanatical in her feminism that she sees everything in such black-and-white terms as to be convinced that anything bad that happens has to be entirely the fault of those nasty men, and that it is anathema to her that women should be held in any way to blame. I’d like to think I’m making a joke here, but I fear it may be true. And I always distrust fanatics.

    Ms Rubenhold had forfeited my trust in her veracity, and so I declined to allow myself to be persuaded by the undoubted power and eloquence of her writing, stepping back to cast a critical eye on the credibility of any extrapolations she might make from the hard facts that her research has uncovered. And I found plenty of those in her accounts of the lives of these five women, up to and including the classic conspiracy theory stratagem of introducing unproven speculations based on some nugget of evidence (‘This surely means that…’), and thereafter treating them as established fact.

    This is particularly evident in the case of the last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, who is the most mysterious of the five. All that is known about her life is what she told her last partner, Joseph Barnett, and painstaking research by various people over the years has failed to unearth any birth marriage or death records to confirm anything she said about her family and origins. The inevitable conclusion is that, for whatever reason, she was fibbing, and that Mary Jane Kelly was almost certainly not her real name.

    One of the things she told Barnett was was that a man took her to Paris, but she didn’t like it and came back to England. Although Rubenhold admits that ‘Like everything else Kelly recounted to Joseph Barnett about her past, the circumstances surrounding this particular proposal… were not revealed,’ she immediately goes on to assert that ‘What is certain is that this trip to Paris was not what it appeared to be on the surface.’

    She spends the next several pages describing the late nineteenth century traffic in British girls to forced prostitution in continental brothels. She backs this up with references to and quotes from contemporary documents, including first-hand accounts, but what has no such confirmation is her subsequent proposal that Mary Jane Kelly fell prey to this traffic but managed to escape. She was on the run from some very nasty people, Rubenhold tells us, and this explains why she moved from the West End to Stepney and then Spitalfields (which is documented), and why she assumed a false name and was so cagey about her past.

    This story is certainly dramatic and does provide a convincing reason for Mary Jane’s behaviour. It is quite possible. It may even be true. But there is nothing ‘certain’ about it. There is, actually, not a shred of hard evidence for any of it. Out of a bare statement from a woman whose veracity was at best unreliable – a second-hand statement, at that, via Joseph Barnett – Rubenhold has built a dizzy edifice of fantasy.

    Consider, for example, this passage, which purports to corroborate that Mary Jane Kelly was trafficked:

    ‘She explained the situation to Joe Barnett by telling him that she had gone to Paris but as she “did not like the part” she did not stay. Barnett seemed to indicate that by “part” she had implied “the purpose” of her journey there.’

    Read it carefully. Note the fudging: ‘seemed to indicate,’ ‘implied.’ Think about it. Isn’t ‘did not like the part’ a very strange way of putting what Rubenhold claims Kelly meant? Isn’t it far more likely that she meant the part of Paris where she found herself? If she even used those words at all: remember that this is actually Barnett being quoted rather than Kelly. And exactly what words did he use that ‘seemed to indicate’ what Rubenhold would have us believe? Once again I smell manipulation to suit an agenda.

    This is the most blatant piece of fictionalising in the book, but there are other examples scattered through all five women’s stories. Far from unearthing the truth about Jack the Ripper, I contend that Ms Rubenhold has tried to supplant ‘the prevailing myths’ with others of her own invention. And judging by the vast majority of reactions I have seen to her book, she is succeeding.

    My conclusion is not inspired by misogynistic hostility to her feminist agenda. Let me reiterate: I am broadly sympathetic to her argument. My hostility is to the dishonesty with which she presents it.

    I see a woman who is so invested in her crusade that she may even believe her manipulations and untruths to be justified by the righteousness of her cause. Or maybe she is simply in denial. Never let an inconvenient fact get in the way of a good theory. The end justifies the means.

    #4990
    Squidge
    Participant

    Read this Richard as I’d watched the recent programme with the woman who is the lead in Silent Witness, an ex-prison governor with experience of serial killers and an ex-cold case copper, which looked at the Ripper story in light of modern techniques.

    It was fascinating – a lot of the info I’d heard before, but what came clearly across is that the majority of women were probably prostitutes, however they came to be in that unfortunate position. To say they were sleeping is pretty bunkum.

    If you didn’t see the programme, it also pointed to there being a sixth Ripper victim – his first – and named a man who is the most likely suspect, based on where he lived, and the fact that ultimately he was incarcerated in a mental hospital for attempting to stab his sister…round about the time the killings stopped.

    I guess we will never know for sure, but there is definitely a line between historical fiction where you might twist some of the facts to suit the storyline, and coming up with complete falsehoods to support a personal view.

    #4999
    RichardB
    Participant

    I did see the programme, Squidge, and yes, it was very interesting. I had heard of this man, Aaron Kosminski, before – he is also the suspect named in the recent DNA testing controversy – and though many people are not convinced, I am at least convinced that the Ripper (whoever he was) was an ordinary, local man, a face in the crowd with intimate local knowledge and a bolt-hole close at hand.

    What I found particularly interesting was that up to about fifty years ago it was generally believed that the Ripper had six victims, the extra one being – you guessed it – Martha Tabram, the one reinstated in the programme.

    I don’t know if you noticed, but the ex-copper in the programme has the same (very rare) surname as me – with good reason, for he is my second cousin (our grandfathers were brothers). I was rather amused by the spin they put on introducing him. I don’t wish to diss my relative, but if he is an expert on murder cases he’s a self-made one, not a pro. What they somehow failed to mention is that he left the force many years ago with the rank of Detective Constable, or that his career was mainly in undercover infiltration of gangs. That was very dangerous work indeed, and I salute his courage, but it didn’t give him professional experience in murder investigations.

    As for ‘The Five,’ it was unfortunate for Hallie Rubenhold that the previous non-fiction book I’d read was Emma Darwin’s recent one. One thing that came over strongly from that was Emma’s scrupulousness about not bending history too much in the writing of historical fiction. The contrast is not flattering to Ms Rubenhold.

    #5001
    KazG
    Participant

    This is so interesting, Richard. I don’t have any special knowledge about the Ripper case but it does sound like this is historical writing being bent to fit at agenda. I recently met with an Australian writer, Clare Wright, who won a major prize down here (the Stella Prize) for her book on women at the Eureka Stockade – an historical event that was the start of rights for the working class, and unionism – and she is a rigorous historical writer. Talked about her process, all the hours spent in the archives and how NOT to impose your own narrative, agenda, or even voice on the work. She is all about looking at history from new, untold voices and angles. Very, very interesting. it sounds like Rubenhold is not nearly as rigorous in her approach. And yes, it would be very hard to measure up to Emma’s writing, even with a less inventive approach!

    #5003
    Raine
    Participant

    Interesting, Richard. I’d heard some of the reviews/hype/chat about the book, and liked the idea of presenting the women as three dimensional people – something other than just another dead whore. By the the sounds of it though, Rubenhold equates the women sleeping alone with them being absolved of any contributing blame for what happened to them, which is absurd to the point of fucking awful. It reinforces society’s implicit assumptions that being a whore somehow makes women partially complicit in their own rape/murder. Which is the same as telling a young woman that wearing a short skirt meant she was ‘asking for it. Victim blaming.

    I saw a descendent of one of the victims saying that the book made them feel ‘better’ about their relative, that it reassured them. Which is nice, but made me think why on earth did they think badly of that woman in the first place. I mean, really? My gran was in a workhouse as a child. I am proud of her, and hate the system that put her there. I can’t imagine feeling ashamed of her.

    #5009
    KazG
    Participant

    Could not agree with you more on that, @Raine. There is no shame in surviving. Doing what you have to do in a system stacked against you.

    #5010
    John S Alty
    Participant

    The same sort of appalling victim-blaming appears to have been prevalent in the much more recent Yorkshire Ripper enquiry. According to a recent documentary, the police assumed the ripper, Sutcliffe, was punishing prostitutes when, in fact, he was preying on their vulnerability. At one point they failed to “credit” a victim to him because she wasn’t a prostitute.
    Some of the press reports and police press announcements at the time showed a shocking lack of sympathy for the women due to their “low morals.”

    #5015
    Athelstone
    Moderator

    Before I forget to say it “Great blog, Richard”.

    #5016
    RichardB
    Participant

    Interesting point there, Raine, about reinforcing society’s assumptions because, obviously, Rubenhold was trying to do exactly the opposite. Bit of a misfire, that.

    Agreed, John, that it’s an appalling attitude. The book sets out to do a job that was well worth doing. I just wish she’d done it in a less fanatical and dishonest way.

    #5021
    Raine
    Participant

    Agreed, it’s a little ironic that Rubenhold seems to have done the exact thing she was hoping to undo. Sigh. It actually serves as quite an interesting example of unreliable narrators and self awareness, and our ability to retrain our own ingrained biases. I read a lot of stuff about ‘decolonising’ in ref to both the colonised and the colonisers, and I think there are parallels in the way we have to find the courage to be honest with ourselves before we can make deep changes to our worldview. I would guess that although Rubenhold went into this with absoultely valid and genuine aims, she perhaps fell sort of really untangling her own unconscious bias first.

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