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Not the book I was hoping for: My Review of <i>The Five</i>

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

The Five: A Chapter Review

Right from the start I want to be very clear that I am not writing a book review, but rather a chapter review of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. That I am only reviewing the first seventy-four pages is a bit of my point.

I really wanted to love Hallie Rubenhold’s book. Having done some academic work that is Ripper-adjacent, I was thrilled when I first heard of Rubenhold’s premise and research. My own argument, which I state explicitly in my writing, is that Jack the Ripper isn’t real, but the women murdered in White Chapel in 1888 were; that Rubenhold undertook the work of researching and thus humanizing these women was a necessary and important historical task, and I was thrilled to hear her do so. That Rubenhold was subsequently threatened, dismissed, and attacked by Ripperologists was frustrating and saddening, if not surprising. The premise directly challenges notions foundational to “ripperology,” and privileges the lives of the women murdered rather than the salaciousness of their deaths.

Having now finished the first of the canonical five – the story of Polly Nichols – I find myself disheartened with the final product. The drive and intention of the text are still hugely important, and a necessary challenge to the narrative circulated in popular media, but I find myself at odds with Rubenhold’s methodology.

A key argument of the text, and one Rubenhold repeats through her social media, is that there is little to no evidence that “Jack the Ripper” only attacked prostitutes, and that media frames the women as such in order to dehumanize the victims. This argument – that there is no evidence that Polly Nichols was a prostitute – is logically supported throughout the chapter. Rubenhold goes to lengths to offer facts that are known and recorded – addresses, marriages, childbirths, and workhouse internment. She uses this documentation to place Polly Nichols historically in a space that is also understood – a London teeming with underemployed and homeless populations doing whatever they could to secure means of survival, and a lack of rights and opportunity for a woman who finds herself separated from, but legally unable to divorce, her husband. Rubenhold likewise makes the argument that testimony about Nichols is solicited to support the suppositions of coroners and police, and that actual evidence is unfaithfully recorded and often skewed to meet assumed conclusions. This assertion is supported in wider Ripper research, as scholars know that records were shoddy, police work was guided by assumptions and bias, and evidence was minimal.

But Rubenhold’s accounts also sway heavily to pathos, perhaps in an attempt to overcorrect for the contempt with which Polly’s case has been viewed. Rubenhold goes to great lengths to establish Polly’s “proper” place in a heteronormative value system, and to color her withdraw from that system in a sympathetic light. She speaks of Polly through her relationships and roles reliant on others – Polly as a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, as a mother, and as a woman betrayed by her husband. She offers the potential of postpartum depression – another neglected subject of historical research – as motivation for Polly’s abandonment of her domestic responsibilities, and emphasizes the difficulty faced by Polly as an unsupported woman “tramping” around London. Stylistically, I prefer fewer heartstrings, but this is a matter of taste and not necessarily a mark against Rubenhold’s text; it’s simply not a style I favor, although I can see its value. I have never published a book, and I have not devoted myself to the breadth and depth of Ripper research that Rubenhold undertook to produce her successfully published text. She is, in this, absolutely the expert. But I am a Victorianist, and a gender studies scholar, and as such I understand both the world of which Rubenhold writes, and the gendered implications and arguments of her text. And I find them hugely disappointing for the dehumanization and judgement they forward. In her efforts to divorce Polly’s image from the assumption of her prostitution Rubenhold continues the project of dehumanizing sex workers, implying that Polly is better than women who engage in sex work, and thus more worthy of our respect.

The vehemence with which Rubenhold asserts that Polly was not a prostitute carries a tone of condemnation for sex workers. While the argument that investigators and newspapers had no evidence when they asserted Polly was a prostitute is grounded, the means through which Rubenhold attempts to support her own argument suggests that to be a sex worker is to deserve the contempt of Victorian newspapers and Ripperologists alike. Rubenhold’s methodology is to look at documentation and accounts from people who knew Polly personally – her brother, her husband, and Ellen Holland, who vaguely knew Polly Nichols from their mutual residence at Wilmott.[1] From these accounts Rubenhold generates a normative portrait of Nichols detailed to encourage sympathy for the murdered woman – she was a wife and mother betrayed, who found herself out of doors and without support in a harsh system. These facts are all reasonable, and worthy of consideration – but it’s unclear how they relate to a discussion of her potential sex work, unless one’s project is to deride sex work.

Women can be daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, moral, and religious – and sex workers. Their work does not preclude their other identities, and never has. To say so is to continue an institution of sexism, classicism, and sexual abuse on the part of those in power. The conservative patriarchal system of (today and) Victorian England was deeply invested in the vilification of sex and sexuality, and frequently scapegoated women who found themselves outside of suffocating moral systems. These women were used as warnings and examples in order to control the behavior of others, enforcing separatist gender spheres and the supposition that women must first be reliant on masculine protectors, and second must endure horrific physical and emotional abuse for fear of the alternative. Polly Nichols’ murder would be a hugely successful symbol: a woman whose (purported) drunkenness lead her to homelessness and (assumed) prostitution, only to be butchered on a street.

Rubenhold’s project is to disrupt Polly’s Victorian symbolic value, asserting vehemently that there is no evidence she was a prostitute. In her efforts to do so, Rubenhold even goes so far as to offer a hierarchy of sex work, by which some may be excused, and others condemned. She seems to suggest that full service sex work – penetrative sex work – is worse than those who offer partial services: “Even if she [Polly] did resort to it, ‘casual prostitution’ among older women, who did not possess the physical allure of their younger counterparts, frequently did not involve penetrative intercourse, but rather manual stimulation or a grope up the skirt” (61). The surface argument is that “the selling of sex was not the sole mean available to the female vagrant for acquiring sustenance and shelter,” who may also survive through begging and charity (61). This, I think, is a historical point worth making, as scholars and historians work to offer a more complete understanding of the actual lives of Victorian Londoners. But her own evidence in the particular case of Polly Nichols is not much stronger than the assumptions of Victorians; Rubenhold argues that her father, husband, and short-term roommate did not know her to ever engage in sex work, and thus proclaims it can’t be true. Rubenhold is correct to challenge the assumptions of investigators, but the next leap is too far; most correct is the repeated argument that there is no evidence. The morality of the conclusion, as Rubenhold condemns Victorian investigators and defends Polly Nichols’ reputation, is itself very Victorian. Rubenhold works within, and forwards, a false scale of value by which she seeks to argue Nichols’ human worth, on the basis that there is no evidence that she was ever engaged in full service sex work. In truth, no one knows for sure. But the passion – the pathos of the narrative - with which Rubenhold rejects the image of Polly as a sex worker upholds the false patriarchal dichotomy utilized to dehumanize and degrade women who are ever engaged in sex work.

I am entirely on board with the text’s project to demand actual analysis and facts, and better understanding of the victims of Jack the Ripper as real, living women with complex lives beyond the violence of their deaths. I am not, however, in support of punching down and vilifying sex workers in order to elevate their image. The passionate tone with which Rubenhold challenges the reporting that Nichols was a sex worker implies that to be such is definitively bad; that if Nichols is proven a sex worker she is less sympathetic as a murder victim.

I was fascinated by, and grateful for, the more complete biography of Nichols Rubenhold was able to offer. I am not interested in a text that upholds the vilification of sex work; there is too much of that in the news, laws, and social media already.

[1] Rubenhold’s reliance on Ellen Holland’s accounts isn’t much better than the accounts she decries. She writes that “Ellen … came to know Polly over the three weeks she lived at Wilmott’s,” and acknowledges that “The two women shared no acquaintances in common” (66). Holland is the last known person to see Nichols alive, but her testimony was not faithfully recorded (67). Describing Hollands accounts, Rubenhold writes that she was “Greatly concerned for her friend,” to whom she chatted for a few minutes, and thus finds herself recorded in Ripper history (68). But Rubenhold’s assertion of friendship, and defense of Holland’s accounts, is without sound support. According to her own retellings, Nichols had no real friends, and a woman known to her casually for three weeks does not seem like a sound character witness, especially when the character in question is notably sullen and withdrawn.

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