I can’t tell you at what age I became interested in true crime; my mum was heavily interested (my theory is that, growing up in the shadow of the Moors Murderers as a child and the Yorkshire Ripper as a teenager, she wanted to understand the people who had been so terrifying to her when she was young) and so when I was old enough, I started reading her books. But I do remember that as much as the criminals were vivid and terrifying, their victims- mostly women- were often dismissed, too often judged as ‘women of loose morals’, daft for hitchhiking or walking around at night and almost seen as deserving of their fates.
This is where Hallie Rubenhold’s book comes in. Too long have the ‘canonical five’ of the Whitechapel Murders been seen as sex workers who should have known better than to be out late at night, their murderer a sort of hero of folklore. We’re fascinated, it seems, because he’s lost to history. But what of the women, who were very real and whose post-mortem photos we’ve all seen? In a period when Netflix had to send a tweet reminding people that Ted Bundy was a serial killer and not a matinee idol, it feels timely.
Rubenhold sets out to take us on a journey through each woman’s life, meticulously researching how each one came to meet her fate. It’s an astonishing piece of social history, tying together the work of social reformers of the time with the records of the workhouses and police to explore the horrific conditions Victorian women living in poverty experienced. She challenges the traditional view that the women were sex workers. It seems that the women were victims twice: once at the hand of their killer and again at the pens of a patriarchal Victorian police force and media. It does not surprise me that Rubenhold has been subject to criticism from some corners of the Ripperology world for challenging the traditional narrative.
It’s a heartbreaking read in places- so often I was willing the women to chose a different path, despite knowing their fate. Alas, this is not a choose-your-own-adventure. As I read, I couldn’t help reflecting on the current situation in British society, in which rents are too high and those living in poverty are often in work, situations that I suspect the women in this book would have recognised. This is so much more than a book about a series of famous murders (which, really, it’s not)- it’s a mirror to hold up to our society now that asks us whether we’re really any better.