Book Review - The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

by @edent | , | 250 words

A book cover in the style of a Victorian newpaper headline.

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Why do we know and celebrate the name of a murderer - and ignore their victims?

I always thought that "Jack" murdered prostitutes. Destitute and fallen women who lived and died in wretched poverty. But that's not the case. Drawing on public records and contemporary reports, Hallie Rubenhold has done the impossible and resurrected these women.

It takes a certain kind of skill to marry an entry in a dusty ledger to a description in a newspaper, and then spin it into a biography. The author is always careful to couch her descriptions with qualifiers; "a woman in this position would undoubtedly..." and "the social norms of the day demanded..." - yet it feels so vividly real.

Importantly, the author acknowledges where the official records are incomplete or contradictory. This isn't a perfect biography. It's taking the scraps of information we have and augmenting them into a coherent narrative.

It would be lovely if the book included more photos, or images or the original documentation. But, as it stands, it is the perfect antidote to the endless stream of grim fascination with a murderer.

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