The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
I am now five months into reading true crime regularly. The books I read are most often picked by a wonderful librarian, whom I have a lot in common with. (And who is illustrating Not What I said, a humorous children's book my son and I wrote about raising feral children.) She tries to give us books with some meat to them, and a variety of murder styles and times. But one thing they often have in common is white men killing women - often prostitutes. This is not her bias, but the bias of police and true crime writers. The most common caught killers are white men. The most often portrayed serial killers are white men. But they are not the only people who kill.
In The Last Frontier: Myths & The Female Psychopathic Killer Frank Perri and Terrance Lichtenwald dig into the myths that help police overlook women as serial killers. My favorite myth is that a women who is crying is a) believable and b) can't be the killer. I have not researched why people of color aren't as prolific in true crime, but it seems safe to assume racism plays a roll, even if it's just overlooking them. But if a woman of color is killed there is less publicity, and often a less vigorous investigation. Which is saying something considering how many white women are killed by their husbands, who get away with it.
Back to true crime books. In many of the books we've read, the point of the book is to examine the murderer. Who was he? Why did he do it? And these are fascinating questions. But often they leave out the victims. She is just an inanimate object that only exists because she had the bad luck to cross paths with a killer. I think this is because examining the lives of the women brings the murders closer to home. If we no enough about the victims we can relate to them, and then it seems as if we could be a murder victim. We can't distance ourselves from them.
Of course there's also sexism. *Who care about the women? The man is the interesting one. They were just prostitutes. They are women literally created to be used and thrown out.* Or at least that is how they are often written about, especially when it comes to infamous killers who were never identified, such as the Long Island Serial Killer(s) and Jack the Ripper. (Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker does a good job of digging into the lives of the victims, telling us who they were, and helping us feel empathy for *shock a horror* prostitutes.)
Prostitution is so often confused as an identity as opposed to a job. We rarely hear "five teachers were murdered by a serial killer." Or "Seven female McDonalds workers were found dead in their sleep, serial murderer suspected." And that bias can lead police and investigators (professional and amateur) to disregard the victims as clues as well as humans. This diminishing of the women then leads to a warped enthusiasm for the killer. We hero-is him, even if we claim we don't condone his violence. Apparently, this disregard for the women Jack the Ripper kills is especially true among Ripperologists. And so it is that Hallie Rubenhold decided to write The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.
The book is a fascinating look at the less glamorous lives in Victorian England. While the rich and even middle class lived posh, mostly secure lives in the fashions and cultural trends we still mimic today, many many people, laborers, were destitute--even with jobs. A betrayal by a husband could lead a woman to homelessness. Morality laws forced women who had sex before marriage into lifelong careers of prostitution (while the men who were also unmarried were fine). The rich made their money on the back of these people whom they disregarded and treated like trash. That classism and sexism and racism are the pinnacle of English culture that they passed on to all their colonies. Laws that forbade women inheriting land, from getting educated, from having any financial security in the US, came from England. The was England treated it working poor became the standard of how the US treated (treats?) all women. The Five, while a book about women made famous for their deaths, is a through-line of cultural and legal history of sexism in the Western world. It is heart breaking, and enlightening. And is changing the way historians write about true crime. I highly recommend it for history enthusiasts and Ripper fans.
Back of the Book:
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. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.
For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.