Monday, 13 April 2020

"The Five; the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper" - Halle Rubenhold (Penguin £9.99)

Elizabeth Stride's grave in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow 

I bought Bruce Robinson’s 800 page door stopper “They All Love Jack” about four years ago but have never worked up the courage to start reading it. Can the man who wrote and directed ‘Withnail & I’ succeed in making Jack the Ripper interesting? It’s an intriguing question but 800 pages of closely printed text is a very long answer for someone who doesn’t understand the fuss about Jack the Ripper.  I like a good murder as much as the next man but quite why so much paper, ink and angst are expended on those five murders in Whitechapel mystifies me.  No one will ever know who if the five canonical victims were even killed by the same man and we certainly won’t ever know who the killer or killers were.  The thousands of pages devoted by Ripperologists to examining whether it was Walter Sickert or James Maybrick or Prince Albert Victor or Montague John Druitt or Dr Barnado get no closer to solving the mystery than scholasticism got to divining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Is there is anything new to say about the Whitechapel Murders? Well, yes there is, as Hallie Rubenhold demonstrates in “The Five; the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper” a fascinating look at the lives of those who have previously played little more than a walk on part in the hoary old drama, the victims.  

As with any subject even loosely related to the Ripper murders the lives of the victims have been trawled over already countless times by the hordes of investigators determined to unmask the killer. In most accounts the biographies of the victims are little more than a paragraph or two appended to an endlessly detailed description of how they met their deaths. Rubenhold avoids producing a martyrology by virtually ignoring their fate at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer and, even more pointedly, by studiously avoiding almost any mention of the killer. This simple editorial decision restores balance back to the lives of the five women and allows them to be something more than the victims of London’s first and most notorious serial killer. In her account of the five women Rubenhold judiciously fills in gaps in the story with details of the social background, putting their often harrowing stories into a wider context and drawing some interesting conclusions in the process. She questions, very convincingly, the notion that all five women were prostitutes murdered as they went about their business selling sex. Only Mary Jane Kelly seems to have been actively involved in prostitution at the time of her killing and the only other victim with a background as a sex worker was Elizabeth Stride. The other three victims were destitute, down on their luck, and in failed relationships but there is no evidence at all to confirm what seems to have been a lazy and prejudiced assumption made at the time that they were street walkers. In fact Rubenhold suggests that the manner of their death suggests that they were more likely to be sleeping rough than selling sex. Poverty, alcohol and bad luck are the factors that led to their death.  

All five victims were buried in paupers graves in what were then the new cemeteries of east London. Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim, and Catherine Eddowes, were both buried in the City of London Cemetery, Annie Chapman was buried a short distance away in Manor Park Cemetery, Elizabeth Stride in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow and Mary Jane Kelly in St Patricks Roman Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone. They would have been buried in common graves with at least 5 other people. Only two of the graves are now marked with headstones, Elizabeth Stride’s and Mary Jane Kelly’s. The City of London cemetery has two plaques marking the approximate spot where Mary Ann Nichols and Catherine Eddowes were interred (the exact grave site is not known) and as far as I know there is nothing marking the site where Annie Chapman was buried quite possibly because the area has been reused for more recent burials. 

Swedish born Elizabeth Stride was buried at the East London Cemetery in Plaistow on Saturday 06 October 1888. Her funeral was a modest affair attended by a small number of mourners with the costs defrayed gratis by the undertaker Mr Hawkes. The headstone is a relatively recent affair which has appeared in the last 20 years. Whenever I have been there has always been some form of recent tribute left the grave.

Mary Jane Kelly, or Marie Jeanette Kelly as she is described on her headstone, was buried at St Patricks Roman Catholic Cemetery on Monday 19th November 1888. The Belfast Telegraph carried an account of the funeral published on the same day;

FUNERAL OF MARIE KELLY. The funeral of Marie Jeannette Kelly the victim of the late Spitalfields murderer took place today at Leytonstone Cemetery, Essex, in the presence of a large number of people. An hour before the remains left the Shoreditch mortuary many hundreds of onlookers assembled in the vicinity and watched while the final arrangements were bring made. The coffin was placed upon an open hearse drawn by two horses, and was followed by two mourning carriages containing the man Joseph Barnett, who had lived with the deceased, and several of the unfortunate woman & associates, who gave evidence at the inquest. The coffin bore the following inscription 'Marie Jeannette Kelly, died November 9th 1888 aged 25 years’, and on it were placed two crosses, and a cross made of heartsease and white flowers.  The whole of the funeral expenses were borne by Mr. Wilton, sexton of St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, who for many years has shown practical sympathy for the poorer classes.

Mary Kelly’s grave has had more than one headstone; they seem to go astray, probably stolen by souvenir hunters. Again there are often recent flowers at the gravesite. 

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