I Am Looking For

Insight into the Lives of Jack the Ripper's Victims

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Bolton School was delighted to welcome social historian Hallie Rubenhold, recent author of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, as the latest speaker in its series of enrichment lectures. Hallie prefaced her presentation by saying she would not be talking about Jack the Ripper or the 500 or so suggestions put forward as to who the killer might be – everyone from Prince Albert, the Duke of Clarence to Lewis Carroll! Instead, like her highly acclaimed book, she wanted to focus on the lives of the women who were murdered by him.

The talk charted the lives of each woman: Mary Ann (Polly) Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. All were murdered in the Whitechapel (now Spitalfields) area of London during the years 1888-1891. By telling their stories – at least as much as could be told given the lack of definitive evidence about their lives – she gave back to the women some kind of dignity. She also offered a compelling insight into poverty and degradation in late nineteenth century Britain.  Hallie’s evidence suggested only one of the women and the youngest to die, Mary Jane Kelly, made a living out of prostitution; and that Elizabeth Stride occasionally fell back on it when destitute. Hallie excoriated the police and sensationalist press who were all too eager to uphold Victorian stereotypes as they painted the Ripper as a vigilante murderer of ‘fallen women’ but the truth was that he was a killer of vulnerable women. These were gender crimes and not sex crimes. What the women had in common was that they were destitute, shiftless and four out of five of them were alcoholics.  In telling their stories, the audience learnt that none of the women were originally from the East End and all had led full lives with most of them having been married and had children of their own. Women in Victorian society struggled without a male protector and either through poor judgement or misfortune, each found themselves falling on hard times. They were often in an out of the workhouse, in cheap lodgings, tramping or sleeping rough. With the exception of his last victim all were in their forties and the average age to die for a Londoner at the time was 44.  All but one was probably killed in their sleep.  Hallie commented that large crowds were drawn to their funerals as the murders captured the imagination of the public and each woman was given a dignified burial.  

A questions and answers session concluded the evening and Hallie spoke about the difficulties of her research and how newspaper reports would often be contradictory; she said there was no proof that the women knew each other; she talked about social problems dogging Spitalfields right up to the 1990s; about misogyny and whether it has really gone away; and how she believed that the police’s fixation on the idea that the women were prostitutes impeded their own investigation.

This talk was part of a series of Arts and Sciences Enrichment Evenings hosted each year by the Girls’ Division. Click here to view the full programme of events for 2019/20. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates and reminder emails about forthcoming enrichment evenings.

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