Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane didn’t know each other in life, but they all had the same killer: Jack the Ripper. After 130 years of feverish speculation about his identity, two female scholars are taking a closer look at these women. In addition to bringing them out of their killer’s shadow, these experts are challenging long-held assumptions about what really happened to these women before they died.
“I think many people assume these were sexual crimes,” says historian Hallie Rubenhold, author of the new book, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. “For years, a lot of Ripperologists—people who study the Ripper case—have gone to great lengths to try to figure out what sexual positions these women would have been in…for them to have been killed like it says in the coroner’s inquests.”
All this prurient interest has obscured what Rubenhold thinks is a more likely conclusion—that Jack the Ripper killed these women in their sleep.
Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Eliza Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine “Kate” Eddowes all died on the streets of London’s Whitechapel neighborhood between August 31 and September 30, 1888. They were unmarried women in their 40s at a time when the average lifespan for women was 47, and they’d survived failed marriages, spousal abuse, alcoholism and workhouses. Three of the women had a history of homelessness and slept on the street when they couldn’t afford a bed at a lodging house.
The story of the fifth woman, Mary Jane Kelly, is a bit different. She was a 25-year-old who made enough money as a sex worker to rent a room for herself. When the Whitechapel murders began, she let another sex worker room with her for a while to keep her off the street and safe from the killer. Ironically, that room was where she was killed by Jack the Ripper on November 9, more than a month after his last murder. Mary Jane was alone that night when he snuck into her room.
Although Jack the Ripper may have murdered others, investigators later determined these murders were the ones most likely linked, and the women were dubbed the “canonical five.”
At the time, the police and the media assumed these five women were all prostitutes, and that they must have encountered their killer as a client. It was an assumption steeped in the era’s prejudices about single, working-class women—why else would a woman be out on the street alone at night? But in reality, only Mary Jane and Elizabeth had ever earned money through sex work, and the evidence doesn’t indicate the killer solicited any of the women for sex.
“Jack the Ripper didn’t have sex with his victims,” Rubenhold says. “There’s no evidence of that at all. But there were lots of other interesting things to come out of [the coroner’s inquests].”
The inquests found that all of the women died in reclining positions. There was no sign that any of them had struggled before death and there were no reports of neighbors hearing women’s screams on the nights they died.
“The final thing is the places where some of [the women] were found [were] where homeless people slept,” Rubenhold continues. Witnesses at the inquest said Polly, Annie and Kate had been known to sleep on the street—aka “sleep rough”—and didn’t have money for a room at a lodging house the night they were killed.
“In the case of Annie Chapman, about a day or so after her body was removed, a homeless man was seen sleeping in exactly that same place,” Rubenhold says. “So it makes absolute sense that they were homeless… It’s obvious they were reclining, they were sleeping.”
Mary Jane, the only woman who didn’t die on the street, was killed in her bed under similar circumstances. She was in a reclining position and showed no signs of struggle, suggesting that she was also asleep when Jack the Ripper attacked her.
Rubenhold uses this evidence in her book to argue that Jack the Ripper didn’t target women who were prostitutes; he targeted women who were asleep. However, it’s the former assumption that has persisted all these years later, as Rebecca Frost found in her book, The Ripper’s Victims in Print: The Rhetoric of Portrayals Since 1929.
“It’s so commonly accepted that…these women died because they were prostitutes,” she says. To be clear, these murders would be tragic no matter how the women involved earned their money. However, Frost thinks stereotyping them as sex workers has made it easier for people to marginalize them.
“There were letters to newspapers written during the Jack the Ripper era and also during the Green River killer era where people were saying, ‘why should we stop this guy [when] he’s actually cleaning up the streets?'” she says.
Frost agrees that Rubenhold’s argument that the Ripper killed women in their sleep is a “solid theory” and it changes much of the story we’ve come to accept about the murders.
“The part I like most about the theory, aside from the fact that there’s no way to disprove it, is how that change in the narrative forces a change in the discussion of the killer and the victims,” she says. “It becomes a lot harder to make him into this mythical avenger-type figure if he didn’t even need the cunning to lure conscious women to their deaths.”