Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Arts & Lit Female Author Spotlight: Hallie Rubenhold

Female Author Spotlight: Hallie Rubenhold

Carys Williams looks at the influential Hallie Rubenhold and her retelling of Jack the Ripper's murders - focusing this time on the victims.
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Image: Idea Store Tower Hamlets via Flickr

What makes a writer influential? Some might say it’s the impact they have, or how they influence the way that people think. This is certainly applicable to Hallie Rubenhold. Both an author and a historian, Rubenhold has published several works, but what catapulted her into the spotlight – as well as the newspaper headlines – was her 2019 book The Five. This book reexamines the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 but with one significant narrative alteration: the focus is on the five women he killed and on the lives they lived. 

The name ‘Jack the Ripper’ has become shrouded in myth over the centuries, and a kind of intrigue has become attached to it that seems more applicable to a ghost story rather than to brutal murders. One has come to surmise and ponder the existence of Jack the Ripper in almost the same way as the Loch Ness Monster, for example. The former has never been identified in the same way that the latter has never been proven. The stories of his murderous rampages have become fable. In The Five, Rubenhold drags the reader’s attention from thoughts of Jack the Ripper guided tours and spooky atmospheres, to the real-life women impacted by his actions. Everybody knows about Jack the Ripper, but how many people know about his victims and who they actually were? Mary “Polly” Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, and Mary Jane Kelly were all murdered in 1888. 

How many people know about [Jack the Ripper’s] victims and who they actually were?

Rubenhold noticed that above anything else, the only general knowledge possessed by society surrounding these women was that they were sex workers. This information, albeit very limited, would have been helpful if it wasn’t completely false. Only two of his victims had a history of being sex workers at some point in their lives. This goes to show how the notions surrounding gender and the locations which these women frequented at the time led to the development of a narrative that was mostly far from the truth, one that still exists today and is the impression of the victims that most people are familiar with, if they are familiar with them at all. 

While Rubenhold has experienced a lot of backlash from those in society keen to uphold the traditional narrative surrounding Jack the Ripper, it is vital to point out that she has been heavily influential in offering a new perspective and in having acknowledged the actual day-to-day lives of his victims, so they no longer remain simply a collection of names. In her attempt to reclaim the women’s stories after they had been overshadowed by speculation surrounding the killer himself, Rubenhold portrays the victims to the reader as women who worked in many trades, and who had ambitions and hopes. When faced with such a colourful, varied depiction of the women as people, one is left wondering how much of the general knowledge about them is based on assumption, and it is valuable that Rubenhold was able to offer this new insight into the lives of five women whose voices and life stories had been largely lost to history and shaped by hearsay.

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