She Didn’t Have It Coming: Changing the Narrative in the Jack the Ripper and Other Famous Murder Cases
Despite knowing the moniker of the world’s most infamous serial killer, I couldn’t have told you the names of the victims attributed to him. Only that they were all supposedly prostitutes. That is, until I read The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by social historian Hallie Rubenhold.
I knew before I opened The Five that these women had lived hard lives. Not just because of where they were murdered — one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of London — but also because of the times they lived in and the way society regarded and treated women. I came to truly understand how difficult life could be for women while doing research for my yet-to-be-published novel about a murdered nineteenth century prostitute known as Diamond Bessie.
Like London’s serial killings in 1888, Bessie’s murder in Texas a decade earlier was covered by the press all over the U.S., and like the Ripper’s victims, myths and erroneous information abound about her.
Rubenhold told The Guardian she set out to write about the most famous prostitutes in England’s history and instead, her research revealed there was no evidence that three of the five victims were sex workers. They were just desperately poor and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They also lived at the wrong time.
I was born during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, a mere four decades after my grandmother’s birth in the year the nineteenth amendment passed, finally giving women the right to vote. It wasn’t long before that that women couldn’t own property or divorce. And while it may not have been illegal for a woman to work outside the home, in the Victorian Age it was greatly frowned upon by a society that believed women only had two roles: wife and mother.
It’s an understatement to say that women’s choices were extremely limited. If they had to work, they were menial jobs that didn’t earn them enough of a wage to live on their own because women were supposed to be married and raising children, or if not, still living with their family.
Women lived in a society that expected them to behave like saintly Madonnas, but for those who came from poor backgrounds, the world was against them from the day they were born. In the working classes, if a man deserted his wife and family, or died, and the wife didn’t immediately remarry or couldn’t go live with any relatives, she became destitute. Would anyone blame them for resorting to sex work to survive? And no matter what class you came from, if you had sex outside of marriage, and God forbid got pregnant, you became an outcast with no hope of redemption. Some of that stigma still persists today, but it’s nothing like it was during the lives of the Ripper’s victims or Diamond Bessie’s.
Unfortunately, if you were a woman, being destitute put you in the same category as a prostitute. In that context, it’s not surprising that journalists jumped to conclusions and proclaimed all the Ripper’s victims were sex workers. Perhaps the Ripper assumed they were. All the murders happened late at night or in the early morning hours, and all were sleeping “rough” on the street, except for one.
Sometimes people make bad choices or costly mistakes and end up in a situation they didn’t want to find themselves in. But to immediately jump to the conclusion that a woman was a sex worker just because she was out late at night or sleeping on the street (because she had no money for a bed somewhere), doesn’t serve any purpose except to equate, or lump, all women into the same disregarded basket. It’s easy to point the finger and say you shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But what if that’s the only place you can go?
Newspapers were too-wholeheartedly complicit in this treatment of women. In the Ripper’s cases, journalists echoed and perpetuated a vicious narrative that questioned the women’s morality without any proof and said that they basically deserved what they got. In Diamond Bessie’s, case, she was called a “notorious female” just because she was a prostitute. Never mind why she became one. Couple this sensational and editorial way of reporting with society’s views of women then, and you can see how easy it was for erroneous information to become the “truth” and never get corrected. And so the legend becomes set in stone.
Ironically, today “Ripperologists” are ripping Rubenhold a new one because she isn’t adhering to the accepted narrative about the killer’s victims, i.e, that they were all sex workers. But does it really matter whether Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine, Mary Jane, or even Diamond Bessie, were filles de joie?
Each of these women’s lives mattered, despite their circumstances. They weren’t just victims of a horrible crime; they were mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. They all need to be seen as women with their flaws and qualities, their mistakes, their passions, their desires, everything that made them who they were: human.