Remembering the victims of crime

Remembering the victims of crime

A new book on Jack the Ripper seeks to put his victims firmly in the spotlight - despite a lack of archivial information about them. Nell Darby reports

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Annie Chapman
Annie Chapman is usually shown after death, from her mortuary photograph; but we shouldn’t forget her as a real woman, a wife, mother, daughter and sister (pictured here at the time of her wedding in 1869)

We tend to remember those who commit crime rather than those who suffered as a result of those crimes. Who can name, for example, the wife who Dr Crippen murdered, or, more recently, all the victims of Fred and Rose West? It is the murderer who achieves immortality, as a result of ending the life of others.

Recently, author Hallie Rubenhold has attempted to redress the balance by focusing on the most notorious murders of the 19th century, and perhaps of all time: the Whitechapel Murders.

It’s unlikely that anybody doesn’t know the basic facts of the case, but for those who don’t, in the autumn of 1888, several women were found murdered in East London. Five of these – who have become known as ‘the canonical five’ – are believed to have been murdered by the same individual. Part of the reason, though, why the murders have caught the public imagination over the past century and more is because the murderer (or murderers, if there were more than one) has never been brought to justice. Therefore, our imaginations can conjure up visions of an unknown individual stalking the streets and alleys of Victorian London, targeting poverty-stricken women and terrorising the East London community.

The discussion of this series of murders has focused primarily on the perpetrator, assumed to be male, and on the level of violence or mutilation inflicted on his victims. He even has a nickname, Jack the Ripper, that manages to make him sound like a cartoon character rather than a violent, troubled individual. Meanwhile, his female victims have been relegated, reduced to little more than their names and a perception of them as poor women, drunkards, prostitutes, who scrabbled around each night to find enough money to give them a bed in an East End doss house.

Therefore, it’s refreshing to see Rubenhold’s new book, The Five, tackle the case from the perspective of the women. Their killer is absent from the story; their murders are not described in gory detail, with each of their stories ending shortly before they die. A chapter is devoted to each woman, putting their names firmly at the front of the narrative.

‘Who was Jack the Ripper?’: press coverage of the Whitechapel Murders focused on the identity of the murderer and the injuries inflicted on his victims
‘Who was Jack the Ripper?’: press coverage of the Whitechapel Murders focused on the identity of the murderer and the injuries inflicted on his victims

Research challenge
However, a key problem with the book is finding enough information to build a three-dimensional picture of these women. Archives are full of documents about the lives of men; lesser information exists about women, particularly ordinary women. For elite women, you might find diaries, letters, household accounts that help show what these women’s lives were like, but what about those from further down the social ladder, illiterate women who were too busy trying to survive to ensure their lives got photographed, documented, and remembered?

In Rubenhold’s book, the picture you get of these women’s lives is varied in terms of detail. In the case of Annie Chapman, whose background Rubenhold makes clear was less poverty stricken than we might imagine, there’s a wedding photograph of Annie and her husband, and photographs of two of her daughters. We know of her sisters’ attitudes and commitment to temperance, thanks to one of her sisters writing to the newspapers about the issue, and about Annie inability to stop drinking. However, much of what is inferred about Annie’s life is again drawn from the records of men – her army father, her groom husband.

This is still more detailed, and satisfactory to the reader, than the chapter devoted to Polly Nichols, where it becomes apparent where the gaps of her story lie, and how little information survives about her.

The press eagerly devoured details of the murders, producing this map showing where each woman died in October 1888
The press eagerly devoured details of the murders, producing this map showing where each woman died in October 1888

Women’s lives
What can you do in such cases? In Rubenhold’s case, she sets these women within their social contexts, exploring what life was like in London when they lived there, the struggles they may have faced, the housing they would have lived in. The workhouse system, wider political struggles, health problems and epidemics – many women would have had similar experiences of seeing their children die, of trying to eke out a living whilst also being ill, or suffering from alcoholism, or dealing with marriage breakdowns. Yet the book highlights the problem many of us have in building a picture of women’s lives – they are not the focus of many archival records, mainly because the Victorian world was a man’s world, with men in positions of power or responsibility.

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We tend to view Annie Chapman simply as a murder victim, our image of her drawn largely from Victorian press illustrations and descriptions
We tend to view Annie Chapman simply as a murder victim, our image of her drawn largely from Victorian press illustrations and descriptions

The women Rubenhold writes about were, of course, the victims of crime, and it is for this that they are known in the first place. But when women committed crime, they do succeed in getting their names recorded: in newspapers, where their crimes might be noted and explored, the press getting their information from the courts, and in crime records. Here, we can find out what their backgrounds were, where they lived, what crimes they committed and why – and even, with some records, what they looked like, their descriptions recorded, or their photographs taken once mugshots became widespread.

Catherine Eddowes
Catherine Eddowes

A similar presence of information comes from poverty: workhouse records and non-criminal cases heard as part of the criminal justice system. In the latter, individuals might appear in relation to non-payment of rent, or not sending their children to school (because they needed them to work and earn a living instead), or husbands charged with deserting their wives and not supporting them financially, leaving the women liable to losing their homes and having to seek help within the workhouse system.

In each of these areas, we can only obtain a certain amount of information about the women we are researching, but it gives us a partial picture, at least, of their lives at a particular point in time. Outside of this, we have to do what Rubenhold does well: look at the wider social context and relate this to the women we want to know about.

The Five ably tells its readers about the survival strategies employed by women, about the possibility of stultifying boredom when new wives have to move away with their husbands’ work, leaving their families and known communities behind. It tells us about the sheer exhaustion caused by ‘tramping’, and the difficulty in obtaining the money just to pay for an uncomfortable, narrow, bed in a vermin-ridden doss house. It builds a picture of the difficulties in just surviving, of how entrance to a casual workhouse ward could make you lose the chance of work, because the workhouses made you undertake work within its walls during the morning before you could be released – by which time, the casual work you were hoping to find had been given to other people who could queue for work earlier in the morning.

Mary Jane Kelly depicted in the Penny Illustrated Paper, 1888
Mary Jane Kelly depicted in the Penny Illustrated Paper, 1888

Educated assumptions
Therefore, although the records might appear to have only a paucity of information about poorer women’s lives, and the lives of female victims of crime, it is possible to make an educated assumption about elements of their lives through a look at the wider social history of the time.

Obviously, different researchers have difference views about what these women’s lives were actually like, and there is always an element of interpretation about how you define and write-up these lives. But they all help to bring these individuals back to life, and refocus our attention on them. This is particularly important in the case of female murder victims, who even today, tend to be depicted in newspapers in a simplistic way. Think of how the murders of sex workers tend to receive less attention and sympathy – or even empathy – in the press; yet these were women with lives as interesting and as complex as anyone else’s. We shouldn’t glorify their murderers with nicknames; we shouldn’t just write books investigating who they were. We should remember their victims – their lives, not just their deaths – and so Rubenhold’s book is a welcome reminder of how we record and remember the lives of those on both sides of the criminal divide.

Hallie Rubenhold’s book, The Five, is published by Doubleday. Read Nell’s feature about crime in Scotland in our new print edition, available via

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