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The Ghost that Haunts Our Press

by Jem Bartholomew

The Five: The Untold Stories of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Hallie Rubenhold, Doubleday, 2019


It’s no coincidence that industrial society and the novel arrived together. As Walter Benjamin writes in The Storyteller, ‘The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual.’ A disordered and disrupted society bred a fragmented and solitary reader. But while the novel defines the first half of the nineteenth century, the unique medium of the fractured fin de siècle world is undoubtedly journalism.


The news story is partial, fleeting, episodic. It delivers the latest take on a long-running issue, without the space for full contextualisation. Journalism is designed to be read absentmindedly, to distract from the screech of the train or the claustrophobia of the omnibus on the journey to work. Newspapers assert an almost religious devotion to the facts, but their very form – fragmented and incomplete – creates the conditions for misinformation to thrive.


Unsurprisingly, then, the newspaper is a medium that has proven highly susceptible to the allure of narrative. How do we define the narrativisation of news? First, it involves the collapsing of real events, which are messy and complex, into simpler, pre-existing dramatic categories. The corrupt official, the violent outlaw, the victimised woman: their names are always different, but these are journalism’s recurring characters. Second, it makes assumptions about what readers ‘want’. Editors lay claim to a semi-spiritual understanding of the will of the people. And third, it necessarily involves a standpoint on the cultural issues of the day. Editorial decisions on what stories to cover and how to cover them are never neutral.


Tabloid journalism as we know it came of age in the 1880s. Printing was cheap, transatlantic telegraph cables created a global communications network, and the Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised a male working-class public hungry for news. Three years before the Whitechapel murders came the high point of the sensationalist ‘New Journalism.’ William Thomas Stead, editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, published ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ in July 1885, a highly controversial exposé of child prostitution in London. W.T. Stead knew how to court scandal. His investigative methods involved purchasing a 13-year-old for £5, causing outrage among polite society – W.H. Smith refused to stock his paper – and serving three months in Holloway Prison. But he emerged a martyr, provoking government legislation and a host of copy-cat editors. New Journalism had the public hooked. It was from this world that the character of Jack the Ripper was born.


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Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five begins with the life of Polly Nichols. A blacksmith’s daughter, Polly grew up a stone’s throw from Fleet Street. Her story is one of hardship and dreams unfulfilled. She initially escaped poverty – Polly and her husband, William, were recipients of an early social housing experiment in Lambeth – but by 1880, with William having an affair, Polly turned to alcohol. Despite small spells in domestic service, the remaining eight years of her life were a cycle of ‘tramping’ London’s casual wards, workhouses and rough sleeping-hotspots like Trafalgar Square. Rubenhold writes:


Polly had been born between printing shops and presses, against the very backdrop where some of the most famous Victorian stories were fabricated. In death she would become as legendary as the Artful Dodger, Fagin or even Oliver Twist, the truth of her life as entangled with the imaginary as theirs. She had been brought into the world on the Street of Ink, and it is there, riding on its column inches, its illustrated plates, its rumour and scandal that she would return: a name in print.


After her murder in Whitechapel on 31 August 1888, the Victorian press set about defining her. She was a failed mother, a tramp, an alcoholic, a ‘houseless creature’, prostitute and fallen woman. These labels acted as thick smoke obscuring her personhood. To contemporaries, she was just another ‘unfortunate’ who surely deserved her fate. In the newspaper ink that immortalises her, Polly was anything but a woman with hopes and desires.


With equal vigour, journalists laboured to identify the killer. By turns he was a doctor, a surgeon, a British aristocrat or a Russian Jewish anarchist. Later, a boasting letter signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ was sent to the Central News Agency three days before the murders of Elizabeth and Kate on 30 September. This was their moment; the press finally had their character, and the letter was quickly reproduced in all newspapers. But its authenticity – along with all 350 letters Scotland Yard received – is hotly contested, with historians suspecting journalistic foul play. Nevertheless, everyone could agree, ‘without so much as a single shred of actual evidence to reinforce their convictions,’ that his victims were all prostitutes. This assumption has languished largely uncontested until now.


Rubenhold’s motivating principle is to flesh out the lives of the five women labelled ‘just prostitutes’ by an unsympathetic press. ‘For over 130 years we have embraced the dusty parcel we were handed,’ she writes. Rubenhold implores us to destroy the ‘entangled web of assumptions, rumour and unfounded speculation’ of late-century journalism and retell the lives of the Whitechapel victims. A social historian to the core, Rubenhold will disappoint Ripperologists with her refusal to describe the murders or speculate on the identity of ‘Jack’. The task she sets herself is simple, ‘hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.’ She succeeds spectacularly. The redemption she offers the five women is matched only by the anger their mistreatment provokes.


After Polly Nichols, we hear the stories of Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. These five women, deemed unimportant by the overflowing historical literature on the Ripper himself, deserve to have their stories heard:


Annie was born in affluent Knightsbridge, but her childhood was one of abject misery: four of her siblings were taken by typhus and her father committed suicide. Annie lived in Windsor with her husband John Chapman, but fell victim to ‘demon drink’ and was forced to leave her family, eventually settling in Whitechapel. By the time of her murder on 8 September 1888, Annie was terminally ill with tuberculosis.

Elizabeth was raised in a Swedish village. She birthed a still-born girl in a contagious diseases ward in Gothenburg in 1866 and later became a prostitute on the city’s ‘street of many nymphs’, before escaping to domestic service. A chance job-offer brought her to London’s Hyde Park. After marrying John Stride the couple opened a coffee shop in Poplar. But money issues, and her alcoholism, ensured she ended up in Whitechapel, alone, living in lodging houses. ‘Liz’ died largely anonymous, even her drinking friends unaware of her past.


Kate grew up in Southwark and won a scholarship to Dowgate school. But when she was orphaned at fifteen, her education became unsustainable and she began work in the metal trade. Escaping a life of drudgery, she partnered with Irish peddler Thomas Conway and travelled across England. They later settled in London but, with no secure income and Thomas’ brutal domestic violence, Kate was in-and-out of the workhouse. On the night of her murder she was arrested for being inebriated on Aldgate High Street. She was released at 1am but never saw the sun rise.


Little is known of Mary Jane. Born in Ireland around 1863, she came to London’s West End and worked as a high-class prostitute. She escaped an attempted trafficking to Paris but, fearing her safety, did not return to servicing aristocratic clients and instead settled in the East End. There she had romances with a couple of men but died unmarried. Mary Jane was murdered aged 25 – old enough to have grown weary with the world, but still young enough to harbour optimism for her future. These five women, long consigned to the dustbin of history, return to us vivid and living through Rubenhold’s words.


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Journalism’s proximity to misinformation is The Five’s central subject. Rubenhold persistently skewers reporters for asking the wrong questions. ‘Journalists frequently twisted statements to cast a shadow’ over the ‘moral character’ of the women, she writes. This was an era when women walking the streets at night and ‘streetwalking’ were conflated and confused. In the misogynistic logic of the era, if a working-class woman was out after dark, unaccompanied, what else was she doing except soliciting? But ‘the press appear to have ignored the fact that a significant number of outcast women … slept rough on a regular basis.’ Victorian middle-class society so hostile to the homeless and downtrodden it forgot they even existed.


Histories of the nineteenth century face an aesthetic dilemma: how to describe the lives of those in squalor with dignity, without creating a poverty-spectacle readers gawp at on the clean side of history? The Five successfully brings back contingency into the women’s lives. Rubenhold endeavours to recreate the women’s affective states from discarded fragments. ‘We have been left no clear glimpse into Polly Nichols’ thoughts,’ she writes, but Polly’s friends saw in her ‘something deeply melancholic: a personality folded in on itself, private, alienated and grieving.’ Rubenhold’s book is an affective landscape of dreams, desires and motivations burning as hotly as the gas lamps that lit the Victorian night. This is a social history fresh with emotional intelligence.


‘Every revolution has its word, a word that summarises and portrays it,’ writes Honoré de Balzac in La Comédie Humaine (1842). Can we identify a word which contains all of late-Victorian society within it? If we can, it must be respectability. The spectre of prostitution hung over all working-class women in the nineteenth-century. It was respectability’s ultimate antithesis; the angel/whore dichotomy governed poor women’s lives. Drinking, living out of wedlock, living a houseless life – the definition of a prostitute was appropriately malleable to encompass an array of sins. ‘A “houseless creature” and a “prostitute” by their moral failings were one and the same,’ Rubenhold writes. What she does exceptionally well is lay bare the intensely gendered experience of working-class London. ‘At times the coroner’s inquest becomes a moral investigation of Polly Nichols herself,’ she continues, ‘as if the hearing was in part to determine whether her behaviour warranted her fate.’ After all, Victorian moralists would say, the wages of sin were death.


But while Rubenhold asks all the right epistemological questions, casting her critical gaze over the shaky claims of the era’s reporters, she is sometimes forced to rely on their narratives to an uncomfortable degree. Journalism acts as a filter between their lives and our comprehension. ‘Journalists often remarked…’ ‘As one journalist reported…’ ‘The journalist from the Evening Standard remarked…’ The book is full of lines like this which punctuate the lives of the women. ‘Virtually all that is known about Annie Chapman’s life in Whitechapel is drawn from this morass of confused “facts” reported in newspapers.’ There seems to be no escaping the reach of the press.


It raises questions about histories that rely on the sketchy journalism of the past, so often ‘shaped and embellished to suit the needs of the specific paper.’ With so many competing claims of truth in Ripper-reporting, Rubenhold is held to ransom for pages on end sifting the factual from the fake. It underscores the instability of all modern history: a past littered with misinformation and competing truth-claims is the true nemesis of the historian, anaesthetising all efforts at understanding. But, to her credit, Rubenhold remains a convincing guide through this world of conflicting claims. She corrects the historical record, dispelling the groundless rumour these five women were ‘just prostitutes.’


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But we have failed to learn from the past: the reporters’ errors of 1888 are still repeated again and again. On the morning of 15 March 2019, a white supremacist with a gun walked into two mosques and killed 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the deadliest mass shooting the country had ever seen. The killer live-streamed the entire massacre on social media. The attack was condemned worldwide, but debate soon turned, once again, to the politics of reporting such atrocities. Sections of the killer’s footage featured prominently on several news websites – including The Sun, Daily Mirror and MailOnline – and was followed by questionable murderer-centric headlines (‘Angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer,’ read the Mirror). The editors faced a wave of criticism for their ‘irresponsibility,’ backtracked, and the footage was swiftly removed.


We can see this same pattern – misdirected press attention, speculation on the psychology of the killer, a carelessness towards victims – in other incarnations including the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ of the late-1970s or the ‘Suffolk Strangler’ of 2006. Journalists, evidently, still have trouble covering murder and terrorism free from insensitivity. News outlets must balance a number of responsibilities – not inciting violence, not needlessly platforming murderers – with factual accuracy and engaging storytelling. But why is it that we continue to get echoes of Ripper-reporting in the twenty-first century? Why does Jack the Ripper’s shadow continue to haunt the newspaper columns of our tabloids?


To answer this question, we need to interrogate the laws that govern tabloid media. WT Stead defined New Journalism: 1) it deployed a ‘wealth of intimate picturesque detail’; 2) it used ‘personal style’ and ‘bright colloquial language’; 3) it had a ‘determination to arrest, amuse or startle’ the reader. To Stead’s list we might add: 4) it dramatised events; and 5) it focused on the psychology of the murderer as opposed to their victims. In reporting the Christchurch massacre, on all five criteria Stead’s approach is still with us. Evidently, questions of editorial ‘irresponsibility’ are misguided: by the rules of Stead’s game – salaciousness, scandal, and dramatic visual imagery – these modern papers succeeded by their own logic.


Rubenhold makes the compelling case that our myths of the Ripper were created in the smog of Victorian respectability. But she also opens the box to a grander and more difficultly-answered question: is tabloid journalism itself built on the values of the nineteenth-century world? That is, as Rubenhold puts it, ‘male, authoritarian and middle class’ values? It was ‘formed at a time when women had no voice and few rights, and the poor were considered lazy and degenerate’. Tabloid journalism as we know it was dreamed up in that same imaginative parlour as the character of Jack the Ripper, a gore-hungry world of misogyny, classism and imperial racism.


Can we ever exorcise Jack’s shadow from our newspapers if the newspaper itself harbours its own Victorian ghosts? Our task for the twenty-first century is to build a press that works for everyone: subjects and readers alike. It requires stripping tabloid journalism of sensational language glamorising murderers, reporting facts only when they’re verified, and centring victims over perpetrators. As a guide for remaking a more sensitive press – in how it places these five women, at long last, as the lead characters in their own novels – Rubenhold’s The Five is a brilliant place to start.


JEM BARTHOLOMEW is a journalist at the Financial Times. He read History at St Hilda's, and is starting an MA in Journalism at Columbia University this autumn.


Art by George Wilson