The myth of The Five

This week I borrowed a book from my local library. I refused to buy The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, because of concerns about the way it was marketed. The unique selling point, an untenable suggestion that the canonical five victims of Jack the Ripper were not prostitutes, was presented as a fact and those with differing views criticized on social media. This follows Bruce Robinson and Patricia Cornwell, two other respected authors who also promoted their work by attacking others. A similar approach is used by politicians laughing at the ideas of their opponents whilst failing to put forward a viable alternative.

Rubenhold chose to ignore or misquote evidence that contracted her idea. This is a great shame for two reasons. Firstly, the occupation and status of the victims is irrelevant. They should be remembered, honoured and respected as innocent people killed by a maniac. Secondly it detracts from the considerable achievement of documenting their lives in a very readable narrative. Although it is not the first such biography, or the most accurate, it is the longest and packed with fascinating information about the world they lived in. Through it we come to understand that they were victims of society long before they met their awful fate. Wisely Rubenhold refrains from describing that fate. She is right to complain about the industry surrounding Jack the Ripper but seems to have exploited it to boost sales.

This is not a book about Jack the Ripper or even true crime. It is a good piece of social history sitting in the wrong section of the library.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper Suspects.

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