To Vanish Jack the Ripper

I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me.

– Wearside Jack, Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer

The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, became Prime Minister of the UK in May of 1979; the Yorkshire Ripper, a.k.a. Peter Sutcliffe, was caught two years later. The Ripper was taken to trial in 1981 in a truck battered by the mob and guarded by Thatcher’s cops. Baroness Thatcher left office in 1990, a humiliated outworn shape in the back of a car. Her death in 2013 was met by mass celebration in the streets, while the Yorkshire Ripper lives quietly in Broadmore prison to this day. Does anyone talk about Wilma McCann? Irene Richardson? Tina Atkinson? Helen Rytka, from Huddersfield? What is the distance from the Ripper to the Cuts? And from us to Liz Stride and Polly Nichols, murdered in 1888 by Sutcliffe’s idol, Jack the Ripper?

The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold, is not about Jack the Ripper. There is no wild speculation about his identity, or grainy reprints of the crime scenes or letters addressed ‘from Hell’. Even the word ‘Ripper’ is used as little as possible. But the Five of the title, those ‘canonical’ victims, appear over and over again: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Not just their full names and aliases mind, but the articles found on their bodies, their husbands and lovers, their cities and their nations.

The Ripper has never been conclusively identified, but he has been surrounded by a cordon of information both relevant and fantastic, adding up to countless pages. Far more is known conclusively, exhaustively, about the women he slaughtered, yet comparatively little has been written about them. The shorthand for these women is ‘prostitutes’, even though the police and trial records contain very little mention of the sex trade. The newspapers of the day were divided on who among these women worked the streets; even at their most yellow, they showed little more than the era’s own specific horror feminae. It is clearly the Ripper industry of the past 130-odd years that has made them all whores, a mythos cobbled together from linkages of blood, murder and sex, from bad conscience and art history (the painter Walter Sickert is a sometime Ripper suspect). Washed in hallucinations of masculine power and the reactionary Puritanism indivisible from this power, the hooker narrative cannot vanish without erasing the Ripper himself – the very spirit of romance, integral to the cult’s saleable images. As for prostitution, it is allowed to be ‘sex work’ only when part of a bourgeois fantasy. For the real professionals, it is not considered ‘work’ at all. No one has ever proposed a bill to respect unionization. Few have gone after the mafias on account of it. And see how Jeffrey Epstein’s friends are innocent until proven innocent.

Cities have sexes: London is a man…

– Angela Carter

Let’s be honest. Under all this lies the idea that prostitution is a kind of danger that is not however, a real risk. Risk means getting something for nothing, a word which has acquired a glamorous flavor, though it comes from economics. The five women lived dangerous lives. For the rank conservatives, they were potential slags or vectors for disease. For the liberals, they were unlucky, unfortunate, objectified, undeserving – here, the passive tone betrays a suggestion that poor women not only court a Calvinist fate but are fools enough to believe in it. The glamour and the risk are all the Ripper’s. The barbed honesty of The Five comes from a tactical use of the banal in biography and from its refusal to admit that danger, which is the larger part of class, is either anything extraordinary or anything owed. For almost everyone from Whitechapel to the Punjab, in Bradford or Belfast, life itself was essentially dangerous.

We are not honest at all when talking about prostitutes, women, or what is a working life. How you view these five women depends on who you know; or if you don’t know, then who you can see in the world and what kinds you see in it. If it is entirely possible to see your ma or sis or girl sleeping off a drunk on a stoop, losing her apartment and wandering, needing to make a few bucks in the back of a car – then you will see five women. Well then, who are you? And not: Who was the Ripper? In our era, so formally obsessed with identity, the identities of the serial dead remain a blue chromatic derivative in the blinding cipher of the night stalkers. The multiple murderers eat up the drizzle and the landscape around them, amateur actors whose Other is the daisy-cutting drone. Middle-managers of everyday corpse-years writing themselves through hired hands, fabulous only in each new predatory twist… Why should this shit be permitted to blot out even the dullest detail of Eliza Ann Smith’s life? Her details were made deficits, finally collected by a creditor whose glorious name is Nothing.

All talk, either earnest or exploitative, always goes back to the Ripper and his tedious identity. We talk only about Jack the Ripper, just as I’ve done even when praising The Five – a book which is not about Jack the Ripper at all.

It is about Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Ms. Rubenhold makes her research about their lives read as if she simply consulted unremarkable texts of the day (and she did). As if she had pulled the facts out of records boxes, plain in typeset and easily available for a century and a half (as they were). This is a volley aimed at the macho armchair detectives who claim an expertise close to clairvoyance, a genius for the muscular ability to jigsaw inference and pry secrets from Scotland Yard. As if Time itself waited for the Ripperologists; Jack half fearing, half needing them. Perhaps even the girls, whether you count them at five or ten or whoever, waited for an intrepid new Abberline to rescue them like DeNiro’s sentimental oaf did for Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. In contrast, Ms. Rubenhold is a truly brilliant researcher as well as writer. Who else figured out that these women were slashed while they slept and not running from the bastard or lolling in his liebestod arms? Her masterstroke is that she acts like a calm observer who simply looked at the material and reported what she found there, seriously and stridently. It is one of her strongest, most subtle critiques.

For this she has been compared to the vile David Irving and trolled obsessively by Saucy Jack’s true believers[1]. There is an unspoken rule: It is permissible to question the identity of the killer or the number of victims, but you play outside the Ripper game when you acknowledge the women as names and the killer as just a man. Worse: You snub Jack himself by giving him a negligible role, that of a largely irrelevant figure who wandered about a couple nights and then vanished like a swollen tick. His deeds were not a ritual sacrifice but a vicious eccentricity of the homeland Empire, and in ten years he’d be Curzon on the Northwest Frontier, just like he was Cromwell in Éire (Bruce Robinson, the most interesting of the identity theorists, opens his 864-page They All Love Jack with Thatcher’s call to a return to Victorian values – the Ripper’s values). No wonder many Ripper fiends place his crimes directly at the foot of some Royal emissary, aristocrat or wealthy Masonic network. The rich did it – which is true only because it is true for everyone and everything. Who built the slums? Who owns the judiciary? Who commanded Tyburn? Who owns the day and night and city.

The dog did nothing in the night-time. – A. Conan Doyle

True Crime is a robust concoction of populist sprawl and scientific gossip. Even the Native women killed along the Highway of Tears have generated some curiosity lately, which would be strange after five hundred years if it wasn’t part of an all-inclusive fad. I suspect this is due most of all to the dark roads used so effectively in the attendant images: the great Westward highway in our Easy Rider and Fordist fantasies has been rented out to reflect other national obsessions – tech ‘founders’ and serial killers, safety and surveillance optics, woman-hate. It’s a style that lingers in half-assed artsy gleam over lonesome vanishing points, mood music and dingey filters… A languid guilty conscience over Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee? Not on your life. It is comparable to the invented cockney mist and crimson lips of olde ripping London. An aesthetic adolescence, a half-memory of mattes we’ve lost the will to barely recall.

Pity and nervous pity tempt us to reconstruct a victim’s final moments – or perhaps it is just voyeurism in the worst cases, in our worst moments. No matter how well-intentioned such fantasies may be – even if they are involuntary, perhaps especially so – they are still under the sign of the intelligence of the Rippers. In contrast, The Five always stops before the apparition, as if he must not be granted even a few seconds in cyclical time. He should be given nothing because everything gives shape to his shape. Here Ms. Rubenhold shares the morality of a Saviano or Pasolini. Such a political stance is why this masterpiece has met with an especially virulent attack: because the attackers are unable to recognize – even to recognizably invent – a woman’s life before a spook came out of the fog. There is no fog. There is no Ripper. List Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

In Akutagawa’s classic tale Rashomon, all variant versions of a murder turn out to be true. Leaving aside for now the questions of veracity, of law and memory, here at the last border of logic and language —

Grumbling and groaning, she crawled to the top stair by the still flickering torchlight, and through the gray hair which hung over her face, she peered down to the last stair in the torch light.

Beyond this was only darkness… unknowing and unknown.

Likewise, almost but not quite matter-of-factly, and without the tears an unspeakable century has allocated to the Five:

In spite of each article’s poor condition, she folded it neatly and placed it on her chair. The flame of her only candle, which she balanced on a broken wineglass, guttered and bobbed until snuffed out. Enveloped in darkness, she slid under her bed sheet and pulled it snugly around her, protecting herself from the night.

This is as far as one can to go without betraying the living of the dead Mary Kelley and four other women. They have been gutted too many times since 1888. We should praise the omission of another fivefold death in favor of a little flame and one wool mitten.

Note: On the Yorkshire Ripper, see Nicole Ward Jouve’s The Streetcleaner: The Yorkshire Ripper Case on Trial, a truly provocative work of Feminist investigation.

1. See here for example:


Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.