Despite his name being in the title. Jack the Ripper has very little to do with this narrative. He only comes into the lives of the titular five briefly on the last night of their lives. However those brief encounters are why most people remember the names Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Before their fateful encounter with a predator, they were married, had babies, owned shops, lived on country estates and traveled from other countries to reach their final destination in Whitechapel. What historian Hallie Rubenhold posits quite convincingly in this book is that not all of them were sex workers and that that none of them were engaged in sex work on the nights they were murdered. This image, which has persisted for over 130 years is based largely on Victorian assumptions about women living in poverty and the fact that lurid headlines involving sex and murder sold papers.
Rubenhold devotes a full section of the book to each woman. She begins with their parents and continues in great detail until those ill-fated nights in Whitechapel. Much is made of the term “walking the streets” since all but Mary Jane Kelly were killed outside. It is likely the term was meant much more literally, that the women were walking through London’s streets trying to scrape together the money to buy a bed for the night or sleeping rough which Rubenhold hypothesizes they were doing when they were killed. Some of them had fallen from “respectable” positions due to alcoholism which was rampant during this time or from being preyed upon by a man in authority.
Obviously none of these women deserved or “asked for” their ultimate fate regardless of their profession or what they were engaging in on the nights of their murders. But ultimately what sealed their fates was not sex work but to have the misfortune of being born poor and female in the Victorian age.