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October 5, 2021 30 mins

Jack the Ripper's victims were prostitutes murdered while selling sex on the streets of Whitechapel - that's what historian Hallie Rubenhold thought when she started researching the crimes. She was wrong.  

As she looked into the case, she discovered much of the familiar Ripper story is totally false. But by challenging that myth and trying to tell the true stories of the murdered women, Hallie attracted a storm of criticism. 

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:15):
Pushkin. It's the coldest of cold cases. A murder of
the most brutal kind was committed in the neighborhood of

(00:35):
Whitechapel in the early hours. But by whom and with
what motive is at present a complete mystery. In the
fall of eighteen eighty eight, woman after woman after woman
was murdered in the dark backstreets of poverty stricken East London.
This poor creature was taken into the yard and butchered.

(00:57):
Are nearly finded away at what I saw. The killer
struck and then disappeared, leaving the police baffled. All that
was certain was the awful severity of the wounds inflicted
on the women. The poor woman's throat was cut, the
inside of her body was lying beside her. She was

(01:17):
quite ripped open. The murders were so violent that the
killer earned a nickname known the world over, armed down
on halls and are shap Quinn ripping them. Even today,
his name ranks among the cruelest and most notorious of
serial killers, Jack the Ripper. This podcast isn't about Jack

(01:49):
the Ripper, at least, it's not about the Jack the
ripboat you've heard of. I can pretty much guarantee that
up until now, everything you've been told about The Ripper,
that original serial killer, that knife wielding victorian bogeyman is wrong.
But don't feel bad about that. I too was none

(02:10):
the wiser when I started researching a book about the
events in Whitechapel in eighteen eighty eight. My name is
Hallie Rubinholt and I'm a historian. More specifically, I'm a
historian of prostitution. In the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, I'd
enjoyed some success with a book on the sex trade
and Brothels of George in London. It got picked up

(02:32):
and made into a TV series called Harlots. So I
was casting around for a promising follow up project. And
who were the most infamous prostitutes in all of history?
The victims of Jack the Ripper? Of course, can you
tell me one fact that you know about Jack the Ripper?
They never got caught. Oh God, he's rumored to be
a butcher? Was I think he was like quite good

(02:52):
at killing people? And who did he kill? Prostitutes? He
killed prostitutes. Before I began my research, no author had
attempted to really build out the worlds of these women
to fully put their lives into context. The last movements
on the days they were killed had been painstakingly researched

(03:13):
and rehearsed. But what about the other days and years
of their lives? Who were they and how did they
cross paths with a killer? Hello? Love? Yeah, you don't
like a sport. As I browsed the books and films
out there, I noticed that wherever the Ripper's five victims
were mentioned, they were usually characterized as society's waste. Yeah

(03:34):
so bad, I writ led as filthy, ruined, pitiful, drink
sodden whores. You don't fasible pain of Dulia. I'm cutting
the price tonight. Polly Annie, Elizabeth Kate, and Mary Jane
were so reduced, so simplified, that they were little more
than cartoon characters. You can have it for not believe

(03:55):
you want to. I began excavating their lives from start
to finish, and what I found out amazed me. So
what is the original story the cartoon version of a
very real and very awful murders? Brie? Well, it goes
something like this. It's August eighteen eighty eight in the

(04:21):
vile slums of London's East End. This is a bleak
and squalid warren. Criss crossing thoroughfares are smothered by thick,
noxious fog, and the streets swarm with prostitutes, thieves, and drunks.
Life here is an endless grind of illness, crime and poverty.

(04:46):
It's nighttime and prostitute Polly Nichols is out soliciting. She's
been drinking and she just needs one more client to
pay for her bed. That night, a gentleman approaches Crown.
He's wearing a hat and a cape, a doctor perhaps.
Polly takes him to a quiet side street, which is
where he attacks her over and he stabs him, and

(05:10):
he cuts her throat, then he vanishes into the night.
Over the coming months, four more prostitutes are murdered by
the diabolical Whitechapel fiend. Annie Chapman is found with her
throat cut, her uterus and part of her bladder excised.
Elizabeth Stride and Kate Edo's are murdered on the same night.

(05:34):
The ripper carves out and steals away Kate's left kidney
and part of her womb. Finally, in November, he claims
the life of pretty Mary Jane Kelly. The youngest of
the victims, and he evisceerates her. What remains of Mary
Jane is unrecognizable. The city is paralyzed by fear and

(05:54):
the police are baffled. Suspects are pursued and then dropped.
A taunting letter of confession is sent to the press.
The author revels in the crimes, promises more, and signs
off as Jack the Ripper. The name sticks and a
terrible legend is born. So much has been written about

(06:21):
Jack the Ripper and who he might have been. There
are endless books about his crimes. I assume that there
would be an agreed narrative running through that catalog, some
undisputed hard evidence, like an archeologist I dug and I dug.
But instead of a sturdy bedrock of written records, I

(06:42):
just met with more sand. Police and court records were
lost or incomplete. The case records that did exist contain
things that just didn't add up, and the rest of
the story was filled in with reports taken from newspapers
which took certain liberties with the truth. To put it mildly, so,
the famous Jack the Ripper story that you just heard

(07:02):
is built on nothing. It's propped up by hearsay and
by the work of true crime enthusiasts and amateur sleuths
who all think they'll crack the case. It's true that
Jack was never caught, but fantastical theories about his identity
have flourished. Perhaps he was a barber, Maybe he was
an abortionist or a surgeon. Perhaps he wasn't Jack at all,

(07:26):
but Jill. At one point, Queen Victoria was even implicated.
I realized that for generations we've been passing down pure myth,
and someone needed to set the record straight. While I
couldn't trust much of what had been written about their killer,
I did manage to uncover a wealth of material about

(07:47):
the women themselves, and they weren't at all what I
was expecting. Each woman was at one time what Victorian
society would have regarded as respectable. Almost all of them
had been married, All but one of them would mothers.
None of them came from London's notorious East End. Each

(08:08):
woman's life was extraordinary and unique. They began life as
the daughters and wives of carpenters, gentlemen's valets, coachmen, and soldiers.
They glimpsed Queen Victoria and were neighbors of Charles Dickens.
They were talented, rebellious, brave, and kind hearted. Their individual
journeys threw up all kinds of intriguing questions. But to me,

(08:33):
there was also a larger mystery to be solved here.
How did these mothers, wives and daughters end up as beggars,
street walkers, addicts, and eventually as murder victims. What was
to blame for their fates? That's why this series is
called bad Women. The Ripper retold. I strongly disagreed that

(08:55):
they were bad women. It wasn't their fault that they
ended up poor and vulnerable in Whitechapel, or that they
were targeted by a serial killer. And the more I
learned about what really led to their deaths, the angrier
I got. But more of that when we return The

(09:32):
White Trouble murders might have taken place more than one
hundred and thirty years ago, but how we think about
them still matters. Getting this story wrong is hurting people
even today. We'll start recording Grace. First of all, I
want to say, it's just so I'm so pleased that
I've got you. Thank you for envirotingment. Oh, it's absolute pleasure.

(09:54):
Oh the SNS at the door. This is Grace. Oh God,
hang on, somebody's at the door. Do you want to go?
Go get the door. Don't worry. She's a graduate and
works for a charity. She loves dogs. She's also a
sex worker. Now I think it's next door. Don't worry.
Abou sure. Sorry. We've been messaging each other on social
media since she read The five, my book about the

(10:15):
murdered women. Another sex worker recommended the book and I
was like, well, I don't know anything about Jack the Riffer.
I remember learning about it when I was at school
and it was always the old archaic. Oh, these prostitutes
were murdered, and that's all I knew. I didn't really
know anything else, so I thought, well, I probably shouldn't
know because I'm a sex worker. It was quite eye opening,
but also disheartening. As Grace worked her way through my research,

(10:38):
she was struck by the lack of sympathy. The dead
women were shown. These women sort of deserved it or
did they expect to happen? You know, they were poor,
they were prostitutes. But I'm still really shocked by these attitudes.
And I just thought, well, nothing exchanged, nothing has changed.
Up until today, the idea that Jack was killing disreputable
women has made it easier for us to make light

(11:00):
of his violence and even to treat his murders as
a source of entertainment, which in turn makes us more
callous when women like Grace experienced violence. Today, if you
continue to dehumanize the woman, and you'd continue to put
them down as the prostitute, it's almost seen as acceptable
to do this because it's perfectly fine. The killer sex worker. Oh,

(11:21):
who cares, you know, let's just glorify the murderer, because
actually just sex worker, and it's all part of history,
it isn't. These things persist and you're basically victim blaming
us and saying it's our fault, when actually it's the
opposite way around. Men are violent in society, but they
choose sex workers because we are the most vulnerable, We
are the most visible, and people feel they can get

(11:42):
away with it, so they do it. We've never really
faced up to this part of the Jack the Ripper myth.
By being so uninterested in their lives, by feeling even
to double check the details, we push the murdered women
into the background, and given the killer center stage. Jack
the Ripper has never left us. Jack the Ripper has

(12:03):
seeped into our culture, and we don't really seem to
want to get rid of him. That's right, joined historian
Matthew Sweet. He also worries that we've sanitized these ghastly
murders and cozied up to the killer. Jack himself is
jolly Jack. He's a kind of ghost that we've made
sort of friends with. He's a party entertainer. He'll come

(12:26):
on and he'll give us a bit of a thrill. Somehow,
it's fine for children to consume stories about him. He's
a sort of bogey man. And I think that this
could only have happened because we have absolutely no idea
who he was, and so into that vacuum spills our
fears and our fantasies and our perverse pleasures too. But

(12:47):
somehow it's all totally acceptable because it's a parlor game.
Jack the Ripper has become the oddest of things, a
socially acceptable serial killer. And the more you know about
his victims, the more that seems really wrong. Fine, Jack
River a commemorative con and Zacano classes Thank you, rush

(13:09):
Oh Chapter for Teddy Bear. Even though no one really
knows what he looked like. You can buy Jack the
Ripper Halloween costumes, and he's printed on all manner of
merchandise too, from mugs to coloring books and T shirts.
How much is the T shirt? Okay, right, it's all
I can dream quite clear. If you haven't seen it,

(13:31):
it really is the worst, big trush on the tour.
Every now and again the tour is still happily flock
from all over the world to visit the sights of
the murders. That's Mary Kelly. He's gotten off face the killer.
I went under cover to join one guided tour and
stand at the spots where each of the women bled
to death. That is five was as bad as I

(13:53):
feared it would be. Blackling in between our At the
end of the tour, after more than an hour of
gleefully describing the women's wounds, the guide even tried to
sell me a book. It detailed his own theory of
who the killer was and how he evaded the tection.
I politely declined. I currently have over a hundred books

(14:15):
about Jack the Ripper. Rebecca Frost is an expert on
true crime literature and specifically on how we talk and
write about Jack the Ripper. In most of these books,
people are upset that he was never caught. They are
not upset that women were murdered. People want to know
the killer. They want to understand the killer. They want
to know what drove him to it, and people are

(14:36):
really fascinated by the fact that he got away with it.
Nobody's concerned about the women. That's the problem in the
great game of unmasking the murderer. The victims only add
to what we know about Jack. They are bits of
evidence that might flesh out his identity. It's that half
an hour contact between them and the killer that makes
them interesting. They're intertwined with this person who used them

(14:58):
for his own devices and his own pleasure in his
own way. They had no say in this whatsoever. And
that is how you're known for the rest of eternity.
With advances in forensic technology, interest has been rekindled in
the women as handy sources of DNA to help identify Jack.
I'll tell you about a bizarre and upsetting plan to
dig up their corpses another time, but I quickly want

(15:20):
to mythbust one of the sillier scientific stunts you might
have seen. If you've watched any TV show about the
White Chapel murders, you're bound to have noticed people in
white lab coats and latex gloves taking swab samples from
a beautiful, dark Paisley shawl. This crops up in nearly
every documentary. Scientists at King's College, London are analyzing the

(15:43):
material on the chance that the killer's DNA may have
transferred to the shawl and survived. This time, it's a
show called American Ripper and Jeff mudget is having his
DNA compared to samples from the shawl. Waiting for these
results has been really nerve racking, because if the killer's
DNA remained on the victim's shawl from the night of

(16:04):
her murder, this is the evidence that could prove once
and for all that my aunt's sister h Holps was
Jack the Ripper. The shawl was supposedly found by a
policeman near the body of one of the Ripper's last victims.
The murder of Catherine or Kate Edo's was particularly vicious,
and the fabric is said to be covered in her blood.

(16:26):
The police officer kept the shawl as a souvenir, and
it's been handed down through the generations of his family.
This could well be the only piece of physical evidence
left that contains the DNA of both a victim and
the nameless Ripper. It's said that scientific analysis has already
pointed to a suspect, a Whitechapel barber, at long last,

(16:49):
solving the mystery. Where do I start? There's all sorts
of issues with this. My friend Professor Tory King as
a leading expert on genetics. She's successfully identified human remains
dating back centuries and centuries, and she's less than impressed
with the shawl. Things to consider, even just at the outset,

(17:10):
I think, is the provenance of this shall. Is it
even anything to do with Katherine Edo's or Jack the Ripper,
or any of those cases. I can't find any documents
saying Katherine was found with a shawl, particularly not one
is fine and delicate as the one in question. Did

(17:30):
the killer drop it unlikely, and the policeman said to
have taken it wasn't even part of the unit investigating
Katherine's death. The next thing to think about is contamination.
Because this has been in the family for many, many generations,
It's going to have been handled by numerous people. A

(17:50):
family heirloom, unfolded and taken out to show friends and
relatives and curious journalists and excited TV producers over and
over and over again. Isn't exactly a forensic scientist dream
fine and the DNA supposedly linking Katherine the all in
the murderous barber. It was reported that the sample contained

(18:13):
a mutation shared by the suspect and passed down to
his descendants that was unbelievably rare, so case closed. Then
the barber did it and left traces of his mitochondrial
DNA mutation three one four dot one C, an identifying
mark almost as unique as a fingerprint. It's not. It's

(18:35):
three one five dot one C, which is very, very
very common in the population, something like over ninety percent
in Europe. It's very very common. The shoal is just
one blind alley in this case. There are many others
I'll share with you in this series, but I've told
you about this one because I want you to start
questioning what you've been told about Jack the Ripper and

(18:58):
the qualifications of the people doing the telling. Jack the
Ripper is one of these cases that does seem to
bring out certain things in some people. Personally wouldn't have
touched this for the barge pole. By the end of
this series, I'll have shown you why I think the
case will never be solved. The interesting part that but

(19:18):
we can all learn from is why these women died.
They weren't killed because they'd engaged in any particular trade
or activity. They were in harm's way simply because they
were women and because they were poor. Jack the Ripper
may have killed these women, but Victorian society was the accomplice.

(19:38):
That's the new story I'm going to tell you, and
it's the one that's made me a lot of enemies.
The Ripper told will return shortly. It seems I've committed

(19:59):
three unforgivable crimes. I've revealed that quite a lot of
what we're told about Jack the Ripper is wrong. I've
laid out why the case will never be solved, and finally,
I've shown a light on the lives of the victims
and asked why no one else has really bothered to
do so before. That's made a lot of people very angry.

(20:22):
She's ignored sources to present her own theories, and when questioned,
has behaved in a very non professional and arrogant way.
Just my opinion, of course, quasi feminist claptrap taking those
poor women's lives out of context. I think Rubinholt can
benefit from growing a thicker skin like the White Chapel
victims would have needed. The reason a lot of the

(20:46):
Jack the Ripper story that gets served up is wrong
is because of people like that. When it comes to
the examination of most other historical events, from the American
Revolution to the Great Depression, the people publishing the books
and speaking at conferences tend to be qualified historians, economists,
or archaeologists. Rightly or wrongly, most professional historians have avoided

(21:10):
studying the White Shovel murders, and given the abuse I've suffered,
I can't exactly blame them. That means most of the
books and articles have been written by amateurs who are
often obsessed with the blood and gore. They call themselves ripparologists.
I do believe that if you call yourself a riparologist,
you probably should get a real job. This is Ginger Frost,

(21:33):
a professor at Samford University in Alabama. That is not
a job. Trying to figure out who Jack the Rippery
is Number one, You're not going to do at a
number two who cares At this point if we put
a name on it, would it change it? Would it
make any real difference. The important thing to think about
is the position of women and the level of poverty
in the East End, and the difficulties of the police
in the nineteenth century. Their forensics were terrible. Those are

(21:55):
the kinds of things you can learn about this, not
endlessly trying to chase some name to put on this guy.
He's not that interesting. Believe me, Ginger, I've tried to
make these very points in public. It's simple. Have you
got any suspects I don't care. I don't care. Often

(22:19):
when I give talks about the five women, I have
ripparologists coming along to tell me I'm wrong. There is
professional prostitution customer. You need to read mine. On the
other hand, some ripparologists confine themselves to being nasty about
me and my work and Facebook groups and on Twitter.

(22:40):
Threads have appeared on online forums too, attacking me personally
and tearing into my research. One of those threads is
now over two hundred pages long. And don't bother trying
to amend the Wikipedia page on the murders. Any reference
to my work gets deleted straight away. My personal favorite, though,

(23:00):
is a podcast rippercast. It compared me to a Holocaust denier.
People have course to flawed methodologists, like those adopted by
people who thinked deny the Holocaust. We had below the
threshold for historical responsibility at that point. One prominent repparologist,

(23:23):
a retired policeman called Trevor Marriott, is particularly upset that
in my work I don't describe every cut and slash
of the actual murders. It thanks a false picture of
the Ripper mystery and the Rapper investigation. In fact, Trevor
got very angry on Twitter just before International Women's Day.
He was annoyed about what he saw as feminism creeping

(23:46):
into his hobby. I have no flawed view of women,
he tweeted, other than you need us men because vibrators
can't cut the grass. It was a jokingly comical off
the cuff remark, which, in my opinion, has got blown
up beyond the proportion. The comment was made that in

(24:06):
relation to a man in a that normally in relationships
it's the men that cut the grass. Trevor and many
other reparologists seem to see themselves as gatekeepers, the owners
of the facts. About Jack the ripper. I trespassed on
their territory and dared to talk about the women, and

(24:27):
to add insult to injury. I didn't even ask their permission.
I think the response she's received is fully justified. Perhaps
if Hallie Ha'd have taken the time to speak to
somebody like me or somebody else that is fairly knowledgeable
about these crimes, it may well have given her a
much wider perspective. Even if you do have the patients

(24:50):
to engage with riparology, it can be like banging your
head against a brick wall. I think I changed my email,
and I also left Facebook. We decided to cut loose
and that was it. Neil Sheldon's written about the women too,
and his work has been a useful resource for me.
He spent twenty eight years in the riparology community before
leaving it. He remembers going to an exhibition about the

(25:13):
murders and getting into an argument with another ripparologist about
how victims like Kate Edo's were being represented. He said,
I'm sorry, but I really cannot see how the victims
have been ignored. There are several pages from Edo's inquest
papers on display, including the list of Edo's possessions. Now,
as far as I'm concerned, that suggests that what he

(25:34):
believes is that Edo's life story can be summed up
by the fact that she had a kidney removed and
that she was mutilated. That to me sums up a
lot of how reparology people feel just unbelievable. I tell
you all this not to get even with my critics,
but so that you know why the story of the
White Couple murders has been so badly told up until now.

(25:56):
The people telling it often don't know what they're doing.
They aren't very good at historical research, and they often
flunk when they try to involve science. Remember the shawl
and the rare not rare DNA very very very common.
And also, and it pains me to say it, I
get the feeling that a lot of the people who
are deeply interested in Jack the Ripper aren't all that

(26:19):
keen on women. For me, the worst aspect was just
the sort of casual misogyny of it all, the ranking
of the victims. It's just the way they talked about them.
Like Neil Melanie Clegg also fled riproology, and yes, you
heard her right, She says some rippologists rank the murder
victims in order of their physical attractiveness. The reason I

(26:43):
left ripprology was actually just someone who made a really
disgusting rape joke on Facebook, and that was for me
the final straw. I presume that's why a lot of
the story has never been told, right, Why the women
and the vital part they play in this fascinating historical
event have been misrepresented or forgotten. The only people telling

(27:04):
the story wanted it that way. They didn't think the
women were worthy effort. I mean, the public face is
all the tours, the conference, the articles, they've all written, books,
they really underline the fact that it's an academic thing
that they could all be, you know, proper historians, if
any of them are gone to school. But the undercurrent

(27:26):
is very prurient and it's just awful. They do talk
a lot about, oh, you know, maybe we should have
more women in ripparology and staff, but you know, most
reasonable women just aren't gonna stick around for that sort
of thing. So that's the myth out of the way,
and now we'll turn to the real job at hand.

(27:48):
I'm going to introduce you to Polly Annie, Elizabeth Kate,
and Mary Jane You'll learn how these five very different
individuals navigated a world which was inherently hostile to women
and the underclass. They weren't angels, but neither were they
the labels that Victorian society and our own culture has

(28:09):
hung on them. You'll meet a cast of historians, criminologists,
crime writers and more who will help me reveal how
laws around wages, health, divorce, and addiction put these women,
and in fact all women, at a huge disadvantage. I'll
show you where things have changed and where things are
still frustratingly the same. The stories of these women will

(28:34):
blow your mind, and I promise you this, after hearing them,
you will never see the case of Jack the Ripper
in quite the same way again. You can start right away.
Episode two is available to download. Now, come with me
back to Whitechapel on an August day in eighteen eighty eight,

(28:55):
when Jack the Ripper's campaign of terror is about to begin.
Bad Women the Ripper Were Told is brought to you
by Pushkin Industries and me Hallie Ribbinhold, and is based
on my book The Five. It was produced and co

(29:18):
written by Ryan Dilley and Alice Fines, with help from
Pete Norton. Pascal Wise sound designed and mixed the show
and composed all the original music. You also heard the
voice talents of Soul Boyer, Melanie Guttridge, Gemma Saunders, and
rufus Wright. The show also wouldn't have been possible without
the work of Mia La Belle, Jacob Weisberg, Gen Guerra,

(29:39):
Heather Fane, Carlie Migliori, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morano and Daniella
La Khan were special thanks to my agents Sarah Ballard
and Ellie Karn.
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