The Rum Harlots

Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and dark desires.

— Macbeth: Act 1, Scene 4

High-society Londoners slept undisturbed the morning of November 9, 1888, huddling underneath the blankets protecting them from the oncoming harsh winter winds outside, snoring unaware while outside, city workers donned their coats and swept the city clean. They strung up lights and ribbons across town, from Westminster to Greenwich, in anticipation of the annual parade for Lord Pageant’s Day celebrating the city’s mayor. In a few hours, the city would come alive; the people would emerge, well-rested, from their homes and celebrate their community in a city-wide affair. For a day, all classes forgotten, all ranks ignored.

The city would become full of life, except for one notorious street in the Whitechapel district, where the fifth prostitute’s body would be discovered in a few short hours, dismembered and mutilated like the four before her, the brutalized victim of a mysterious and elusive killer only known by his moniker, Jack the Ripper.

By now, months after the first murder, the city was worried enough to dampen their celebrations a notch but still callous enough to ignore the prostitutes in one of the city’s poorest districts. The mayor would release a statement, everyone knew, and the investigation would continue, but everyone in Whitechapel knew no one cared enough about the women to actively pursue their killer. So the prostitutes continued consorting with their clients and the rest of London’s nobility continued to deny their existence, all knowing in the back of their minds another death would be in the papers again soon enough.

Somewhere in between these social classes was Bonny Read, wife of Mr. James Read , owner of The Ten Bells pub near where Mary Jane Kelly’s body was discovered. Well-known on the city’s east side, Bonny was a woman of strong build in her early thirties who had helped run the pub since she and her husband married nine years earlier. Her savvy with the local men and frequent drinkers over the years had earned her a reputation as one of the men, and often she, more than her husband, stayed awake long into the night laughing with the city’s swindlers and thieves, all the men who could never stand a social function during the day. That morning, November the ninth, she cleaned the glasses behind the bar with aggression, full of anger from hearing from another prostitute the death of one of her customers and close friends. She had known  Mary Jane, one of the pub’s frequent guests on late weekday nights after her clients had gone home; some nights, when James Read retired early, Bonny often let Mary Jane carouse with her potential clients outside the bar, wishing her good night with a wink.

Barely waiting a beat, she slammed a glass down on the counter when her husband arrived a few minutes later from their apartments upstairs. “Did you hear about Mary Jane?”

James, naturally a regular in the town’s gossip circles, where the rules were ‘anything goes,’ sensed his wife’s anger before he had walked through the threshold. “Yes, the inspector told me this morning. A shame. She was an upstanding women ’round here.” Truthfully, James had never liked the prostitution business being so close to his pub, as he had once aspired to make his business a place where the city’s elite might one day visit. But there was nothing he could do in this part of town, which was the only place he could afford to live and work. Mary Jane, like the other women killed that year by the same sadistic psychopath, was an inevitable death in the harsh realities of being a prostitute in London.

Bonny bit her tongue to stop a vile retort from exiting her mouth. She knew her husband could not care less about his business. He was a pseudo-intellectual, always aspiring to join the ranks of those who would be honored for Lord Pageant’s Day. Over time, the pub — specifically, its clientele — had become an embarrassment to him, and everyone in town knew by now Bonny was the one who ran the business, while James spent his day gallivanting downtown, trying desperately to prove his worth to the highest-profile people in the city. Bonny turned her back to him, ferociously scrubbing the bottom of a pitcher. “She is the fifth in less than a year, James. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Her husband shrugged and inspected his fingernails. “I wouldn’t worry about business. You’ll get customers back here in no time even with this reputation in this area now. It’s not as if it can stoop any lower.”

Bonny whipped around and scowled at him. “Damn the blasted business, James. These are women I know and care about. You might not care if this place goes up in smoke tomorrow, but I’ve established a safe place for these women to go. If this keeps happening…” She couldn’t finish her thought and refocused on opening up the pub.

A typical morning, she thought; the interaction soured her mood the rest of the day. She was sure the women who worked the streets around the pub would avoid the area tonight, if not from fear for their own lives than from the threat of the local police force, which was sure to make an appearance. Bonny had endured their constant searches of the area, and she hated the undue fear they placed into the remaining women when they questioned them. No one deserved that, and every police officer who’d come to Whitechapel had a blatant and lazy disregard for their welfare.

The fear that gripped the poorest sections of the city did not stop Bonny from visiting the women who worked down the street. That night, she lay in bed until she heard her husband’s bedroom door close across the hall, and she rejoiced at their decision to sleep apart. Quietly Bonny trod downstairs, maneuvered around the creaky door and stepped sure-footed into the street, slipping a small knife up her sleeve.

The night was clear, empty and silent. Her boots tapped softly on the street below; her ears were alert for any and all sounds. But she saw no one, not even in the primary prostitution row a few blocks over, where her feet took her now. After passing a few townhouses into the alley, Bonny came to a stop, looked around covertly, and slipped into a gap between two gates, where she gently tapped on a faintly lit window toward the rear of a house.

“Frances!” she whispered loudly, her hissed voice breaking the silence. “Frances, please open the door! It’s Bonny.” A nervous face appeared at the window next to the door, which then swung open to reveal a petite woman in a white nightgown, barefaced and clear of the rouge and mascara that usually livened her face during business transactions.

Relief passed over Frances Coles’ face. “I am so glad it was you. I didn’t know who to expect — and I don’t want to.” Frances pulled Bonny in the house and shut the door tightly behind them, then led Bonny to a sparse living room and sat down on a threadbare set of chairs. “I take it you’ve heard about Mary Jane, then,” Bonny said. Frances nodded. “That’s why I’m not out tonight. I knew this place would be teeming with police.”

Bonny shook her head in disgust. “They don’t do a bit of good here, except scaring everyone else here. As if they could do anything if something bad did happen.” Bonny didn’t bother to sweeten her speech; she knew, as everyone in town did, that the police were woefully undertrained. “They want to pretend everyone on this street doesn’t exist.”

“But we do exist,” Frances said sadly. The women paused, mourning their fallen friends and compatriots. Bonny remembered the gatherings the women on Dorset had in the old days. Bonny always sat in that chair; Frances across from her. Annie reveled in the latest tales of her rambunctious children, who had stolen their hearts away and kept them in the business. Elizabeth entertained the women with stories of her childhood in Sweden and tried, and usually failed, to teach them Yiddish. Sweet Mary Ann always baked a new pastry before coming over, often inviting friends from boardinghouses where she’d lived in the past. And poor Catherine, who took to drink to ignore her terrible life like so many destitute women before her. Before the murders, each of these women gathered about once a week for tea and biscuits, imitating the high society none of them knew how to participate in. There they discussed their business, their families and their drinks — and, of course, the latest gossip from the capital, which only the high-end prostitutes were privy to.

None of the women could have expected that a few short years later, half their group would be dead.

Neither Bonny nor Frances wanted to remember those mornings when they heard the news, those sunrises that were streaked with the blood of their fallen friends who had been ravaged for their sex and forsaken by the police. In the beginning, they were hopeful their cooperation would bring justice, or perhaps closure, for the deaths of the women they knew so well. So they opened their houses to the officers, who immediately betrayed and humiliated their trust by mocking and scorning and, ultimately, ignoring them altogether. Bonny, who had once served policemen at the bar with pride, had started to disdain them, confessing to Frances and the others that she no longer had faith in them.

Almost on cue, a hard knocking erupted on Frances’ door, and a man in a officer’s cap appeared in the silhouette of the window. “Shit,” Frances whispered. He had probably seen the light on in her front room and knew she was awake past curfew. Bonny leapt up, suddenly realizing she had to make it back home without being noticed. She gave Frances’ hand a quick squeeze, then scurried to the back door where she’d entered. As soon as Frances opened the door to an officer in uniform, Bonny was out in the alley once more, taking the road back home. She kept glancing over her shoulder behind her but encountered no one.

When she arrived back at the pub below her apartment, dark thoughts swirling around her head, Bonny was further annoyed to see her husband’s trousers and vest abandoned on a barstool in the corner — worse, next to it was a woman’s garter belt. Bonny did not care; her husband had lapsed into infidelity a handful of times already. But it was always at Bonny’s expense: she had to clean and hide the evidence.

Tonight, she could not summon the energy to care. The hands on the clock above the bar indicated it was well past 3 a.m., and she felt exhausted after a long day of both work and trauma. So she wadded James’ clothes into a ball and trudged upstairs, collapsing into bed.

The next few days were a monotonous blur, customers arriving downtrodden and leaving rowdy, policemen criticizing Bonny for not allowing them inside, James leaving a mess around the building after his clandestine trysts. A week later, she was becoming fully sickened by the propensity of her husband leaving her clothes out for her to clean; Bonny had amassed a pile in her bedroom.

The temperature outside had dropped precipitously as winter coalesced further into the city, and Bonny had had scarce time to mend any of her warmer clothes. She sat on her bed a night about two months after Mary Jane’s death, cursing her bandaged fingers for failing to properly sew her own clothes back together. Her mother had long wished her to become a seamstress, never believng she had the talents for anything but being a housewife, but try as she might, Bonny’s thick hands could never thread the eye of a needle. And when, by some miracle, she managed to start a hem, it was inevitably crooked all the way down; consequently, all the clothes she wore were rags and mismatched patches of cloth. In a lapse of her normal judgment, she had tried to make a repair. She held two pieces of discolored fabric next to each other and tried to stitch them together, adding yet another layer of warmth to what little she already had. But within a few minutes she could feel the seething frustration inside of her, and finally Bonny let out one aggressive roar and threw the ruined sewing project, needles and all, into the corner where James’ clothes lay strewn. She fell backward onto the bed and breathed heavily for a few minutes, feeling and listening to her heart rate and trying to consciously slow her breathing. The past months had been stressful on her own, with no sympathy from her husband, and being ordered by bogus cops to stay inside hadn’t helped her feelings of isolation. She needed an escape.

Almost unconsciously, Bonny stood back up — too fast, and she felt light-headed for a moment —and pulled the first pieces of men’s clothing from the pile that she could find. One was a pair of ill-fitting breeches, which she slipped onto her thick legs and tied tight at the waist. The cloth fell a bit too loosely around her knees, but if she tied the strings just right, she could pull it off. She pulled the other wadded garment, a loose blouse, over her head and buttoned a vest overtop. There, she thought, turning from side to side in her mirror. Just a bowler hat and I might be able to do this. Instead of the busty woman she was, Bonny saw a short, stocky man with hand-me-down clothing and a well-worn hat and pair of shoes — she had become a second Mr. Read.

The night outside was clear and crisp, with a full twinkling of stars overhead, but the entire street was empty. Bonny took her first steps timidly, half expecting to see a policeman sneak up on her from behind, but as her steps grew longer she had the most sensational realization of her life: She was free — no laws requiring male escorts or restricting curfew could stop her. And so Bonny walked on, alone in the midnight hour, no one cajoling or catcalling her, not a human soul in her midst. As she walked, the looser her grip became on the knife that had become a habitual part of her evening wear — although she always kept it up her sleeve nowadays, she felt safer now that she was disguised.

It was only some 20 minutes later, walking briskly through these deserted streets, when she found herself on the most frequented prostitution street, near Frances’ house; and minutes after that she saw two disheveled, clearly inebriated men standing on Frances’ doorstep. Both men had unkempt clothing hanging off their bodies, and their limbs flailed uncontrollably under control of the excessive alcohol they’d consumed; as they tried to cajole Frances through the door, their aggressive voices echoed loudly in the night. Bonny recognized one of the regulars who sometimes came to the bar, and she ducked behind the corner of the building next door to prevent either from seeing her. She felt paranoid that someone might recognize her as a woman.

“Come on, pretty darlin’, we know you’re open for business,” one man on the porch said. The other snickered before violently spitting up a massive chunk of blackened tobacco he’d been chewing on. “Come on outside, we only want to have a little fun.”

“We’ll pay you nice! Just open the door.”

“Honey, we’ll give you some good business if you let us in.” Both men doubled over in drunken laughter.

Bonny couldn’t hear Frances protesting, but she could guess she was doing everything in her power inside the door to get the men to leave. Where are the police now to arrest these men? she thought angrily. Their volume grew quickly, as they pounded on the door to force themselves in. “Hey, lady,” they jeered, “we know you’re in there. Come outside. Come on and open the goddamned door.” The taller man threw his body weight against the door in frustration, but it did not give.

That was the last straw. Bonny hesitated for a split second, the only movement coming from within her own pounding heart, and then stepped forward. “Hey, why don’t you fellows leave her alone? She doesn’t want to open the door.”

The two men jumped and turned toward Bonny skeptically. “Who the hell are you?”

Bonny had been a bartender more than half her life and was used to hearing rough language from men, but in her current situation, it threw her for a loop that these men — drunk as they were — had no idea she was a woman and had no qualms about cursing in her presence. “That’s inconsequential,” she said, trying to hold her voice as low as possible. “Why don’t you step away from the door? The lady doesn’t want your business.”

The man Bonny had seen regularly at the bar, a short, weasel-like man, narrowed his eyes at her. “Are you a cop?”

His companion suddenly pulled himself away and threw himself off the porch onto the ground, prostrating himself at Bonny’s feet. “Oh, officer, we wasn’t doin’ anything! We’ll leave — right? We’ll leave. Please, sir, we didn’t do nothin’ wrong. Please don’t arrest me!”

“Get up,” Bonny said, shaking her head at his groveling. “I’m not a cop. But you gentlemen need to leave.”

That was her mistake. No longer fearing their arrest, the two men stood tall again and looked down at Bonny, who immediately felt small again, her five-and-a-half-foot frame paling in comparison to the stature of the two drunks before her. The taller of the pair straightened up and rested his elbow on his companion’s shoulder, “Well, well, well, looks like we have ourselves a challenger here, Charley. Someone wants our girl. Whaddya think about that?” 

“I think he don’t know who he’s messing with, Reg, that’s what I think,” the short man said, rolling up his sleeves. “But we ain’t new in town.” Suddenly Bonny felt as though she were surrounded by the shadows of every dark figure lurking in the alleyways of London. She knew they could sense her apprehension, but she no longer cared; she was blinded by vengeance.  Running her hand up the knife in her sleeve with sinister comfort, she took two quick steps backward. The men muttered under their whiskey breaths at her, but the words became muffled in Bonny’s ears as she debated her options. Turning right or left would only trap her in alleys, and going back the way she came would only wake up the entire neighborhood, not to mention the police in the local precinct who were supposed to be patrolling the very area. The only way was forward, knife at the ready.

Then, suddenly, she glanced to her right to see Frances’ face peering cautiously through a window at her. Their eyes locked: Bonny’s steely, furious eyes, and Frances’ widened, terrified ones. Bonny’s apparent hesitation was enough for the men to jump on her, eager for a fight; they shoved her off-kilter, shifting her balance and throwing her off her guard. But Frances’ presence there — whether or not she could see that the third person was Bonny — was all the strength Bonny needed.

As the shorter man prepared to ambush her, Bonny pulled the knife out of her shirt and brandished it at both approaching men. The taller man saw immediately and yelled, “Charley! Stop!” But it was too late: Charley had already lunged toward Bonny. Without a second’s hesitation, Bonny thrust the knife up into his chest at an angle as the man leaped on top of her — his body lurched forward momentarily and Bonny felt all his body weight on her arms as he fell. He swung wildly at her with the remaining strength he could muster before his arms, then his whole body, gave up. The panic Bonny felt at first was now replaced entirely by adrenaline; she thrust the knife into the man’s body harder and twisted it back and forth, a fire burning within her as she heard blade scrape against his sternum repeatedly. 

When she pulled the knife out, the blade and her hand saturated with blood, she turned to Reg, the taller drunk, who was standing still 10 feet away, mouth agape, as though the alcohol had all came to a permanent rest in his feet. It was then Bonny realized that in the scuffle, her hat had fallen off and her now-bloodstained shirt had become partially unbuttoned, unraveling her long brown hair and revealing the curve of her bust — Reg was staring not out at the gasping man before him, but at the woman who had suddenly appeared out of thin air.

“Come here,” Bonny hissed at him. He didn’t move. “Come here.” She pointed the knife directly at his face; he stepped closer. When he was within reach, Bonny grabbed him by the collar with her left hand and pressed the knife under his right ear. She felt his whole body tremble and surrender. “Don’t you ever fucking touch my friends,” Bonny breathed gently into his ear. She pressed the knife harder into his throat until it left an impression; then she kissed his ear gently and applied further pressure to the blade.

After she lowered his body to the ground with a dull thud, she stood and looked at Frances’ window again. It was dark now; all the curtains remained closed.

All Bonny could hear now was her own breathing. For a moment, the world was still: there were no policemen, no prostitutes and no killers. Only herself. Thoughtlessly, blankly, she walked to where her hat had been discarded in the first fight and replaced it on her head, concealing her long hair underneath it once again. After ransacking the men’s bodies for money, she removed the shorter man’s jacket and put it over her own shoulders; though it, too, was blood-stained, at least the darkness concealed the worst damage. 

Bonny walked to the mouth of the adjacent intersection and stood for a moment — she had no desire to go home. She felt alive. The stars seemed exceptionally bright as she turned the corner, her heart beating excitedly, fueled by a power she never knew she possessed. She turned her face to the sky and grinned. It was a pleasure to kill.

* *

THE MORE YOU KNOW: This entirely fictional story was inspired by the setting and circumstances surrounding Jack the Ripper‘s infamous murders, combined with the notoriety of two 18th-century pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who are arguably the most famous female pirates in history. I had planned to expand the story to parallel Bonny and Read’s real lives — still set in London in the late nineteenth century — but I liked ending it after the first murder instead; it leaves it with a sense of dark, foreboding liberation for the main character that I found more satisfying than a traditional ending.

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