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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?”

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