Dorset Street was situated at the heart of the Spitalfields rookery in the East End. It was reputed to be ‘the worst street in London’ and was the scene of the brutal murder of Mary Jane Kelly on 9 November 1888. The murder was committed at Kelly’s lodgings, which were situated at No. 13, Miller’s Court entered from a passageway between 26 and 27,
In the age of Victorian morality, prostitution was rife. According to the then Police Department, there were 7,000 prostitutes in London. However, the Society for the Suppression of Vice claimed that there were 80,000. London supposedly had 1 brothel for every 60 houses, or typically 1 prostitute per 36 inhabitants. In 1888 the number of prostitutes in Whitechapel alone was estimated to reach 1200.
Prostitutes were mostly young single women who, due to various circumstances, were forced to support themselves and make their life in a rapidly growing city of the industrial era. Interestingly, they were not social outcasts among the working class, from where both most prostitutes and their clients recruited. The strict moral standards of the middle class were hard to impose on the blue collar workers. In time, many former prostitutes settled down, married and started families. What is more, their financial status was more solid than that of other women toiling in low wage jobs. Prostitutes had relatively better earnings and more independence. As evidenced by the sordid story of the Jack the Ripper killings, they could afford single lodgings and visits to pubs.
While prostitution was not illegal in England, it was a source of social stigma. In order to protect the Imperial army from venereal diseases, several acts were passed in the 19th century. They required any alleged sex worker to undergo regular health inspections. (However, no such claims were made towards their clients.) Those inspections were obligatory, not to mention exceedingly painful, as was the treatment of STDs. Should a woman be found diseased, she could be placed in a lock hospital for up to nine months. Women were required to subject themselves to the inspections even after they had given up prostitution, which caused social strife and a wave of protests. The protesters, who included Florence Nightingale and the Rescue Society, pointed out that the imposed treatment prevented ex-prostitutes from moving on with their lives. The acts were abolished by the end of the 19th century.
Mary Jane Kelly is widely believed to be the fifth and final victim of the notorious unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper, who killed and mutilated prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London from August to November 1888. Her origins are obscure and undocumented, and much of it is possibly embellished. According to Joseph Barnett, the man she had most recently lived with, Kelly had told him she was born in Limerick, Ireland around 1863, and her family moved to Wales when she was young.
She has been variously reported as being a blonde or redhead, while her nickname, ‘Black Mary’, suggests a dark brunette. Her reported eye colour was blue. Detective Walter Dew, in his autobiography, claimed to have known Kelly well by sight and described her as ‘quite attractive’ and ‘a pretty, buxom girl’. He said she always wore a clean white apron but never a hat. Sir Melville Macnaghten of the Metropolitan Police Service reported that she was known to have ‘considerable personal attractions’ by the standards of the time. The Daily Telegraph of 10 November 1888 described her as ‘tall, slim, fair, of fresh complexion, and of attractive appearance’. She was said to be fluent in the Welsh language.
On the morning of 9 November 1888, the day of the annual Lord Mayor’s Day celebrations, Kelly’s landlord John McCarthy sent his assistant, ex-soldier Thomas Bowyer, to collect the rent. Kelly was six weeks behind on her payments, owing 29 shillings. Shortly after 10:45 a.m., Bowyer knocked on her door but received no response. He reached through the crack in the window, pushed aside a coat being used as a curtain and peered inside – discovering Kelly’s horribly mutilated corpse lying on the bed.