In May, 1901, the murder of Annie Austin at a common lodging house in Dorset Street, Spitalfields, led to speculation that, after an absence of several years, Jack the Ripper had again returned to the streets of the East End of London.
As it happens, the murder was quickly discounted as being related to the murders of 1888, but the fact that it took place in the same street in which Mary Kelly had been murdered led to press commentators taking a closer look at Dorset Street and its seemingly lawless population.
The street was already being referred to as “the worst street in London”, and this latest murder did nothing to improve the reputation of this notorious Spitalfields thoroughfare.
On Saturday, August 16th, 1902, The St Paul And Minneapolis Appeal published the following article which presented Dorset Street in a decidedly unflattering light:-
BLACKEST SLUM DISTRICT IN BLACKEST LONDON
Dorset Street, Where Jack The Ripper Held Forth, And Apparently Is Doing Business Still
Another Jack the Ripper murder in Dorset street calls attention to the short, narrow passage that is by common consent the worst, most dangerous and most hopeless thoroughfare in England, and perhaps in the civilized world.
In the rivalry for pre-eminence in crime, it has gained the right to change names with “Blood Alley,” which leads out of it.
WHITECHAPEL GETS THE BLAME
There are streets in Cairo and in the Further East that doubtless surpass Dorset street in depravity, but for sheer, downright brutality and bloodshed this “Whitechapel” lane takes the lead.
The word “Whitechapel” has to go in quotation marks because Dorset street isn’t really In Whitechapel at all, but in the neighboring district of Spitalfields.
When Jack the Ripper attracted the attention of the world by his mysterious succession of horrors in this region the 11 hole field of his operations was labelled “Whitechapel” in the news reports, although most of the murders took place in Spitalfields, and poor Whitechapel thus became the generic name with most folk, in London and out, for the blackest of the slum districts in the metropolis.
Whitechapel has protested again and again that Spitalfields was the guilty parish, and Spitalfields has been unable to deny it.
But the name now sticks fast.
TIME HAS MADE IT WORSE
This was the district in which Dicken’s Bill Sykes lived and in which poor Nancy was murdered.
It was remarked of Spitalfields years ago that:- “compared with it Whitechapel is a paradise and Drury Lane a fashionable resort,” and time has made the neighbourhood worse instead of better.
But Spitalfields’ conditions reach their climax in Dorset Street, which contains exactly fifty-four squalid buildings, separated by darksome alleys, each with its gruesome history, in which are huddled together, regardless of sex or condition, over fifteen, hundred people.
CRIME’S BREEDING PLACE
Dorset Street is famed – or ill-famed – for a variety of products.
Here, rearing their heads above the squalid cottages common to the street, are a dozen of the choicest breeding places of crime – the cheap, ask-no-questions lodging houses, made up of a hundred or more wretched cubicles, in one of which the latest murdered victim was found; here flourishes, as a greater menace to morals than in any other section of London, the demoralizing traffic known as the “furnished-room system;” here scores of adult thieves, coiners and housebreakers have their lairs, and here, too, half a dozen Fagins train up mere children, boys and girls alike, in the art of rifling pockets.
A BLACK RECORD OF MURDER
But more revolting than the worst of these conditions is the street’s long and black record of murder and assault.
Dorset Street was right in the centre of the Ripper’s district, and it was in a tiny, unkempt four-room cottage here that Mary Jane Kelley, the last of his victims, was found dead and indescribably mangled in 1888.
The wretched home, which never will cease to be associated with the crime, opens on a reeking passageway, dubbed, from the countless tragedies of which it has been the scene, “Blood Alley.”
Of the cheap apartment house which bounds the alley on the other side, it is whispered darkly that a murder has taken place in its every room.
A RECORD ONLY SLIGHTLY LESS GHASTLY
The lodging house, No. 35, where the most recent atrocity was perpetrated, has a record only a shade less ghastly, and the inhabitants of the neighbourhood will tell you freely that there are few houses in the street where at least one killing has not occurred.
In the light of such a history, it is not surprising to find both the police and the few representative members of the debased community calloused to affrays which end fatally.
“It isn’t every night,” said a police constable, “but it’s night after night that murders and outrages happen here.”
The men die, stabbed in drunken brawls; the women, like Annie Austen the other night, at the hands of brutes only a shade more depraved than they themselves.
“Bashings,” the knocking down of a stranger in the alley in broad daylight, that his pockets may be emptied and any attractive part of his clothing stolen, are too common even to be noticed.
It is a significant comment upon the awful record of crime that mounts up in the course of a year that Scotland Yard refuses to make public the statistics of Dorset street, whereas it gives out those of other localities.
“In Dorset street,” wrote a Church of England clergyman who has known conditions there for years, “children gaze upon the brutal fight and the bruised face without emotion; and I have seen a child at play upon a floor, still red with the murdered mother’s blood.
Yells and curses that would terrify most men and women scarcely disturb the children’s play.”
Many of the single rooms in the six-cent lodging houses are occupied by boys and girls of not more than thirteen or fourteen, waifs who have been lured away from their homes by Dorset-street Fagins and padrones with tales of the freer life to be attained as soon as the art of the Dodger is mastered.
The men and women of Dorset Street are such boys and girls grown up.
There is probably nothing in America to compare win the Dorset-street-cubicle lodging houses or the system of “furnished rooms.”
Which of these institutions most fosters crime is the subject of considerable dispute.
A WORTHY SPECIMEN
Of the cubicles, No. 35 Dorset Street, where the Austen woman was murdered, is a worthy specimen.
It will house 143 people, usually two to a room, and the price for each lodger ranges from fourpence on ordinary nights to a shilling and sixpence on Saturdays, when patrons are supposed to be more than ordinarily affluent.
The rooms are unfurnished save for a wooden bedstead of the cheapest sort, the walls are never more than an inch thick nor more than seven or eight feet high.
The rooms are reached by winding, unlighted flights of stone stairs, at the bottom of which is a “pay window”, by which straggles the motley crew that makes up the clientele of the house, no objection being raised to the entrance of any single person or couple, provided the price is paid.
It is a rare night that passes without a shriek or groan ringing through the ramshackle place.
The doors are opened at 5 in the morning, so that it is an easy matter for a criminal to quit the house, as did Anne Austen’s slayer, hours before his crime was discovered.
THE FURNISHED ROOM SYSTEM
The “furnished room” system is another phase of the same evil.
The rooms usually are located in typical slum, dwellings, the only furniture, a disgustingly, filthy mattress flung on the floor. They can be rented at the rate of twenty to twenty-five cents a night, and on rare occasions when one is occupied for six nights consecutively, the landlord gracefully makes no charge for the seventh.
The much-desired privacy is secured to the inmates by great iron staples on the inside of the door, and were these dumb sentinels endowed with speech they might tell the story of many a sanguinary dawn.
Into these rooms, half-drunken men are enticed by the women of the district and oftener than not the woman departs in the night with all her victim’s money and frequently the greater part of his clothing.
It is when, as sometimes happens, she is caught in the act that the London citizen finds in his paper, the headline, “Another Murder In Dorset Street.”
REFORM HAS NO CHANCE
If practical reformers could have had their way, Dorset street would have been wiped out long ago.
Almost every charitable society in London has attempted its rescue, and one and all admit that the only remedy lies in rebuilding the whole place.
To approach the people themselves is hopeless – change is what they want least – the only other way would be to persuade the men who possess the freeholds of the dens of vice to purge them, but, remarkable as it seems, it is practically impossible to, discover who those freeholders are.
It is known that many of them are men of wealth and, fair-fame living in fashionable quarters in London, but all those who have attempted to unmask their exact identity have been foiled at every step.
The rents are collected by an agent, sometimes a woman, living in the neighbourhood, but he or she has no idea into whose coffers the rents eventually make their way, the remittances being made at some firm of solicitors or estate agents, “instructed not to reveal the name of their principal.”
And, even if that smug individual can be tracked down, ten chances to one he would prove only to be a lessee, and the identity of the freeholder would be as much a mystery as ever.
At various times, organized philanthropy has appropriated, as much as $230,000 to demolish and rebuild Dorset Street, and, on each occasion, the campaign has come to nothing, simply on account of the delicate reticence of the aristocratic personages, part of whose income is derived from the four and sixpenny cubicles and shilling furnished rooms of the blackest sink in London.
FUN FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER
A visit to Dorset Street, made with the object of taking the photographs for this article, resulted in exciting experiences.
Making photographs in London slum districts is always a matter of difficulty on account of the feverish desire of the entire population – men, women and children alike – to have their “likeness” taken; but, in Dorset Street, there was determined opposition to any pictures of the locality being taken at all.
The amount of public attention, which the Austen murder has drawn to the street, has excited its denizens much more than the mere crime itself, as a common enough event, would have done, and from the moment the newspaper man entered the narrow, darksome lane he was hemmed in on every side by a swarm of men, women and children, all ragged, dirty and unkempt, who seemed to have risen out of the ground, but who had really been disgorged from the countless reeking passageways on both sides of the street.
With the exception of a few hard-faced men and women who scowled ominously, the crowd at first seemed anxious only to have its picture taken and to be made acquainted with the inmost workings of the visitor’s camera, and a picture showing the entrance to “Blood Alley” was secured with no greater difficulty than was presented by the frantic efforts of the ragged urchins resident there to get in the photograph.
SWEET BRIDGET MCCARTHY
It was when the visitor entered the ill-famed alley that active trouble began.
From a door on the left of the passageway there emerged a tall and evil-faced woman, who rushed up and poured upon the photographer such a shower of obscene invectives as it is given to few men outside a London slum to hear.
“Ye impudent dog” – this was the mildest of her epithets – “you just dare to snap that thing in this alley and I’ll tear yer face off yer!” emphasizing her not too vague intention by shaking under the stranger’s nose a skinny fist adorned with long, dirty and particularly threatening nails
This excellent lady proved to be Bridget McCarthy, known far and wide in Spitalfields.
She is the rent collector for nearly all the unknown landlords holding property in Dorset street, and her “say” would turn any household in the street out of doors: consequently, she queens it there, and her rule is no light one.
But, besides her profession of rent collector, Mrs. McCarthy manages one of the largest “cubicle” lodging houses in Dorset street.
A MURDER IN EVERY ROOM
Nor is the extent of this building, from which she emerged to strike terror to the heart of the visitor, its chief claim to renown, for this is the place of which it is said that a murder has been committed in every room.
Naturally, in these embarrassing Circumstances, Mrs. McCarthy was jealous of the fair fame of her property.
“The impudence of ‘im”, she shrieked to her sympathetic audience, “comin’ down here to take ‘is bloody pictures, just as if the place hadn’t a bad name enough already. Git out with ye, now, before I maul yeh!”
Mrs. McCarthy’s wrath stirred up her constituents, and they spared no effort to baffle the invader who had aroused the anger of their sovereign lady.
They swarmed in a solid phalanx between the photographer and whatever part of the district they saw he was bent on picturing and their efforts would have prevented a picture of N0 35, the lodging house where the most recent murder took place, had not an athletic policeman appeared opportunely and succeeded in forcing the surging crowd back for an instant, or long enough for hasty snapshot to be made.
A CHOICE SPECIMEN
Most conspicuous of any of the crowd was a man of about thirty, attired in the ordinary coster garb, cap on head and dirty neckcloth taking the place of collar and cravat.
He seemed even tougher than the others.
Just behind his left ear stretched a long, still bleeding gash.
He growled assent to a request that he allow his picture to be taken – for a consideration – and it was noticeable that during the operation not one of the hundred or more bystanders made any attempt to interfere.
When the click of the shutter told him that he had been “taken” he raised his cap with a sneering half smile and disappeared in the depths of “Blood Alley,” where he had his local habitation.
THE NOTORIOUS BILLY MYERS
The police constable had stood a few paces away, watching the last performance with an odd look of interest, and when the “subject” had gone away he whispered:-“You’re in luck. You’ve photographed the most notorious character in Dorset street. That was Billy Myers, who has been tried for murder twice and convicted of at least a dozen lesser crimes. He was accused of killing “Black Alf” in the hop fields of Kent two years ago, and before that of the murder of “Fishy Jack” right here in Dorset street. The men were stabbed in the abdomen, and Myers was acquitted in each instance on account of a lack of conclusive evidence. I don’t believe he has ever been photographed of his own free will before.”
For some mysterious reason, known only to the wise city fathers, the region round about Dorset Street has fewer police than some of the districts of equal size in the fashionable West End.
As a result, the records for the district show more Bobbies killed or wounded here than anywhere else in the city.
All the little crooked alleys leading off the street make it easier for the criminals to escape too.
Constable Thompson, who was murdered by a Dorset Street tough only a few days ago, actually saw the Ripper coming from one of his crimes, but the creature darted into an alley and was swallowed up before the officer could overtake or get near enough to him to make sure of his identity.