Saturday, November 8, 2014

Jack the Ripper and the Enigma of Mary Jane Kelly

by Nancy Bilyeau

On the morning of Nov. 9th, 1888, James Whitehead, a 54-year-old merchant who'd made a successful second career in politics, was the star of the Lord Mayor's Show, a London tradition that was always held on this date. As the city's new mayor, Whitehead, a champion of reform, had desired a more stately procession than the circus-like Mayor's parade, famous since the 16th century. But, heedless of Whitehead's embarrassment, crowds gathered along the Gresham Street to Guildhall route, with many police called upon to patrol and control.

It was perhaps a welcome distraction from the horror.

For the past six months, London had been transfixed and terrorized by the murders of a series of women in the Whitechapel District of the East End. The last of the horrific slayings--dubbed the "Double Event" as two prostitutes, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, had their throats cut within two hours of each other--was on Sunday, September 30th.

The stereotypical image of Jack the Ripper.
In reality, to blend in on Dorset Street and the rest of Spitalfields,
the murderer would have had to appear much less posh.

Although the police had interviewed at least 2,000 people, they had not zeroed in on the man responsible, the same one who may or may not have written taunting letters to the newspapers signed "Jack the Ripper." There was some hope the killing spree was over, since more than a month had passed. The Lord Mayor's Show was an occasion to forget fear and try to celebrate.

One person not hurrying to the parade was Jack McCarthy, landlord of many properties in Whitechapel occupied by the destitute, ranging from the respectable working poor to thieves, gamblers, hopeless alcoholics and "Unfortunates," the Victorian euphemism for prostitutes. As always, McCarthy had money on his mind. Around 10:30 am, McCarthy told his assistant, Thomas Bowyer, to try to collect the rent in arrears at No. 13 Miller's Court, a ground-floor room on a narrow 20-foot-long cul de sac of Dorset Street.

Even within Spitalfields, an overcrowded East End parish infamous for its poverty, crime and filth, Dorset Street was in a class all its own. Part of the "wicked quarter mile," it was a 130-yard-long street almost entirely occupied by common lodging houses and pubs. In 1901, the Daily Mail, under the headline "The Worst Street in London," would publish an article saying, "...The lodging houses of Dorset Street and of the district around are the head centers of the shifting criminal population of London... the common thief, the pickpocket, the area meak, the man who robs with violence, the unconvicted murderer..."

As grim as these lodgings were, the alternative--"sleeping rough"--was worse. Many of the poor struggled on a daily basis to pay for their "doss house" bed.  The September 8th victim of Jack the Ripper, 47-year-old Annie Chapman, was murdered while trying to earn enough money on the streets to pay the nightly charge at her common lodging house at 35 Dorset Street.

Dorset Street, dubbed "the worst street in London"

At 10:45 a.m. Thomas Bowyer knocked on the door of 13 Miller's Court. In April of that year a Billingsgate Market fish porter, Joseph Barnett, and his pretty young companion, Mary Jane Kelly, had moved into the room, costing 4s/6d a week. It was 10-foot-square with two small windows, a bed, two tables and a fireplace. In Spitalfields, this was a home better than the average.

But Barnett lost his job. He moved out after quarreling with Mary on October 30. She was living there alone, a common sight in the neighboring pubs, drinking with friends. Although she told those friends she was afraid of Jack the Ripper, Mary had turned to prostitution to support herself. It was not her first time earning her living as an "Unfortunate."

Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti began Found,
his painting depicting a prostitute, in 1855 and worked on it
on and off until a year before his death in 1881.

No one answered the knock on the door. The small window next to the door had been broken weeks earlier by Barnett or Mary and was blocked by a heavy material hanging from the inside.  Bowyer pushed aside the material to see inside. Seconds later, sickened and horrified, he ran to fetch landlord McCarthy.

The law on Ripper Street

The series Ripper Street centers on the ingenuity of late 19th century East End police. The reality was different. An inspector joined the men at the Miller's Court window but did not provide initiative. The group summoned a doctor. The doctor had the presence of mind to call for a photographer. But the door was locked--McCarthy had no key--and the group waited outside, first for trail-sniffing bloodhounds that never showed up and then for someone to make the decision on how to enter the room. At 1:30 pm, McCarthy finally broke through the door with a pickax. This delay made it even harder to set the time of death, which is hotly debated to this day. Some put it as early as 1 a.m., others say it was as late as 8 a.m., with the murderer taking advantage of police being preoccupied with the Lord Mayor's Show.

Two days later, Mary Jane Kelly was formally identified at the mortuary by Joseph Barnett, who was questioned and cleared of suspicion. As the city responded with panic and revulsion, doctors performed their post-mortem and police gathered what information they could. It had been a cold night of drizzling rain. No one had seen or heard anything suspicious besides a soft female cry of "Oh, murder" at about 3:30 am. That cry was ignored.

It seemed incredible--even supernatural--that she'd been killed in such a crowded area. Despite the presence of hundreds of people nearby, sleeping fitfully, coming and going all night, men in and out of pubs and prostitutes returning to their rooms to warm up before going back on the streets,  no man was seen leaving Mary's room, covered with blood or otherwise, although Miller's Court was just a little over a yard wide and lit by a gas lamp. Mary herself was seen and heard by neighbors throughout the preceding day and sporadically that night as she looked for business. Just before midnight, a neighbor saw Mary lead a man with a "blotchy" face and a thick "carrot" mustache to her room. At 2 a.m., an acquaintance spotted Mary with a man on Commercial Street, 5 foot 7 or so, in his 30s, "respectable appearance." After sharing a laugh and a kiss, they walked together to Dorset Street and toward her home. Was either of these men her killer?

Although an elaborate mythology has grown up of dark involvement by the Royal Family--particularly Prince Albert Victor--nothing in these theories has any connection to fact. Far from being indifferent to the Whitechapel murders, Queen Victoria was upset and concerned.

Queen Victoria in 1885

On November 10th, the day after the murder, she sent a telegram to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury: "This new most ghastly murder shows the absolute necessity for some very decided action. All these courts must be lit, & our detectives improved. They are not what they should be. You promised, when the 1st murders took place to consult with your colleagues about it." Three days later, Her Majesty sent her ideas to the Home Secretary of what the detectives should focus on, including "The murderer's clothes must be saturated with blood and must be kept somewhere!"

As for the persistent association of Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, the Duke of Clarence to the public and Prince Eddy to friends, with the crimes, the prince was unquestionably not prowling the East End at the time of the murders. Documentation has placed him far away from London. On the night of the "double event," Prince Eddy was at Balmoral. To account for this inconvenient fact, subsequent theories have his doctor or trusted aide killing off prostitutes to cover up a secret marriage or as vengeance for syphilis. These are fantasies.

Although he was not a man fond of learning, Prince Eddy's reputation for depravity is undeserved. A new theory is that some people in the 20th century confuse the reputation of Eddy, who died of influenza at age 28, with another royal heir, Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who died in a murder-suicide with his teenage mistress in 1889. Shy, insecure and partially deaf, Eddy during his short life is known to have hurt no one. His greatest crime was possibly boring people.

So where did all of this come from? In 1970 a retired British physician, Dr. Thomas Stowell, published an article in The Criminologist suggesting Prince Eddy was involved, based on documents he claimed to have seen (and no one else has unearthed). Dr. Stowell, rather eerily, died days after the controversial article was published. His son burned his papers shortly afterward. The hook, however, was baited. All sorts of feverish theories followed, including the one outlined in the 1979 film Murder By Decree: That Prince Eddy's doctor and friends slaughtered the five prostitutes because they knew he had secretly married an East End woman named Annie Crook. The case is solved by Sherlock Holmes. :)

Prince Eddy, whose reputation has been linked to the Jack the Ripper killings.

One of the reasons there was so much fascination with Mary Kelly, then and now, is she was young and pretty. She was "fair as a lily" and had "blue eyes and a very fine head of hair which reached nearly to her waist." She "was on pleasant terms with everybody," one contemporary said. Her landlord McCarthy said she was "a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

Barnett testified as to his dead lover's background:

Mary Kelly has been portrayed in many films and
TV series such as From Hell's Heather Graham.
The real Kelly was not photographed,
except for the shocking pictures of her corpse.
"She said she was born in Limerick and went when very young to Wales. She did not say how long she lived there, but that she came to London about four years ago. Her Father's name was John Kelly, a gaffer or a foreman in an ironworks in Carnarvonshire or Carmarthen. She said she had one sister, who was respectable, who traveled  from market place to market place. This sister was very fond of her. There were six brothers in London and one in the Army. One of them was named Henry. I never saw her brothers. She said she was married when very young to a collier in Wales. I think the name was Davis or Davies. She said she lived with him until he was killed in an explosion.
After her husband's death she went to Cardiff to a cousin. She was following a bad life with her cousin, who, as I often told her, was her downfall. She was in a gay house [brothel] in the West End, but in what part she did not say. A gentleman came there to her and asked her if she would like to go to France... She did not remain long..."

A friend confirmed that Mary said she was originally from Ireland. She talked of receiving letters from a beloved mother and hoping to reunite with her and live there.

Nonetheless, in the 137 years since her death, no fact about Mary Jane Kelly's background has been verified. * Despite the efforts of many Ripper scholars, there are no records of her birth or marriage or residency in Ireland or Wales or France. No member of her family attended her funeral or came forward after her murder; no one could find evidence of the young husband's life or death. There is not a trace of her to be found before she came to London. This was not the case for the other four women thought certain to have been killed by the Ripper--known to Ripperologists as the Canonical Five. Researchers have records of birth and marriage, employment, even a wedding photo of one woman.

It is possible that Mary Jane Kelly used a false name the entire time Barnett and their friends knew her and invented all the details and names of family and husband. If so, will anyone ever discover her real identity? Because she was the last agreed-upon victim of Jack the Ripper, the youngest, the most horribly murdered and the most mysterious, she maintains an inescapable grip on the imagination of those obsessed with the crimes, unsolved to this day.

On Monday November 19th, 1888, the woman known as Mary Jane Kelly was buried at St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone. Barnett and her friends could not pay for her funeral; the expenses were met by a sexton of Shoreditch. Thousands attended the six-mile-long procession, some straining to touch her coffin. Men removed their hats; women called out, "God forgive her." Two mourning carriages followed carrying Barnett and five women friends. The coffin was carried to an open grave listed as No. 16, Row 67.

The entrance to St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery

On the night of her murder, neighbors on Miller's Court had heard Mary Jane Kelly singing in her room one of her favorite songs, over and over, for about a half hour between midnight and 1 a.m.. The song was "A Violet From Mother's Grave," written circa 1881.

 Scenes of my childhood arise before my gaze
Bringing recollections of bygone happy days.
When down in the meadows in childhood I would roam,
No one's left to cheer me now within that good old home,
Father and Mother, they'd have pass'd away;
Sister and brother, now lay beneath the clay.
But while life does remain to cheer me, I'll retain
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave.

Only a violet I pluck'd when but a boy,
And oft' time when I'm sad at heart this flow'r has giv'n me joy;
So whole life does remain in memoriam I'll retain,
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave.

Well I remember my dear old mother's smile,
As she used to free me when I returned from toil,
Always knitting in the old arm chair,
Father used to sit and read for all us children there,
But now all is silent around the good old home;
They all have left me in sorrow here to roam,
But while life does remain, in memoriam I'll retain
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave


* A recent book, 'The Real Mary Kelly,' makes the claim that she was killed by her former husband, a reporter covering the Ripper murders.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical thrillers published by Simon & Schuster in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain. The first, The Crown, was an Oprah selection and short listed for the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. The third in the series, The Tapestry, was published in March 2015. For more info, go to www.nancybilyeau.com

12 comments:

  1. This really makes you think about who Mary Jane Kelly really was other than a victim of Jack the Ripper. Thanks for posting, Nancy.

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  2. Fascinating post--and sad. One wonders about her life and the others like her, not just his victims but the young women who were led into such a life (both then and now).

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  3. Great article. Makes you wonder if she wanted to be anonymous and if so, why.

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  4. A mystery indeed...and maybe never to be solved.

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  5. Great post. I always was interested in this topic. a mystery, for sure.

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  6. This really struck me: "Men removed their hats; women called out, "God forgive her." Forgive her for being murdered? Prostitution was one of the few ways women could put a roof over their heads in those days. She was a victim.

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  7. Excellent post. The true identity of Mary Jane Kelly will remain unknown until the time we can travel back in time ....

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  8. Good post but very sad. I agree with Buena forgive her for what? She didn't do anything she was the victim. She was murdered.

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  9. Good post but very sad. I agree with Buena. Forgive her for what? For getting murdered? She didn't do anything. She was the victim.

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  10. Mary Jane Kelly really is a Mystery for so many reasons, She didn't fit the Rippers Victim Profile or his MO and the little we do know about her can't be proven even when some things should be easy to. Then there's the Theory that it wasn't even Kelly who was killed ,Apparently she had been subletting her room and staying at cheaper lodging to come up with her back rent, Then people claim to have seen her as late as 10 am and one Woman who knew her very well claims to have talked to her at 8:30 AM Then there's the Fire , a fire that melted the spout off a kettle ? That would have lit up the entire area thru the Windowsand no one saw ? . Strange. Kelly certainly was an enigma

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  11. Interesting to hear what everyone thinks of Jack the Ripper and Enigma abouts. Awesome article

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