Warning – this article contains graphic content.
Widely considered to be the last of Jack the Ripper’s victims, Mary Jane Kelly has become without doubt the most famous of them all, and yet ironically, there is little we know of her past life that has been confirmed as the truth. Much of what we know about her came from the woman herself and was recounted after her death on 9th November 1888 in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street.
The story has it that she was born in Limerick, and after her family moved to Wales, she married at the tender age of sixteen to a man named Davies, only to be widowed a few years after when her husband was killed in a mining explosion. She then moved to Cardiff where she allegedly fell into prostitution and from there she is believed to have spent time with a well-to-do gentleman in London; it is around this time that she apparently accompanied him to Paris, which she was not too fond of, but where she may have acquired her alternative name of ‘Marie Jeanette’ and lived the life “of a lady”. It is likely she came to the East End of London around 1883 or 1884, first lodging in Breezer’s Hill in St George-in-the-East and, by 1886, in Thrawl Street, Spitalfields.
On Good Friday 1887, Mary met Joe Barnett, a costermonger, and they got on well enough to live as a couple thereafter, taking up lodgings in doss-houses in George Street, Little Paternoster Row and later Brick Lane. By March 1888 the couple were living at 13 Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, a small partly-furnished room, owned by landlord John McCarthy, for which four shillings and sixpence was the weekly rent. In the late summer of 1888, their relatively stable life was interrupted when Barnett lost his job, and as a result, Mary once again took to the streets to earn a living, a situation that Barnett, unsurprisingly, disapproved of. Life became difficult for the pair from this point, with arguments growing more frequent and violent, particularly when Mary had been drinking. On one occasion, she had thrown something at Barnett and the object had crashed through one of the windows of their room, and not long after, Barnett took lodgings elsewhere. Despite the separation, they remained on reasonably good terms and Barnett, when he could, would help Mary financially, but it was not enough to keep her off the streets or stay up to date with her rent. On the evening of 8th November 1888, he would visit her for the last time.
An unconfirmed story claimed that Mary was seen later that night drinking with Elizabeth Foster in the Ten Bells pub, and another stating that she was seen with a man in the Britannia, by which time she seemed to be very drunk. Two important sightings of Mary Kelly were then made: the first, at 11.45pm, was made by Mary Ann Cox of 5 Miller’s Court, who saw Mary, worse for drink going into her room with a blotchy-faced man who carried a pot of beer. With the door of Room 13 closed behind them, Mary began to sing, and continued to sing for some time, to the point where Catherine Pickett, another Miller’s Court resident was about to go and complain before she was dissuaded from doing so by her husband.
At 2.00am on the morning of the 9th November, George Hutchinson, who knew Mary, met her on Commercial Street; she asked him for money, but having none to give, she bid him farewell and continued on her way. It was just by the entrance to Thrawl Street that she was approached by an unusually well-dressed man who put his hand on her shoulder before the pair burst out laughing. Hutchinson, still lurking, followed them up Commercial Street into Dorset Street and watched from the opposite side of Miller’s Court as the couple went through the entrance and into Mary’s room. Hutchinson stood and watched for about 45mins before heading off to find lodgings, having seen nobody leave the Court. Less than 2 hours later, at around 4.00am, two residents of Miller’s Court heard the cry of “Murder!” but chose to ignore it as it was a rather common occurrence in Dorset Street.
At 11.45am, Thomas Bowyer was sent to Room 13 on the instructions of John McCarthy, who had realised that Mary owed a huge amount of rent arrears. Bowyer knocked on the door of Mary’s room, but receiving no reply decided to go round to the windows and, noticing the broken pane of glass, put his hand inside to pull aside the curtain so he could peer into the gloom of the room. Bowyer saw the body of Mary Kelly lying on the bed in the most appalling condition, for she had literally been ripped and hacked to pieces:
“The whole of the surface of the abdomen and thighs was removed and the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds and the face hacked beyond recognition of the features. The tissues of the neck were severed all round down to the bone.
The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus and kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side and the spleen by the left side of the body. The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table…The pericardium was open below and the heart absent.”
The murder of Mary Jane Kelly was unique in that crime scene photographs were taken, as this was the only Ripper murder where the lengthy process of photography as it existed in the 1880s was practical. The two images that survive (if indeed there were others) are a testament to the sheer carnage that the police and doctors were confronted with as they forced entry into Room 13 later that day.
News of the murder spread quickly, with the public panic and outrage even disrupting the Lord Mayor’s Show which was taking place in the City at that time. Mary’s funeral, which took place on 19th November at St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone, had few official attendees, none of whom were family, but the outpouring of grief demonstrated by the public was colossal, with huge respectful crowds lining the procession route through the East End; the concept of Mary Kelly as the young life cut tragically short (for she was the youngest of Jack the Ripper’s victims at 25 years old) has helped maintain a fascination for this unfortunate woman that remains into the 21st century.
But it was the absolute horror of this crime which led many, in hindsight, to judge this as a final atrocity in the belief that the Ripper had either satiated his thirst for violence, or, in the words of Sir Melville Macnaghten, “that the murderer’s brain gave way altogether after his awful glut…and that he immediately committed suicide, or, as a possible alternative, was found to be so hopelessly mad by his relations, that he was by them confined in some asylum…” It is comments like this which have convinced many since that the Ripper’s reign of terror ended with the awful events of 9th November 1888, but we must be aware that as the weeks, months and years passed, with no news that the Ripper had been brought to justice, the very real threat of another murder was always in the air.
And thus, there are several later crimes in the East End that have sometimes been attributed to Jack the Ripper, instigating ‘Ripper scares’ and keeping historians and researchers busy in debate over their genuineness ever since.