The Kelly Enigma (Guest blog by Fiona Rule)

9 September 2010

Today, I am absolutely thrilled to present a very special guest blog post by the amazingly talented Fiona Rule, writer of the fascinating The Worst Street in London (about Dorset Street in Spitalfields) and also London’s Docklands: A History of the Lost Quarter, both of which are required reading if you are at all interested in the history of London’s east end, particularly during Victorian times.

As I am writing about Mary Jane Kelly in my latest novel and have a bit of a Jack the Ripper theme going on here at Madame Guillotine right now, she has written a great piece on the enigma that is Mary Jane Kelly.

‘On a dreary November morning in 1888, army pensioner Thomas Bowyer was sent by his boss to collect the rent for number 13 Miller’s Court – a dilapidated hovel that formed part of a back-street slum of cottages in Spitalfields, East London.

Bowyer walked down the narrow alley that led to the room and knocked on the door several times. Getting no answer, he walked round to the side of the room and peered through the dirty, broken window. The interior of the room was obscured by a thick, coarse fabric that looked as though it could be a man’s overcoat. Bowyer pushed his hand carefully through the ragged edges of the pane and pulled the window covering to one side. A cold shaft of light fell across the room onto an ancient, vermin-infested bed, illuminating a scene of carnage. Lying on the bed were the remains of a woman who had been mutilated and flayed in the most vicious and horrific manner. Blood spattered the wall behind the bed and dripped onto the bare wood floor from the saturated bedclothes. Bowyer recoiled from the window in horror and fled to the local police station.

On arriving at the murder site and surveying the dreadful contents of room 13, the police immediately concluded that it could only be the work of one man – Jack the Ripper. The Ripper had already murdered at least four women in frighteningly quick succession that Autumn and the police were under intense pressure to apprehend the killer. Wasting no time, they made door-to-door enquiries, interrogated the residents of Miller’s Court and scoured the area for a weapon. Apart from establishing that the occupant of room 13 was a young girl named Mary Jane Kelly, they found nothing. The killer had once again escaped.

Despite the best efforts of the police, Jack the Ripper was never caught and his true identity continues to intrigue and confound students of the case to this day. But while the killer’s name remains tantalisingly unknown, the true identity of the woman found in 13 Miller’s Court is also shrouded in a mystery that is just as compelling.

Immediately after the murder, it seemed obvious that the victim found in the room was its official occupant – Mary Jane Kelly. Her estranged boyfriend Joe Barnett, who had recently moved out after she insisted on having girlfriends stay in their already cramped accommodation, had the unenviable task of identifying the body. Although the victim’s features had been almost entirely obliterated by the killer’s knife, Joe Barnett was certain that it was Mary Jane. Satisfied by Barnett’s identification, the police set about locating her next-of-kin to tell them the terrible news.

After interviewing several friends and neighbours, they established that Mary Jane had been a popular and relatively well-known resident of Miller’s Court. Indeed, some of the officers had even known her themselves. As they proceeded with their inquiries, a picture began to emerge of Mary Jane’s background. According to friends and neighbours, she had was around 25 years old and originated from Ireland. When she was very young, her family had moved to Wales (Joe Barnett recalled that they lived in either Carmarthenshire or Caernarvonshire,) where her father found employment in a local iron works. The Kelly family was large, comprising two girls and at least five boys, one of whom was named Henry, a private in the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards.

Although Kelly’s father had steady work in Wales, the size of his family meant that money was always tight and this resulted in Mary Jane being married off at the tender age of 16 to a collier named Davis or Davies. Tragically, Mary Jane savoured only the briefest taste of married life before her husband was killed in a pit explosion. With no form of income and her impoverished family unable to support her, the young widow was forced to fend for herself, taking menial work where she could. Some time in the early 1880s, she moved away from the mines to Cardiff, where she fell into casual prostitution.

Joe Barnett was under the impression that Mary Jane had first come to London in around 1884. She found employment in a “gay house” (a Victorian euphemism for a brothel) in the West End. From there, she briefly went to France with a gentleman friend but “didn’t like the part” and so quickly returned with a new, sophisticated sobriquet – Marie Jeanette. Curiously, she did not return to the lively and relatively safe West End bordello. Instead she made for the roughest area of London – the docks.

Mary Jane’s life in the docklands was precarious to say the least. When she could, she lived off the generosity of boyfriends but resorted to prostitution when money could not be obtained any other way. Joe Barnett first met her during one such period. The pair of them instantly hit it off and moved in together, taking a succession of rooms in squalid common lodging houses in the Spitalfields area, which was conveniently close to Barnett’s work as a porter at Billingsgate Fish Market. They took the room in Miller’s Court in the Spring of 1888 and lived there as man and wife until Barnett lost his job at the market. Unable to pay the rent, Mary Jane took to the streets once again and allowed other local prostitutes to use the room at Miller’s Court. Finding the situation unbearable, Joe Barnett moved out but continued to visit Mary Jane regularly, giving her money when he could.

After piecing together the information provided by Joe Barnett and Mary’s associates, the Metropolitan Police submitted a report to their Welsh counterparts, hoping they could use the information to locate her family. Surprisingly, no Kelly’s fitting the description of Mary Jane’s family could be found anywhere in the country. Unperturbed, the police were certain that the huge amount of press interest in the murder (which had been reported across the globe) was bound to throw up someone who knew the victim or her family. No-one came forward. It was as if Mary Jane Kelly had never existed.

Eventually the police gave up hope of finding the murdered girl’s relatives and her body was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Leytonstone Cemetery. The handful of mourners who attended the funeral comprised Joe Barnett and a few of Mary Jane’s neighbours. Following her burial, no more murders were committed and by the beginning of 1889, the police hunt for the Ripper was dramatically scaled down. With no new atrocities to report on, the press tired of the story and the name of Mary Jane Kelly was all but forgotten for nearly 100 years.

However, in the last quarter of the 20th century, the declassification of a number of official documents relating to the case resulted in a massive resurgence of interest in the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. By the beginning of the 21st century, research into the case, and in particular the lives of the victims, was revolutionised by the digitisation of all manner of documents, most importantly birth, marriage and death records and census returns. Given the searchable nature of these new databases, researchers were convinced that Mary Jane Kelly would at last be identified and the family the police failed to locate in 1888 would finally be revealed. However, they were in for a surprise. Despite painstaking examination of the newly available documentation, Mary Jane’s true identity remained elusive. No family resembling hers could be found in Wales, there was no marriage between a Mary Jane Kelly and a man named Davis or Davies and no record of a Henry Kelly in the Scots Guards, 2nd Battalion or otherwise. It seems that Mary Jane Kelly was simply a character created by the real woman murdered by Jack the Ripper over 120 years ago. But why did this woman feel the need to tell so many lies?

The enigma of Mary Jane Kelly does not end there. At the inquest into the murder, the police surgeon, George Bagster Phillips stated that he had examined the remains of the deceased and was of the opinion that she had died in the early hours of Friday 9th November. However, later in the hearing, local resident Caroline Maxwell swore that she had seen Kelly very much alive long after Bagster Phillips claimed she was dead. At between 8 and 8.30am, Mrs Maxwell had been returning some crockery to a lodging house when she saw Mary Jane emerging from Miller’s Court, apparently in some distress. She asked her what was the matter and Mary Jane intimated that she had just been sick and was suffering from the most terrible hangover. Mrs Maxwell suggested a “hair of the dog” remedy and although Mary Jane told her she had already taken some beer and had not felt better as a result, some minutes after their conversation, Mrs Maxwell saw her outside a nearby pub in the company of a man dressed as a market porter.

Caroline Maxwell was by all accounts a credible witness and had no reason to lie at the inquest. Could it be that she really did see Mary Jane Kelly that morning? It was common knowledge that she let other girls stay in her room. Is it possible that Mary Jane returned home after a drunken night on the tiles to find the carnage that lay in her room, rushed out into the street and promptly threw up in the gutter, at which point she was seen by Mrs Maxwell and forced to make up a hasty excuse? Life in the Victorian East End was tough and relentlessly poor. Could it be that amidst the horror of that November morning, “Mary Jane” saw her chance to escape and took it? If so, who was the real final victim of Jack the Ripper? Frustratingly, it is doubtful we shall ever know.’

Thank you so much, Fiona, for agreeing to write this. I find the mystery behind the identity of Mary Jane Kelly really fascinating and although I initially found such ambiguity quite daunting, I’ve come to realise that actually this is a great opportunity for a writer.

I really can’t recommend The Worst Street in London enough for anyone who is interested in the history of Spitalfields from its earliest origins, through its heyday as the home of the prosperous Huguenot silk merchants and their workshops and its demise as a home for the down and outs of society, all crammed together in the nasty boarding houses that lined Dorset Street. It really is a fascinating tale how one London street could have witnessed so much change over the centuries and gone from prosperity to notoriety to obscurity so quickly.