Mary Jane Kelly is the name by which the last generally acknowledged victim of the Whitechapel murderer is widely known. I have to be measured in saying it is the name by which she is known because it is almost certainly not her real name. The alleged facts of her short life of about 25 years have been exhaustively researched by many, including myself, and not ONE of those would be details of her life can be verified.
It was not uncommon for women in Kelly’s position in the Late Victorian period to use double or even multiple names. Even among the victims of the Whitechapel murderer – or “Jack the Ripper,” if we have to use that ghastly appellation – all were known by at least one alternative name. Some were simply colourful nicknames – Long Liz, Dark Annie, One Armed Liz, Pearly Poll etc. – and also applied to male as well as female residents of the East End. For example, one of the minor characters in the Ripper saga is known to us only as Harry the Hawker – his real identity has never been ascertained. Another motive for the use of false names was in dealing with the law, to avoid being traced or truly identified. Obviously in such a case the person being questioned would give a plausible sounding pseudonym and not a colourful street name. As an example, Catharine Eddowes was arrested in Aldgate a few hours before her death for being drunk and disorderly. She was taken to Bishopsgate Police Station where she gave the name of Mary Ann Kelly to the custody officer.
This raises an interesting supplementary point in that the use specifically of the name Kelly as a pseudonym seems to have been a frequent one at the period. If we look at press reports concerning not only the so called “canonical” victims – Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly – but also the other three victims for whom a plausible case can be made as being victims of the same killer – Tabram, McKenzie and Coles – then we find that, apart from Mary Jane herself, three of the other women were reported to have used the name Kelly on occasion. These three were Martha Tabram, Catharine Eddowes (as outlined above) and Alice McKenzie.
The East End of the late 1880s was a veritable melting pot of many nationalities and cultures but, of the immigrant communities, two of the most numerous were those of the Jewish (especially Eastern European and Russian) and the Irish incomers. It may not be coincidence that the name chosen frequently for evading true identification came from the numerous Irish population. Certainly contemporary listings of the time (such as admission registers to the Workhouse and Infirmary and the 1891 census) confirm that the surname Kelly was a very frequently found one in the East End of the period.
Kelly was referred to in contemporary accounts as Mary Jane Kelly, Marie Jeanette Kelly, Mary Lawrence, Lizzie Fisher, Ginger, Fair Emma, Black Mary and probably other names as well that have slipped away forgotten into history.
The only detailed version of Kelly’s background and early life came from her last partner, a London market porter of Irish background by the name of Joseph Barnett. This account is pieced together from three main sources – Barnett’s police statement on the day of the murder, his inquest testimony and various press interviews that he gave. Very briefly put Barnett’s account, as related to him by Kelly, asserted that Mary Jane was 25 years of age at the time of death, was Irish born but came when young with her family to Wales, married a miner at the age of sixteen, was widowed after only a year or two of marriage by a pit disaster, lived briefly in Cardiff where she fell into immoral ways, moved to London in about 1884 where, after a brief spell in an “up market” establishment in the West End, she gravitated to the dives of Whitechapel where she had lodged in numerous locations. Kelly met Barnett at Easter 1887 and they cohabited almost immediately. After a variety of lodgings they moved into the single room at Miller’s Court early in 1888 and it was in this dismal apartment that Kelly met her death on 9th November of that same year.
As I said earlier – and must stress – not one “fact” from the account we have received from Barnett can be verified from the available documentation. The one alleged incident in Kelly’s life (according to Barnett’s story) which should be easiest to trace is her marriage. Her erstwhile lover, in his various testimonies, gave the following statements which should make tracing any such marriage comparatively easy:
1) Mary’s real forenames were Marie Jeanette.
2) Her real maiden name was Kelly.
3) She married a miner named variously as Davies or Davis. Barnett seems to have accepted the actual version as Davies and this is the form that has passed into Ripper scholarship.
4) She married when she was 16. IF she was 25 years of age at the time of her death, this would place her marriage in or about 1879.
5) Barnett was specifically insistent that she was legally married.
Exhaustive searches by a number of researchers, including myself, have failed to identify a single record that could refer to this union. This is allowing for wide latitude in terms of viable alternative names and dates in this search.
The lengthy preamble above is to emphasise that we KNOW nothing with certainty about the true identity or life of the young women who died at 13 Miller’s Court in the early morning of the 9th November 1888. So it may seem strange, even ironic, that of all the victims Mary Jane Kelly has received by far the most attention and has featured as a character in many versions of the events of that bloody autumn. By way of a completely unscientific illustration, if we look at the message boards on two of the largest and best known Ripper related web sites – Casebook.org and JTRforums.com – we will find the number of discussion threads devoted to each victims:
Mary Nichols – 38
Annie Chapman – 50
Elizabeth Stride – 96
Catherine Eddowes – 65
Mary Kelly – 264
Mary Nichols – 13
Annie Chapman – 19
Elizabeth Stride – 42
Catherine Eddowes – 25
Mary Kelly – 111
A few examples should suffice to typify how Kelly has featured as a character in various scenarios to explain or describe the murders. The notorious “Royal Conspiracy” group of theories – basically, any theory based mainly or substantially around the person of Prince Albert Victor, eldest son of the future Edward VII – revolves in a number of its incarnations around the birth of an alleged Royal bastard named Alice Crook, putative daughter of Prince Albert and a shop girl named Annie Crook. Mary Kelly is involved in the tangled narrative as the nurse to the child and also as the mainspring of the East End blackmail conspiracy that leads to the murders. One of the milestone accounts of the murders – often described as the first full length book on the subject – was “The Mystery of Jack the Ripper” by Leonard Matters, published in 1929. This purportedly factual account centres around a narrative now considered wholly or substantially fictitious and concerns a Dr. Stanley whose son, on whom he dotes, becomes infected with terminal venereal disease and dies. The murders are the instrument by which the vengeful father tracks down and kills the source of the illness that killed his son. That source was named Mary Kelly.
But WHY has the person of Mary Kelly become the focus of so much interest, study and myth making? The simplest answer is that we know so little about her. She is a tabula rasa, a blank canvas. By being nothing, she can become anything. The lives of a number of the other victims have been researched extensively and are comparatively well known. As an aside, we must remember that all of the victims and potential victims came from very humble stations in life and so the fact that we know little or nothing about them is hardly surprising. In the case of the other four “canonical” victims – Nichols, Chapman, Stride and Eddowes – I cannot recommend too highly the research of Neal Stubbings and his book “The Victims of Jack the Ripper.” (ISBN – 0978911296) Of the non-canonical victims, mention should be made of the amazing work done by Trevor Bond on Frances Coles, who was murdered on 13th February 1891. Trevor’s findings were presented at the 2010 Ripper Conference and also in a fascinating pod cast available via Casebook.org. That is not to say that the lives of all potential victims are known in detail. About one of the later victims, Alice McKenzie, killed on the 17th July 1889, we know even less than we do about Mary Kelly. About Alice we are only told that at the time of her death she was about 40 and may have come from Peterborough – that is all.
In the modern age there is an almost schizoid attitude to the role of physical appearance. In many books, films, children’s stories and TV programmes, it is stressed over and over that it is the inner person that is important, that we are all “beautiful in our own way.” This at the same time in our history when everything would suggest we have, as a culture, never been more obsessed with physical appearance and the modification of how we appear, as typified by the explosion in cosmetic surgery. All of this is fuelled, of course, by the absurd cult of “celebrity,” this tiresome and seemingly endless procession of talentless non-entities who are, supposedly, role models for our younger generation. If so, God help us! And this is in no way a sexist remark. Although my comments would certainly refer to female “celebrities” such as Katie Price and Paris Hilton, the sight of whom cause my eyes to instantly glaze over, there is certainly no shortage so male “wannabes” whose ambition and vanity are in inverse proportion to their talent. Rant over!
All the above serves only as a preamble to the fact – which many politically correct persons would doubtless find objectionable – that one of the reasons Mary Jane Kelly has become the focus of so much attention is that she is considered the youngest and prettiest of the victims. However, it may come as a surprise that not only can we not verify her age but we really have no idea what she looked like in life. Words used to describe her included pretty, short, stout and attractive. It is almost certain that she was not the stunning stereotypically Hollywood beauty as she was portrayed in “From Hell” by Heather Graham.
Although we cannot verify that she was indeed 25 years of age at the time of death, it seems beyond doubt that she was not only younger than the other “canonical” victims, but substantially younger. To put it bluntly, to describe a woman as the prettiest when the others in the “line up” are hard drinking East End prostitutes in their mid forties in Late Victorian London, is not to imply that she would stand out in a crowd today. It is all, like everything in life, comparative.
It is my hope that there is more to be found about Mary Kelly, be this in the form of documents, photos or verifiable family accounts. Although we, as researchers, like to think there are hidden treasures out there laying in a dusty trunk or a cobwebby attic, we have to accept that this may well not be the case. The murder of Mary Kelly happened nearly 123 years ago. At the time of her death nothing was known for certain and no family came forward. Over a century of researching her story has produced no tangible result. Mary certainly lied about her name and we do not know how much of her alleged background in Ireland, Wales and London was invented. We sadly may have to accept to there is nothing more to find and that Mary Kelly may remain forever the enigma she has always been.
Many thanks to Christopher Scott for writing this for us.
(This was originally posted to my blog back in June but I decided to repost this again today on the 123rd anniversary of her death.)