Robert Hume, author of The Hidden Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Victims, unearths the extraordinary rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of Mary Jane Kelly (‘Ginger’), who fell prey to the infamous killer
Lurid details about the crimes of the world’s most famous serial killer — known to contemporaries as ‘The Whitechapel Murderer’ — have been pored over time and again, and over 200 suspects put forward.
But the lives of the victims have been neglected. All too often the women killed have been dismissed as ‘prostitutes’. It is time their lives are put in the spotlight. This is Mary Jane Kelly’s story.
A girl by the name of Mary Jane Kelly was baptised in Castleconnell, Co Limerick, on 31 March 1863. Her parents, and eight or nine brothers and sisters, occupied a small house in Mungret Street.
The failure of the potato crop had led to riots in Limerick in 1830, and during the Great Famine hundreds of evicted tenants fled into the city to seek work. Discovering there was none, they queued outside the workhouses for a bed, or made for the quays — the departure points for US, Canada and Australia.
When Mary Jane was still a child, Mr Kelly moved the family to Carmarthen in Wales to look for work. The girl hawked ribbon and thread around the town.
Find a husband to keep you, she was told: a beauty like you, with blue eyes and thick ginger hair, will have no problem capturing one. At sixteen-years-old she married John Davies, a local miner. The coal pits were dangerous to work in, with the risk of roofs collapsing and gases igniting. Two years later John was killed in a pit explosion.
Kelly now had to cope on her own. Accompanied by a friend, she headed for Cardiff, hoping to find employment in a shop, or in one of the fine hotels.
But the recession of the 1880s meant jobs were scarce, and men quickly seized those that came up. For a while she mopped floors at the Infirmary but soon she drifted into the only work that was always available for women — sex work.
Plenty of opportunities existed for picking up clients in the city’s pleasure grounds, or at hotels advertising “every accommodation for commercial gentlemen”. And if no gentlemen could be found, there were always dozens of sex-starved sailors at Cardiff docks.
Attracted by the bright lights and opportunities, together with the prospect of meeting a wealthy gentleman, she moved to London, settling in the prosperous West End. She worked briefly in a tobacconist’s shop in Chelsea, as a nanny for artist Walter Sickert, and as a lady’s maid to the Marchioness of Londonderry.
When Héleine and Frederica Maundrell persuaded her to work for them in Earl’s Court, she began to taste the high life. Fronting as a finishing school, the sisters’ premises actually housed one of the classiest ‘gay houses’ in London. Establishing herself as one of the brothel’s most popular girls, she soon earned enough to afford expensive clothes, and even hired a carriage, parading in it around Hyde Park as if she were a lady.
Speculation has it that one client, Francis Craig, took her to Paris — the pleasure capital of Europe — promising she would earn enough money there to set up her own business. Clients called her ‘Marie Jeanette’, a name she kept up for the rest of her life. However, far away from her friends and family she became homesick, and when the fabulous earnings never materialised she returned to London and either married or at least lived with Craig.
The couple were completely unsuited to each other. Craig was a quiet, private man, whereas Mary Jane was vivacious and sociable. Her husband was a miser, but Mary Jane loved to spend. Craig seemed unable to look someone straight in the eye, and appeared to be harbouring a secret, whereas Mary Jane was relaxed, and appeared to hold no secrets from anyone.
Living together became intolerable, and after three months she walked out. Craig was enraged and began stalking her.
The best chance for anyone on the run in the 1880s was to head for the East End. With people coming and going all day— and night — it was an ideal place to ‘disappear’ until Kelly could safely move back among the more genteel types she was used to socialising with.
Although realising she could no longer maintain the stylish life she had become accustomed to, she could scarcely have guessed that her existence would soon become a daily battle for survival.
Sailors’ brothels run by Mrs Boekü and Mrs McCarthy in St George-in-the-East were a world away from the protected existence she had led in houses frequented by well-heeled gentlemen and Parisian aristocrats. Her clients were now beer-sodden clerks and labourers who had just been paid.
Local people were stunned. What on earth was such a classy-looking, educated and attractive young woman doing walking in some of thefilthiest, most overcrowded, anddangerous streets in London, where even policemen walked around in twos?
By early 1887 Kelly was plying her trade on the streets of Whitechapel, servicing market workers and drinking heavily in The Ten Bells. It was there she met Irish fish porter Joseph Barnett, whose family had settled in an area nicknamed ‘Little Dublin’ after the Great Famine.
In January 1888 they moved into No 13 Miller’s Court, a dingy rented room, accessed from Dorset Street through a murky narrow archway. The Dublin Mail described their place as “a miserable apology for a dwelling”.
That autumn they argued when Mary Jane brought back another prostitute to share their room. When she did it again, Barnett walked out.
In the early hours of November 9 Mary Jane was heard singing an Irish song: ‘Only a violet I plucked from my mother’s grave’.
Later that morning, when Thomas Bowyer called at Kelly’s house to collect the rent arrears, he got no answer. As he peered through the broken window, the awful scene he witnessed made him blench.
The police found the bed covered with blood. Kelly had been completely disemboweled, and her intestines placed on the table. Her nose had been cut off, and her face gashed. Her liver lay between her feet, one of her breasts had been placed with her uterus and kidneys next to her left foot. Her heart appeared to have been taken away by the killer.
The Cork Examiner reported: “A fiend — a second Mr Hyde — must be abroad in the East End. We are in the midst of a tornado of horrors”.
On Monday 19 November, the day of Mary Jane Kelly’s funeral, men, women and children from the East End came out of their homes and lined the pavements to watch the procession.
As it passed slowly through the streets towards St Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone, men removed their hats, and women were seen with tears streaming down their faces. Several mourners surged forward in an effort to touch the coffin of the young, 25-year-old Irish woman who had been murdered so savagely in her own home.
Robert Hume, The Hidden Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Victims (Pen & Sword, 2019)