|A Ripper Notes Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripper Notes. Ripper Notes is the only American Ripper periodical available on the market, and has quickly grown into one of the more substantial offerings in the genre. For more information, view our Ripper Notes page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripper Notes for permission to reprint this article.|
"Time is on my side"
By Don Souden
This article first appeared, in a somewhat different and shorter version, in the April 2006 issue of Ripper Notes.
The old song refrain "a violet I plucked from my mother's grave . . ." was a favorite of Mary Jane Kelly according to her neighbor Mary Ann Cox, but I would suggest that her landlord, John McCarthy, would have found the Rolling Stones "Time Is On My Side" to be number one on his personal hit parade. Follow with me the events that unfolded when Kelly was discovered dead in her bed and you may just agree with that song choice.
Sometime in the morning of November 9, 1888, landlord John McCarthy sent his hired man, Thomas Bowyer, to Mary Jane Kelly's room to collect the rent for which she was badly in arrears. This much of the story seems based on solid fact, but even something as simple as the time Bowyer was sent for the rent is not quite certain. At least one newspaper reported Bowyer was sent as early as "10 a.m."(1) while the Manchester Guardian quoted McCarthy as saying he sent Bowyer at "[a]bout half-past ten this morning…."(2) and the Daily Telegraph later cited a telegraph message from Scotland Yard about the discovery of Kelly's body that began "Found at 10:30 a.m.,…" (3)
Newspaper accounts of the Ripper murders are notoriously inaccurate, especially those about the events in Millers Court, so those time discrepancies are probably just more of the same. Regardless, by the time McCarthy and Bowyer made statements to the police they had evidently both agreed the time was 10:45 a.m. Even so, The Times, in transcribing McCarthy's inquest testimony, had him saying "On Friday morning about half past 10 [I] sent [Bowyer] to No. 13 room in Miller's-court to call for the rent." (4)
For our purposes we can accept 10:45 as the time, though I would suggest it may have been a bit earlier. Kelly, based on the testimony of Julie Venturney at the inquest, had been up by at least 10 the previous morning and as I shall explain later, McCarthy and Bowyer were likely well aware of Kelly's matutinal schedule. Moreover, I believe McCarthy had a good reason to get to Kelly before she had a chance to leave the room that morning.
At whatever time McCarthy actually sent Bowyer, his man dutifully fulfilled the task. He knocked-twice-at Kelly's door and getting no answer, peeked inside the room through a broken window pane (which itself says something about notions of privacy in Millers Court), saw the carnage within and went back to tell McCarthy. McCarthy then went with Bowyer to see for himself and after having ascertained it was a literal shambles inside the room, the pair went to summon the police. All perfectly straightforward; or so it would seem until we examine more closely the curious behavior of both Bowyer and McCarthy.
The chandler's shop from which McCarthy sent Bowyer was mere feet from Kelly's room and it ought not to have taken even a shuffling pensioner more than a few seconds to reach the door of Number 13. He knocked once, knocked again, and then looked through the window before returning to McCarthy with his horrific tale. The pair then returned to Number 13, McCarthy took his own look through the window and sent Bowyer to the Commercial Street police station, which is described in a contemporary press report as "within five minutes' walk." (5) Some time after that McCarthy himself set off for the police station where Inspector Walter Beck later testified "It was shortly after 11 o'clock when I was called." (6)
Just what "shortly after 11 o'clock" signifies is debatable (it is interesting that McCarthy and Bowyer are more exact about time than the police, but then they may have good reason to be). Still, at least five minutes after the hour seems justifiable on the assumption that were it anything less Beck would likely have pinned the time as right at the hour. What is important, however, is that we are presented with a series of events that took 20 minutes when commonsense suggests they should have taken no more than half that time.
Upon reflection, McCarthy may have sensed that the time-span reported was liable to cause some suspicion and thus he later tried to lay some of the onus for that lapse upon Bowyer. That is, when he gave a statement to the police on November 9, he simply said he sent Bowyer to collect the rent and that Bowyer returned to tell him about the body. However, at the inquest three days later McCarthy said about Bowyer's mission "He came back in about 5 minutes. . . ." (7)
Five minutes to walk a few feet, knock twice, view the indescribable carnage and return? It seems all the more excessive when you consider that Bowyer had just seen what one of the attending physicians was later quoted as saying "[I] had never witnessed such a horrible sight as the murdered woman presented." (8)Bowyer must have been possessed of super-human will power not to have hastened the few feet to McCarthy's shop, legs pumping, arms flapping and throttling back a half-suppressed scream in his throat. Even if he didn't want to create an alarm, he surely must have moved with something other than the snail-like pace his and McCarthy's testimony indicate.
There is another very suggestive difference between McCarthy's police statement on the 9th and his inquest testimony on the 12th, but in this instance he omitted information at the inquest rather than adding something. In his statement to the police, McCarthy said "I then despatched Bowyer to the Police Station Commercial Street (following myself) to acquaint the Police." (9) [emphasis added]. At the inquest, however, McCarthy carefully said "I and Bowyer went then to the Police Court Commercial Street. . . ." (10) suggesting that they had gone together, without actually impeaching his previous statement.
This subtle but important change also appears in Bowyer's testimony. In his police statement, Bowyer said "Mr. McCarthy who also looked into the room and at once dispatched [me] to the police Station Commercial Street, and informed the Inspector on duty. (Insp Beck) who returned with him and his employer who had also followed to the Station." (11) [emphasis added]. At the inquest, however, this had changed to "We both then went directly to the police station. . . ." (12) [emphasis added] Bowyer, it would seem, was not so clever a wordsmith as his employer.
The change between their statements to the police on November 9 and their inquest testimony sounds like a deliberate attempt to obscure the fact that McCarthy had sent Bowyer for the police and only after an interval did he himself follow. It could have been that McCarthy had to close his shop before chasing after Bowyer, but in that case why didn't he simply say so? Conversely, it might have seemed wise for McCarthy to have stood athwart the entrance to Millers Court until the police arrived to ensure Kelly's body not being discovered by someone else and a riotous alarm raised.
Curiously, McCarthy seems to have done neither, and yet clearly had some other reason to remain, at least temporarily, in the vicinity of Kelly's room. It was only after he had several days to consider the implication of his earlier statements that he attempted to gloss over his strange actions. He also seems to have prevailed upon Bowyer to do the same.
In that regard, there was one other strange bit of testimony by Bowyer at the inquest. In describing himself and McCarthy, Bowyer said " I am servant to Mr. McCarthy. . . ." (13) and then later says ". . . my master Mr. John McCarthy." (14) This terminology, servant and master, sounds rather archaic in 1888 and all the more so when McCarthy himself simply called Bowyer his "hired man." But, there may have been a reason for the much older Bowyer's unseemly scapegrace attitude toward his employer.
Research indicates Bowyer was around 63 years old at the time. This would be in accord with contemporary illustrations of Bowyer and the extant reports that he was an army pensioner, even though Walter Dew "remembered" Bowyer as a callow youth in his memoirs written 50 years after the event. As ever, Dew's recollections of the Ripper investigations should be taken with a carload of salt. As for calling himself a servant and McCarthy his master, perhaps Bowyer was craftily attempting to create an "I was only following orders" defense if anyone did take notice of his and McCarthy's strange behavior on the morning of November 9.
Regardless, the question looms large as to why Bowyer and McCarthy were so dilatory in reporting the crime? The pair had just viewed a scene of carnage the like of which even veteran police officers had never seen, a crime moreover that was surely perceived as another of the outrages that held the East End in fear, and yet the two of them took a seeming eternity to notify the police in marked contrast to those who discovered other Ripper victims. Like so much of the Ripper mystery, we may never know what happened, but I would suggest that at least part of time was spent by the two making sure they had their stories straight.
Not that I think they had anything to do with the murder, but they did have another crime to cover-up. What follows is purely speculation, but the theory presented will explain quite well the behavior of Bowyer and McCarthy. In addition, it may shed light on some questions concerning Mary Jane Kelly and Joseph Barnett and short-circuit a few other theories as well.
John McCarthy was a young man (just 37) on the make in 1888 with a financial interest in many Dorset Street businesses and buildings at the time. According to recent research by Fiona Khalastchty, in addition to the chandler's shop he operated, McCarthy owned three houses in the street, leased two lodging house and another building and finally controlled the Millers Court apartments known locally as "McCarthy's Rents." (15) He knew the area and its residents well and we may discard as utter nonsense his "surprise" at discovering after her death that Kelly was a prostitute (as were, quite likely, many of the other women renting in Millers Court-at least one by her own admission).
Of course, there was a good reason for McCarthy to express surprise at that fact since any "immoral earnings," which would have included knowingly renting to prostitutes, could have put him in prison. Indeed, the Daily Telegraph for November 12, the day of the Kelly inquest, carried a story about one Alfred Becker being sentenced to a month in prison-at hard labor!-for that very crime and his wife was ordered to pay £5 in fines and costs or go to prison herself. It was a crime that would be prosecuted assiduously at that time.
Nonetheless, I argue that McCarthy not only knew Kelly was a prostitute, but at some time prior to her death had entered into an agreement with Kelly that would allow her to stay in the room while paying off the back rent. It seems that so long as Joe Barnett was regularly employed he and Kelly were able to pay the rent satisfactorily, but after Barnett lost his position at the fish market they began to struggle financially and fell further and further behind in the rent.
In fact, there is good evidence Kelly had returned to her "profession" much earlier-if she ever left it. Her friend Julie Venturney testified that another man named Joe (possibly former beau Joseph Fleming) would visit her and give her money (it strains credulity to imagine the pair spending their time discussing the "Home Rule" question and Joe paying her for her opinions) and there may have been others. Moreover, one must wonder what she did do with her time besides lolling at a pub (bestowing random acts of charity seems out of character) and that pub time had to be paid somehow.
Whether Kelly actually owed as much as 29s. is problematic, however. That would represent more than six weeks of arrears and in an economic climate where the elderly would be turned out into the cold because they lacked the few pence for half a doss-house bed, it is hard to imagine a businessman like McCarthy letting the rent ride out of the goodness of his heart. Suggestions that he and Kelly were related have not been borne out by research and a another explanation-that McCarthy had a dalliance with Kelly-would seem unlikely with Mrs. McCarthy and his mother living within earshot of Number 13. Indeed, letting sentiment or lust stand in the way of profit seems especially unlikely for someone with his eye ever on the main chance like our Mr. McCarthy,
It is much more likely that Kelly and Barnett fell increasingly short of the weekly rent until McCarthy finally issued Kelly an ultimatum: "You can stay, but you will now be in my 'employ,' turning over a portion of every trick you turn." He likely sweetened the deal for himself by adding that she would also have to share the space with other prostitutes in a variation on John Morton's Victorian farce "Box and Cox." This arrangement probably occurred just before Barnett moved out and was the cause of their last, destructive fight.
The only alternative for McCarthy would have been to evict the couple and lose everything they owed him, so such a working arrangement would make good financial sense. Kelly was young and if her charms were already fading fast, she would still be a good investment compared with the many middle-aged "drabs" trolling for clients on the streets. Plus, having a private room in which to ply her trade would allow charging a premium price. And McCarthy could get an even greater return on Number 13 by having Kelly share the "crib" space with other prostitutes. That would explain why, in the days preceding the murder, other women were suddenly "staying" with Kelly.
It would also explain more satisfactorily the fight between Kelly and Barnett that led to the broken windows and his departure. It wasn't so much that Barnett didn't approve of the other women as that he was not included in the arrangement and had no choice but to leave. It might also explain why he was such pains at the inquest to say "I left her because she had a person who was a prostitute whom she took in and I objected to her doing so, that was the only reason,…" (16) He may well have felt bitter toward McCarthy for what happened and was hoping to give a bit of a hint about what sort of game the landlord was playing.
If the supposition about McCarthy's deal with Kelly is true, it would go a long way toward explaining why he and Bowyer took such a suspiciously long time to notify the police. McCarthy needed that time to put together a story that would obscure the arrangement and to make sure Bowyer also knew what to say, which may have taken a while since Indian Harry doesn't seem to have been the brightest gas mantle on Dorset Street. The tale they agreed upon was likely that which the two spun to the police and coroner, though 29s., almost seven weeks worth of unpaid rent, must have seemed as excessive to everyone then as it does to us now.
Then again, the actual sum might be correct and included such incidentals as the expected cost to replace the window panes Kelly and Barnett had broken during a recent row and any other damage to the furnishings, all of which belonged to McCarthy. Those considerations themselves raise questions about Kelly's continued presence at Number 13. Why would a landlord tolerate a tenant seriously in arrears with the rent and who had just broken several windows unless he thought he could quickly recoup those losses? The only reasonable answer would appear to be turning Number 13 into what would be termed today a "hot-pillow motel." And that, I propose, is just what John McCarthy did.
Of course, knowing what we do about Mary Jane Kelly, this arrangement would present problems for McCarthy. Foremost among them would be Kelly's alcoholism. Drinking was a severe problem at the time and a common theme among the other Ripper victim's was how often the money they needed for their precarious survival was earned and then immediately squandered at the nearest pub. From all we know, Kelly was no different.
Given that character flaw of Kelly's, there would be no return on McCarthy's investment in keeping her at Number 13 unless he could regularly get the money Kelly earned. The answer to that, I think, was that as soon as McCarthy came to the new arrangement Thomas Bowyer was sent to Number 13 every morning to get the landlord's share of her previous evening's earnings. Bowyer wasn't there the morning of November 9 to try to collect on all seven weeks back rent, even if that became a major part of the story McCarthy and Bowyer concocted while they took their own sweet time reporting the murder-he was there for a share of her latest earnings.
Indeed, if one chooses to believe any part of the story George Hutchinson told the police, that could explain his stating "About 2 am 9th I was coming by Thrawl Street, Commercial Street, and saw just before I got to Flower and Dean Street I saw the murdered woman Kelly. And she said to me Hutchinson will you lend me sixpence.' (17) Hutchinson told her he was tapped out himself, to which she replied "Good morning I must go and find some money." (18)
That Kelly supposedly asked for an exact amount-six pence-is itself curious. The answer to that could be that she had already spent part of what should have been McCarthy's share that evening on drink. Mary Ann Cox, another resident of Millers Court, did say in her police statement and at the inquest that she saw Kelly very drunk around midnight. It is quite possible that she was just six pence short and if Hutchinson had been able to supply that sum she would have gone back to Number 13-with or without him-and called it a night's work well done.
There is still a need to account for why McCarthy remained behind when he sent Bowyer for the police, but that is simple enough-he had to get into Number 13 before the police arrived. There are a myriad of possible reasons he wanted to get inside, but most likely he needed to retrieve something incriminating. Not, I am sure, anything that would have linked him to the murder, but rather something that would have indicated Kelly was working for him and he was thus receiving immoral earnings.
It could have had something to do with the letters that he said Kelly received or it might have been something as simple as money. It is interesting that despite Kelly having had several customers that evening, there was no money found in the room. Still, I think it was more than just some loose change lying around that so worried McCarthy. I would suggest instead that there was some sort of locked box arrangement between McCarthy and Kelly. Mary Jane had an alcohol problem and was likely to spend what she earned on drink as soon as she got it, so as a hard-headed businessman McCarthy probably had a locked box with a slot through which Kelly was supposed to put his share. And that box would then be emptied every morning by Bowyer.
Certainly, if the box was easily traced to McCarthy, he had good reason to retrieve it. Whatever money might be in the box would be welcome, but the simple existence of such a box would place McCarthy in a very untenable position. So, he steeled his nerves, entered the room, took the box (or quickly determined it was not there) and as quickly left. Only then did he follow after Bowyer to the police station.
This suggested stealthy entrance and exit by McCarthy also goes a long way toward explaining the Keystone Kops routine that later ensued over the locked door. That McCarthy, as landlord, did not have his own key to the premises has always struck a discordant note. But even allowing for that, McCarthy most assuredly knew that entrance could be gained by reaching through the window to undo the latch. For that matter, it may have been McCarthy himself who inadvertently locked the door when he left.
In any case, it must have soon dawned on him that he would be better off pretending he knew of no easy way to get inside the locked room. Thus, if he had a spare key to proffer the police he kept that fact to himself. Similarly, he remained quite mum about reaching through the broken pane to jiggle the latch. The little bit of expense engendered by later prizing open the door was a small enough price to pay if it meant the police would have no reason to believe he could have been in the room that morning
Instead, McCarthy joined Bowyer as quickly as possible and made as good an impression as he could of a law-abiding landlord whose tenant had just been butchered. Though, as an aside, it is interesting that he "inquired at first for other inspectors" (19) before specking to Inspector Beck (could have had an "arrangement" with the others?). In any case, he satisfied the police, even if he had to finesse the "facts" a bit by the time of the inquest, something that seemed to have gone completely unnoticed by the police and press of the time.
Finally, there is at least one more interesting implication of the theory I have advanced-and if true it almost certainly puts the lie to the testimony of Caroline Maxwell and Maurice Lewis that they saw Kelly that morning after 9 a.m. Moreover, it may well exonerate Joseph Barnett of complicity in the crime.
That is, not only was McCarthy's chandler's shop located at the end of the narrow passage from Millers Court to Dorset Street, but a window in that shop's back room had an unobstructed view of the door to Number 13. McCarthy and company were not only in a literally perfect position to watch the comings and goings from Kelly's room, but if my suggestions are true they almost certainly were keeping close watch that morning. Indeed, the back window vantage also could have been used at least part of the time to check on how many clients Kelly was servicing.
Adding possible credence to the notion that McCarthy kept close tabs not only on Mary Jane Kelly but on other of his "special tenants" is the deposition Elizabeth Prater gave to the police. In it she said "I. . . stood at the bottom of Millers Court until about 1.30. I was speaking for a short time to a Mr. McCarthy Who [sic] keeps a chandler's shop at the corner of the court." (20) They may have talked about the weather (or, again, Home Rule), but another the tenant who lived above Kelly (and could hear her walking about) would be in an ideal position to pass to McCarthy how "successful" Kelly had been lately. And it is worthy of notice that at the inquest Prater changed her story and said that during the time she stood by the court's entrance "I spoke to no one." (21)
In any case, if McCarthy and company were watching her door and the alley exit that morning (which would seem logical) then they certainly could not have missed Kelly making the appearances in the street that Maxwell and Lewis claimed. Moreover, since Barnett was obviously well known to McCarthy, his family and Bowyer, any surveillance reduces drastically the time-frame in which he could have left Buller's lodging house, gone to Number 13, wrought all the carnage and then slipped back out of the room. It certainly puts paid to any ideas Kelly was killed later in the morning.
Is this, then, what really happened in Millers Court on the morning of November 9, 1888? There is no way of proving or even testing the theory, but it has a certain cohesive logic to explain the blatant changes in testimony by McCarthy and Bowyer and it provides some possible answers to such nagging questions as why McCarthy let the door be pried open and it could even end all the musing about Barnett as the murderer. Of course, even if all my suppositions are correct that almost assuredly won't stop most Ripperologists from arguing those same points far into the future.
1. East London Observer, November 10, 1888.
2. Manchester Guardian, November 10, 1888.
3. Daily Telegraph, November 10, 1888.
4. Times, November 13, 1888.
5. Daily Telegraph, November 10, 1888.
6. Evans, Stewart P. and Martin Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion, Carroll & Graf (2000), transcript of inquest papers held at the London Metropolitan Archives, p. 375.
7. Ibid., p. 370.
8. Daily Telegraph, November 10, 1888. (Quoting Dr. J.R. Gabe).
9. Evans & Skinner, op. cit., p. 363
10. Ibid., p. 370.
11. Ibid., p. 363.
12. Ibid., p. 370.
13. Ibid., p. 369.
14. Ibid., p. 370.
16. Skinner & Evans, op. cit., p. 368.
17. Ibid.,. p. 376.
19. Ibid., p. 371.
20. Ibid., p. 365.
21. Ibid., p. 371.