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Did Mary Kelly Survive?
by Des McKenna
It is impossible to say. There were so many contradictory statements at the time that can only be resolved if we think she did - as a number of commentators nowadays are coming to believe. It is not a question about which anyone can be dogmatic, even though there are protagonists on either side, because when that murder took place the dwellers in Whitechapel were themselves confused by the opposing stories that circulated and even today, looking back from a distance trying to get things into perspective, all we can do is speculate as to what might have happened. And this, I suggest, is no more than educated guess.
I have divided this armchair chat into different parts. Firstly the background - in order to get our bearings, and then we'll explore the mystery of the fire and the locked door. It has always been thought that Jack the Ripper lit the fire to give himself light to see by and afterwards closed and locked the door behind him. And this has always puzzled people. That fire must have been furiously hot to have melted the spout off the tin kettle that sat on top of it and remained warm 12 hours later when the room was opened. It must have been so luminous that it flooded the court with a bathing of light, yet it woke none of the denizens of that dark and squalid little place. When he had done the killer seemed to lock the door behind him. Why would he do this? Better to get away quickly rather than fiddle about with a key - and where did he get the key from? It had been lost for over a week. It was in any case not his custom. He always left the bodies on public display; why then should he conceal this last one? And there is a further conundrum - why in all the disarray of that slovenly room were the victim's clothes laid out neatly at the foot of the bed?
Let us examine these questions, and finally let us look at the confusion that all this caused and the concealment thereafter.
So let us start at the beginning. . .
Mary Kelly was a harrassed woman increasingly burdened with money worries. She was deeply in debt to her landlord John McCarthy and disappointed and let down by the man with whom she had lived, Joe Barnett , who would not work to support them and from whom she wanted to leave, except he would not go. It can be supposed that George Hutchinson may have taken money from her, and six weeks before the murder she may have been charged with being drunk and disorderly and fined 2/6p (about 19 cents) to be paid off at 5p (about 3 cents) a week or face 3 days imprisonment. She may have been heavy with child and may have had a son of about 10 and seems to have been afraid of a mysterious stranger, unknown to her East End associates. John Morrison says of her, "I became convinced that she was a lonely, desperate, frightened young woman, her behaviour was not merely frantic, but bordering on the neurotic."
She was several weeks in arrears with her rent and it is just not possible that John McCarthy would allow her to calmly walk away when he took the key back, else others who rented his properties would seek to do the same. The least he would do would be to dun her around the streets in an unseemly manner, abusing her loudly and disgracing her as an example, or maybe he would have worked her as a drudge in his other properties till more than her debts had been paid, but most certainly he would have shown her no more clemency after he discovered the broken window panes.
Joe Fleming, of whom she was supposedly fond, used to hit her. Eighteen months previously they had lived together for a few weeks till she met Joe Barnett and took up with him instead. It was because he wanted her to return to him that he was aggressive to her and a friction between her and Joe Barnett. After she and Barnett parted there was no impediment to their co-habitation if she had wanted to. Almost certainly the "fondness" was in Joe Fleming's imagination. Could she really be fond of a man who was violent to her? Mark King has discovered a "Joseph Flemming otherwise James Evans" who died in a mental hospital in 1920 and speculates that if his lunacy was psychotic he might have been Jack the Ripper. Whether he was or was not, she would have wanted to get away from him.
Her relationship with Joe Barnett became tempestuous after he lost his job. She it was who quarreled with him and she who broke the window panes, which suggests that he was the recipient of he anger. Most rows happen indoors, and perhaps she slammed the door furiously behind him as he came into the room and the key shot from the lock where it was habitually kept and disappeared within the room and the shock broke the windows and she ejected him. It was after he lost his job that she fell into debt from which her soliciting could not rescue them, as they were both heavy drinkers. That he did not quarrel with her is borne out by his revisiting her and giving her his scant savings.
When the key was found, she kept it from Joe Barnett. She was the tenant and hers the responsibility. The ownership of a key confers the right to the property, and in any case he would not have accepted it; for they knew that on that fateful morning retribution was at hand, for that was rent day. All her wiles that had put off the evil day would be to no avail when the broken panes were discovered, and she would be punished severely.
So - deeply disappointed in Joe Barnett and in dread of John McCarthy and afraid of Joe Fleming, Mary was oppressed by George Hutchinson who was a predator. If, that is, we can believe a word he said. The previous night he had impertinently looked at Mary's client, walking along with him, peering up into his face. He was able to recall over thirty details of the man's face, expression his age and build, his attire and general appearance, demeanour and ethnic type, even down to the colour of his eyes and the buttons on his gaiters. And all in the street lights' gaseous gloom! He was stalking his victim. Sarah Lewis, a laundress out on the streets at the time, watched Hutchinson and said of him, "not tall but stout. . .looking up the court as if waiting for someone to come out." In other words, thickset and stocky. Hutchinson described the man he waited for as, "The man I saw did not look as though he would attack another one." He took careful note of the rich ornamentation his prey was wearing; the tie pin, massive watch chain and the big seal with the red stone. He seems a nasty bully, a thug lying in wait for his inoffensive quarry whose possessions he'd carefully costed - and I think he may well have taken money from Mary, who both referred to each other by their surnames, which suggests theirs may have been a working relationship with him as her self-appointed protector. No other person is called solely by their last name. In a statement to the police he said she used the name "Hutchinson," and to the press he said she called him "Mr. Hutchinson." Of all her many friends, he is the only one to simply call her "Kelly." There is also the uncomfortable thought that the story that Mary wove of an inheritance which was due to her was one that he later heard and hoped by claiming a relationship with her for a handout.
I cannot think that the man that Hutchinson described was Jack the Ripper. Jack would have dispensed with him very quickly; he would not have waited inside that room all the time for Hutchinson to leave and then spend another three-quarters of an hour before attacking his victim. Jack was too impatient for that. Remember Long Liz and Kate Eddowes? Frustrated in disembowelling one, he immediately sought out the other. I think the Ripper came into that room far later in that long and bloodied night.
It would be a brave man indeed who would more than hypothesise about Mary Kelly. A hypothesis is a supposition in explanation of a fact or facts which may or may not be found to be true. A stopgap based upon present knowledge. So let us hazard a guess as to what may have happened in that little room.
Two things seem to have happened at the same time which pulled Mary down. In mid-August, Joe Barnett lost his job, perhaps because of theft, and it was from about this time that Mary stopped paying her rent. She may have been the same woman who on 19th September was fined for drunkenness, and then deeply in debt was in an even worse state, and for this reason may have allowed other streetwalkers to use her room. This, according to Joe, was the cause of their quarrel, but according to Mary, she could no longer bear him near her. I believe she sub-let the premises and evicted him. For the past several nights she took herself off to a neighbouring room to shelter the night and returned about 8.00am to regain possession of her own bed and sleep the late morning and afternoon away. She would charge the occupant who used it more than she paid for her alternative accommodation, and by saving this might hope to stave off her own uncouth eviction.
On entering that hovel, profoundly shocked by the sight that greeted her, she nimbly realised that by swapping clothes with the corpse she could walk out and into freedom. We know from Tom Cullen's Autumn of Terror she oft times would roll a drunken sailor and rush into the "Britannia" public house to change shawls with one of the other whores, and so disguised would sally forth onto the streets again.
During the thirty minutes she stayed in her room, she gathered the scattered clothing which Maria Harvey claimed to have left. Why would a woman who occupied a room for a few nights have left a man's overcoat, two dirty shirts, a boy's shirt and a girl's petticoat? And a bonnet! Maria Harvey was at least Mary's friend and one of the low women who she allowed to stay in that room. She was a laundress and a prostitute, and perhaps a thief who stole those clothes for Mary to sell.
There are mysteries within mysteries as to what happened on that dreadful night. One of them is, what burned in the grate so fiercely that it melted the spout off a kettle and was still warm from the small hours of the night till mid-afternoon, and yet it didn't rouse the denizens of that crowded court with the light that it must have so brilliantly emitted?
The fire was made from clothing, on top of which was placed the hat and on top of that sat the kettle. The clothing consisted of the three shirts and the girl's petticoat. Four garments, each about a yard long, which when twisted together into a sort of rope would be like ten feet of twisted timber as thick as a wrist, which when coiled within the grate would brightly burn as any wood, as warmly so, as constant and as steadfast.
Consider the bonnet! Streetwalkers were conspicuous with raddled complexions and henna-dyed hair and boas of garish feathers to facilitate their trade, and their hats in those days of florid ornamentation would have been baroque edifices of fruit and flowers. A far cry from a Puritan's bonnet. The body was probably straw painted with tar dissolved in linseed oil, the fruit made from paraffin wax polished with shellac and varnished, the strings that held the muslin veil stiffened with size attached with gum arabic and gutta-percha and all wreathed in crepe and gauze. Such a confection of combustibles would have exploded in furious flames to belch a rolling wave of heated gas brawling up the chimney which would easily melt the soft soldered spout off a cheap tin kettle, and after its short uproarious life would weep its rage in globduled tears upon the cabled clothing beneath and ignite them, and the wind pursing its lips against the broken window panes to sigh upon the fire could easily smoulder the embers away for hours.
Which, in fact, it did. So much so that the raiment was still identifiable five hours later when the room was opened and it was found that two of the shirts were dirty.
The mystery is not what burned in the grate, but why the chimney never set afire.
THE CLOTHES AND THE KEY
When Thomas Bowyer saw the body in that terrible room, he could not properly identify her as he only knew her first name, and it was Joe Barnett who said who she was; but that was only by an anguished glimpse through the window.
But how much reliance can be placed on this? He was expecting to see Mary Jane. He recognised her clothing neatly laid out. But in that furious debacle, they would have been as strewn around as her entrails. But someone had collected those scattered garments and folded them tidily together, and as no other apparel was found save that which burned in the grate, it begs the question, "Who had so carefully arranged the clothes at the foot of the bed?"
Certainly not the victim. The only other person to spring to mind is Jack himself. But surely not! It has always been accepted that it was he who lit the fire and laid out the clothes and locked the door behind him. - but this is impossible! To believe that in the still of a dark November night, as he perpetrated history's most appalling murder, he set alight a fire that lit the court in glory to disturb its residents and wasted time by tidying up, and after closing the door quietly behind him he carefully picked the lock into its locked position and calmly walked away?
Is it not more reasonable to think it was Mary herself who did these things? She came into the room and laid her clothes neatly down and donned the corpse's raiment and, with the things her friend Maria Harvey had left, in the cold morning light lit a fire that disturbed no one - as those who worked had already left and those who didn't slumbered away the night's adventures - and she who mendaciously said she had lost the key locked the door behind her.
Warned that it was a terrifying sight that would greet him, Joe Barnett would have glanced as fast as he dared at her eyes, her hair and her clothes, and on that basis alone would he have identified her.
Her hair was an unusual colour and perhaps dyed. She was also known as "Black Mary." But not all that unusual. She was sometimes known as "Ginger," but did "Carroty Nell" (who was later murdered and at the time thought to be one of Jack's victims) and Mary's client with the "carrotty" mustache have the same colour? Tinting would have been in its infancy with few shades to choose from, and if the nocturnal occupant had used the same fluorescent cosmetic, this would confirm Joe Barnett's belief.
In a vandalised face only the eyes remained, shining at him like sapphires in a gravel pit. Mary was blue eyed. The corpse was blue eyed, so he could only think that it was Mary. There was no other option. These were the only parts of her that Jack did not mutilate. In John McCarthy's words, "her face gashed and mutilated so that it was quite beyond recognition." And her clothes folded neatly at the foot of the bed strengthened this belief. All the subsequent identifications were only confirmations of Joe Barnett's imagined recognition.
Mrs. Caroline Maxwell, the wife of a lodging-house deputy, was very positive that she saw and spoke to Mary that very morning. It was 8.30, and Mary had just come from that evil room. We all know the conversation, but what is important is that she was shocked by Mary's appearance, and her words "I have got the horrors of drink upon me" concealed the horrors of something of which she dared not speak; the horrors of murder. This was not morning sickness, as one commentator remarked; that is nausea, not a feeling of horror. She reeled from that harrowing room and vomited in revulsion.
Mary was remembered by so many people on that morning because her behaviour caused comment. Half daft with horror, incandescent with hysteria, laughing uproariously then trembling into tears and roistering in the rancid clothes of a corpse, she would have left a luminous and indelible impression on all who saw her.
In her room, on finding the body, as an antidote to the shock, she returned to her routine chores of cleaning and tidying and laid and lit the fire. We know she was a clean and tidy woman and proud of her appearance. People in extraordinary situations do extraordinary things. Perhaps the most pertinent embodiment of this was Mary Eleanor Pearcey, around whose rugged shoulders tentative suggestion has draped the mantle of Jill the Ripper. She conceived an ungovernable passion for her neighbour, and to secure his undivided affection lured his wife and baby to he house and hacked them to pieces. She perambulated their remains around the streets in an old bassinet before carefully decanting the infant on some waste ground and dumping the mother in the middle of a nearby road. The police quickly latched on to what had happened and questioned and cautioned her, and yet whilst this was going on, amid all the confusion in her house - the broken furniture, the blood on her walls and her underclothing and the broken glass - she insisted on riotously playing the piano! She was hanged in December 1890.
That morning, prosaic habit would also lead Mary Kelly to the pubs and the drink. When faced with such horror, she vainly tried to dismiss it.
But where did she get the money? Not from the erstwhile harlot. It has not been commented on before, but Jack always took his victims' money back. No knight in shining armour he - a mean and nasty man!
From the lateness of the hour when she spoke to George Hutchinson, little chance had she of earning much that night, but if she had saved desperately to pay John McCarthy and had sold some of the clothes stolen by her friend Maria Harvey the laundress, and from what Joe Barnett had been able to give her, and her clandestine subletting of the room to her street-walking friends and the installment of her fine, Mary Kelly may have had quite a little nest egg.
Perhaps she trolled and tarried round her favourite drinking dens until the wildfire news she heard that another body had been found and then that great shout that it's name was Mary Kelly, and that was the call of freedom that she had waited for - and knowing that she was rid of John McCarthy, and the Joes Barnett and Fleming, and Hutchinson and the mysterious stranger that beset her, and realising that she was free of the courts of law and all of them - she fled.
THE AFTERMATH (CONFUSION)
The police arrived at Miller's Court just before 11.00am, yet already Maurice Lewis, who had known Mary Kelly for the past five years, had heard of her death. But he had seen her at 8.00am and 10.00am. We can presume that the friends of Maurice Lewis and Mary's sisters of the streets and the bars as well as Mrs. Maxwell pressed upon the police to say she was alive and walking about, while at the same time they had positive identification that she was dead.
Such dismay and confusion rose into pandemonium in the hours that followed. The divisional police surgeon got there within a quarter of an hour, and in half an hour Inspector Abberline. Two-and-a-half hours later at 1.30 the door was forced, and at 4.00pm the body was deliberately taken to the wrong ward to the mortuary in Shoreditch. Statements by so many of the local women had to be whittled down to half a dozen and had to be painstakingly recorded as to Mary's last hours, and questions as to her background and character and who she had met of late and enquiries of anybody who might have harmed her had to be asked, the ground in Miller's court fine tooth combed. And the same meticulous scouring would have continued in Mary's room long after the body was removed; and running right back from the bobby on the beat going right through to the higher authorities was the disconcerting fear that nobody had any idea who the victim was.
Add to that, that coming from Fleet Street - a distance of a quarter of an hour - was a host of spectators who had deserted the Lord Mayor's show as well as others who had flocked in from further afield in horse-drawn vehicles, and all the local residents all wanting to see where the tragedy took place, squeezing tighter and tighter together so that soon all of Commercial Street was blocked, and through all this throng people like Maurice Lewis and Caroline Maxwell telling police and reporters alike that they had seen Mary Kelly alive that very morning.
In the afternoon and evening vendors of pamphlets describing the Whitechapel murders could be heard above the cries of fruit hawkers and confectionary mongers, and nearby an itinerant street preacher sought to improve the occasion. And slithering through all these hoards, the slovens and slatterns who sidled through the sewers of life were plucking at strangers and importuning.
People, perforce for gain or notoriety, in all that excitement were relating rambling and grotesque tales of being approached by strangers boastful of their secret knowledge, and melodramatic romancings of disturbed and lurky men inviting them down dark entries.
There were a number of scuffles, probably by heated protagonists, as to whether the victim was Mary Kelly or not. A policeman who struck an onlooker was so mobbed and hooted that he beat a retreat to Commercial Street Station, whither he was followed by a large crowd who were only prevented from going in after him by half a dozen stalwart officers. On Sunday, the hubbub still had no abated. A lunatic blackened his face and was chased to Leman Street Police Station by a crowd, who besieged it believing him to be the Ripper.
And in all this tightened atmosphere the police were sinking in quicksand, so dismayed, so violated, so confused. It was against this background that the inquest was held. Enquiries had continued in all the doss-houses and hovels, amongst those who slept rough and on those on whom suspicion would naturally fall - the disturbed and the degenerate, the malfunctional and the unnatural - and the coroner Wynne Baxter, within whose jurisdiction the inquest should have been heard, must have been placated, and Roderick MacDonald, who had been gerrymandered into his place, must have been primed very thoroughly that he had to keep absolute control; and this change had to be, for Wynne Baxter was too verbose, too concerned with extra particulars, while Roderick MacDonald would only reveal that which it was deemed the public should know.
Right from the start, he treated the jurors very heavily and bullied them into silence when they complained of the change of district, because there was confusion and this had to be concealed.
The time of death was uncertain, the two doctors disagreeing. The cry "Murder" was heard by three women shortly before 4.00am and ignored, but this could well have been at the moment of death. At 5.45am, a door was heard to open and footsteps walking off. Was it Jack the Ripper? I think so, because no one heard the door close! Perhaps he left to mingle with the early morning workers and left the door ajar, both to ensure an undetected escape and for the greater outrage that this murder would cause. He always left his victims on public display; why then should he close the door behind him, much less lock it? No - it was Mary herself who closed and locked that door.
As doubtful as was the time of death, so was its cause. A blow to the throat would have rendered the vocal cords as mute as if a knife had sundered them, and shock would quickly follow - which could stop the heart and who would know? For Jack had stolen it! The previous victims had died of the throat being sliced and this, it was assumed, caused the last victim's demise. But could any cause be found, so strewn around was the body? It has been estimated that it took the Ripper two hours to dismantle her and two surgeons four hours to put her back together again!
There was a constant rumour that Mary was pregnant, three months so, yet at inquest the doctors made no mention of it. They would have known if she had been aborted and if a foetus had lain within the womb or been removed. The changes to the breasts and to the pelvic floor would have been seen, and that she had not menstruated would be very obvious as well as other signs of pregnancy. So the corpse had not been with child. Now, if Mary Kelly was expectant, then the body was not hers. You cannot reconcile a contradiction. The cadaver was not impregnated, so it was not Mary Kelly. If, that is, that rumour was true.
When Caroline Maxwell gave evidence, the explosive situation that Roderick MacDonald had striven so hard to control almost blew up. Mrs. Maxwell burst forth babbling that she saw Mary that very morning and was sharply warned to be very careful what she said. Undaunted, in answer to the coroner's asking what Mary wore - expecting her to confess that she didn't know, which would give him the chance to deride her evidence as worthless - she recalled it exactly, saying that she could not remember her wearing these clothes before. It has been dismissed as the talk of a woman who was lying, or drunk, or mistaken, and denounced as wrong. But was it? She was interviewed within hours of the slaying, it was her husband's pay day, it was the day of the Lord Mayor's show, it was "clean pinny" day and someone she knew, it was said, had been brutally killed. She could not possibly have got the day wrong.
So let us dissect what she said. That she was surprised to see Mary up so early suggests she usually rose later, and she was shocked at her appearance. Mary's reply that she had "the horrors of drink" upon her was as close to the truth as she dared go. So Mrs. Maxwell's advice to have another one drew forth the confession that she had been sick. But in truth, it was not the drink that caused the revulsion. She finally described Mary's clothing, remarking that she was not wearing a hat, which suggests that she normally did. Yes, I know Walter Dew said that she was always bareheaded, but the etchings in the popular press show her sporting a bonnet, and these were based on the recollections of people who knew her. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle; sometimes she wore a hat and sometimes not. Nevertheless, the reason Mary was hatless is that there was only one piece of headware in that room in Miller's Court and Mary lit the fire with it, and Mrs. Maxwell's remark, "I could not swear to seeing her in those clothes before" was simply the truth. Mary laid out her raiment neatly in that room to mislead onlookers into believing hers was the corpse and she had donned the dead body's attire.
Realising the danger the inquest was in if others testified in like manner, Dr. George Bagster Phillips was hurried in and the enquiry adjourned, never to be re-opened, with the words "There is evidence which I do not propose to call. . ." And that evidence may well have been provided by those who also might affirm that they had seen Mary Kelly alive on that morning.
But why not admit the truth? Because that meant owning that the doctors could not agree on the time of death, nor what precisely caused it, nor who the assailant was, and on top of all that they didn't know who the victim was! Had they not concealed the confusion, the effects would have been volcanic. As it was, the press turned even more against the authorities. The Illustrated Police News went so far as to ignore the estimated time of death, and, believing the rumours that were rife on that Friday, insisted that Mary was killed at 9.30 in the morning. The word "rife" means abundant and widespread.
A century on, and still we know neither the predator nor the prey.
I have tried to explain some of the enigmas that bedevil our thinking about Mary Kelly, and it would be nice to think that I have shone a light into a dark corner to reveal the absolute and undeniable truth as to what really happened, and yet. . .
And yet three things have I learnt that this world loves. A baby, a hero and a mystery. But babies grow up, and heroes grow old, and mysteries are sometimes solved - and who loves them then? In a way, I hope I'm quite wrong.
Over the years, Mary has changed in our imagination. Described in her time as "belonging to the very lowest class," she comes to us now not as one who blithely sank to the lowest sinks of degradation feckless and fickle, but as a country girl so daisy fresh and shining it seems that round her golden head the light of angels danced.
I wonder why, in her latter days, she was so often drunk. Heavy with child, she talked about doing away with herself as she could not bear to see her son starve. So why spend her money on drink? Better to buy her son food. If she was three months pregnant and if she was a Catholic, she could not repair to an abortionist, but copious libations of gin - which was often called "Mothers' Ruin" - might induce a miscarriage for which she would not blame herself. Whether or not, the fright she endured in that awful room might have achieved that which the drink failed to effect.
Perhaps later, with her hair returning to its natural color, haggard and hagridden, all her joy of living gone, neither eating nor sleeping, the flesh fallen from her like meat from a bone, like a hangdog she stole back to those ghastly hovels; then, resting in almost monastic quietude and gathering her son to herself, in the gently falling morning rain flung the key to that dirty screwed-down little slum from her and up and offed.
And away went she to that emerald island where she had spent her sunlit childhood, and therein recovered her health and her fortunes and met and wed the man of her choice, and in lusting and in liking, in passion and in purity, lived out a long and happy life.