by Paul Daniel
I find it odd that so little seems to be known, or at least written, about John McCarthy - the John McCarthy of 27 Dorset Street, that is. I would have imagined that, at the time, he should have been regarded with considerable suspicion by the police in the murder of Mary Kelly, but all that appears to be left of any police interviews is a short (very short) statement now held at the Greater London Records Office, along with his deposition to the Inquest, which is hardly longer. To learn more about the lesser characters in this case, I feel, is just as important, or at least as interesting, as the backgrounds to the victims, for instance - of which an immense amount has been discovered in recent years.
I began to find out a little about McCarthy when I had an interesting idea regarding Mary Kelly. The only part of her background that is indisputably backed up by witness statement is that during 1885/6 she was living with a Mrs 'Carthy' in Breezer's Hill. This is still the eighty-metre stretch of street it was then, and leads uphill from Pennington Street to The Highway, which in 1885 was called St George Street, just north of the London Docks North Quay. In 1891 there were still just four houses in this street, and at No 1 lived John and Mary McCarthy. I could hardly credit the coincidence that in 1885 there lived in one of those four houses a Mrs 'Carthy', while just six years later there lived a Mrs McCarthy, and came to the conclusion that the press had misquoted her name in their reports after the murder of Mary Kelly. Carthy is an extremely rare name - there is not even one listed in the current Central London Phone Book, and the only one listed in the Post Office Street Directory for 1885 is William Carthy newsagent, 32a Mile End Road.
It was Mrs Elizabeth Phoenix (living at 157 Bow Common Lane in 1888) who told the police that she believed the Mary Kelly who had been murdered was the same woman who had lived at her brother-in-law's house in Breezer's Hill during 1895/ 6. Mary would have been about 22 the year she stayed in Breezer's Hill, and Mary McCarthy just a year older. We know Kelly was said to be 'tall and pretty, and as fair as a lily' (from Elizabeth Prater, and others who commented on her looks), so I took it a step further. What, I thought, if the reason she left Breezer's Hill was not because, according to Mrs 'Carthy', she went to live with a man who was apparently in the building trade and, she believed, would have married her (this, presumably, being Joe Fleming), but because she was actually carrying on an affair with Mary's husband, John, who was 30 the year Mary Kelly was living with them. An affair that was simply getting out of hand? Might Mary McCarthy have found out and demanded that Mary Kelly leave?
Nothing to show one way or the other. So be it. But then comes the very strange coincidence that three years later, there is Mary Kelly living in Miller's Court and paying rent to - yes, a John McCarthy. Could this be the same McCarthy? If so, it could provide a very rational reason for the amount of arrears in rent that she had been allowed to build up for her Miller's Court abode in 1888. At a time when many other women could not get lodgings for a single night if they didn't have the necessary fourpence, here was Mary Kelly owing more than six weeks rent. Was this for 'old times sake', I asked myself. Was something possibly still continuing? It seemed a very logical solution to a question that has puzzled experts on this case for many years.
Further research was needed, but as fate would have it, I swiftly disproved my idea - sad to say, they were not the same John McCarthy! But my continuing research threw up the curious fact that in 1891, living at 157 Bow Common Lane (Elizabeth Phoenix's 1888 address) there was a certain Eugene McCarthy, 31, a cooper, which makes a possibility of another connection between Elizabeth Phoenix and the house at No 1 Breezer's Hill. More research may find a link between Eugene and John McCarthy, but I also began to find out a little bit more about the Dorset Street McCarthy.
Born in 1851 in France, though a British subject, he appears to have been a stable family man. Living in the same house for more than ten years (possibly longer), he provided lodgings for his brother, Daniel, (a competing grocer with premises down the road at No 35 Dorset Street), and his wife, Ann; and for another relation, also called John, and his wife, Mary along with their son George. He outlived his only wife, Elizabeth, by twenty years, dying on 16th June 1934 at 83 years of age, and was buried beside her at St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone.
He must certainly have witnessed some great changes in the East End during the years between the Whitechapel Murders and his death. John and Elizabeth had four children by the beginning of the 1890's (all daughters: Margaret, Elizabeth, Ann and Nelly) - and maybe more after that. Further research may reveal the answer to that last possibility, but I doubt that it will bring us any closer to discovering why John McCarthy allowed Mary Kelly to build up 29/- in back rent by the time of her death.
This article first appeared in Issue 8 of Ripperologist, published by the Cloak & Dagger Club.