|A Ripperologist Article|
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Mark Madden investigates just who was Mary Jane Kelly and where did she come from?
The background of the last victim of Jack the Ripper has been almost as great a mystery as the identity of her killer. Just who was Mary Jane Kelly and where did she came from?
Most of Jack the Ripper's victims lied about their history and their reasons for becoming prostitutes, and same of than had aliases. I suspect that Mary Jane Kelly, the Ripper's last victim, was no exception. After an intensive search, I have found nothing to support anything she supposedly told her laver, Joseph Barnet, about her past.
She told friends and neighbours that she had been born in Limerick in Ireland and Barnett informed the police that she had said her family moved to Caernarvon, in Wales, when she was young. Barnett believed that at 16 she had married a man named Davies or Davis, who about three years later was killed in a mining accident. But there is no record of this marriage.
Kelly also claimed that she subsequently moved to Cardiff, where she was a patient at the infirmary and also cleaned its floors. After her murder, however, the press checked with the hospital and found no evidence that she was ever there. She had told Barnett that it was while she was in Cardiff that she got into bad company with her cousin, started to sell herself on the streets and subsequently moved to London.
Such a tale is virtually impossible to verify, but one thing which she told Barnett is open to checking. She said she had a brother, Henry Kelly (nicknamed "Johnno"), who was in the Scots Guards. My research has established that there is no record of a Henry Kelly serving in the Scots Guards during the 19th century. But there vas a John Kelly - remember that nickname, "Johnno" - in the regiment during the 1880s. He joined the Scots Guards in 1876 and records show that he was discharged in Dublin in 1883. His next of kin was his brother Richard, who was in the Dublin Metropolitan Police from 1882 until 1909.
Mary Jane Kelly told Barnett that the Scotts Guards were serving in Ireland in 1888, but records show that both the regiment's battalions were in England during that year. John Kelly and his brother came from a Protestant family. Richard was born in Belfast on October 3rd, 1857, and John on September 13th, 1861. They were the sons of William and Dinah Kelly. Records show that a Jane Kelly was born in Belfast on March 3rd, 1854, the daughter of William and Ellen Kelly. Were the two William Kellys one and the same? The explanation could be that Jane's father was also the parent of Richard and John, and that his sons were by a second marriage.
At the time Mary was living in Miller's Court, Dorset Street, her mother and brothers were believed to be in Ireland - Mary received mail from her mother in Ireland, said her landlord - yet her father was supposed to have moved with the family to Wales. All this could have been true, had the father remarried. Although Kelly is a surname most commonly held by Irish Catholics, this does not rule out the possibility that Mary Jane Kelly was Protestant. As we have seen William and Dinah Kelly were in fact Protestant. True, Mary was buried in a Catholic cemetery, and she is believed to have stayed for a short period at the Women's Refuge in London's Providence Row (run by nuns, then and today) near her Dorset Street home. But the nuns would have taken women regardless of their faith.
It is possible that Barnett and Mary Jane Kelly's other friends simply assumed she was a Catholic. Checking her story that she was born in Limerick to a father named John, and bearing in mind that she claimed to have a brother, Henry, I have found that only one Henry Kelly was born in Limerick between 1850 and 1875. His father was Thomas Kelly, and Henry had no sister named Mary or Jane. As Mary Jane Kelly was believed to be from Limerick, her murderer was extensively reported in the Limerick Chronicle and the ?mater and Limerick Clare Advorarp, but my check of those newspapers' files has established that no locals wrote to say they had ever known the murdered woman.
Local people, however, would have known only a Jane Kelly, not a Mary Jane or Marie Jeanette Kelly, as the murdered prostitute's name was given in the press. The changed name would have protected her family from scandal, and they would not have acknowledged relationship with a woman who had died in such circumstances.
John Wilding's Jack the Ripper Revealed suggests that the Prince of Wales met Mary Jane Kelly, and talks of a possible blackmail plot targeting royalty. Anyone wondering how the two net may be interested to know that John Kelly was first stationed at Curragh Camp in Northern Ireland, where the prince went for his initial army service ... Although she said that she had grown up in Wales, Mary Jane Kelly nevertheless regarded Ireland as her home. To her neighbour Lizzie Albrook she confided that she was sick of her way of life, wished she had enough money to return to her people in Ireland, and only walked the streets to avoid starving. She was believed to have come from a well-educated family, who in the 1880s would have been in the minority. In this context it is perhaps significant that John Kelly was able to sign his name when he joined the army, while his brother was sufficiently literate to be promoted to the rank of police sergeant in 1895.
I suspect that her life story, as Mary Jane Kelly told it, needed to be taken with a pinch of salt, but that it was nevertheless peppered with a few grains of truth. Which of her statements was true and which false, however, we will never know. The absence of evidence to support her account of her early life puts in doubt her claim that she had spent some time in France with a rich gentleman, returning to England to work in a high-class brothel in the West End of London.
I suspect that this was a yarn spun to impress Joe Barnett by adding a touch of what Mary Jane Kelly saw as glamour to what in reality had been a depressingly empty life. This suggests that she craved drama, but when drama came, it was of a kind that none would have chosen.
On the night of November 9th, 1888, Mary Jane Kelly's story came to its horrific end with a final "chapter" contributed by Jack the Ripper. She had achieved fame of a kind, albeit posthumously. And in the matter of her true identity, she has left us an enigma.