|A Ripper Notes Article|
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By Don Souden
Don Souden is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Among his museum writing credits are all the text displays at the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
Here's a bit of lore that may have escaped even the keenest student of the murders: Jack the Ripper spat upon Mary Kelly's grave shortly after her interment - or so goes at least one of many odd stories about the Whitechapel murders during the fall of 1888. For an investigation so lacking in absolutes (the universally accepted facts of the case could probably be engraved on the head of a pin - with a jackhammer), it is always a source of wonder that there should exist so many stories that try the credulity of Ripperologists who are always so eager for any new scrap of information. Yet, there is what might be called a Ripper Apocrypha of which the grave-spitting incident is only one tale.
With that in mind, it might be interesting to look at a few of these apocryphal stories, give them a fair hearing and then perhaps an up-or-down vote based on the evidence adduced. All these stories claim to have been around for more than a century, and most were first mentioned in contemporary newspaper articles, so they at least have a hoary pedigree going for them. What they have in their favor besides age, if anything, will be the purpose of this article.
Don't stop me before I kill again . . .
Sometime in the early hours of September 8, 1888, Annie Chapman met her end in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street. Short, stout and in her late 40s, Annie had endured a hard last few years of life. She subsisted as best she could in lodging houses, often garnering the nightly sum by prostitution, had a strong liking for alcohol that contributed to her chronic malnutrition and suffered from debilitating brain and lung problems. Withal, she remained optimistic, and when turned out of Crossingham's lodging house early on the 8th she told the deputy to hold her bed because she'd be back soon with the money.
That never happened. Instead, she met Jack the Ripper and ended up entering 29 Hanbury and history as another of that killer's hapless victims. It wasn't until Monday, September 10, that most newspapers caught up with the story, but they made up for lost time by trumpeting the murder in big stories. Buried among the details of the outrage in Hanbury Street was one particularly ominous warning. The Manchester Guardian reported it as: "On the wall of the yard where the body was found there was written, 'Five. 15 more and then I give myself up'" The Irish Times of the same date reported the identical message and added "The utterance may mean much or little, but upon prima facie view it is that of a dangerous madman at large and strange stories are in circulation suggesting that such actually is the case."
Pretty exciting stuff, but mainly "stuff and nonsense," because even as the previously cited newspapers were hitting the streets some of their journalistic brethren, like the Daily Telegraph and the Pall Mall Gazette, were giving the lie to the story that a message had been written on the fence. The Gazette reported "...the report the murderer left a message on a wall in the yard which was made out to read 'Five. 15 more, and then I give myself up,' turned out to be untrue."
Yet, despite the immediate quashing of the tale, it took on a life of its own. A month later, while reporting the murder of Mary Jane Kelly, many papers continued to mention that such a message had also been found in Millers Court, and it continues to turn up occasionally even now in the accounts of the Ripper crimes aimed at more popular audiences.
A question that comes immediately to mind is just how a story like this ever got started. The answer is simple but worthy of permanent note: someone must have lied! Whether it was a canard that an alleged spectator amongst the first on the scene passed on to gullible reporters or a "never-told" tale made up by an enterprising writer will probably never be known. But, because the wording of message appeared exactly the same in nearly every newspaper that printed it (even those that debunked it), I would lean to the former explanation. In any case, it was not something that was garbled in successive retellings or the result of an honest misunderstanding. It was an outright falsehood, but fortunately one that never gained that much currency after initial checking. As such, it should be the standard against which to check other Ripper stories.
Seeking her final reward
The last 24 hours of Catharine "Kate" Eddowes's life are shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. The conventional rendering of that story is that, being short of cash after an unrewarding hop-picking venture, she and her common-law husband, John Kelly, spent the second night of their return to London apart. Kelly went to their usual lodging place, Cooney's in Flower and Dean Street, while Eddowes went to the Mile End casual ward. The next day, September 29, they met back at Cooney's and decided to pawn Kelly's new boots at a Church Street broker's. With the proceeds the two ate a late and leisurely breakfast at Cooney's before once more separating.
Kelly went to find work and Eddowes announced she would go out to Bermondsey in the hope of borrowing from her daughter Annie, but that in any case she would be back at Cooney's by 4 p.m. In fact, Eddowes is next reported in Aldgate High Street, or actually on it since she had drunkenly collapsed to the ground while - in one persistent account anyway - imitating a fire engine. She was taken into custody by the City of London police at 8:30 p.m., brought to the Bishopsgate Police Station and held there until 1 o'clock the following morning when she was considered sober enough to be released. She tottered off, ostensibly to return to Cooney's, but was probably seen at 1:35 outside the Church Passage entrance to Mitre Square. Regardless of the reliability of that sighting, she was unquestionably discovered about 10 minutes later inside the square, dead and eviscerated.
That it was Catharine Eddowes who lay dead and that she, at least, was a Ripper victim is indisputable, but almost everything else about her last day is a matter of debate. Even something as straightforward as the pawning of the boots is in question because the ticket was dated September 28 and not the 29th. It is possible that Kelly was mistaken or even lying for reasons that seem obscure, but more than likely it was simply an honest error by the pawnbroker. If the boots being new might fetch a good price if not redeemed, he might have even back-dated the ticket to make redemption that much harder. And the date on the pawn ticket is only the least intriguing of the puzzlements about Eddowes' final 24 hours.
More important for many theorists is the fact that Eddowes' daughter had not lived in Bermondsey for two years, which is something she must have known. That raises a number of questions. Just where was Eddowes headed? Where she was that day until she was seen hours later doing her fire engine turn (which in itself is seriously questioned because there seems to be no contemporary source for the story)? And how did she get so drunk when she was supposedly broke? All good queries, and while capable of mundane answers they have spawned a number of more sinister explanations. These include Eddowes being a police informant, Eddowes merely being a police pawn in some greater game and even that Eddowes spent those missing hours in the company - wittingly or not - of Jack the Ripper himself.
Giving a final conspiratorial boost to the suggestion that Kate was with Jack is an item that appeared in the East London Observer on October 13, 1888:
A reporter gleaned some curious information from the Casual Ward Superintendent of Mile End, regarding Kate Eddowes, the Mitre-square victim. She was formerly well-known in the casual wards there, but had disappeared for a considerable time until the Friday preceding her murder. Asking the woman where she had been in the interval, the superintendent was met with the reply, that she had been in the country "hopping." "But," added the woman, "I have come back to earn the reward offered for the apprehension of the Whitechapel murderer. I think I know him." "Mind he doesn't murder you too" replied the superintendent jocularly. "Oh, no fear of that," was the remark made by Kate Eddowes as she left. Within four-and-twenty hours afterward she was a mutilated corpse.
That's rather a bombshell of a revelation and one that, when added to other uncertainties about Eddowes's last day, has provided a veritable mother lode of speculative ore for Ripperologists to mine. Indeed, if true, the story could explain where she had been, what she'd been doing and why she headed again toward Aldgate High Street rather than Cooney's on Flower and Dean after her release from jail.
There is just one hitch, however, and that is those two little words in the previous sentence: if true. There is no question here of missing sources as there is with the fire engine impersonation tale. This story was printed in a contemporary newspaper and may well have been a faithful transcription of what the reporter heard. It also, however, has a place among Ripper Apocrypha and demands to be examined closely to determine how factual it may be and, equally important, how relevant it may be.
To begin with, it is likely that the two most popular phrases uttered by the people of Whitechapel during Jack's reign of terror in the fall of 1888 were "Ooo, I don't wanner meet 'im in an alley" and "Cor, I fink I know who the Ripper is!" The first, of course, is simply common sense and possibly helped keep the body count as low as it was. The second statement, that the speaker had an inkling about the Ripper's identity, probably covered a multitude of sins and sinners and included among the suspects every mooching in-law, loudmouthed neighbor, poor soul with a cast in his eye, hare-lip or other physical deformity and everyone else who had incurred somebody's wrath.
Support for that view is provided by a brief perusal of newspapers for that day. The Observer itself reported that:
Some extraordinary stories are being told by people who allege that they could easily identify the murder. A reporter who visited the wards of St. George's East infirmary interviewed in the ward devoted to unfortunates, a woman named Jenny, who stated that she was absolutely sure of the identity of the murderer. She described him as a foreigner who habitually went about blackmailing unfortunate women and threatening occasionally to rip them up .... Again, a well-known medical man in East London has communicated information regarding a former assistant of his, who, he is equally convinced is the man needed.... Finally, a seaman named Dodge has given information of a Malay who cherishes a peculiar hatred against unfortunates, and who, he adds, would not hesitate at any crime.
Nor were these suggestions unique to the Observer. The Daily News of the same date carried a story that "police are watching a house at the East end which is strongly suspected to have been the actual lodging ... of some one connected with the East end murders." This individual had been reported by suspicious neighbors. Further afield, the Manchester Guardian for the same day reported that the river Tyne police had received information about a foreign seaman whose "signature corresponded with the fac-simile of the letters signed Jack the Ripper...."
Indeed, it was a very slow news day when the newspapers didn't have at least one more Ripper suspect reported to the police for investigation. Still, if one of the great games enjoyed in all of Britain (suspects were regularly reported from places as far from London as Aberdeen and Belfast) at the time was "Pin the Tail on Jack," that doesn't necessarily mean Eddowes' suspicions were without merit. If, of course, she ever voiced them to begin with.
As it was, Eddowes and Kelly had been hopping for a good part of September, and at the inquest Frederick William Wilkinson, deputy manager at Cooney's, said that "the last time the deceased and Kelly slept together at the lodginghouse was five or six weeks ago; before they went hopping."(Note 1) Since they were regulars it is likely that shortly after their last night at Cooney's the pair took to the road to go hop picking, and if Wilkinson was correct then Eddowes would have been away from London for all of the possible Ripper murders that autumn save for that of Martha Tabram on August 7.
Even if she were away all that time, news of the murders of Mary Ann Nichols and Annie Chapman was certainly carried to the hop fields by newspaper and word of mouth. And while we might think hop picking wasn't very conducive to amateur sleuthing, it is possible that she saw someone or heard something while in Kent that produced an insight worthy of Sherlock Holmes. But, if that did happen, Eddowes had been unaccountably mum about her supposed discovery. No mention, it would seem, was made to John Kelly, and nothing was said to the couple that accompanied her and Kelly part of the way home, even though she was supposed to have told the workhouse superintendent "I have come back to earn the reward...."
For this scenario to work we must believe that something happened while Eddowes was hopping, where she was working hard from dawn to dusk (or at least looking hard for work) and was far from the crime scenes and most sources of information, that would have allowed her to connect somebody with the murders. That's possible, of course, but not very likely. The likelihood becomes more tenuous when you consider that Eddowes and Kelly arrived in London flat broke, and Eddowes nonetheless wasted a good 36 hours before (perhaps) doing anything about fingering Jack. Again, the words "I have come back" loom large in assessing the story.
Next, the source of the story must be considered. The Observer was a weekly newspaper, so it is hard to know just when the superintendent was supposedly interviewed, but it didn't appear until nearly two weeks after the murder and after the inquest had ended. One would think that if there were anything to the story that the superintendent or the reporter would have been in touch with the police or coroner. For that matter, the publication of the story itself had no major response from the public or from police officials. However much the tale might stir the speculative juices of modern theorists, it evidently did not excite its contemporary readers at all. Whether this was because, as we have seen, such stories were common or for some other reason is uncertain, but the fact remains it drew nothing more than a shrug at best.
Further making the timing suspect is the latter part of Eddowes's statement: "I have come back to earn the reward." Although a reward had been debated for weeks, it was not until after the "double event" that the City Police and many civic groups actually began to offer substantial rewards and the newspapers were filled with stories about sizeable rewards. Eddowes was said to be a jolly sort, but no one credited her with the prescience needed to anticipate these large rewards after her own death. Finally, there is Philip Sugden's observation that the colloquy between Eddowes and the superintendent sounds so very much like that which was reported between Eddowes and John Kelly on their last parting "that it is tempting to see the Observer's tale simply as a piece of dishonest reporting drawing upon confused memories of Kelly's various press statements."(Note 2)
What then is the verdict on the tale that Eddowes returned from hopping because she knew who the Ripper was? Almost certainly a very vigorous thumbs down! That Eddowes may have sometime suggested she knew who the Ripper was is possible - it seemed a popular sport at the time. But that she came back from Kent to voice those suspicions, that she said as much to the Mile End superintendent or spent her last afternoon seeking out and possibly meeting that suspect just doesn't hold water. Indeed, it's full of more holes than the sieves sold by Annie Chapman's one-time companion Jack Sivvy.
Shed-ding more light on Kate
Another bit of dubious lore about Catharine Eddowes owes its long life to an article in the October 3, 1888, Daily Telegraph that said, in part:
It appears that Detective-Sergeant Outram, of the City Police, came to the mortuary in Golden-lane, with a party of six women and a man. Some of the former had, it is said, described the clothing of the deceased so accurately that they were allowed to confirm their belief by viewing it at the Bishopsgate-street Police-station. Subsequently they were taken to the chief office in Old Jewry, and thence conducted to the mortuary. Here two of the women positively identified the deceased as an associate, but they did not know her by name. She does not seem to have borne a nickname. They were ignorant of her family connections or her antecedents, and did not know whether she had lived with a man. The dead woman had, in fact, belonged to the lowest class, and frequently was without the money to obtain admission to the common lodging-houses. Whenever she was in this impecunious state she had, in the company of the women who now identified her body, slept in a shed off Dorset-street, which is the nightly refuge of some ten to twenty houseless creatures who are without the means of paying for their beds.
This seemingly innocuous anecdote has grown over the years until it is now used as proof of many mind-boggling assertions, not the least that Kate and Joseph Barnett (who had shared the room with Kelly until shortly before her death and a modern-day suspect) were known to each other. Bruce Paley was the first to make this claim (Note 3) in Jack the Ripper: The Simple Truth, and the tale's usage by Barnett theorists has grown by leaps and bounds in the ensuing decade.
Adding to the legend, Lloyd's Weekly for October 7 carried the same story (which seemed to provide "second-source" confirmation) and then, after the Mary Jane Kelly murder in Millers Court, the Daily Telegraph for November 10 carried a story (also picked up subsequently by Lloyd's) that identified for the first time the shed on the other side of the partition in Kelly's room as "until a few weeks ago the nightly resort of poor homeless creatures, who went there for shelter. One of these women was Catherine Eddowes, the woman who was murdered in Mitre-square." Bingo - Barnett, Kelly, Eddowes, Annie Chapman down the street and you have half the Ripper cast living virtually cheek-to-jowl on Dorset Street.
One hates to be a kill-joy, but the story cries out for a close and critical examination. There is no doubt that the Daily Telegraph, as reputable a rag as you would find at the time, ran the story, but even it seems to have come upon the news second-hand. Note the way the story starts: "It appears that..." which is journalistic shorthand for something on the order of "We have heard, but haven't actually confirmed the following...." Since DS Outram is mentioned by name, it may be he said something to someone who told the reporter about the incident, or it may have been passed on by someone at the mortuary. In either case the source is likely second-hand.
Moreover, the supposed confirmation supplied by Lloyd's Weekly is nothing of the kind. Both stories that appeared in Lloyd's were virtually identical to those that had appeared first in the Telegraph; so much so that it is clear the stories were simply lifted and reprinted. This was not uncommon at the time, especially by small weeklies, but the practice does take considerable steam out of the notion that the story was double-sourced.
Next, the story itself needs to be looked at with a jeweler's eye. It is quite possible, even probable, that the homeless delegation did make the trek to the police station and then to the mortuary. Too much, however, ought not be made of the detailed description of the victim's clothing (a knowledge of which was supposedly proof of the group's bona fides) since Eddowes' clothing was described right down to the Michaelmas daisies on her outer dress in most newspapers on October 1. If you could read, you could tell the police what Eddowes had worn. Unfortunately, other newspaper reports make it clear that one of the ghoulish games played at the time was to concoct a story that would allow you to see a Ripper victim in the mortuary. What better way than to claim you'd spent the previous night with her in some secluded rendezvous or shed?
Such a suspicion becomes even stronger when you note that - after having viewed the body and deciding, yes indeed, that was their dear companion from the shed - not a one of the seven could remember a single thing about her. According to the seven, whenever she was without doss money Eddowes was wont to share shed space with them, and yet they didn't know her name or nickname, didn't know if she had a man or not, in fact didn't know a single thing about her at all. Does that have the ring of truth for any group of women spending time together, save those in a nunnery under a vow of silence? And all the more does it sound right that "our Kate" - always described as a jolly, outgoing woman - would have retired to that shed and acted like someone in a witness protection program?
Finally, one must ask just when it was that Eddowes was supposed to have spent all those nights in the shed on Dorset Street. After all, she'd been hopping for most of September at least and spent the last nights of her life in two casual wards. Before that, she and John Kelly had been accounted regulars at Cooney's and... well, there just weren't many opportunities for Eddowes to have partaken of this secret refuge known only to a select dozen or two (the notion of a secret shared by many itself sounds like an oxymoron). Moreover, given the dearth of recent opportunities for them to have seen her, it seems all the more suspicious that they could remember so accurately what she was wearing the day of her death.
Even stranger is the notion that a free doss in a shed owned by John McCarthy (a man with an eye for the main chance and who had a string of paying tenants and an interest in several lodging houses) ever existed, other than perhaps on a very occasional evening when someone forgot to lock up, seems very dubious. But that's another story. And as far as Eddowes spending time there, I'm sorry Barnett partisans, but if Joe did know Eddowes it had nothing to do with this particular canard. Another big thumb's down for this tale "shed-ding" any light on Catharine Eddowes.
Suffer the little children
A persistent if little appreciated chimera that arose in the immediate aftermath of the Millers Court murder is the idea that Mary Jane Kelly had a child living with her. Indeed, the November 10th issues of the Daily News, Manchester Guardian and Times, as well as other papers, all had almost identical reports that began: "She had a little boy, aged about six or seven years, living with her." The items all went on to say that Kelly had despaired for the boy, given her circumstances, and added that the night of her death a man called on Kelly in, as they reported, "her lodgings, which are on the second floor" - Kelly most assuredly lived on the ground floor of 13 Millers Court - and took the boy away.
And then, as magically as this little lad appeared, he disappeared forever as if transported to another dimension by the mysterious man who came to call on Kelly. Considering the myriad bits of misinformation that made their way into newspapers in the hours immediately after Kelly's murder,"(Note 4) it is easy enough to accept this as simply another example of a rumor, innuendo or lie that gained print. Except there is one problem: Joseph Barnett, who had lived with Mary Kelly until 10 days before her death and should have known best if there had been a child at 13 Millers Court, seems to have endorsed just that notion in an interview.
The November 10th Star carried something of an exclusive after one of its reporters spoke to Barnett:
To our reporter Barnett said he and deceased were very happy and comfortable together until another woman came to sleep in their room, to which he strongly objected. Finally, after the woman had been there two or three nights he quarreled with the woman whom he called his wife and left her. The next day, however, he visited her between half-past seven and eight, and told her he was sorry he had no money to give her. He saw nothing more of her. She used occasionally to go to the Elephant and Castle district to visit a friend who was in the same position of life as herself. Kelly had a little boy, aged about six or seven years, living with her.
To begin with, the supposed exclusive interview doesn't tell anything much different than what other newspapers reported, despite the trumpeting that Barnett had whispered his banalities solely into the ears of a Star reporter. Even more important, though, is the structure of the paragraph. There are, in fact, no direct quotations indicated, and it seems obvious that at least part of this alleged interview was patched together from other sources. This is particularly true of the last sentence, which suggests Barnett confirmed the story of a boy, perhaps even a Davies scion, living with Kelly.
Indeed, except for using "Kelly" rather than "she", the last sentence is exactly the same as that run by all the other papers and for whatever reason was baldly tacked onto the end of what was promoted as an interview with Barnett. So another emphatic thumb's down for the notion that Barnett - even in his cups - ever endorsed the idea of a child having lived at 13 Millers Court. The Star may have had its own interview with Joe Barnett, but that last sentence almost assuredly was the result of journalistic deceit or editorial error.
The spitting image...
Finally, onto the ever popular story that Joe Barnett spit into Mary Jane Kelly's open grave, and by so doing unwittingly confessed to her murder. Unlike the tales that were already discussed, this one only has an after-the-fact contemporary source, but it is often discussed on the Casebook: Jack the Ripper message boards.(Note 5) While the story may sound silly to many readers, a closer examination is well worth the effort.
The story begins with a series of British television programs in 1959 hosted by Daniel Farson. The episodes of November 5 and 12 were devoted to Jack the Ripper, and during them Farson became the first to mention publicly the Macnaghten memoranda and reveal the initials of Montague John Druitt, the "drowned doctor" in the document. As part of the program, Farson also asked members of the viewing audience to send him any old information they might have on Jack the Ripper, and this resulted in at least one interesting reply.
An elderly woman passed on a story she said her mother had told her shortly before her death. The mother, then a young woman, said she had been in the cemetery with a friend when Mary Jane Kelly was being laid to rest and that they furtively watched the proceedings. Then, the story goes, after the service was finished one man (supposedly Barnett) remained behind, whereupon he parted the boards covering the open grave and spat into that hole. This is a relatively simple story without any seeming embellishments, but even so the question remains: Was it true? And if it were, what does it mean?
This account of alleged grave-spitting is an example of anecdotal oral history, the bane of researchers everywhere. The sad truth is that "many-told" tales get more rococo with every retelling. That doesn't mean that the people telling the tales are liars or even consciously changing details - it just happens. Old athletes often joke about the way their youthful moments of glory get ever more grand and glorious as they get older, and the same is true for everyone in any endeavor - even stories elderly mothers tell their daughters.
Still, this story is fairly straightforward so let us be charitable and accept everything said as being an accurate rendering of the events. (Though if the tale were true I would suspect that the young women involved were not there by chance but had come purposely to spy on the Kelly service.) That said, however, the timing seems a little off because boards are usually placed over an open grave to prevent someone from falling in. They are removed just before the service, the casket lowered, and after the mourners have left the cemetery work crew will fill in the hole. Thus, the parting of the boards by Barnett seems unnecessary, or an embellishment to the story wrought by time.
Again, though, let us be fair and posit that the workmen had other more pressing duties somewhere and hastily replaced the boards with the intention of filling the grave later. And so perhaps it actually was Joe Barnett (though there isn't a particle of proof it was him) who parted the planks and spat into the grave - or did something. Maybe Barnett, if it were him, was literally choked up with grief so that what looked like angry spitting was the involuntary result of tears and sobs. Or, since some modern authors allege that Barnett stuttered,(Note 6) and if it were him, what seemed like spitting was only a manifestation of this supposed speech impediment that confused those watching from afar. And perhaps, if it were Barnett, he really did rail against Mary Jane Kelly (after all, she had led him a merry dance), and did spit with what he wished were real venom upon her casket. And if so, so what?
That last question, of course, is the real problem with trying to make too much of the grave-spitting story. Even if it all happened the way it was described to Farson, it doesn't constitute a lick of proof that Joe Barnett had anything to do with the murder of Mary Jane Kelly.
And what applies to this one story also does to the others we have considered. Even were they all true that doesn't mean they are capable of supporting the further "truths" some theorists try to wring from their retelling. Sadly, there are a lot more such myth-like stories out there, and what we do know as solid fact could probably be engraved on that pinhead with a jack-hammer.
1. Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion, Carroll & Graf Publishers (2000), pp. 200-01.
2. Philip Sugden, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, Carroll and Graf Publishers (2002), p. 249.
3. Bruce Paley, Jack the Ripper: The Simple Truth, Headline Book Publishing (1996), pp. 106, 109-10.
4. See the author's article "The Murder in Cartin's Court" in the January 2005 (#21) issue of Ripper Notes for more on this topic.
5. For an example of such a discussion, see: casebook.org/forum/messages/4922/7061.html
6. Most notably in Bruce Paley's Jack the Ripper: The Simple Truth, Headline Book Publishing (1996), p. 197.