On the 9th November 1888 shortly after 10.45am Thomas Bowyer knocked on the door of number 13 Millers Court, off Dorset Street. He had been sent by his employer John McCarthy to collect the rent from the young woman living there who was in six weeks worth of arrears, owing 29 shillings. Receiving no answer he went around the side to the window, that was broken. He reached inside and pushed aside the coat that was hanging as a makeshift curtain and discovered her body lying there. She was the final victim of Jack the Ripper.
Her body and face was so badly mutilated that we don’t actually know what she looked like. She was identified by her former lover Joseph Barnett by “her ears and eyes”. She was said to be a pretty girl though, Detective Walter Dew who claims to have known her when alive describes her as being “quite attractive” and a “pretty, buxom girl”. But, what is a bigger mystery than her appearance in life is the details of her life itself. Nearly everything we know about her comes from information she told to Joseph Barnett and little to none has been verified by researchers. We are not even sure that the name we know her by – Mary Jane Kelly – is her real name. Joseph Barnett called her “Marie Jeanette” and that was the name she was buried under. The story of her life has been pieced together from the information she told Joseph and the work of researchers such as Neal Shelden and Chris Scott.
Mary told Joseph that she was born in Limerick, Ireland in around 1863 (making her 25 at the time of her death) and her family moved to Wales when she was young. She grew up either in Carmarthenshire or Caernarfonshire and was said to speak fluent Welsh. She said her father’s name was John Kelly and he worked in an iron works and she said she had seven brothers and at least one sister. One brother was named Henry and served in the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, according to a friend she claimed another relative appeared on stage in London. She also may have still had family back in Ireland, as John McCarthy said she had occasional letters from there, but Joe Barnett apparently did not know about these.
In around 1879 she married a man named Davies who worked as a collier, but he died in a pit explosion two or three years later. Following this she moved to Cardiff to stay with a cousin where she took to prostitution. She spent the better part of a year in an infirmary there. In 1884 she moved to London where she claims to have worked in a high class brothel, been taken on carriage rides and been taken to Paris for a few weeks by a wealthy gentleman. Even though she claims to have not enjoyed the Parisian lifestyle, she did take to calling herself “Marie Jeanette”.
Following this she seems to have wound up in the East End. The Providence Row Night Shelter and Convent in Spitalfields have a story among the nuns that she stayed with them briefly, before they sent her into domestic service for a local family from whom she absconded and took to the streets. A local family also have a tradition that supports this, saying they employed a girl from the convent who fell victim to the Ripper.
Those who knew her supported the idea that she went to the East End soon after returning from France. Friends and acquaintances spoke of her living in the Ratcliff Highway District, and then working for a Mrs Buki. Barnett believed she lived for a time with a man named Morganstone near Stepney Gasworks. Around 1886 she lodged with Mrs Carthy on Breezers Hill, but left there to live with a man connected to the building trade who Mrs Carthy thought she was going to marry. This was presumable Joseph Fleming, a plasterer from Bethnal Green who she lived with and continued to visit when she lived with Joe Barnett. In April 1887 she was living at a lodging house named Cooley’s (most likely Cooney’s) on Thrawl Street, Spitalfields.
On Good Friday 1887 (April 8th) she met Joseph Barnett and the very next day they moved into lodgings together. First at George Street, then later Little Pasternoster Row (where they were evicted for drunkenness and not paying rent), and then Brick Lane. Finally, in February or March 1888 they move into the small room of 13 Millers Court (actually the partitioned off back room of 26 Dorset Street). In June or July Joseph loses his job and Mary returns to the streets in order to support the couple. During this time she also allows other unfortunates to stay in the room, something which Joseph objects to – one woman was named Julia, and the other Maria Harvey. During the Autumn Joseph frequently reads to Mary newspaper reports on the Whitechapel Murders and tries to stop her from frequenting the streets. On October 30th between 5 and 6pm the two have a blazing argument and Joseph Barnett leaves her. It is likely during this argument that the window is smashed.
We know that on the nights of November 5th and 6th Maria Harvey again stays with Mary. On November 7th she buys a half penny candle from her landlord’s shop and is seen by Thomas Bowyer talking to smartly dressed man in Millers Court, suggesting she was taking clients back to her room. During this time Barnett was visiting her every day. On the 8th November (the evening before her death) he came to see her between 7.30 and 7.45pm and said she was in the company of another woman who lived in Miller’s Court (possibly Lizzie Albrook), but Maria Harvey say’s she was also with Mary when Joe came to visit, and left at 6.55pm.
Lizzie Albrook said she spoke to Mary not long before her death: “About the last thing she said to me was: ‘Whatever you do don’t you do wrong and turn out as I did.’ She had often spoken to me in this way and warned me against going on the street as she had done. She told me, too, that she was heartily sick of the life she was leading and wished she had money enough to go back to Ireland where her people lived. I do not believe she would have gone out as she did if she had not been obliged to do so to keep herself from starvation.”
Barnett leaves Mary at 8pm. There are no more sightings of her until 11.45pm. But she may have been seen drinking with Elizabeth Foster in the Ten Bells, or in the Britannia at 11pm with a young man, or even in the Horn of Plenty with Joe Barnett and Julia. At 11.45pm Mary Ann Cox sees Mary wearing a linsey frock and red knitted shawl, walking along Dorset Street into Millers Court with a man. They stop outside number 13 and as Mrs Cox passes them going to her own room at number 5 she wished Mary “Goodnight”. Mary was apparently quite drunk and replied incoherently “Goodnight, I am going to sing.” A few minutes later she starts singing “A Violet from Mother’s Grave”. Mrs Cox leaves her rooms at midnight and Mary is still singing. At 12.30am she is still singing and a neighbour is ready to complain, but is stopped by her husband who tells her “You leave the poor woman alone.” At 1am Mrs Cox returns home and hears Mary singing again and there is a light on in the room. At some point during this time she also eats her last meal of fish and potatoes.
According to the statement of George Hutchinson, by 2am Mary is back out on Commercial Street where she addresses him by name and asks him for sixpence. Saying he has no money to give her, she leaves him and he sees her pick up a client near Thrawl Street. The man says something to Mary which causes her to laugh and she replies “All right.”, to which the man replies “You will be all right for what I have told you.” They walk together towards Dorset Street and into Millers Court. Hutchinson waits until 3am but neither leaves the Court. At 4am a cry of “Oh Murder!” is heard in the Court, but as such cries were common no one pays any attention to it. By all likelihood from medical and eyewitness evidence Mary was murdered at some point in the night, but there are several statements putting her alive the next morning. At 8.30am she is apparently seen by Caroline Maxwell who describes her appearance and clothing, but admits she didn’t know Mary very well. At 10am Maurice Lewis (who claims to have seen Mary in the Horn of Plenty the previous night with Joe and Julie) claims to have seen Mary alive. These statements are generally disregarded as being confusions of dates and mistaken identities as forty five minutes later her body was discovered.
Thus ends the sad tale of Mary Jane Kelly’s life. What we know about her prior to 1886 is based entirely upon her word and cannot be verified (including her name) yet she has the dubious honour of having her final resting place as being the most visited non-celebrity grave in the world, with flowers and bottles of gin regularly being places on the headstone.