On the 23rd of January 1888 James Kelly escapes from Broadmoor Asylum, Berkshire England. In 1883 Kelly had been certified insane and committed for murdering his wife. It was not until 1927 that Kelly was recaptured – after inexplicably turning himself in to the asylum. His movements for the 29 years he was at large (including during the Autumn of Terror) are based entirely on his own confession so cannot be relied on.
James Kelly was born in Lancashire in 1860, the illegitimate son of a teenage mother. James was raised by his grandmother, never meeting his mother. It was not until 1875 that James discovered that the woman raising him was in fact his grandmother and he also discovers that his mother, on her death the previous year, had bequeathed him a small fortune of over £25,000 to be held in trust until his 25th birthday. Previous to this James had been apprenticed to an upholsterer, but withdrew and sent to a commercial academy in New Brighton to learn bookkeeping and clerical skills. The following year his grandmother dies. In 1877 James finishes education and takes a job at a pawnbrokers in Liverpool. However, his mental health appears to already have been in decline as he is beginning to act irrationally and experience mood swings, within a year he quits his job and becomes an upholsterer again, moving to London. In 1879 living in Bethnal Green Kelly, a devout Catholic, has his eyeopener to hard drinking and paid sex in the back streets of the East End, working in a variety of casual sweatshops. Over the next few years he moves between London and Brighton and had some time serving on board ships.
In December 1881 Kelly meets his future wife, Sarah Brider, whose family think him to be a serious and religious young man with good prospects. By March 1882 he is living at the Brider family home in Shoreditch as a lodger and has cut down on his drinking, spending most evenings with the family. The intimacy between Kelly and Sarah grows over the course of this year and at Christmas 1882 he finally seduces Sarah. The copulation is a disaster, her lack of sexual experience and his lack of normal sexual intimacy (as his previous sexual relationships were all paid encounters with lower class prostitutes) result in them being unable to achieve intercourse, Kelly believing that this must mean Sarah has a deformity, while Sarah claims that the problems relate to her being molested by an uncle.. After this disaster in their relationship Kelly returns to his former depraved habits and his erratic behaviour, depression and mood swings returned.
In February 1883 Kelly proposes marriage to Sarah, which she eventually accepts. But at around this time Kelly realises he has a venereal disease and due to a fear of doctors resolves to treat it himself. As 1883 moves onwards, Kelly finally finds permanent work as an upholsterer, but is dismissed within two months as his employer states “he was obviously not right in the head”. Sarah’s family are pressuring Kelly to decide a date for their wedding, but Kelly tries to stall due to his venereal disease, but finally agrees to a date of June 4th. Despite his unemployment soon before the wedding, it goes ahead due to money from the trust fund. Meanwhile his erratic behaviour increases and he begins developing serious headaches and discharge from the ears. Kelly and Sarah get married and continue to live with her family, but with a shortage of space Kelly never leaves the room he has shared since moving in with a fellow lodger. It is doubtful their marriage was ever consummated. On the same day he obtains a new upholstering job and within the week had demanded Sarah see a doctor about her “deformity”. After revealing this to her parents, Sarah’s father John confronts Kelly who tells him the tale of the sexual problems and the supposed abuse. A shocked John agrees that Sarah should see a doctor, but leaves Kelly brooding for the remainder of the weekend. After this Kelly travels to Liverpool to request money from the trustees of his trust fund to be able to setup a home with his new wife – which they agree to.
After this Kelly’s behaviour becomes even further erratic and violent. After being confronted by his mother in law and wife about his self treatment (after they find the syringe and drugs when cleaning his shared room) he flies into a rage, accuses Sarah of being a prostitute who has infected him and that the family tricked him into marriage for his inheritance. Though the next day he is remorseful at his outburst, it is short lived as he screams at Sarah when she returns home from work late the next day and ignores him, claiming to be unwell. Taking a carving knife he threatens to stab her unless she tells him where she’d been. When Sarah claims to have been out getting quinine to help treat his infection, his mood swings become even further apparent when he instantly calms and collapses crying into a chair. As this week continues, so do his outbursts and mood swings. On Thursday June 21st after a row between the couple, Sarah returns home with him and locks herself in her room. Kelly flies into a range, breaking the door down and yelling that Sarah is a whore. After Sarah states that she no longer wants to live with him or even see him again, he instantly calms down and begs forgiveness. Sarah however has had enough and does not forgive him. He flies into a murderous rage, throwing her to the floor and pulling a pen knife from his pocket, stabs her in the neck. He then begins digging into her neck with the knife, trying to burrow deeper into his wife’s flesh. Sarah’s mother tries to drag him off by the hair, but he throws her across the room and runs off, locking himself in his bedroom. Mrs Brider goes for help and returns with the police and a doctor. Sarah is taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Kelly is arrested and taken to Old Street Police Station, where he is remanded in custody and charged with attempted murder. Three days after the attack, on Sunday 24th June, Sarah dies of her injuries. Earlier that day Kelly wrote a letter to Sarah begging her for forgiveness. He is charged with murder. At his trial he pleads insanity, but the doctor of Clerkenwell prison claims that Kelly is in fact sane. The jury agree with the doctor and find him guilty on Wednesday 1st of August, the sentence being hanging. The following day a petition of clemency is lodged by his lawyers and among the signatories are Sarah’s parents. This is refused and his hanging scheduled for August 20th, but Kelly refuses to believe this will happen, saying that God still had a mission in mind for him. Over the course of August he is examined by the superintendent of Broadmoor who finds him of defective mental capacity. Three days before his scheduled execution he is certified insane and sentenced to be held in a maximum security mental inception for Her Majesties Pleasure. He is sent to Broadmoor where he remains until his escape four and a half years later.
But why has Kelly been suggested as being Jack the Ripper? Well certainly after his escape he initially heads to London and is there as late as June 1888. We don’t know his whereabouts until December 1888 when he walks to Dover and travels to Dieppe. However, there is some evidence that he may have been suspected as being Jack the Ripper by police at the time. On the 10th November 1888 detectives raid the Brider house at 21 Cottage Lane, Shoreditch and question Mrs Brider as to his whereabouts. On the 12th November a note is entered in Kelly’s Metropolitan Police file by someone with the initials CET suggesting that the detectives investigating the Ripper murders should look into the steps that have been taken to recapture Kelly.
Kelly was a paranoid schizophrenic, who knew how to use a knife and was certainly capable of using one to commit murder. Before murdering his wife his anger was caused by a belief she was a prostitute and had infected him with venereal disease, but this hatred could certainly have been transferred to the actual East End prostitutes who infected him. He was in London shortly before the murders, knew the East End and they ceased once he left the country. However, his movements cannot be verified, there is no evidence he was in London in late 1888 and why are there no further killings between then and his arrest in 1927?
So while James Kelly probably was not Jack the Ripper, he may represent the type of man we should be looking for – someone with a history of insanity and aggression with a hatred of prostitutes seeking revenge for them infecting him with a venereal disease. This is one of the earliest Ripper theories, dating back to the late 1880’s, but one that has been neglected in recent years. Perhaps this should change.