A Hopeless Dawn: Mary Jane Kelly’s Last Day

‘You would look in vain now for Dorset Street. It is still there, but under another name,’ wrote Inspector Walter Dew one of the first police officers to see the horrifically mutilated corpse of Jack the Ripper’s last canonical victim, Mary Jane Kelly. The sight of Kelly’s body, found lying on her bed in her dingy room in Miller’s Court, an offshoot of Dorset Street, was so terrible that Dew never forgot it, reliving the discovery in graphic detail in his 1938 memoir. By  1904, in an attempt to distance the street from its grisly past, it had been renamed Duval Street and by the 1920s, a great many of the slums and doss houses that once dominated it had been demolished, including Miller’s Court. Now a nameless alley running between a modern car park and several large warehouses, few who walk there would ever suspect that the ground beneath their feet was once ‘the worst street in London.’

And what of the young woman whose violent end was met in that dark, grimy little room there, where misery was ‘written all over the place’ and ‘depths below the lowest deep’ were plumbed? We still have no idea who killed her and why, nor do we know for certain who she was either. Known variously as ‘Black Mary,’ ‘Ginger’ and ‘Fair Emma,’ in spite of the tireless and exhaustive efforts of Ripperologists, such as the late Chris Scott, we know as little about her as her contemporaries and confirming even simple details like her hair colour, height and more importantly, her name, has proved to be somewhat problematic. The information we do have, comes to us almost exclusively via her last lover, Joseph Barnett, and has been almost impossible to verify. Census records and official documents have failed to yield any conclusive results.

According to Barnett, Mary Jane Kelly was 25 years of age at the time of her death, which would make her year of birth 1862 or 1863. She was born in Limerick, but moved to Camarthenshire at the age of 6 after her father, John Kelly, found employment at an ironworks there. Kelly came from a large Catholic family, with six brothers and one sister; one elder brother, Henry, nicknamed ‘Johnto’ (although she may have meant that he was called John ‘too,’ like her father) was in the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards. When she was 16, Kelly married a Welsh collier called Davies, who was tragically killed in a mining accident three years later. Early reports after her death suggested that Kelly may have had a child with Davies, but such claims were unsubstantiated and Barnett made no mention of them. Following the death of her husband, Kelly moved to Cardiff to live with her cousin, and after a severe illness landed her in an infirmary for several months, she turned to prostitution to support herself. In 1884, she left Cardiff for London, a decision that would lead to her untimely death.

To begin with, her fresh-face and comely figure helped Kelly find work at a West End brothel, but her fondness for drink was incompatible with her continued employment there. Nevertheless, Barnett recalled how Kelly was apparently much sought after during time at the West End ‘gay house’ and had even accompanied one gentleman on a trip to Paris where she lived the life of ‘a lady,’ she returned after only a few weeks but adopted the name ‘Marie Jeanette,’ as a remnant of her brief time in France.

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