INTRO: "This classic episode of History Daily originally aired on November 9th, 2021.”
It’s early November 1888 in Spitalfields, a slum district in the east end of London.
Down a dark alleyway, along one of the most crime-infested streets in London, sits Miller’s Court. It’s a squalid place but to its thirty residents, it’s better than living on the streets.
Midnight approaches as a widowed woman named Mrs. Cox lives in room number 5 returns from the privy - one of only three outside toilets - when she sees a drunken couple approaching from the street.
Mrs. Cox recognizes the woman, Mary Jane Kelly, who lives at number 13. Cox likes Mary Jane, a cheerful woman who wears beautiful gowns - even if they are a bit worn at the hem and dotted with gin stains. But Mrs. Cox doesn’t recognize her companion; a strange man in a bowler hat, with a blotchy face and a black mustache.
Mrs. Cox calls over Mary Jane, and as the two women exchange pleasantries, the man silently drinks his beer. Mary Jane warns Mrs. Cox that she’s “going to have a song.” Mrs. Cox doesn’t mind. She loves Mary Jane’s singing.
And indeed, once Mrs. Cox is inside, she can hear Mary Jane’s voice through the walls, singing, “A violet plucked from my mother’s grave...” Mrs. Cox falls asleep listening to the pretty but mournful ballad.
This is the last time though that anyone will hear Mary Jane Kelly sing ever again. In the morning, her mutilated body will be discovered. And all of London will be informed that another victim has fallen to Jack the Ripper.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 9th: Mary Jane Kelly - Jack the Ripper’s Last Victim.
Act One: Mary Jane Kelly
It’s November 9th, 1888, in Miller’s Court.
Thomas Bowyer, who works for Mary Jane's landlord, has been sent to collect the rent. It’s Bowyer’s job to get aggressive if someone can’t pay which, in this instance, is likely. Mary Jane has a bit of a drinking problem, and she’s six weeks behind on rent.
Bowyer bangs on the door of number 13 but there’s no answer. He knocks again and shouts through the keyhole. Then he notices a crack in the window pane that has been stuffed with rags. Bowyer pulls these out and peers inside. That’s when he sees the mutilated body of Mary Jane Kelly.
He staggers backward, and ratchets. He then runs to fetch his boss. John McCarthy is not just a slum lord; he’s a pimp, a fence, and a fixer of boxing matches. He’s no stranger to crime. But when he’s shown what’s happened inside number 13, he collapses in horror.
McCarthy quickly composes himself and orders Bowyer to fetch the police. It’s obvious to both of them who committed this crime; the same man responsible for a string of murders in east London over the past few months.
When Bowyer bursts through the doors of the nearest police station, he cries out that Jack the Ripper has struck again. The police immediately telegraph Scotland Yard and soon, the full force of Whitechapel’s H division descend upon Miller’s Court.
The police talk to the neighbors, including Mrs. Cox. Apparently, at 3.30 AM, many people heard a cry of murder! But nobody investigated. Such cries are unfortunately commonplace in the area, the police are told.
The police ask if the victim was close with anyone. Not many, but there was one; Joseph Barnett, the man with whom Mary Jane had been living until very recently. The authorities take Barnett to Shoreditch mortuary where he’s shown Mary Jane’s corpse. But her body has been so badly mutilated that he can only recognize her eyes and ears.
Despite having an alibi, Barnett is interviewed by the police for over three hours. He seems devastated by Mary Jane’s death and claims that he was still in love with her despite their recent estrangement.
But when the police ask Barnett where the victim was born, he can’t say for certain. It may have been Ireland, he says, or possibly Wales. Mary Jane played loose with details, he claims. Barnett wasn’t even sure if Kelly was her real surname.
She’d once told Barnett that her father had been a foreman in an iron works factory, that she’d been married at 16 to a man named Davies who died young. And at some point, she said she’d lost a child, but didn’t elaborate as to how.
She’d also confided to Joe that early in her life she’d been sent to an “infirmary.” This may have meant a refuge for Fallen Women - somewhere a teenage girl might be taken if she fell pregnant out of wedlock.
At this infirmary, she met a relative who’d worked as a prostitute and who encouraged Mary Jane to travel to London and make her living there.
Mary Jane was a beautiful young woman and she soon found herself in the upper echelons of London’s sex trade. She secured lodgings in the center of town, adopted the false name Marie Jeanette and began working in what she called “a gay house”, a high-class brothel.
Gentlemen were met by appointment and would take her to dinner or the theater before returning to her luxury rooms for sex. She would accept gifts from them and soon accumulated a large wardrobe of costly dresses.
But during this time, Mary Jane became the victim of a sex trafficking ring.
She was introduced to a well-spoken gentleman who offered to take her to Paris. Delighted by the opportunity, she packed her bags full of expensive dresses and set off. But once there, she was trapped; held captive inside a low-end brothel, treated like a prisoner and a sex slave.
Somehow Mary Jane was able to slip free and returned to London. But she couldn’t go back to her upmarket brothel. She was a potential witness against sex traffickers and if anyone were to recognize her she’d be in danger.
So she changed her name to Mary Jane Kelly and moved into a lower part of town.
After that, Mary Jane was always looking over her shoulder, fearful that someone might come and take her life.
Tragically, on November 9th, 1888, someone did.
Act Two: The Whitechapel Murders
It’s August 31st, 1888 in the London district of Whitechapel, a few months before Mary Jane’s murder.
At 3.40 AM, a cart driver travels along a quiet thoroughfare named Buck’s Row. He sees a dark shape lying in front of a stable entrance and as he draws closer, realizes it’s a dead body. He immediately fetches a police constable who flashes his lantern and reveals the throat-slashed corpse of a Mrs. Nicholls - or Polly as her friends called her.
On the night of her death, Polly, a 43-year-old homeless woman, tried to secure lodgings at a nearby boarding house but couldn’t afford it. Before leaving, she implied that she was about to earn her money for the night’s stay through sex work. Hours later, she was dead.
When Mary Jane learns of Polly’s murder, she is drinking in the Ten Bells pub around the corner from Buck’s Row. As she scans the local newspaper reading the details of the horrific murder, terror grips her. Mary Jane didn’t know Polly personally but reading of her fate makes her cry; and reach for another glass of gin.
Mary Jane wonders if Polly met her death at the hands of the Nicholls mob, a vicious gang who’ve been extorting money from local prostitutes. Two other women have been killed in Whitechapel recently, their names Emma Smith and Martha Tabard. Among her friends in the sex trade, it’s widely believed that the Nicholls are responsible for those deaths so perhaps they did this one too.
Then Mary Jane remembers a chilling incident from some months earlier. She’d been told that a fearsome-looking man had been asking for her in one of the rougher pubs she used to frequent. He’d introduced himself as her father and called her Marie Jeanette. That was the name Mary Jane had used when working in the upmarket brothel.
The only reason someone from those days would be pursuing her now would be to do her harm. Though she’d escaped that life, she still knew too much about some very dangerous people. She ponders this as she lifts her gin glass to her lips, imagining that whoever is perpetrating these recent killings is perhaps searching for her. The idea is so terrifying that she spills some liquor on her dress.
Mary Jane hasn’t worked as a prostitute in over a year, not since taking up with a man named Joseph Barnett, the handsome market porter she met on Commercial Street. Joe told her he was immediately in love. On just their second meeting he proposed that they should live together, and he'd provide her everything. He promised that she would never need to sell her body again.
But in the year that followed, Joe and Mary Jane were evicted from three separate addresses. They were both heavy drinkers and would frequently fall behind on their rent. Finally, they moved to 13 Miller’s Court in Spitalfields, around the same time that Jack the Ripper began to wreak havoc on East London.
One month after Polly’s death, Mary Jane learns of the death of yet another woman: Annie Chapman, a mother of three in her late forties. When her slaughtered body is discovered in the backyard of a nearby house in Spitalfields, it causes public hysteria. Chapman's wounds are even more vicious than those sustained by Polly Nicholls.
Mary Jane and Joe read about Annie’s murder in their small and sparsely furnished room. The horror of her fate is worsened by the realization that Mary Jane must soon return to sex work. Joe’s just been fired from his job and they can no longer afford to pay the rent.
The tension between them eventually boils over into an argument. Mary Jane throws a cup at him, furious that he’s broken his promise to always support her, especially during such a perilous time. But the cup flies right past Joe’s head and smashes the window pane. They stuff the hole with rags to keep out of draft.
On September 30th, two more bodies are discovered in east London. Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes are killed on the same night, sending shockwaves through the community. Fearing for the lives of her friends, Mary Jane invites two prostitutes to live with her until the perpetrator is caught. Unhappy with the arrangement, Joe Barnett leaves Miller’s Court, and Mary Jane, for good.
Despite the terrible danger, Mary Jane is drastically short of money. So she puts on one of her prettier dresses and ventures out into the night. In doing so, she will seal her fate, and become the last known victim of Jack the Ripper.
Act Three: Post Mortem
It’s November 9th, 1888, the day Mary Jane’s body is discovered, at the Shoreditch Mortuary.
It takes two and a half hours for the doctors to complete their autopsy on Mary Jane’s body. The mutilations she’s sustained are nightmarish, even more, severe than those of the previous Ripper victims.
Because she claimed to be Irish, Mary Jane is laid to rest in a Roman Catholic cemetery - St. Patrick’s in Leytonstone. On the day of her funeral, Mary Jane's body is placed inside a polished oak coffin and led through the streets of Whitechapel in an open hearse, decorated with floral wreaths.
As the procession travels, crowds trail the mourning carriage. Men remove their hats. Women and children watch from doorsteps and windows. Pub patrons stand outside and raise their glasses.
Well represented among this gathering, are the local sex workers. They follow the procession all the way to the cemetery, paying their respects to a woman who suffered a death that could easily have been their own.
Mary Jane’s killer, most likely the man they called Jack the Ripper, was never brought to justice, and his identity was never known. But his name is not nearly as important as the names of the innocent women. Though the exact number of victims is disputed, the “canonical five”, as these women are sometimes called, are Polly Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and - on this anniversary of her death - Mary Jane Kelly.
Next on History Daily, November 10th, 1871. After going missing, Scottish physician Dr. David Livingstone is found in the jungles of Tanzania.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.