Here’s a question. What links Mary Kelly to a famous quotation from Winston Churchill? The answer is his description of Russia: “an enigma within a riddle within a mystery”. Was she: “tall and pretty and fair as a lily” ( Elizabeth Prater and John McCarthy ), or: “short, stout and dark” with protruding false teeth ( Maurice Lewis and Elizabeth Phoenix )? What was her real name and age, where was she from originally and was she in hiding from someone? Was it even her corpse which was found at Miller’s Court?
These are questions which may never be answered, at least not to everybody’s satisfaction. And I am about to add another one. But that later. For the moment, we return to a subject which I first broached in my 1995 book: Jack the Ripper: Anatomy of a Myth;-when, on that fateful long ago morning, did Mary meet the man who killed her?
Her body was found at 10.45 a.m. on November 9th, 1888, lying on her bed in the one room hovel which she called home, 13, Miller’s Court, a wretched little cul-de-sac running off Dorset street in Spitalfields. The Parish lay within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police force. Almost three hours elapsed before they entered no 13. At 2.00 p.m. Dr. Thomas Bond, the Met’s special medical consultant on the jack-the-ripper murders, made an initial examination of Kelly’s remains. Also present, amongst others, was the local Police Surgeon, George Bagster Phillips, alongside Dr. Frederick Brown who was representing the rival City of London Police service. Dr. Bond concluded that: “1 or 2 in the morning would be the probable time of the murder”
The Metropolitan Police detectives investigating the crime did not altogether go along with their expert on this, favouring between 3.30 & 4.00 a.m., the time-span during which two of Kelly’s neighbours heard a cry of “murder”. But un-remarked, both at the time, and since, was Dr. Phillips’ assessment of 5.00 to 6.00 a.m., a difference of three to five hours with Dr. Bond.
Unfortunately, Dr. Brown’s report to the City Police is not available;- their “ripper” files were destroyed during the blitz. But a possible clue to what it contained may be found in a lengthy piece which was published in the “Philadelphia Times” on December 3rd, 1888. A clipping of the article is preserved amongst the Met’s files (MEPO 3/140). The Journalist bases his report on what he calls: “a thoroughly reliable source” ( my emphasis), and the contents leave no doubt that that source is a city detective, possibly-given the importance which the Met. clearly attached to it-Inspector James McWilliam, head of the City Detective Department.* What is particularly intriguing are these remarks at the conclusion of the article:
“The last murder, on November 9th, came as a great surprise to them (the city detectives ), but it was skilfully timed, as that being Lord Mayor’s day, on which the City is thronged with sight -seers, every available City detective and policeman was on street duty” (my emphasis ).
Which can be interpreted to mean that by contrast with their Met. colleagues, the City Police thought the crime had taken place much later in the morning whilst the police were engaged with the crowds lining the route of the Lord Mayor’s procession. If so, then that opinion could only have originated with Dr. Brown. Interestingly, Walter Dew, known to history as the man who caught the murderer Crippen, was then a young detective working on the ripper case. He confirms: “there were differences of opinion as to the actual time of the Kelly murder”**
Had the murder of Mary Kelly occurred now then the medical examination would have been undertaken by a Forensic Pathologist, armed with the sort of techniques and knowledge which were not available to Dr. Bond in 1888. He had to rely on rigor mortis and the digestion process of food in the body. Today, no Pathologist would use either, except in conjunction with more reliable procedures.
If the tools are unreliable then so too will be the product which they fashion. Take the digestion rate. In Dr. Bond’s era great claims were made for its efficacy in determining when somebody had died, but not any more, Bernard Knight going as far as to use the word “discredited” (“Simpson’s Forensic Medicine” eleventh edition, p.25 ). Professor Knight does qualify this somewhat by stating that where it is possible to identify the constituent parts of a meal (in Kelly’s case fish and potatoes) then that may indicate that death has occurred soon after consumption, but overall the rate of digestion is now considered to be of very limited value.
Equally unreliable is rigor mortis (death stiffening). Dr. Bond has left this account of the state of rigor at 2.00 p.m:
“Rigor mortis had set in, but increased during the progress of the examination. ( my emphasis ). From this it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty the exact time that had elapsed since death as the period varies from 6 to 12 hours before rigidity sets in. The body was comparatively cold at 2 o’clock…”
We now know a lot more about rigor mortis than we did in 1888. Any number of experts could be quoted on the subject but as repetition dulls impact I will stick to two, Bernard Knight and Dr. Peter Dean, another eminent Forensic Examiner of the present era. Professor Knight writes that rigor will commence in the features 1 to 4 hours after death and from 4 to 6 will begin to spread to the limbs. It will carry on increasing until the corpse is completely stiff, probably between 8 and 12 hours. Dr. Dean is in harmony with this, stating that rigor will begin 2 to 4 hours after death and be completed 9 to 12.
Superficially, Dr. Bond appears to be in agreement: “the period varies from 6 to 12 hours before rigidity sets in”. But what exactly is he saying;- that rigor commences 6 to 12 hours after death or that it is complete by this stage? If Bond meant the latter and he was right about the time of death then Mary should have been as stiff as a board by 2.00 p.m. But this was not the case. “Rigor had set in but increased during the examination”. According to the forensic evidence given to the 1977 Fisher inquiry into the death of Maxwell Confait, the terminology which Bond uses here would be taken to mean that the body was still at the outset of rigor when he began his examination. So what he appears to be saying is that rigor begins 6 to 12 hours after death, and his use of the term “sets in” in both sentences would appear to confirm this. This in turn would be in keeping with the time of death which he gives. He also found that the remains were “comparatively cold at 2 o’clock”, which suggests that they were cold in relation to the state of rigor. This would have been caused by cold air filtering into the room and the corpse’s mutilated state, a point indirectly confirmed by Dr. Phillips via a “Times” reporter on November 12th.
But any criticism of Dr. Bond must be tempered by the fact that he himself recognised that rigor mortis was an unreliable metier and based his time of death primarily on the digestion process. He cannot be blamed for the fact that this procedure has since been shown to be unsatisfactory. In-so-far as weight can be attached to rigor then we have to fall back on this, and if it was at its outset at 2.00 p,m. then a time of death between 9 and 10.00 a.m would not be out of bounds. This enables Mary to have her fish and potatoes for breakfast that morning. It also coincides with a number of witnesses who saw Mary Kelly alive and well from 8 o’clock onwards that morning. Only one went to her inquest, a Mrs Caroline Maxwell who came forward within an hour-or-so of the body being discovered and was adamant to the point of obduracy about seeing Kelly twice earlier on that day. Dew describes her as: “a sane and sensible woman with an excellent reputation”. At about 8.30 she and Kelly had had a brief conversation in which Mary complained of having been sick, which would gel with her having been imbibing for a good part of November 8th, as other witnesses testified. Maxwell next spotted her around 9.00, talking to a man.
Ripper historians have tended to see Caroline Maxwell’s evidence in splendid isolation but my own researches have thrown up no less than eight reported sightings. There are the two by Mrs Maxwell and two by a Dorset street Tailor named Maurice Lewis, although he gave different sightings to different newspapers. Number five seems to be a garbled account of Maxwell’s sighting of Kelly talking to the man, but another, by an unknown woman and written up in the “Times” on November 12th, seems cogent enough. The scene then shifts indoors, to the “Britannia” pub where one of Maurice Lewis’s sightings is buttressed by two glimpses of Kelly between 10 and 10.30 by unnamed sources. The first of the two has her in company with her ex-boyfriend, Joe Barnett. As Barnett made no mention of it I am inclined to doubt it. Even so, Barnett has his advocates as the murderer. Not only would a later time of death render his existing alibi meaningless, but being seen with Kelly just before she really died would enhance him as a suspect.
But if Mary was out and about hours after she was supposedly dead then what of the cry of “murder” heard just before 4.00 a.m.? Sarah Lewis ( no relation to Maurice ), across Miller’s Court at no 2, heard it loudly whereas Elizabeth Prater in the room above Kelly’s heard it only faintly. But if it did come from downstairs then Prater should have heard it more distinctly-certainly louder than Lewis-because the floorboards were very thin and she was normally able to make out people moving around down there. So she should also have heard Kelly’s murderer. But like Sherlock Holmes dog which did nothing in the middle of the night, all was silence. Later on in the morning she was sound asleep having been out for an early morning drink. Prater, in fact, initially told the police that there were “two or three screams” but changed this to one at the inquest, thus accomodating Lewis’s recollection. It is also clear that Prater originally thought that the cries emanated from the common lodging house opposite: “where the windows look into Miller’s Court” ( my emphasis ). Finally, it is significant that she and Lewis were in first floor rooms. No ground floor tenant heard a thing, which suggests that these “frequently heard” screams (Prater) came from an upper storey of the lodging house.
The police and their medical advisors had “previous” when it came to mistaking the time of death of a victim associated with the ripper. It is now commonly accepted that Annie Chapman was murdered at 5.30. a.m. Dr. Phillips, however, opted for over an hour earlier. In retrospect, it seems clear that he mistook a rare phenomenon known as “cadaveric spasm” for rigor mortis.*** At the end of the day it appears that the authorities were also in error over the Miller’s Court atrocity.
But you can only perform as well as contemporary standards permit. Knowledge is evolving all the time; for example, today’s procedures will appear comparatively primitive to our descendants in 2107.
But now, on to a completely new item on the agenda. Walter Dew has written of the awfulness of the little 12x10ft room that afternoon as a posse of Doctors and Policemen ( himself included ) clustered around the shredded figure on the bed. Her eyes- the only un-lacerated features in her head-must have seemed to be calling out in anguish to them, “too late, too late”, adding to the enervating atmosphere. However, to an expert serial killer hunter like Robert Keppel this would have posed a different problem. Says Keppel, once this type of multicide has sated his anger and his lust he will undergo a temporary feeling of shame causing him to either cover her face or turn it away from him so that her eyes cannot accuse him as he walks away.
In his overview of the case, Dr. Bond states “In the first four cases (he excluded Tabram) the murderer must have attacked from the right side of the victim” (which is also this writer’s opinion ). Kelly was obviously different: “…there would be no room for him between the wall and the part of the bed on which the woman was lying”. In the case of Stride and Eddowes the killer performed exactly how Keppel would have expected him to, turning the victims’ heads to their left so that their eyes were not reproaching him (Mary Ann Nichols was left flat on her back with her eyes staring blankly up into the night). But Annie Chapman’s head was turned to her right. However, there is evidence that after cutting her throat and mutilating her he moved across to the over side of the body. Her possessions were laid out next to the fence on her left- which was smeared with blood- and her left arm was placed across her left breast. So in this case the head was turned to the right and not the left when he exited the scene. But no such explanation is possible with Kelly. The photograph confirms that her gaze would have been full on him when he left. Were her eyes deliberately left undamaged and her head turned to greet the Police in order to mock them for their failure to catch him? The problem is that this does not fit his profile, and unless you believe that he wrote the ripper letter and the Goulston street graffito then he showed no other desire to taunt the authorities. Instead, the fact that he clearly felt no shame at what he had done to Kelly suggests a personal antipathy towards her over and above his usual hatred of Women. At first sight this points in Joe Barnett’s direction again, along with George Hutchinson and even Joseph Fleming. But the killer would not necessarily have been somebody Mary knew well, just someone who drank in the pubs of Whitechapel and Spitalfields and who had encountered her on a previous occasion. Serial killers are not normal people. Any slight will fester away inside them and add an extra dimension to their rage. The premise would be that he had suffered some form of rebuff at her hands when she was not prostituting herself. In his twisted mind, when he walked away from Kelly’s dead body she was no longer belittling him:- now she was looking up to him.
* Co-operation between the Met. and the City was minimal. The only report provided by Inspector McWilliam to the Home Office was annotated by the Home Secretary; “They evidently want to tell us nothing”.
** Although Dew himself supports Bond’s estimate of the time of death.
*** Professor Knight regards it as being more useful to crime novelists than Forensic Pathologists!
Begg, Paul, Fido, Martin & Skinner, Keith, “The Jack the Ripper A to Z”, (1st edition).Headline, 1991.
Birnes, William J, Keppel, Robert D, “Signature Killers”, Arrow Books, 1998.
“Clinical Forensic Medicine”, Ed WDS McLay, ( 2nd edition ), Greenwich Medical Media, 1996.
Dew, Walter, “The Hunt for Jack the Ripper”.
Evans, Stewart, Skinner, Keith, “The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook”, Robinson, 2000
“The Fisher Inquiry into the death of Maxwell Confait”, H.M.S.0,1977. Knight, Bernard, “Simpson’s Forensic Medicine” ( 11th edition ), Arnold, 1997.
“Daily News”, November 10th, 1888
“Manchester Guardian”, November 12th, 1888
“Star”, November 10th & 12th, 1888
“The Times”, November 10th & 12th, 1888
“Illustrated Police News”, November 17th, 1888
Copyright – Bill Beadle, 2006.