Mary Jane Kelly was the last definitive victim of Jack the Ripper. She died in the most horrible way imaginable in her bed, her body defiled almost beyond recognition by the Ripper's knife. If one image serves to illustrate the foul depravity of the Ripper's mind, it is this: her semi-naked form brutalised and her identity all but erased.
The youngest and, it is said, the prettiest of The Ripper's victims, Mary Kelly's early years remain somewhat obscure. She told her lover at the time of her death, Joe Barnett, that she was born in Ireland before moving to Wales as a child. She also claimed to have been married to a miner called Davies who died in a coal mine explosion 3 years after their betrothal. She also claimed to have been in a Cardiff infirmary - although no records have survived to be able to ascertain the truth of that claim.
By the early 1880s she was living in London and plying her trade as a prostitute and later attempts to have tracked her chaotic life in the slums have foundered on rumour, half-truth and long-lost documentation.
What is certain is that by the last few weeks of her life she was heavily involved with one Joe Barnett, a dock labourer and living the same kind of precarious, hand-to-mouth existence as her fellow Ripper victims. She was possibly involved in a drunken fracas on the 19th September 1888 (a Mary Jane Kelly was fined for drunk and disorderly behaviour at Thames Magistrate's Court) and she broke the window to her and Barnet's lodgings in Miller's Court while similarly inebriated.
The last 24 hours of her life were pieced together in some detail by the inquest following her murder. She spent the afternoon of the 8th drinking with her friends Maria Harvey and Lizzie Albrook and was later reported in the company of various people at The Britannia and The Horny of Plenty pubs.
At around 11:45, she was seen in the company of a man at her lodging by Mary Ann Cox. Described as in his 30s, wearing a billycock hat and sporting a carroty moustache, he was carrying a quart can of beer and Kelly herself was clearly in 'light spirits', serenading her neighbours with a rendition of a maudlin standard called 'Only a Violet I Plucked From my Mother's Grave' and provoking a complaining visit at 12:30am. Around this time, she seemingly had some fish and potatoes.
For the next couple of hours, the details of her movements are mainly documented by the testimony of George Hutchison - an acquaintance of Kelly's who seems to have had some kind of fixation with watching her that movement. Indeed, so detailed is his testimony of this time that some have suspected him of either being the Ripper or having killed Kelly in a 'copycat' frenzy.
At 4:00am, Elizabeth Prater - who also lived in Miller's Court (the exact location of her room remains a matter of dispute - her inquest testimony was reported differentlyby different newspaper sources) heard a faint cry of "Oh murder!" from the direction of Kelly's room, but ignored it and went back to sleep. Later, she would tell reporters and the inquest that such cries were commonplace.
At 10:45, Thomas Bowyer arrived to collect Kelly's overdue rent. Peering inside the room, he was the first to see the horror within.
The Crime Scene
Perhaps no image sums up the horror of the Ripper's brief reign better than that of Mary Kelly's body. The cold facts were reported by Dr. Thomas Bond, who attended the crime scene.
"The body was lying naked in the middle of the bed, the shoulders flat but the axis of the body inclined to the left side of the bed. The head was turned on the left cheek. The left arm was close to the body with the forearm flexed at a right angle and lying across the abdomen.
The right arm was slightly abducted from the body and rested on the mattress. The elbow was bent, the forearm supine with the fingers clenched. The legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk and the right forming an obtuse angle with the pubes.
The whole of the surface of the abdomen and thighs was removed and the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds and the face hacked beyond recognition of the features. The tissues of the neck were severed all round down to the bone.
The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus and kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side and the spleen by the left side of the body. The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table.
The bed clothing at the right corner was saturated with blood, and on the floor beneath was a pool of blood covering about two feet square. The wall by the right side of the bed and in a line with the neck was marked by blood which had struck it in a number of separate splashes.
The face was gashed in all directions, the nose, cheeks, eyebrows, and ears being partly removed. The lips were blanched and cut by several incisions running obliquely down to the chin. There were also numerous cuts extending irregularly across all the features.
The neck was cut through the skin and other tissues right down to the vertebrae, the fifth and sixth being deeply notched. The skin cuts in the front of the neck showed distinct ecchymosis. The air passage was cut at the lower part of the larynx through the cricoid cartilage.
Both breasts were more or less removed by circular incisions, the muscle down to the ribs being attached to the breasts. The intercostals between the fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs were cut through and the contents of the thorax visible through the openings.
The skin and tissues of the abdomen from the costal arch to the pubes were removed in three large flaps. The right thigh was denuded in front to the bone, the flap of skin, including the external organs of generation, and part of the right buttock. The left thigh was stripped of skin fascia, and muscles as far as the knee.
The left calf showed a long gash through skin and tissues to the deep muscles and reaching from the knee to five inches above the ankle. Both arms and forearms had extensive jagged wounds.
The right thumb showed a small superficial incision about one inch long, with extravasation of blood in the skin, and there were several abrasions on the back of the hand moreover showing the same condition.
On opening the thorax it was found that the right lung was minimally adherent by old firm adhesions. The lower part of the lung was broken and torn away. The left lung was intact. It was adherent at the apex and there were a few adhesions over the side. In the substances of the lung there were several nodules of consolidation.
The pericardium was open below and the heart absent. In the abdominal cavity there was some partly digested food of fish and potatoes, and similar food was found in the remains of the stomach attached to the intestines."
The scratches and wounds on her thumb and back of her hands, allied to the fact that her face was apparently covered with a sheet when she was killed suggests that she - unlike the Ripper's other victims - was conscious and capable of defending herself.
Contrary to legend, the piles of flesh on the bedside table were not Mary Kelly's breasts, but actually flaps of skin and flesh removed from her thighs. One chilling detail: her heart was listed as 'absent' by Bond. The Ripper - as in earlier cases - seems to have had an overwhelming desire to possess some of the organs of his victims. Some authors have asserted that her heart was burned in the fire, but there is no contemporary evidence to support this.
Did she survive?
One minor, lingering mystery surrounding the case is the evidence given by two witnesses at the inquest who claimed to have seen Mary Kelly on the morning after her murder. Most likely, this is a mistake of timing, but some authors have ventured to speculate that the body in Miller's Court was not that of Mary Kelly at all. They aver that Kelly returned to the room around 4:30pm, found the corpse and immediately saw a chance for herself to escape from Whitechapel. It would take someone of uncommonly quick thinking to devise such a plan under such distressing circumstances, but the idea has enough appeal to be kept alive in the minds of some theorists.
Was she a Ripper victim?
Another theory holds that Kelly was not a true Ripper victim. Unlike the other accepted victims, she was killed indoors. As noted above, there is also evidence to suggest that she was not strangled into insensibility before her throat was cut - again a departure for the Ripper in terms of M.O. Finally, her wounds were far in excess of anything the Ripper had done before. Indeed, in contemporary belief this was taken to indicate that the killer's mind had "given way altogether" and he had perhaps committed suicide shortly afterwards.
To some modern theorists, the 'excessive' nature of Kelly's mutilation is suggestive of a copycat killing - perhaps carried out by someone whose only knowledge of the real Ripper's crimes was through the sensationalised coverage in the press and popular imagination.
In this light, suspicion has sometimes fallen on George Hutchison who, by his own account, seems to have spent several hours watching out for Kelly for no clear reason.