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Jack the Ripper
The Hand of a Woman
By John Morris
Poetry Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2012 John Morris
All rights reserved.
9 November 1888
It surpassed Dante's vision of hell. Not in his wildest imagination could the supreme medieval poet have dreamed up a scene of such horror. There was blood everywhere: on the bed, on the floor, on the walls and even on the ceiling. Pieces of skin, flayed from the victim's abdomen, and flesh from her thighs lay on a small bedside table; more skin and lumps of flesh, hacked from her arms and legs, were left on a larger table. Several feet of intestines and the young woman's spleen were strewn across the bed, where blood had soaked through the thin mattress and dripped silently into a widening, crimson pool on the floor. Her uterus, kidneys and one severed breast had been pushed under her head. The other breast lay beside her right foot. Her liver nestled between her feet on a coverlet caked in yet more blood. The stench of blood and gore was overwhelming – enough to make a person retch. The small room at number 13 Miller's Court was truly hell on earth.
Mary Kelly was an attractive young woman and the final victim of the Whitechapel murderer, more popularly known as Jack the Ripper. Her stiffening corpse lay on its back near to the left-hand side of the bed. Her face, drained of colour, was turned away from the wall, her sightless pale blue eyes having lost their shine, stared from behind a thin grey film towards the middle of the room. She was almost naked, save for a sheer linen undergarment which had been slashed away at the front. Her right carotid artery had been savagely cut, and her throat severed to the spine, which was deeply scored by the blade of a knife; a torrent of blood from the gaping wound had matted almost all her long, light-coloured hair. Her nose had been hacked off and lay on one side, while her cheeks, eyebrows and ears were partially removed. Several cuts ran obliquely from her lips to her chin and her face was covered in so much blood that she was barely recognisable. Her knees were bent and her legs had been forced unnaturally wide apart. Mary Kelly's torso was torn open from her ribs to her private parts, her insides viciously ripped out. Her right arm was placed in such a way that her hand was pushed inside the now empty cavity of her belly. With her entire body hideously disfigured, she resembled a slaughtered beast hanging on a butcher's hook rather than a human being, and certainly not a young, attractive woman.
At that time of year, November, and during the colder winter months, damp mists rising from the Essex marshes would drift towards London driven by light, easterly winds. There, they combined with the toxic black smoke spewed from a hundred thousand chimneys to create a permanent miasma: the filthy, poisonous, sulphurous mist of a London pea soup fog.
At 8.30 a.m. several hours after the murder on that same cold grey morning, a woman emerged from Miller's Court. She walked briskly up the narrow stone passageway to the corner of the lane, and then turned right into Dorset Street. Mrs Caroline Maxwell, a housewife who lived in a lodging house opposite the arched entrance to the court, saw her, though her vision would have been somewhat impaired by the thick foul mists swirling around the streets.
While the finer features of the woman were obscured, Maxwell could see the brightly coloured clothes she was wearing: a green bodice, a brown linsey skirt and a red knitted crossover shawl. They were the very same clothes that Mary Kelly had been wearing when Caroline Maxwell had met her the previous day.
Maxwell called out to her across the street, as the woman hurried from the passageway. "What, Mary, brings you up so early?"
The woman immediately turned towards her.
'I have the horrors of the drink upon me as I have been drinking for some days past,' the woman replied in a familiar Welsh accent.
After a further brief exchange, it started to rain, and both women moved on.
Shortly after 11.00, more than two hours later, Thomas Bowyer, a shop assistant, called to Kelly's room to collect from her 29 shillings in rent arrears. When there was no reply, he went to a side window where he knew there was a broken pane of glass. He reached in, pushed aside a dirty old coat that served as a curtain, and peered into the room. Once his eyes adjusted to the dim light, what he saw caused him to jerk backwards, and he fell to the ground in shock. Bowyer picked himself up, fled to the shop nearby where he worked and quickly came back with his employer, John McCarthy, who was both a grocer and Kelly's landlord. McCarthy put his eye to the window, and then he too recoiled in startled horror.
McCarthy immediately sent Bowyer to Commercial Street police station to summon help. He soon returned to Miller's Court with two police officers: Inspectors Walter Beck and Walter Dew. Beck looked in through the same broken window and what he saw appalled him. He pleaded with Dew not to look, but his advice was ignored and Dew took his turn at the window. There, in the darkness of the small room, he saw a terrible sight which he would never forget.
In a ceremony that dates from the time of Magna Carta, the annual Lord Mayor's Show in London is traditionally held on the second Friday in November. A procession accompanies the new, incoming Lord Mayor to the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. There, he is presented to the King or Queen and Judges of the High Court, and swears his oath of loyalty to the Crown. The event is a pleasant and enjoyable affair, generally regarded as a welcome break at what is usually a dreary time of year. This particular day, bitter cold, wet and with dark rain-clouds covering the entire sky, was no exception, and even if it was not destined to be enjoyable, it was certainly going to be unforgettable, but for an entirely unexpected reason.
For a brief time, the atrocities that had plunged Whitechapel into a state of terror that autumn were forgotten in the excitement of the moment. The colour, music and pageantry of the procession were a welcome and diverting distraction for the many thousands of visitors who had come to the East End of London, and who packed the pavements to watch the show. But as the long cortege slowly emerged from the mists on Ludgate Hill, two small boys mischievously joined in at the front. The incoming Lord Mayor, Sir James Whitehead, who led the parade, hung fast to the reins of his startled white horse, and tried hard not to fall as the boys in front of him waved large boards above their heads, danced and jumped about. Gradually, as the procession drew closer, a deathly hush descended on the crowds. The celebratory flags and festival banners were lowered, the music and cheering died away and an ominous silence filled the air.
Written on the boards the boys were waving was the latest newspaper headline:
Detective Inspector Frederick George Abberline, Scotland Yard's best and most experienced detective, and officer appointed to coordinate the murder investigation, arrived at Miller's Court at 11.30 a.m., soon after the alarm was raised. He was accompanied by Detective Sergeant George Godley, who had been assigned to assist him following the discovery of the body of Mary Ann Nichols ten weeks before. There they joined Inspectors Walter Beck and Walter Dew, Dr George Bagster Phillips, the police surgeon for the Metropolitan Police, who had arrived 15 minutes before, Thomas Bowyer and John McCarthy.
Abberline requested tracker dogs – bloodhounds – to pursue the murderer's scent, though recent trials on Hampstead Heath to assess their effectiveness had produced inconclusive results. While they waited for the bloodhounds, Burgho and Barnaby, to arrive, Abberline ordered cordons to be placed at the entrance to Miller's Court. These were to prevent the crowds, who were now abandoning the Lord Mayor's procession in their thousands, from descending on the crime scene. These onlookers were already blocking Dorset Street, and hundreds more continued to arrive as the news of yet another murder spread.
By noon, forty more police had arrived at Miller's Court, and while some struggled to hold back the quickly growing crowd, others questioned witnesses, took statements and searched the small paved yard of the court, the seven tenement houses, the dustbin and the narrow passageway that led past McCarthy's shop, for evidence, clues and traces of blood.
It was not until early afternoon – more than two hours after Bowyer's gruesome discovery – that the detectives learned that the bloodhounds would not be coming after all. Their use had been discontinued just over a week earlier, unbeknown to the detectives, and they were no longer available. At 1.30 p.m. the door of 13 Miller's Court was forced open, and Inspector Abberline, D.S. George Godley, Inspectors Walter Beck and Walter Dew followed Dr George Phillips, and squeezed into Mary Kelly's single-room apartment. They yanked away the dirty old coat from the window, allowing light to flood into the room. What Bowyer, McCarthy, Beck and Dew had glimpsed through the window was bad enough, but in bright daylight the scene was infinitely worse. All five men were horrified, and some of them became physically ill at the ghastly sight that confronted them.
The dwelling was small – no more than five or six paces from wall to wall. It contained an old wooden bed, a small bedside table, a larger table, a cupboard, two chairs and a washstand. A faded reproduction of 'The Fisherman's Widow' by the English artist Frank Bramley hung from a nail above the mantelpiece in what might have been half-hearted attempt to lift the young woman's spirits in such dismal surroundings. Given the painting's subject matter – a sad-looking woman staring at a large wooden memorial cross in a desolate graveyard – it seemed unlikely to succeed.
Dr Thomas Bond, another police surgeon, arrived at Miller's Court at 2.00 p.m. and, together, the two doctors examined the victim's remains while the four detectives searched the room for clues, and continued their fingertip search of the court.
With forensic detection in its infancy, Scotland Yard's Fingerprint Bureau yet to be established, and effective DNA profiling still more than a century away, the detectives had little more to assist them than their own eyes and gut instinct. As they searched the room, they noticed that a fire in the hearth had burned so fiercely that it had melted the handle and spout of a kettle standing on the hob. Abberline probed the large grey mound of cold ashes in the fireplace. As he prodded and poked, a piece of curved wire emerged; it was about eight inches long and attached to it was a small piece of charred material, the remains of a woman's felt hat. Further investigation of the ashes produced two more pieces of material. The larger, also burnt at the edges, twelve inches square and dark brown in colour, was all that remained of a woman's cotton twill skirt. A smaller piece of black velvet might have been the remains of a cape.
The police brought in a professional photographer, Joe Martin of Cannon Street Road, to photograph the remains of the victim. Already a veteran of three photographic murder assignments in Whitechapel that autumn at Scotland Yard's request, Martin produced a pin-sharp image of his latest, and most grotesque, subject. It is one of only two known likenesses of Mary Jane Kelly.
When the photographer had left, the doctors continued their lengthy examination of the corpse and began to reconstruct the young woman's body. They collected the pieces of skin, as well as the flesh and organs which had been ripped from the victim and strewn across the bed and about the room. Every body part, no matter how small, was carefully retrieved and replaced in and on the corpse in the approximate position it would have occupied in life.
One of the doctors also raked through the ashes in the grate, but there was nothing left to find. The corpse, sewn together as well as it could be, was removed to the mortuary in the late afternoon. But despite a thorough search of the room, the court, and the passageway to Dorset Street, one organ could not be located. The victim's heart was missing.
The stub of a solitary candle stood on top of a broken wine glass placed on the small bedside table. Lying across a chair was Mary Kelly's underwear, but her outer clothes were nowhere to be found. The damaged kettle, coupled with the large pile of ashes, provided confirmation of an intense blaze. Following a two-day investigation at the murder scene, the detectives reasoned that the murderer must have burned Kelly's clothes in order to generate more light to see by as he carried out his terrible work, though they were at a loss to explain why he had not burned her underwear also. Afterwards, the murderer had left and made good his escape. It was a rational enough conclusion to draw.
And it would have been, except that there is no record of anyone seeing Mary Kelly wearing the hat and clothes, the remnants of which were found in her fireplace, and for the strange testimony of Mrs Caroline Maxwell. She gave a written statement to the police, and later testified under oath at the inquest which commenced on Monday, 12 November, that she had both seen Mary Kelly and spoken with her on the morning of the murder: the woman whose features were obscured by the fog; the woman who was wearing a green bodice, a brown linsey skirt and a red knitted crossover shawl; the woman who had spoken with a Welsh accent....
As to the time of Mary Kelly's death, the police investigation turned up two witnesses, both residents of Miller's Court, who had heard a cry of 'Murder!' just before 4.00 a.m. Dr Thomas Bond estimated Kelly's time of death as between 1.00 a.m. and 2.00 a.m. Dr George Bagster Phillips estimated the time of her death as between 4.45 a.m. and 5.45 a.m. However, the latter gave his opinion that a body ripped apart in such a cold room would lose heat far more quickly than a victim whose body had not been so extensively mutilated. That morning the outside temperature had dropped to almost 39 degrees Fahrenheit, so it had been quite cold.
Whether Mary Kelly died as early as 1.00 a.m., or at 4.00 a.m. when the two independent witnesses heard what may have been her last scream for help, or even as late as 5.45 a.m., which Dr Phillips estimated as the latest time of death, it is certain that she was already dead by the time of Caroline Maxwell's encounter with the woman she believed to be Mary Kelly at 8.30 a.m. that same morning.
This anomaly in the evidence has never been satisfactorily explained. The dilemma would haunt Inspectors Frederick Abberline and Walter Dew to the end of their days. Philip Sugden, in The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, described it as, "an unanswered riddle". Stephen Knight, in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, said it "is one of the enduring mysteries of the case".
In its edition published on 10 November, the day after the murder, an editorial in The Times ran: "The murders, so cunningly continued, are carried out with a completeness which altogether baffles investigators. Not a trace is left of the murderer, and there is no purpose in the crime to afford the slightest clue ...".
During the course of Mary Kelly's murder, and the subsequent mutilations to her body, the murderer would, according to the doctors who examined the corpse, have been covered in a great deal of blood, especially on his hands and clothing. Near the side of the building in which the murdered woman lived, and fixed to the end wall, was a hand-operated water pump. However, no one who was covered in blood could have used the pump in daylight without the risk of being seen from any one of the tenement houses opposite; though perhaps unbeknown to the murderer, three of them were currently unoccupied. Sunrise on that day was at 7.07, but by the time the murderer was making good an escape, that time was already long past.
But if the clothes that had been burned in the fire – a woman's felt hat, a dark brown skirt and a black velvet cape – were not Mary Kelly's clothes, and Kelly was not known to own a hat, they could have been the blood-stained clothes of the murderer. If the murderer then dressed in Kelly's clean outer clothes in order to escape, this might explain how Caroline Maxwell believed that she had encountered Mary Kelly.
Excerpted from Jack the Ripper by John Morris. Copyright © 2012 John Morris. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd.
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