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Mary Kelly: a post-potato famine immigrant?

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  • Mary Kelly: a post-potato famine immigrant?

    There is, as we all know, a flurry of contradicting claims as it pertains to Kelly's origins. Although many details provided by Barnett at the Kelly inquest by themselves look promising to any researcher new to the case, they will quickly get disheartened by the lack of verification available to substantiate them. The Irish parentage as well as her stay in Wales has so far remained an enigmatic riddle for researchers, but when we dispense with the name details for a moment, and study the tale from a wider historical perspective, it appears some parts of the riddle are less enigmatic than we might first have suspected, and subsequently Mary’s wild tales perhaps less wild than often assumed.
    Aside from Barnett's inquest testimony (as well as his pub interview with the Star-reporter), the other fragments of people claiming to know Kelly lends at least some weight to the assumption that she told her contemporaries in Dorset Street ( and beyond) that she was indeed of Irish parentage, and that her immediate family at some point moved to Wales. Furthermore, if the story is to be believed, at least one family member had moved back to Ireland before 1888.
    John McCarthy, for example, was reported by The Star 10 November, 1888 as saying that “her (Kelly’s) mother lives in Ireland, but in what county I do not know. Deceased used to receive letters from her occasionally.”
    And then there’s the unnamed city missionary who told the Daily News of 12 Nov 1888:
    "(...) I know that she has been in correspondence with her mother. It is not true, as it has been stated, that she is a Welshwoman. She is of Irish parentage, and her mother, I believe, lives in Limerick. I used to hear a good deal about the letters from her mother there.."

    The correspondence details make one raise ones eyebrow for several reasons: if Mary had emigrated from Ireland with her family "when very young", it is easy to assume that Kelly’s parents were just one out of thousands of Irish families fleeing from hardship brought about by the potato famine of the mid 1800s.
    Again: such a case can only be reasonably argued when we accept Mary was truthful about her mother living in Ireland, their mutual correspondence having actually taken place. A factoid for which we- again- rely completely on statements made by John McCarthy and the unnamed missionary. It is, on the other hand, not true that no one else was found to confirm any of Barnett's statements. When Barnett for example speaks of Mary hailing from either the county or the town of Limerick, we at least have some collaborating statements by third parties acquainted with Kelly. John McCarthy told The Star that, although he did not know from what county Kelly stemmed, her mother ‘lives in Ireland’. Elizabeth Foster, who said she knew Mary Kelly for a year prior, was more specific when she told the Irish Times of 13 november that ‘she used to tell me she came from Limerick.’ The Irish connection was also established by the impossible to trace “Lizzie Fisher” who told Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper as printed on Sunday, 11th November, “that she (Kelly) was heartily sick of the life she was leading, and she wished that she had money enough to go back to Ireland, where her people lived.”

    Furthermore, Julia Vanturney, in response to the coroner's comment that she (Julia) must surely have heard the deceased singing on the night of her death, she replied: “Yes; I knew her songs. They were generally Irish.”

    This last clue, by the way, is not an altogether convincing one, as Vanturney would not necessarily have been able to distinguish between Irish or Welsh. This, by the way, does not apply to the last song purportedly sung by Mary in the hours before the murder, as it was a popular music hall tune at the time.
    But regardless: for a young woman going out of her way inventing an Irish parentage, as some have accused Mary of doing, the Irish songs would be a most elaborate addition to the scheme. Again: all this does not mean that Kelly was truthful in all of her statements, but it does confirm Barnett was. The fact that Kelly almost certainly lied about her name, as was common practice among unfortunates of the time (as well as current day prostitutes), does not negate the high probability that the general outline of events described by Mary Kelly were probably if not true than at least moderately true.

    If one takes the particulars provided by Barnett out of the equation for just a moment, and assume a more context-related approach towards the tale conveyed, the overall story appears to be less unreliable than one would initially be inclined to think. Putting aside for a moment the details in regards to the four years prior to the Kelly murder (Joseph Fleming, for example, for which some corroboration exists from seperate sources), the story Kelly told Barnett and others in regards to her pre-London whereabouts are remarkably consistent with the historical context of Irish-Welsh emigration in the latter half of the 19th century. The presumed date of the Kelly’s emigration from Ireland (when Mary was “very young”, as Barnett told the coroner at the inquest) for example, coincides quite nicely with the period of a new depression (1859-64) raging over the Limerick area in exactly the period they presumably undertook their voyage to Wales. This depression of 1859-1864, apparently brought about by “a harsh cycle of drought, deluge and then drought again” forced the many dairy and tillage farmers of Limerick (and not only there) into a situation where they should seek their fortunes elsewhere, most notably in the employment-rich areas of Northern England and South-Wales.
    “Whereas most, if not all, the immediate post-Famine immigrants had been benighted peasants, by about 1870 the immigrants included some of those who had benefited from economic and educational developments in Ireland itself”, notes a writer for the “The Old Limerick Journal”. If (and that’s a big if) we accept the age ascribed to Kelly by Barnett (and some others) as somewhere in her mid- to late twenties, what is the likelihood of Kelly fictionalizing her life story to the extent that she would first inform herself of the historical context before spinning her deceptive webs around her contemporaries in London, as some have accused Kelly of doing?
    Not very likely, in my opinion.

    Although the post potato-famine depression of the early 1860s was certainly less severe than the hardships brought about by the potato famine of the mid 40s en early 50s, it was clearly severe enough for farmers to try their luck abroad. As there already had been firmly established Irish communities in the heavily industrialized areas of South-Wales, especially in the areas around Merthyr Tydfil, the new influx of Irish immigrants would not have to start from absolute scratch. Although the state of Irish prosperity at that time was obviously subject to ups-and-downs, it was generally speaking still on the rise in the homeland, and it could be reasonably argued that there was a distinct advantage for any emigrant labouring in some South-Wales ironworks in the 1860s and/or 1870s to some day return home to the Island. This might (just might) point to a grain of accuracy in regards to Kelly’s mother, presumably living back in Ireland from where she (again, presumably) corresponded with her daughter for at least some period of time before the murder.

    I understand there are many more questions that are still left unanswered, such as the "father" that came looking for Mary and the matter of Kelly's literacy, but I do think the assumption that Mary "obviously" lied about her past is a conclusion too easily reached.

    Interested to hear what your thoughts are on the matter.

  • #2
    A very interesting post, Jurriaan.

    I’m not sure to what extent Kelly’s story has ever been doubted because it was thought historically implausible, though. Irish emigration to Britain has been ongoing for centuries and no doubt many of those immigrants returned to their native land. The doubts re Kelly spring from the fact that despite decades of research, no one has been able to find a woman whose back story fits the one Kelly relayed to her East End contacts.


    • #3
      Originally posted by Gary Barnett View Post
      A very interesting post, Jurriaan.

      I’m not sure to what extent Kelly’s story has ever been doubted because it was thought historically implausible, though. Irish emigration to Britain has been ongoing for centuries and no doubt many of those immigrants returned to their native land. The doubts re Kelly spring from the fact that despite decades of research, no one has been able to find a woman whose back story fits the one Kelly relayed to her East End contacts.

      I quite agree. My post was prompted by claims I see of Liverpool- or even London-born Mary Kellies popping up now and then, and oftentimes generalized assumptions that Kelly made the whole back story up. As you rightly point out no one has thusfar been able to locate her on the basis of her name, but the name is most likely an sssumed one. The problem is probably that there are too many women whose back story fits the one Kelly relayed to her contacts. This and the possibility even the Davies name (not the event) was an invention by Kelly.


      • #4
        I am curious about, "the impossible to trace Lizzie Fisher who told Lloyd's Weekly". Lizzie Fisher was a name originally suggested for the victim in Room 13. Lizzie Allbrook, for instance in the "Western Mail" , gave the information about Mary's regrets. Might Lizzie Fisher and Lizzie Allbrook be the same person?

        I have always found it interesting that Joe Barnett never mentioned Mary's mother. A young woman would likely mention her mother to her domestic partner. Others say Mary got letters from her mother in Ireland and the missionary said Mary talked of these letters. Joe B. described Mary hiding from her father and that Mary had a brother in the Scots Guards. We have indication that Joe knew the movements of the 2nd Btn. Scots Guards and that he likely knew that information because of Mary. Joe also told us Mary had a sister who travelled about and sold things and who treated Mary kindly.

        No mention of mother! Some others make letters from mother into a main identifier of MJK of Millers Court, #13. Joe lived with Mary for around 18 months. Others knew her intermittently. Something does not add up. Beyond the obvious, I have no ideas. I personally discount reports of letters from Mary's mother. Maybe they were from her "brother" who was in Ireland with the Guards? Maybe another woman in or around Dorset Street used Mary's name and address to receive letters from home? Maybe other reports have Mary confused with another Irish girl.

        For instance, the missionary may well have known a MJK who got letters from her mother in Ireland. He may not have known Mary's ultimate address and since no reliable photos or sketches could be offered, reliable reports are less likely. Had the missionary been able to tie his recollections to Mary living with Joe B. or Fleming or some other known person or location, I would feel the report was more accurate.

        Considering the last, it seems MJK may have been confused with other women at other times. Mrs. Maxwell seems to have been a sober, honest reporter who believed she talked with MJK at a time when Mary was most certainly dead. How many Mary Jane Kellies may have been running around in the East End? How many may have been Mary Jane Kelly this week and something else the next? (Although it is hard to find Mary Jane Kellies in various court proceedings of the time so maybe it was not a top alias, at least not among the criminal classes.)
        The wickedness of the world is the dream of the plague.~~Voynich Manuscript


        • #5
          I first came across the theory of identity theft from Wickerman, and I must say the more I spend time thinking about it the more and more plausible it has become for me.

          I believe the missionary did know an Irish Mary Kelly who was most likely illiterate. Then the woman murdered in Miller's Court may have also known of her and decided to amalgamate elements of her Irish story with that of her own.

          I firmly believe the murdered girl was Welsh and did have a relative/lover in the Scots Guards as her knowledge of their movements and subsequently Barnett's was very accurate. Henry is out there.
          Author of 'Jack the Ripper: Threads' out now on Amazon > UK | USA | CA | AUS