The Mary Jane Kelly Project

grave.jpgTo this day, Mary Jane Kelly, the fifth canonical victim of the Victorian serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, remains a much-discussed but enigmatic figure. Her brutal murder on 9th November, 1888 shocked a nation already profoundly horrified by the spate of ghastly murders that had taken place that year in Whitechapel, in London’s East End. Hundreds of people turned out to pay their respects when she was buried at St Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone ten days later. Yet, despite her notoriety, there is so little verifiable information known about her, in stark contrast to the Ripper’s other four victims, that some authors have concluded that she was living under an assumed identity, leading to speculation about who she truly was.

In 2015, a new book purported to reveal Kelly’s true identity. The author, Wynne Weston-Davies, claimed that the woman known to everyone as Mary Jane Kelly was living under a pseudonym and was in fact his great-aunt Elizabeth Weston Davies. Subsequently, Dr Turi King of the University of Leicester was approached by the author Patricia Cornwell regarding the putative testing of DNA from the remains of Mary Jane Kelly and matching them against those of Wynne Weston-Davies, with whom she had been in contact.

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Following discussions with all parties, in early 2016 it was agreed that a desk-based study would be produced by a team of researchers from the University of Leicester to address three key questions: (1) What would be required to determine a DNA match between Wynne Weston-Davies and the remains of his great-aunt, Elizabeth Weston Davies, the individual putatively buried under the alias Mary Jane Kelly? (2) What was the likely condition and survival of her remains, if an exhumation was carried out? And (3) Where was Mary Jane Kelly buried and could her grave site be accurately located using surviving records? All three questions would need to be resolved if an application for exhumation was to be submitted to the Ministry of Justice.

This report is prepared based on information current and available as of February 2017. A site visit to St Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone was undertaken by the Research Team in May 2016 to examine the burial area and carry out research in the cemetery’s burial records. Additional research examined the case for Kelly being Elizabeth Weston Davies.

The project has concluded that whilst DNA testing of the remains of Mary Jane Kelly would allow for a comparison to be made between those remains and Wynne Weston-Davies, in order to determine if the genetic data is consistent with them being related; at present, much of the case for Mary Jane Kelly and Elizabeth Weston Davies being the same individual is circumstantial or conjectural, with no conclusive evidence that the two are the same person.Image 1.jpg

Today, Kelly’s modern grave marker likely has little relevance to the real location of her grave, which appears to have been unmarked before the 1980s, and the present marker is positioned in a burial system that has only been in use since the 1940s. No evidence for the original 19th century layout of graves can be seen on the ground but two hypothetical grave areas and a search area of c.85 sq m has been generated by reconstructing the 19th-century burial layout from burial registers and historic maps. However, this area likely contains between 54 and 394 sets of human remains, from a potential 150 to 1,240 named individuals. Genealogical research would take years to trace present-day relatives for these individuals, all of whom would probably have to give their consent to any exhumation. Furthermore, ground conditions in the cemetery do not appear to be favourable for the good preservation of coffin material, and any surviving skeletal remains are likely to also be in poor condition. All said, the number of unknown variables mean that there is still no guarantee that Mary Jane Kelly is buried within the hypothetical search area, and unfortunately, even if she is, it is very likely that her grave has been disturbed or destroyed by more recent grave digging.

As information presently stands, a successful search would require a herculean effort that would likely take years of research, would be prohibitively costly and would cause unwarranted disturbance to an unknown number of individuals buried in a cemetery that is still in daily use, with no guarantee of success. As such, it is extremely unlikely that any application for an exhumation licence would be granted.

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