A Case of Missing White Woman Syndrome: The Cult of Obsession Around Mary Kelly

In the early morning of November 9, 1888, in a dingy little room, a young woman’s life was ended in a most violent and brutal fashion. Mary Jane Kelly, aged twenty-five years old, would become the last known victim of Jack the Ripper.

Mary Kelly illustration.
Drawing of Mary Jane Kelly from “˜The Penny Illustrated Paper.” Artist unknown. Image via

Not much is known about the woman who called herself Mary Kelly. She stood at about five feet seven inches tall, and was reportedly blond-haired and blue-eyed. By all accounts she was a very attractive and pleasant young woman, but she could be very confrontational when drunk. Most of the information on her background is sketchy, but as she told her boyfriend Joseph Barnett, she was born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1863, and grew up in Wales. She married a Welsh miner with the last name of Davies when she was about sixteen and was widowed when he died in a mining accident a few years later. During a stay with a cousin, she somehow fell into prostitution. She found employment in a brothel in London, and later she moved to Paris to live for a few weeks as a kept woman, but returned after a few weeks and took up residence in Whitechapel. She and Joseph Barnett met in 1887 and lived together until late October of 1888. Their break-up ensued after a quarrel; Barnett discovered that Mary had returned to prostitution after he lost his job, and it upset him greatly, though she’d had to resort to something to bring some money in, and she returned to what she had been doing before. Barnett last saw Mary on November 8, 1888, when he came by to visit and bring her some money; that was the very last time he would ever see her alive.

Perhaps what is saddest about Mary Kelly is that her life ended all too early and that she never had a chance to fully live it. Even after a life of heartache–if what Barnett detailed about what Kelly was true–there was still so much possibility. She could very well have been content to be a whore with a heart of gold, or she may have been ready to trudge to the Magdalen houses and salvation from her life on the streets. But there is really no way to know, as her life was taken so callously by a man believed that she and others like her were worthless. Her life has been romanticized, and she has almost become a tragic heroine to some.

Perhaps this is some of what draws so many people to Mary Kelly when they take a look at the canonical five victims of Jack the Ripper. According to author Christopher Scott, there are more threads about Mary Kelly than any of the other four victims in Ripperology forums. But there may be even more to it: This is akin to a phenomenon known as Missing White Woman Syndrome, a phenomenon in which news outlets spend disproportionately more time covering cases of missing young white women as opposed to missing women of other races or missing men. It’s thought that the cases of missing white women hold more appeal for the public, which is why the media tends to report more on these. Could this explain some of the almost cultish interest in Mary Kelly?

To begin with, Mary Kelly was young, much younger than the other four canonical victims, and she known to be quite pretty. Unlike Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes, who both had life-threatening diseases, she was relatively healthy. Like many of the victims, she was also estranged from her family, but young widowhood, destitution, and hardship make her fall into prostitution a little more forgivable. If one looked the point of view of a sentimental Victorian, she couldn’t help her circumstances; it was clear that she may not have chosen this life. She didn’t walk out on a husband or leave a family behind. She had tried and failed to make a life for herself, and when there was nothing else to turn to, she became the epitome of the Victorian picture of the fallen woman, doing what she could to survive. Because she didn’t “choose” her circumstances, she seems almost like a lost woman who needs to be rescued from her lot, a damsel in distress who can still be saved, unlike the rest of the Ripper victims, who were far too gone into dissipation to even turn back.

In reality, the stories of the other victims are just as tragic as Mary Kelly’s story, for they didn’t necessarily choose their lots in life, either. They were struggling to survive in a society that was not kind to women who didn’t live within its strict limitations. There is nothing singularly romantic about people who live in such abject poverty that they have to endanger themselves just to make a living. And there is nothing romantic about meeting such a horrible end at the hands of a savage murderer.

Source: Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. Robinson Publishing: 2002.

2 replies on “A Case of Missing White Woman Syndrome: The Cult of Obsession Around Mary Kelly”

I think it’s fascinating that at the same time people want to make the victim as recognizable as possible while also want to know what “went wrong” so they can put a big distance between themselves and the victim. “I’d never do X so I won’t end up like Lady Y.”

Leave a Reply