Joseph Barnett: Lover, Killer, or Both?
21 April 2009
Joseph Barnett: Lover, Killer, or Both?
“You know there’s nothing in the world that I wouldn’t do, nothing in the world that I wouldn’t do for you because I love you.” These lyrics from a famous soul group in the 1970s, The Stylistics, form the nucleus around which my argument revolves. Among the numerous suspects of the Ripper murders, one man stands out above the rest: Joseph Barnett. He was so deeply in love with Mary Kelly that he was willing to kill. He was blinded by love and desperate times called for desperate measures.
Robert Ressler, the former FBI agent who coined the term “serial killer,” believed that the “initial murderous impulse is often triggered by some sort of pre-crime stress, such as the loss of a job, the break up of a relationship, money problems, etc.” (Paley 218). In July 1888, only a month before the first murder, Barnett lost his license as a fish porter. Because he lost his job, he was no longer able to financially support Mary Kelly. She was then forced back into prostitution, much to Barnett’s chagrin. He hated prostitutes and constantly tried to convince Kelly to stop soliciting. However, after he lost his job, he could not stop her because it was her only source of income. This traumatic event could have been the catalyst that set off this lovesick man. Even though he moved out after he lost his job, Barnett still went to see Mary Kelly almost everyday. On October 30th, Elizabeth Prater, a neighbor of Kelly, hears her arguing with Barnett. This argument may have also set him off and led to the double event that night (the murder of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes). At this point, Barnett’s motive might have shifted more from trying to scare Kelly to taking out his anger at her on other prostitutes, whom he blamed for her downfall. He thought the prostitutes were responsible for all of Mary’s transgressions.
The majority of people who are murdered know their killer. Unlike many serial killers, Barnett murdered those women not because he had an uncontrollable urge to take someone’s life or because he took pleasure in causing other people pain. He had a specific reason for killing those women, which centered on his relationship with Mary Jane Kelly. Barnett was in love with Mary Kelly and did not approve of her prostitution. He pleaded with her to stop but she paid no heed to his requests. Fed up with her promiscuous behavior, Barnett thought the only way to get her to stop would be to scare her. In his mind, the most effective strategy was to kill other prostitutes, which would inevitably keep her off the streets. The scare tactic did not accomplish his goal, leaving him powerless and infuriated. When he finally realized his love was unrequited, he murdered his lover in a passionate fit of rage.
The type and amount of Kelly’s mutilations point toward a motive of revenge that could only have been carried out by someone who knew her well. The person who killed Mary Kelly must have had a personal vendetta against her, or he would not have felt the need to practically cut off her face and completely mutilate every inch of her body. Almost every part of her was cut off, removed, or otherwise mutilated. The fact that her injuries were so much worse than the other victims indicates that the killer had some personal relationship with her. He cut off her breasts and cut out her uterus, the parts of the body that indicate her status as a woman and a prostitute. Her face was “hacked beyond recognition;” he could not bear to see the face of the woman he loved as he mutilated her corpse (Casebook.org). Most interestingly, the killer took her heart from the crime scene. This makes perfect sense if Barnett was her killer. Essentially he murdered Kelly because she did not give him all of her love. Therefore, taking her heart was symbolic of him finally receiving what he so desperately sought. The whole incident was a love story gone wrong.
The M.O. also legitimizes Barnett’s candidacy as a Ripper suspect. The killer was not sadistic. He did not torture his victims and only mutilated their bodies after they were already dead. Several of the victims were even strangled before their throats’ were cut. The way the victims were killed indicates that the murderer made extra effort not to make them suffer needlessly. Serial killers who murder people for pleasure often take pains to make the victims suffer by either raping or torturing them before they are finally killed. Serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Albert Fish, Dennis Rader, Dayton Leroy Rogers, William Bonin, and Randy Kraft severely raped, beat, and/or tortured their victims. History suggests that serial killers are usually sadistic sociopaths who are psychologically disturbed. Conversely, the Ripper murders were a whole different breed of killings. The method of murder indicates that Jack the Ripper was not the typical serial killer. He had no compulsion to torture his victims and there was no evidence of rape. The fact that they were cut open and left in the middle of public places suggests that the killer was trying to send a message, not fulfill some deranged desire to kill. The methodical mutilation of the bodies and positioning of the corpses also seem to send a message. The removal of the uteri is analogous with Barnett’s ideas and behavior. His hatred of prostitutes compelled him to take away the very thing that made them women. He wanted everyone, especially Mary Kelly, to realize that the unfortunates were just common whores, who were unfit for society. Barnett did not want to cause people pain; he only wanted to stop his true love from selling herself to other men.
Choosing Barnett as the Ripper also gives an explanation for why Kelly was the last victim. He only killed the first four prostitutes to scare Mary Kelly. He murdered these women specifically to keep her away from prostitution. Everything Barnett did was fueled by his love for Mary Kelly. Had his strategy worked, and she stopped working as a prostitute, he probably would not have killed her. Losing his job left him helpless and resentful; he did not want Kelly to be a prostitute, but he could not afford to take care of her anymore. He let his anger and frustration at Kelly, and all other prostitutes, overcome him. Barnett could no longer tolerate her stubborn refusal and murdered her in a bout of frenzied madness. Once he killed her, however, there was no reason for him to kill anyone else. Barnett’s homicidal tendencies were only aroused by the specific situation. If such a situation had never presented itself, his murderous impulses may never have been awakened.
Many witness descriptions also match Barnett’s physical description. Witnesses estimated the murderer was in his late twenties or early thirties; Barnett was 30 at the time of the murders. The supposed killer was described as being about 5 feet and 7 to 8 inches tall; Barnett was 5’7. Many witnesses also claimed the man had a fair complexion and a mustache, which was synonymous with Barnett’s physical appearance (Paley 214). Critics of the Barnett theory would probably mention George Hutchinson, a friend of Mary Kelly’s who saw her with a man the morning of her murder. Hutchinson got a good look of the man and gave the police a very detailed description. He said the man was 34 or 35 years old, 5 feet 6 inches, had a moustache, dark eyes, and dark hair. In his descriptions, he stated the man had a “respectable” and “Jewish appearance” (Casebook.org). Barnett was definitely not Jewish and it is debatable how he looked at the time considering he was unemployed. More importantly, if Hutchinson knew Kelly as well as he said, he would have known Barnett and been able to recognize him. If we can even assume Hutchinson is a credible witness, there is an important fact these critics are overlooking. While the man Hutchinson saw was probably not Barnett, this does not prove that Barnett was the murderer. Kelly and the mysterious man may have parted ways after Hutchinson left. There is no evidence to indicate the man and murderer are one in the same. On the night of Mary’s murder, Barnett had gone to see her per usual, and claimed that he returned to his lodgings to play whilst with his friends before he went to sleep. His alibi is not very airtight. He could have told his friends to lie about what they were doing. Depending on police policies, they might not have even questioned Barnett’s friends to corroborate his alibi. He could have easily gotten back up in the middle of the night, left to kill Mary Kelly, and returned without being noticed. Since he knew Whitechapel so well, it would have been easy for him to prowl the streets at night and avoid detection.
Joseph Barnett also fits many aspects of the FBI profile of Jack the Ripper. The profile suggests the killer was a white male, 28-36 years old, who lived or worked in Whitechapel (Texas State University). Barnett was indeed a white male and was 30 years old at the time of the murder. He also “lived within a mile of Whitechapel his entire life” (Casebook.org). The locations where the bodies were found, along with the fact that the killer was never caught, suggest that the Ripper had vast knowledge of Whitechapel. Barnett lived and worked there his whole life, making him a prime candidate. The FBI also believes the killer had a passive or absent father figure in childhood. Barnett’s father died in 1864 when he was six years old and his mother deserted the family around that time as well (Casebook.org). It is probable that the Ripper had a job “where he could vicariously experience his destructive fantasies” (Paley 220). Barnett was a fish porter, one who bones and guts fish. This job allowed him to “indulge in his morbid fantasies” (Paley 220). His job as a fish porter also gave him some very basic anatomical knowledge that would have been helpful when mutilating the women. The nature of his work would have even given him an excuse as to why he might be covered in blood and guts. The profile also assumes that Jack the Ripper might have had “some type of physical abnormality that, although not severe, he would perceive as psychologically crippling” (Paley 220). It has been suggested the Barnett had echolalia, “the involuntary parrot-like repetition (echoing) of a word or phrase just spoken by another person” (MedicineNet.com). The idea that he had a speech impediment came from a news report that claimed Barnett “repeated the last words spoken to him at the inquest” (Casebook.org). If the news report was accurate, is possible that Barnett truly had a speech impediment.
Although it is impossible, with the evidence that we have, for one suspect to undoubtedly be proven the killer, Joseph Barnett seems the most likely suspect. He had the motive, means, and opportunity. When he finally realized Mary Kelly did not love him as much as he loved her, he completely broke down. Distraught from his recent job loss, Barnett felt he had no other choice but to kill other prostitutes to scare Mary Kelly off the streets. He thought that if she stopped selling herself and spending time with immoral prostitutes, she would realize how much she loved him. When his flawed plan did not achieve the desired goal, his anger and frustration only worsened. Finally Barnett lost all ability to reason and killed Mary Kelly in a passionate rage of bitter resentment. Though Barnett was not the typical serial killer, there is much evidence to suggest that he was Jack the Ripper.
“Echolalia definition – Mental Health Disorders on MedicineNet.com.” 21 Apr. 2009 <http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=26315>.
“Joseph Barnett.” Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Ed. Stephen Ryder. 21 Apr. 2009 < http://casebook.org/suspects/barnett.html>.
“Mary Jane Kelly.” Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Ed. Stephen Ryder. 21 Apr. 2009 <http://casebook.org/victims/mary_jane_kelly.html>.
Paley, Bruce. Jack the Ripper The Simple Truth. New York: Trafalgar Square, 1996.