Just a Regular Joe
The series of murders that startled London during the fall of 1888 led to the naming of dozens of potential suspects. Some were more outlandish than others, but a variety persists, even to this day, as particularly viable. One such suspect is Joseph Barnett, Mary Jane Kelly’s lover. Despite strong arguments in favor of Barnett possessing a murderous secret, the evidence presented against him is circumstantial and necessitates occasional oversight of facts. Jack the Ripper’s true identity may never be known, but Barnett’s name can potentially be cleared and removed from the suspect lists of modern historians.
Joseph Barnett was born in 1858 to a fish porter and his wife in Whitechapel. He was the fourth child of five and the third son of four. After his father’s death in 1864 and his mother’s subsequent desertion, Barnett’s older brothers, Daniel and Denis, provided for the family. Leaving school around age thirteen, Barnett feasibly found work alongside his brothers. The four brothers all acted as fish porters, at least according to records that show the Barnett men possessed porter licenses on July 1, 1878. Little further information is available regarding Barnett’s childhood; however, the preceding facts have been scrutinized by believers of Barnett’s guilt and molded to fit FBI profiling pertaining to the case. The death of Barnett’s father when he was only six is meant to signify that he lacked a stable male figure in his life. This argument overlooks the role models he possessed in his two older brothers. The older men supported the family and could potentially serve as replacement father figures in Joseph’s life. Also, Joseph’s older sister, Catherine, helped to raise him after his mother abandoned the family; again, a family member was able to step in and provide some semblance of normalcy to Barnett’s childhood. Though he may not have endured a typical childhood, Joseph seems to have been well taken care of by his elder siblings.
Significantly more facts are accessible regarding Barnett’s life from April 8, 1887, until his death. On said date, Joseph Barnett met Mary Jane Kelly in Commercial Street and so began a new chapter in his life. The fast friendship the pair formed over a drink accelerated into a relationship in just two days. After their initial meeting, Kelly and Barnett decided to see each other again the next day; their second encounter ended with an agreement to move in together. Philip Sugden reports that “At first the couple took lodgings in George Street. From there they moved to Little Paternoster Row, Dorset Street, and from these, evicted for getting drunk and failing to pay their rent, to Brick Lane” (309). Based on their alcoholic ways and inability to pay their rent on schedule, Barnett and Kelly were nomadic for the beginning of their relationship. The fair-haired beauty and her fish porter beau eventually settled at 13 Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, early in 1888. According to reports, “Their existence together was a happy one, with Barnett described as taking very good care of her and giving her gifts within his means” (Russo 26). Barnett learned a myriad of facts regarding Kelly’s life during their relationship, exemplified by the fact that the majority of the existing history about Kelly came from Barnett’s interviews and depositions. However, the relationship seemed to sour in the summer of 1888 in either June or August when Barnett lost his porter license. Theories abound as to how and why Barnett lost his license with the most prominent coming from Bruce Paley. Paley’s belief assumed Barnett was caught stealing and subsequently was stripped of his license. The postulation has merit as Barnett was known to use his money to purchase alcohol for Kelly and him. It is possible that he needed to steal fish in order to provide food for the couple; spending too much money on alcohol would limit funds for the necessities. At least one alcoholic-fueled incident culminated in a broken window. The window was never repaired because it made it possible for Kelly and Barnett to lock and unlock the door to their room from outside as the key had disappeared several days before the incident. After losing his license, Barnett reportedly sold oranges and completed other odds and ends to maintain some income. The problems between Kelly and Barnett thereby allegedly stemmed from her return to prostitution so that the couple could have more money.
The fights between the couple escalated until the early evening of October 30, 1888, when Barnett and Kelly battled over Kelly’s kindness to another prostitute—apparently a Julia Van Turney—in allowing her to stay in their small room. Though Barnett left Kelly following the event, they retained nearly constant contact as he still presented her with money and gifts throughout the week before her murder. Either out of love or respect, Barnett tried to downplay Kelly’s prostitution and his reasons for leaving in interviews after her death. He stated that “‘She would never have gone wrong again […] and I shouldn’t have left her if it had not been for the prostitutes stopping at the house. She only let them because she was good hearted and did not like to refuse them shelter on cold bitter nights’” (Begg 292). Even though Barnett undoubtedly disliked his girlfriend’s prostitution, he seemed to want to portray the image he was upset that their already cramped room was constantly crowded with other prostitutes, not that Kelly was a prostitute. Barnett found a lodging house in New Street, Bishopsgate, before moving in with his sister in her house off Gray’s Inn Road, though he reportedly appeared at Miller’s Court often.
One such meeting occurred the night before Kelly’s murder on Thursday, November 8, 1888. Barnett told Kelly that he had no money for her because he was out of work. The timing of this encounter is disputed, but sources seem to place Barnett at Miller’s Court between 7:30 and 8:00. Despite having no money for Kelly, Barnett seemed amicable toward his former girlfriend and purportedly took his leave around 8:00. After leaving Kelly, Barnett reportedly “was at his lodgings playing whist until 12:30 A.M. and then went to bed” (Eddleston 198). He would not see Kelly again until he identified her the next afternoon. Barnett either recognized her by her ears and eyes or her hair and eyes. This poses some problems and opens a door for theorists that accuse Barnett of murder because the mutilation Kelly’s body endured covered her in blood and included the removal of parts of her ears and her eyes. Though Barnett may have known her regardless of the mutilation, the reports are challenging.
Nevertheless, during his identification, it clearly emerged that he and Kelly had been involved for a significant amount of time and subsequently, “Barnett was taken to Commercial Street Police Station and questioned by Inspector Abberline for over four hours” (Russo 27). During this investigation, Barnett revealed the biography he had acquired from Kelly of her life before their courtship. Abberline’s official statement following the questioning contained this information but little else regarding Barnett’s innocence. Theorists are quick to conclude that the interview was poorly conducted or Barnett’s alibi was not sufficiently examined; however, Inspector Abberline’s judgment should not be so harshly criticized. The police “took his clothing and examined it for bloodstains and other clues. They were satisfied he was not the killer” (Douglas 60). Despite the heavy scrutiny the Victorian police have suffered throughout studies of the case, if the policeman had reason to believe Barnett was innocent in relation to Kelly’s murder after four hours of questioning, more confidence must be placed in Barnett’s overall blamelessness for the Ripper killings.
The case against Joseph Barnett requires believers to hypothesize and analyze Barnett’s relationship with Kelly to its extremes. Joseph Barnett avowed that he often read the news to Mary Kelly, especially stories about Jack the Ripper and the murders. He made no indication that Kelly could not read, simply that he was willing to read to her. Kelly had no immunity to the fear prostitutes felt about Jack the Ripper. According to reports, Kelly did not enjoy prostitution and warned another woman, Lizzie Albrook, “against going on the street as she had done. She told me, too, that she was heartily sick of the life she was leading […]. I do not believe she would have gone out as she did if she had not been obliged to do so to keep herself from starvation” (casebook). This matches Barnett’s claim that Kelly did not work as a prostitute when he was employed and only returned to the streets after the couple lost their steady income through Barnett’s job as a porter. If Kelly was already scared of the murderer but retained her profession out of a desperate need for money, the primary motive bestowed on Barnett as the killer is severely maligned. As first theorized by Bruce Paley in his Jack the Ripper: The Simple Truth, Barnett had allegedly killed prostitutes in an effort to scare Mary Kelly off the streets. This conjecture necessitates a belief that Kelly would be willing to stop making money—and thereby halt her supply of funds for alcohol and food—simply because there were potential dangers associated with her profession at the time. However, readers must be reminded that the East End of London during the Victorian Era was an unsafe place for any person, regardless of their profession. The simple fact that a scream of “Oh, murder!” the night of Kelly’s murder is evidence from the case itself that murder and terror were treated with apathy and disinterest during the time. As Elizabeth Prater—one of the witnesses who claimed to hear the cry between 3:30 and 4:00 A.M. the night Kelly died—recalled, “‘it is nothing uncommon to hear cries of murder, so I took no notice’” (Begg 296-297). Violence, starvation, and unsanitary conditions were the norm for the people of Whitechapel. Murder would not be enough to keep Kelly off the streets.
Further claims are made that Barnett took to killing Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, and Catherine Eddowes rather than other prostitutes because they were friends of Mary Kelly. The theory that the victims were friends did not begin with the accusations against Barnett, but it needs to be eliminated as well. At best, historians can place two or three victims in the same bar at some point in their lives, but this in no way indicates that the women were friends or even acquaintances. The millions of people that lived in Whitechapel in 1888 probably ran into each other constantly—the area was crowded every day and night—but those momentary encounters do not translate to friendships. Barnett’s use as a suspect fits nicely with the theory that the women were friends because it corresponds to the notion that the killer knew at least one of the victims well. If the women were close, surely the longtime boyfriend of Mary Kelly would know all of the victims as well. However, because the victims almost certainly were not on close (or any) terms, this allegation must be stricken from the file against Barnett.
Great emphasis has been placed on the key Barnett claimed went missing some time during his stay at Miller’s Court. Some Ripperologists believe that the murder either “took the key away with him after being let into Mary Jane Kelly’s room by the woman herself or that the killer had to have a key to gain entrance, which implies that he must have been Joseph Barnett” (Eddleston 190). Following the tradition that the evidence surrounding Barnett requires leaps and bounds of logic, this hypothesis entails a belief that the only way to lock the room Mary Kelly was found in was by the use of the key. However, as Barnett himself maintained, the key had disappeared well before he left Miller’s Court at the end of October 1888. He and Kelly reportedly reached through the broken window to lock and unlock the door after the key’s misplacement. Even though the police missed this method of entry as they waited for the bloodhounds to arrive at the crime scene, a killer who was accustomed to the trickery and skills afforded by Whitechapel life (as the Ripper likely was) would be apt to know to use the window the lock the door behind him. Even without this knowledge, Barnett “testified that the lock was a spring type that locked automatically when the door closed” (Eddleston 190). The Ripper would not have needed a key to lock the door behind him. Barnett can garner no more suspicion for the “mystery of the key” beyond being a fool for losing the key in the first place.
The testimonies provided but witnesses who claim to have seen Jack the Ripper match up to the description of Joseph Barnett—to a point. Barnett was known to be have a “medium build, fair complexion, moustache, blue eyes, […] probably a speech impediment called echolalia, which caused him to repeat the last words spoken to him when replying to a question” (casebook). Joseph Lawende’s description of the man he saw with Catherine Eddowes just before she was murdered seems to match Barnett’s appearance sufficiently. However, other testimonies by witnesses describe the men last seen with the victims as “foreign-looking” (meaning Jewish at the time), which Barnett certainly was not. Most importantly, George Hutchinson, the man who claimed to see Kelly with a man shortly before her murder, did not identify Barnett as the man he saw and his description does not match Barnett’s so neatly. Hutchinson admitted that “he had known her [Kelly] about three years and had occasionally given her a few shillings” (Sugden 337). Surely a man that knew Kelly so well (and seemed to have some sort of feelings for her) would have known and recognized the man she lived with for eighteen months. Hutchinson’s description should alleviate more of the speculation placed on Barnett as the Ripper.
A case can be made that Barnett killed Mary Kelly out of passion. It is clear that he loved and cared for the woman deeply and, of all the murders, Kelly’s was the most gruesome and thereby the most likely to have been the act of passionate rage. A theory has emerged that perhaps Kelly is not a canonical Ripper victim. Her murder was significantly more violent than the others, even despite the typical escalation of murder by serial killers. It is plausible that Barnett was a killer, but if he was, it would be more likely that he only killed Mary Kelly. However, he had no history of violent behavior—it was Kelly who allegedly broke the window during an alcoholic rage—and, as John Douglas writes, “No one who has had a relatively normal relationship with a woman, as Barnett evidently did, could perpetrate this kind of crime” (61). The mutilation to Kelly’s body took place after she was already dead; a man seeking revenge against a former lover would theoretically perform any brutality against her while she was still living to further cause harm as she died. Barnett evidently loved Kelly deeply and she seemed to care for him significantly as well; even after they broke up, they still met often and peacefully. Evidence of intense anger over the break up has never been found.
The most farfetched motive for Joseph Barnett is the belief that he wanted to kill Mary Ann Kelly again and again so he chose victims that shared a name, in some way, with her (casebook). This proposal snakes from a conclusion that Martha Tabram was a true Ripper victim and Elizabeth Stride was not. This theory uses the names Maria Tabram (Turner), Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Mary Anne Kelly (a possible alias of Catherine Eddowes in this theory), and Mary Ann Kelly as the names of the victims. Herein is the first issue with this hypothesis for not all the women commonly went by these names. The suspension of reality needed to believe this supposition fits the rest of the evidence against Barnett, but it does not follow the claims and facts garnered by most Ripperologists. This entire hypothesis should be completely eliminated from all tales and data relating to Jack the Ripper, whether or not a person believes in Barnett’s innocence. The fact that anyone who claims to believe Barnett is the Ripper also forwarded this theory—though it likely did not go far—strikes an even deeper gash through his name on any relevant suspect list.
Joseph Barnett’s inclusion as a possible suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders is heftily based on his relationship with Mary Jane Kelly. The lovers lived together for a year and a half; any woman would become suspicious if her boyfriend was sneaking out every night, especially if those nights corresponded with murder events. The motives provided for Barnett are farfetched and only loosely correspond to reality. Evidence that assumes perhaps Mary Kelly was not murdered by Jack the Ripper but rather Joe the porter also does not match psychological norms and several testimonies of eye witnesses. The suspicion that Joseph Barnett was Jack the Ripper should have died with the conclusion of his four-hour interview with Inspector Abberline the day Kelly’s body was found. His name deserves to be cleared.
Begg, Paul. Jack the Ripper The Definitive History. New York: Longman, 2004.
Douglas, John, and Mark Olshaker. The Cases That Haunt Us. Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Eddleston, John J. Jack the Ripper An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Inc, 2001.
“Joseph Barnett” Casebook: Jack the Ripper. 19 Apr. 2009 <http://www.casebook.org/>.
“Mary Jane Kelly” Casebook: Jack the Ripper. 19 Apr. 2009 <http://www.casebook.org/>.
Russo, Stan. The Jack the Ripper Suspects Persons Cited by Investigators and Theorists. Boston: McFarland & Company, 2004.
Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002.