The Murder of Kitty Ronan

Dorset Street in Spitalfields is synonymous with the murder of Mary Kelly, whom many consider to have been the last victim of Jack the Ripper.

However, in 1909, another murder took place in Dorset Street – the name of which had by then, been changed o Duval Street. The homicide in question was that of Kate Ronan and it took place not just in the former Dorset Street, but also in Miller’s Court, the very Court where Mary Kelly’s murder had taken place on the 9th November 1888.

THE WORST STREET IN LONDON

Looking along Dorset Street where Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper's last victim, was murdered on 9th November 1888.
Dorset Street in 1902

However, Miller’s Court, that nondescript little enclave, reached  via an arched passage off Dorset Street, was the location of two other murders that took place during the twenty years that followed the murder of Mary Kelly. The two further victims were Elizabeth Roberts,  murdered on 26th November 1898 and Kate Ronan, who was murdered in the early hours of July 2nd 1909.

If you count the fact that Annie Chapman, the second victim of Jack the Ripper, was staying at a lodging house on Dorset Street at the time of her murder, and then add the murder of Mary Anne Austin, who was attacked at a Common Lodging House at 35 Dorset Street on 27th May 1901 – you can’t help but wonder if the Daily Mail might have had a valid point with its assertion that – when it came to murder at least- Dorset Street was, indeed, “the worst street in London.”

However, it is the murder of Kate Ronan with which we shall concern ourselves in this article.

WHERE MARY KELLY WAS MURDERED

A pencil sketch showing Mary Kelly's room in Miller's Court.
Miller’s Court – Mary Kelly’s Room

“Little Kitty” – the sobriquet by which 49-year-old Kate Ronan was known in the district – occupied the room at 12 Miller’s Court – which had been  the room  over that of Mary Kelly where Elizabeth Prater (the woman who may have heard Mary’s final cry of “Murder” on 9th November 1888) and her cat “Diddles” had been residing in November 1888.

Describing the murder Scene The Illustrated Police News had this to say:-

“The room of the tragedy was the top apartment of a two roomed house.

There were about half a dozen white walled houses in the court and the opposite houses are only a few feet apart. Two doors away on the right hand side near the entrance, is the house in which one of the last “Jack the Ripper” murders was committed.”

A CASUAL PROSTITUTE

As was the case with so many of the women who resided in the district’s common lodging houses, she supplemented her meager earnings from doing ironing for the local doss-houses and flower selling with casual prostitution.

HER LIVE IN LOVER – HENRY BENSTEAD FINDS HER BODY

For around five weeks prior to her murder she had been sharing a room with a local news vendor by the name of Henry Benstead.

He had last seen her alive at 9.30am on the morning of the 1st July 1909. She was in the company of “another girl” with whom she was going to buy some ointment on Commercial Street. Benstead duly gave her a shilling and some coppers and headed off to work.

He returned home between 1.15 and 1.30 a.m. the next morning  (July 2nd) and found the room door three parts open. He later testified that  “the downstairs door was also open. There was no light in the room, but I could see by the light in the street. I found the girl lying down. I thought she was asleep till I tapped her on the shoulder, when I saw blood on the top of her lip and the side of her neck. I ran down the court and said, “Someone has cut my Kitty’s throat.”

THE POLICE ALERTED

Benstead rushed from Miller’s Court and burst into the shop of their landlord John McCarthy where he found  Jeremiah O’Callighan – who actually occupied 13 Miller’s Court, which had been Mary Kelly’s room – whom he told of his discovery.

Whilst Benstead headed off to Commercial Street Police Station to report the murder, O’Callighan headed up to the room.

“There was,” he subsequently testified, “no light there, but I could see a little. John Day came up with me and struck a few matches. I sent for two candles when the inspector came. Kitty was lying on her back on the bed. Her eyes were wide open and she appeared to be breathing when I put my face by her mouth. I found this knife on the bed on her left side. It was covered with blood and I put it on the edge of the table. The blood was just drying. I did not disturb the body…”

Benstead, meanwhile, had arrived at Commercial Street Police Station where he blurted out the news of his grisly and disturbing discovery to Inspector Travis who accompanied him back to the room where the body of “Little Kitty” lay on the bed. According to the Inspector’s later testimony:-

“At 1.55 a.m., on July 2, I went to the room. Jeremiah O’Callighan was there. I found the body of deceased lying on its back. Her dress was turned up to the neck. The knife was on a towel on the dressing-table at the head of the bed. I took possession of it. There was no sign of a struggle. There were two candles freshly lighted in ornaments on the mantelpiece, and a portion of a candle not lighted in an egg-cup.”

He also noticed, he said, that the deceased woman was “lying in a position to indicate recent sexual intercourse.”

A press clipping from The Illustrated Police News showing the scene at the murder of Kate Ronan.
The Kate Ronan Murder Depicted in The Illustrated Police News.

INSPECTOR FREDERICK PORTER WENSLEY ARRIVES

A little after 2am, they were joined at the scene by Detective Inspector Frederick Porter Wensley and Divisional Surgeon Peter John Clarke. Wensley later recalled the scene that greeted him:-

“I saw the body of deceased. Her left hand was under her left hip and when the body was moved a penny dropped from the hand on the bed. The body was searched and a purse found containing 3s. 6d. in silver, 8 1/2 d. in bronze, and the photo of a girl. There were no signs of a struggle. There were then two candles alight and a piece in an egg-cup on the mantelpiece not alight; also some cigarette ash in this.”

DR. CLARKE’S REPORT

Clarke meanwhile was carrying out a cursory medical examination of the body and, reporting later on his findings he stated that he had found the body lying perfectly flat:-

“There were appearances of intercourse having taken place within a couple of hours of my seeing the body. Her clothes were up. I saw the knife, which was covered with dried blood. There was a wound in her throat which had apparently caused death by dividing the large vessels and nerves on the right-hand side of the neck. A good deal of force must have been used because the knife is not at all sharp. Death would be almost immediate. The wound could not have been self-inflicted.”

He also stated that he had not detected  marks of fingers on the throat, but pointed out that. the excessive bleeding would have obliterated them. “The tongue”, he said, “was between the teeth and the pupils dilated”, and at the subsequent post-mortem examination he found both lungs engorged with blood. That might, he said, have been caused by blood going into the windpipe or the throat being cut. Strangulation was the more likely cause. “If blood went into the windpipe,” he later testified,  “it might cause certain signs of suffocation, but hardly such marked signs as I found.”

KITTY’S MOTHER IDENTIFIES THE BODY

The body was subsequently identified by both her mother, Mrs. E. Dresch of Hoxton, and her father, Andrew Ronan, of Fulham, who said that she had been in domestic service when he had last seen her several years before.

SIMILARITIES TO MARY KELLY’S MURDER

In the days that followed the murder, in a scenario that was eerily reminiscent of George Hutchinson’s sighting of Mary Kelly.

A photograph showing the arched entrance into Miller's Court.
The Entrance To Miller’s Court

Alfred Wilkins, a market porter, who said that he knew Kate Ronan by sight, had seen her around midnight on July 1st, walking along Duval Street in the company of a man. The man, he said, was aged about 27 or 28 and was  wearing a dark suit. He was around 5 foot 6 inches or 5 foot 7 inches in height,  had a dark moustache, but no beard and a “rather dark complexion.” He watched them turn into Miller’s Court. although he said he couldn’t be sure which house they had gone in to.

Around twenty five minuted later he saw the man exit the court and watched as he “looked round sharply once or twice and the walked briskly up to Commercial Street.”

THE ROOM’S APPEARANCE

Alerted by Benstead to Kitty’s fate, he told The Illustrated Police News that he had gone upstairs where he had seen the victim lying on the bed. He also noticed the bloodstains on the bed covers and gave a little more detail on the scene in the room where the murder had taken place:-

“The room did not appear to have been disturbed in any way and there were no signs as if there has been a struggle. It looked to me as if she had been strangled first, and then her throat cut afterwards. On the floor I saw an ugly looking knife with blood on the it. It was a pocket knife but the blade was a thin one. I should think it was about three and a half inches long. The point of the knife was about half an inch in length. At the time of the crime the court was quite deserted. You can hear everything in the ordinary way, but nobody heard a sound or a scream.”

WILFUL MURDER

At the inquest, again in terms that were eerily reminiscent of the inquests into the deaths of the ripper victims, 25 years before, Detective Inspector Wensley reported that “every inquiry had been made, and every clue followed, but without success.” The jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown” and expressed the opinion that the police had done all they possibly could under the circumstances.

A SURPRISE CONFESSION

On the evening of July 18th 1909, Police Sergeant Sidney Richards was on duty in Bristol when he was approached by a man who gave his name as Harold Hall.

The man told the sergeant that he was wanted in London for the murder of a woman whose name he believed was “Kate Rooney” [sic] in a house in a street off Commercial Street, London, at about 12 midnight on July 1.

“He seemed to have a great load on his mind,” the officer later recalled, “so I cautioned him as to the serious charge he was making against himself and told him that what he was saying might be given in evidence against him. I then asked him if he would like to make a statement. He said he would, and I took down a voluntary statement.”

The following morning he was handed over to the custody Detective Inspector Wensley who questioned him about the murder. According to Wensley, Hall told him that he head met the girl on Commercial Street and had gone with her to her room. There was, he said, no light in the room.

“I took off my jacket and waistcoat and asked her to light the gas. She said there was none. She then asked me to light a candle. I struck a match and just as I was lighting the candle on the mantel-piece, I turned round sharp and saw she had her hand inside my coat pocket. I said, ‘Is that your game?’ I flew at her in a rage and caught her by the throat, and threw her on the bed and held here there. She never spoke. I took out my knife, which I opened with my teeth, and stuck it into the side of her neck. I then threw the knife on the bed. I was frightened and put on my jacket and waistcoat and came out. There was no one about and I walked to the Sailors’ Rest, Limehouse, where I booked a bed in the name of Johnson, and I left there the following day, and have been tramping about ever since.”

Wensley escorted the prisoner back to London where, on Wednesday 28th July 1909, Hall appeared at Old Street Police Court, charged with the murder of Kate Ronan for which was subsequently ordered to stand trial at the Old Bailey and was duly remanded in custody.

 THE PROSECUTION’S CASE

A black and white photograph of Detective Inspector Wensley.
Detective Inspector Wensley

The opened at the old Bailey in September 1909 with Hall pleading “Not Guilty” to the “wilful murder of Kitty Rowan.” and his defending barrister. Mr H. D. Harben claimed that his confession was bogus and had been given under coercion, a claim that Wensley was eager to dispel, stating emphatically that, the fact that a penny had been found in the hand of the deceased suggested to him “that she was in the act of robbing someone at the time of her murder” and that that “someone” was undoubtedly Harold Hall. Furthermore, he said, he was of the opinion that “she had been murdered practically in the act or immediately after connection” – a euphemism at the time for sexual intercourse.

The prosecution was also adamant that the knife corroborated the prisoner’s confession:-

“The bloodstained knife was identified as his, there were points in his statement which, as far as the police knew, had never been mentioned in any newspaper account of the murder, and the prisoner was picked out by a witness named Wilkins from among a number of other persons at the police station as the man he had seen entering the court with the woman and coming away alone. In the course of his statement the prisoner said that in South Africa a French woman had robbed him of all he had – £30. He did nothing to her, but he made up his mind if it occurred again what he would do. He had, while employed as a paper sorter at a Salvation Army premises in Bermondsey, been seen working with a knife, one blade of which was broken and which corresponded with the knife found near the body of the dead girl.”

WILKINS RETRACTS HIS CONFESSION

However, when Alfred Wilkins was called to testify as to what he had seen, he had a change of heart and stated that he was not now sure that the prisoner was the man he had seen entering and leaving the court. When he picked him out at the police station, he said, he was recovering from a hangover. Wilkins, it was transpiring was not a reliable witness and his credibility was undermined further when he was forced to admit that he himself was currently being held in custody awaiting trial for highway robbery with violence.

FOUND GUILTY OF THE MURDER OF KATE RONAN

Notwithstanding Wilkins’s change of mind, and the change of plea by the prisoner, the jury remained unconvinced and Harold Hall was fount guilty of Kate Ronan’s murder. The judge, Mr Justice Coleridge, duly sentence him to death, albeit no record has, as yet, been discovered to suggest that this sentence was actually carried out.