The Mystery of Mary Malcolm

Of all of Jack the Ripper’s victims, the one that took the longest to identify positively was Elizabeth Stride, the third victim, whose murder took place in Dutfield’s Yard, off Berner Street, on 30th September 1888.

From very early on, the police and the Coroner were convinced that the Berner Street victim was Elizabeth Stride. However, confusion entered the enquiry, and the subsequent inquest into her death, when, within a day of her murder, a lady by the name of Mary Malcolm came forward to claim that the Berner Street victim was, in fact, her sister – Elizabeth Watts, of Bath.


An illustration showing Elizabeth Stride's body at the mortuary inset with an image of Mary Malcolm.
Elizabeth Stride At The Mortuary

Having been taken to the mortuary to view the body, Mary Maclolm couldn’t identify her the first time, nor, for that matter, could she identify her on a second visit. It was only after a third visit to the mortuary had been arranged that she finally identified the body as that of her sister – not, it should be noted, from her facial features, but from a black mark on her leg which, so Mary Malcolm claimed, was the result of her sister having been bitten by an adder when they were children.


However, it was Mary Malcolm’s testimony at the inquest into the death of the Berner Street victim that caused a sensation in the newspapers and introduced what the East London Advertiser termed “the supernatural element into the saga of the Whitechapel Murders. The Coroner pressed here as to whether it was true that she had received  “an occult warning of her sister’s death”.

At first Mary Malcolm seemed reluctant to share with the court the details of her supernatural experience, but the Coroner, Wynne Baxter, pressed her on the matter and, eventually she agreed to reveal the details.


She had, she said, been lying awake in bed at “about twenty minutes past one on Sunday morning” when she felt a pressure on her breast. Suddenly, she heard “three distinct kisses” by her side. Since this was more or less the time when her “sister” was, according to the East London Advertiser, “giving up her life under the hands of the awful being in Berner-street. It was more than probable that Judas-like he first betrayed his victim with a kiss, and the pressure on the breast is what would naturally occur as he knelt over to cut her throat. Here then we have a representation of what was happening to the murdered woman reproduced at the same time in the mind of her sister.”

When she heard, later that day, that a murder had occurred at around the same time that she had experienced the sensation and had heard the kisses, she became convinced that the victim was her sister and that she had, in fact, been visited by her spirit coming to say farewell to her.

An illustration showing Elizabeth Stride stooping to kiss Mary Malcolm
Mary Malcolm’s Strange Experience.


At the inquest Mary Malcolm told the court that. for the last five years, she had been meeting with her sister every Saturday afternoon on the corner of Chancery Lane where she would always hand her the sum of two shillings for her lodgings.

However, on the Thursday prior to the murder she had come to her place of work, at number 59 Red Lion Street, in search of another financial hand out. Although Elizabeth, so Mary Malcolm told the Coroner, was sometimes the worse for drink – which was “unfortunately, a failing with her” which left her prone to drunken fits – she had seemed perfectly sober during that last meeting and so, admonishing her with the reprimand,”Elizabeth you are a pest to me,” the ever charitable Mrs Malcolm had dutifully handed over “a shilling and a short jacket.”


When asked by the Coroner if she had any idea what her sister did for a living, Mrs Malcolm whispered, “I had my doubts.” She then proceeded to demolish her sister’s character by telling the court that she had had all sorts of trouble with her sisters loose lifestyle which consisted of various relationships several shameful nights spent in prison. On one occasion, Elizabeth had even left a naked baby on the long suffering sister’s doorstep – not, So Mary was at pains to point out to the court, one of her own two children by her husband, but “another one; one she had by a policeman.”

You can’t help but admire Mrs Malcolm’s devotion to her deceased sister. she must have been sainthood personified to have put up with her siblings behaviour for so long and still be willing to help her out financially, almost right up to the time of her death. No wonder her sister’s spirit had felt the need to kiss her goodbye.


Except, not a word of Mrs Malcolm’s testimony, as it transpired was true.

Her case was blown apart when, in late October 1888, Mrs Elizabeth Stokes, formerly Elizabeth Watts, hobbled into the Coroner’s Court to “clear her character from the vile assertions made by her sister.”

There had, it soon transpired, been no loose living, no adulterous affair with a police officer, no naked baby left on her sister’s doorstep, and there had, most certainly, been no nights in jail. She had, so she told the court, not seen her sister for years, and had, in fact, believed her to be dead. She further stated that she had not received any money from her at any time, and that it was completely untrue that she had turned up at her place of work to scrounge off her on the Thursday before the murder. “It is a shame my sister should say what she has said about me”, she told the court,  “and that the innocent should suffer for the guilty.”

“Is Mrs Malcolm here?” the Coroner asked, no doubt wishing to demand an explanation. “No Sir,” came the reply from Inspector Edmund Reid.


An illustration showing Berner Street victim Elizabeth Stride.
The Murder of Elizabeth Stride

The appearance of Elizabeth Stokes meant that, at long last, the Berner Street victim could be conclusively identified as Elizabeth Stride and, dressing the jury, the Coroner informed them that it would be unreasonable to adjourn the inquiry again on the chance of something further being ascertained to elucidate the mysterious case. Having referred to the trouble occasioned by Mrs. Malcolm, who swore that the deceased was her sister, a Mrs. Elizabeth Watts, of Bath, he said it was satisfactorily proved that the deceased was Elizabeth Stride. He regretted, he said, that the time and attention given to the case had not eventuated in a result that would be a relief to the metropolis – the detection of the criminal.

The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against a person or persons unknown, and added their belief that the deceased was Elizabeth Stride.


No explanation has ever been given as to why Mary Malcolm kept up the elaborate charade of claiming that the deceased was her sister. Some think that she may well have been a sensation seeker, who enjoyed her time in the spotlight. Other wonder if she might have been a ghoulish spectator who simply wanted to see the dead body of one of the latest victims of the Whitechapel Murderer. But, if that was the case, why did she not simply walk away once she had seen the body, rather than go to the trouble of perjuring herself on the witness stand?

There is, however, one final possibility. Was Elizabeth Stride pretending to be Mrs Elizabeth Watts in order to elicit money from Mary Malcolm?

The truth is that, as with so many of these tiny morsels of mystery with which the Jack the Ripper case is littered, we will never no for certain what led Mary Malcolm to claim that the body found in the dark yard off Berner Street was that of her errant sister, Elizabeth Watts of Bath,