In the spirit of Halloween, this week’s Fringe Rebel has a gruesome and spooky story. A dark figure in Dublin’s history, there are many rumours and tales surrounding the serial killer Darkey Kelly. But which are fact and which are fiction? That’s up to you to decide.
Little is known about Darkey Kelly’s early life, in fact, very little is known about her at all. She was born Dorcas Kelly, Dorcas meaning ‘Dark’ in Irish, probably in Dublin in the 1730s, but after that, we don’t much more about her life pre-infamy. Most of what is known about Darkey comes from folk tales and urban legends, meaning it is very difficult to detangle the tall tales from the hard facts.
What we do know is that Darkey was the proprietress of a popular Dublin brothel in the 1750s. The Maiden Tower Brothel in Copper Alley near Fishamble Street was infamous as a place of debauchery at the time. Darkey more than likely started out as a prostitute herself, acquiring enough money to elevate herself to buy and run the brothel.
One of her more high profile clients was the Sheriff of Dublin, Simon Luttrell. A nobleman, Luttrell was a member of the House of Commons and the first Earl of Carhampton. Luttrell was a lewd man, known for his debaucherous behaviour. It was well known that he frequented a number of brothels around Dublin. He earned the title “King of Hell” not just because of his raunchy behaviour in the whorehouses and pubs of Dublin, but also for much more sinister reasons. Luttrell was in fact a member of the infamous Hellfire Club. This boy’s club met with the expressed purpose of… well, getting fucked up on drugs and drink and conducting satanic rituals. I really don’t know how else to put it. It is possibly the involvement of Luttrell with both Darkey Kelly and the Hellfire Club that fuelled many of the rumours about Kelly’s life and death.
For centuries it was thought that Darkey Kelly was tried and executed as a witch. The story goes that she accused Luttrell of Fathering her child and subsequently Luttrell murdered that child in a satanic ritual. Luttrell counteracted this claim by stating that it was Darkey that killed the baby as a sacrifice and she, in fact, cast a spell on him in order to father it. Of course, who would you believe in this scenario, a high-profile nobleman in society or a woman of ill-repute? According to the lore, Darkey was found to be a witch and subsequently was burned at the stake for her crimes.
This remained the legend for centuries before a couple of local historians uncovered the actual truth of her execution. She was implicated in the disappearance of a Dublin shoe maker, John Dowling in 1760. Her brothel was investigated and the authorities found five corpses hidden in the vaults of the building. All five men had been killed by Darkey Kelly’s hand. Originally, Darkey had contested a trial on the grounds that she was pregnant. After it was found that she was not with child, she was sentenced in January 1761.
Her death was particularly gruesome. She was hanged until nearly dead and then burnt alive at the stake, that part at least was not imagined over time. A particularly vengeful execution for a heinous crime. It was tradition after an execution such as this to cast the corpse into a pit by the gallows, instead of proper burial. However, the prostitutes of Dublin seized the remains of Darkey Kelly and stormed her brothel to give her a proper wake. It seems that her wake was just as debaucherous as any other Darkey Kelly party, as thirteen of her mourners were arrested themselves for drunk and disorderly conduct. Darkey Kelly certainly went out with a bang.
Considered Dublin’s first female serial killer, Darkey Kelly’s reputation caused quite a stir. You can see how her clientele, paired with her dark crimes, would lead to more devious hearsay about her life. She may not have been a witch but she definitely had a dark side. In modern day Dublin, there are still rumours about Darkey Kelly’s ghost, stalking the streets of Dublin. She is thought to be “the Green Lady” of St. Audoen’s church at cornmarket in Dublin’s city centre. A beautiful 12th century church, there are reports that a spirit of a woman haunts only the outside of the church, never stepping foot beyond the steps at the entrance. The legend is that this is Darkey Kelly’s spirit and, of course, as a woman of ill-repute and sinful ways, she would never be able to rest or even step within the holy sanctum of the church.
Whether you believe in the ghost stories or not, Darkey Kelly’s story is at least an interesting one for the morbidly curious. Though little is known about her, her sensational crimes have fuelled rumour and legend, cementing her place as one of Dublin’s most notorious historical residents. Darkey was definitely a killer, that is known to be true, but was she a witch? Does her tormented spirit still haunt the streets of Dublin today? Let us know what you think in the comments below and if you go ghost hunting for ‘aul Darkey Kelly of the Maiden Tower, tell us what you find…
If you want to learn more about Darkey Kelly and the legends surrounding her, check out the following sources:
- Nigel Cawthorne: Killer Women: Chilling, Dark and Gripping True Crime Stories of Women Who Kill, Hachette Press, London, 2018.
- Ed Hannon: St Audoen’s Church, Dublin, Ireland. Published on “Visions of the Past” Blog, 19th March 2014, accessed on the 25th October 2018. https://visionsofthepastblog.com/2014/03/19/st-audoens-church-co-dublin/
- Waylon Jordan: The Strange Case of Ireland’s Darkey Kelly. Published on Paranormal Investigating, 28th June 2017, accessed on the 25th October 2018. http://paranormalinvestigating.com/strange-case-irelands-darkey-kelly/
- Alan O’Keeffe: Truth about Darkey Kelly, burned as a ‘witch’ 250 years ago… but who was really a serial killer, The Herald, 8th January 2011.
Image of Darkey Kelly’s Death by Nikki Smith ©
Text written by Emily Glynn-Farrell ©