The Legend of Darkey Kelly

In 1788, the World newspaper wrote an article about the investigation of a Dublin brothel on Copper Alley. Inside, investigators found the corpses of five men hidden in vaults. Twenty-seven years prior to their discovery, the Maiden Tower brothel’s madam was executed for the St. Patrick’s Day murder of John Dowling. Were these her victims, too? Was Darkey Kelly Ireland’s first female serial killer? 

She was born Dorcas Kelly, and before you snicker (like I did), know that Dorcas is Irish for dark – so she was affectionately called Darkey Kelly. Her life is a mystery; most of what we know about her is hearsay and lore, but we do know that she was the proprietress and madam of one of Dublin’s busiest brothels. The Maiden Tower was in the fishmarket district (another inappropriate snicker) and serviced many of Dublin’s neediest men. One of those regulars was Dublin’s Sheriff Simon Luttrell, a member of the House of Commons, 1st Earl of Carhampton, and a card-carrying active participant of the Hellfire Club. 

Sheriff Luttrell was known to be lewd with an appetite for less traditional activities. He frequented the Maiden Tower and earned the title “King of Hell” by all those who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. We’re not sure if his moniker was born out of his insatiable appetite for debauchery or the antics conjured up in his boy’s club, which was determined to live up to its name. But it’s worth the wonder that perhaps he had a hand in the demise of Ms. Darkey. 

Legend says Madam Darkey accused the Sheriff of being the father of her child, which was missing because the King of Hell used the baby in a ritual sacrifice with his Hellfire boys. The Sheriff screamed, “lies!” and claimed that Darkey Kelly had cast a spell on him to impregnate her, and she then killed her baby in a sacrifice to the dark lord (Satan, not Sheriff Luttrell). The madam was then declared a witch, and we all know what happened to witches. 

Newgate Prison Dublin

Exterior view of Newgate Prison by Philip Norman

But there’s another bit to this story that appears to have a more stable stake to burn on, which includes the Maiden Tower brothel and murder, just not of an innocent infant. Records show that Dorcas Kelly was convicted of murdering John Dowling, a shoemaker, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1760 and sentenced to death. On January 7, 1761, Ms. Kelly was executed by partial hanging and burning at the stake on Gallows Road- if you’re in Dublin, Gallows Road is now Baggot Street. 

What is a “partial hanging,” you ask? Just as it sounds. We can go by the recorded account of the convicted Mrs. Herring’s partial hanging and burning in 1773: 

She was placed on a stool something more than two feet high, and, a chain being placed under her arms, the rope around her neck was made fast to two spikes, which, being driven through a post against which she stood, when her devotions were ended, the stool was taken from under her, and she was soon strangled. When she had hung about fifteen minutes, the rope was burnt, and she sunk till the chain supported her, forcing her hands up to a level with her face, and the flame being furious, she was soon consumed. ~ Edward Cave, 1773

After Darkey Kelly’s execution, thirteen of her best gals stole her remains and gave her a wake on Copper Alley. But, apparently, taking their madam’s charred bits and paying their respects was too much for the local do-gooders, and those thirteen working girls were arrested for disorder and sent to Newgate Prison, Dublin.

Haunted Dublin Alley

Today, folks are more inclined to tell the tale of the Sheriff from Hell and the awful offering to el Diablo. However, there’s still the mystery of the five dead dudes in wall vaults inside Maiden Tower, discovered twenty-seven years after Kelly’s execution. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. Maybe her girls had to take a few out for disrespecting the house rules, and Madam Kelly was looking out for her ladies. 

Madam Darkey Kelly’s legend lives on regardless of which story you buy. And, over two hundred years later, many Dublin locals believe Darkey still walks the streets. Those who find themselves off of Fishamble Street in the southwest part of Dublin late at night claim to see the apparition of a woman walking towards Copper Alley, only to fade into the darkness before their eyes. Maybe she’s heading for the pub, Darkey Kelly’s, named after her, and still slinging suds just a few doors down from where her brothel once stood.