The mystery of Mary Ellen

One of the most interesting exhibits in the Manchester Police Museum’s Crime Room has quite an intriguing story attached to it – it goes back 40 years and asks more questions than it answers but as yet has no real ending. It’s the story of Mary Ellen and not only is it local to me but it features a house not far from where I worked at the time.
Back in mid December 1982 John Baxendale, who had recently come to live in a Victorian detached house not far from Bolton town centre, decided to have a clear out in the cellar to make a den for his two boisterous German Shepherd dogs. With no functioning electric light down there at the time he was working by candlelight and behind some furniture in a small dark alcove at the back of the cellar he came across what he first thought was a tailor’s dummy wrapped in cardboard and newspaper. Then he realised a tailor’s dummy doesn’t have bones – it was the partially mummified remains of a human body. He contacted the local police station, which was only a couple of streets away, and a major investigation was launched that day, an investigation which has never truly ended.
The house, now a modernised family home, where the body was found – screenshot from Google street view
The remains which were found were mainly bones but with the hands and arms in a mummified condition, and the clothing pointed to the body being female. It was wrapped as if this person had lain down and rolled over in cardboard and paper in an effort to keep warm so it was thought that maybe this had been someone homeless who had crept into the cellar from the outside, gone to sleep and never woke up. A later forensic examination concluded that the woman had been white, about 40 years old and of small stature, possibly only about 4ft 10ins tall, and there was no indication of foul play. A News of the World paper found around the body was dated March 13th 1966, leading police to surmise that she could have lain undiscovered in that cellar for up to 16 years.
Fingerprints were taken from her mummified fingers and descriptions of her clothing – pink underwear, a turquoise jumper, yellow cardigan and brown stretch stirrup trousers – were shared with the media, along with descriptions of her jewellery. She was found wearing one gold cross earring, a gold and diamond eternity ring on her left hand, and black rosary beads – police traced the ring to Birmingham but a jeweller there could offer no help as the jewellery had been mass produced and could have been purchased anywhere.
Two months later the Bolton CID team still had no leads so in a ground-breaking move for that time they turned to the pioneering new technique of facial reconstruction, asking forensic artist Richard Neave, who worked at Manchester University, to create a possible facial likeness using scientific measurements of the skull. It took a week to construct using modelling clay with a wig, eyebrows and eyelashes being glued on by a make-up artist from Granada TV and although it couldn’t be the woman’s exact face it was a face which would have been broadly similar. To give her some form of identity detectives named her Mary Ellen and the facial reconstruction was unveiled at a press conference in February 1983, gaining national attention as it was the first time the technique had ever been used in a public appeal by a British police force.
Mary Ellen and her creator Richard Neave – photo from BBC News archives
Following a tv news report detectives were contacted by Lily Jones who lived in Liverpool and thought Mary Ellen could be her mother, Ruth Hanratty, who had been missing since the early 1960s. Lily had been ten years old at the time her mother went missing and now only had a few old photos to go off but the facial likeness and description of Mary Ellen’s clothing were enough for her to contact the police, however DNA profiling wasn’t around at that time and Ruth Hanratty’s name didn’t show up on any missing persons list so there was no concrete proof that Mary Ellen was Lily’s mother.
With no way of knowing how Mary Ellen had died the coroner at the inquest recorded an open verdict and she was laid to rest in an unmarked common grave in a corner of a local cemetery, however the advancement of DNA profiling over the following years was enough for detectives to reopen the case in late 2009 in a bid to find out if Mary Ellen was Ruth Hanratty. Of course it wasn’t a matter of simply digging up a body – Mary Ellen had been buried in consecrated ground so strict procedures had to be followed which all took time. With DNA samples taken from Lily Jones and members of her family permission for an exhumation had to be sought from the Chancellor of the Diocese of the Church of England, forms had to be filled in and a specialist exhumation company had to be brought in to oversee the proceedings.
To avoid any unwanted attention from members of the public the exhumation, costing Β£10,000, was carried out at 4am one day in December, attended by Detective Rick Armstrong who had worked on the case from the start, a forensic anthropologist, a forensic pathologist, the police chaplain, a Church of England chaplain, the local authority grave diggers and members of the specialist exhumation company. The grave held six bodies and Mary Ellen had been the second one to be buried there so four others had to be taken out first – they all had identifying tags but Mary Ellen was just ”body of unknown female”. She was taken to Oldham mortuary where DNA was taken from a leg bone and some of the ribs then she was re-interred in the presence of the Church of England chaplain.
It was a few weeks before Detective Armstrong got the DNA results but sadly they weren’t what he was hoping for – with not enough points of match it was proved that Mary Ellen wasn’t Lily Jones’ mother Ruth. And from that day to this no-one has ever come forward to identify Mary Ellen. So who was she and what really happened to her?
Although detectives always held the opinion that she had been homeless and had sought shelter in that cellar Bolton Evening News crime reporter Steve Howarth, who covered the story from the beginning, held a different theory. Had she been homeless she would probably have had a coat and carried a few possessions in a bag, maybe even had a sleeping bag or blanket, but she had nothing only the clothes she wore. She also had the gold and diamond eternity ring which, although maybe not worth a great deal, she would surely have pawned if she was down on her luck and needed money.
The external access to the cellar was just a small door through which a coalman would have tipped the coal so it would have been difficult for someone to get in there without going through the house, which led to the theory that either she lived there at some time or knew someone who did and had been invited there. The house, like many large properties in that area, had once been bedsits often lived in by students who didn’t stay very long before moving on – 1966 to 1970 was the height of the hippie culture and recreational drugs were popular so maybe Mary Ellen had gone to a party there and possibly died of an accidental drug overdose. She could have been a sex worker visiting a client or maybe she wasn’t local and had come to Bolton from another part of the country. The rosary beads suggested she was of Catholic faith so possibly she was Irish and had no family over here.
Although it’s all pure speculation it was Steve Howarth’s firm opinion that she had somehow come to an unfortunate end in that house and someone had wrapped her up and dumped her in a corner of the cellar hoping that nobody would find her, and for 16 years no-one did, although Greater Manchester Police didn’t share the same view. The cold case review unit was confident in the original theory that Mary Ellen had been homeless and there was absolutely no evidence that she was the victim of crime or that anyone else had been involved in her death.
Mary Ellen’s facial reconstruction is on display in the Crime Room at the Police Museum although not knowing the name detectives gave her at the time she was created the museum staff have always referred to her as Jane. Having been chipped around the nose and eyebrows over the years she is sadly looking a bit worse for wear, but then she is 40 years old after all.
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The Crime Room information for Mary Ellen concentrates mainly on the facial reconstruction and how it came about so I’ve written her story using information from news archives and recent BBC podcasts featuring interviews with Detective Rick Armstrong and crime reporter Steve Howarth, both now retired. It would be nice to think that even after all this time someone would identify her and provide her real name but had she still been alive today she would now be around 90 years old so probably anyone who could have identified her may also no longer be alive. Sadly the mystery may never be solved and she will always remain Mary Ellen, the body in the cellar.

14 thoughts on “The mystery of Mary Ellen

  1. An interesting, but sad story.
    You’re certainly getting a lot of mileage from your visit to that museum. I really must go and have a look for myself.

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  2. I need to go back to the museum soon as there were some things I didn’t get to see properly or read about so there may very well be more posts about it in the future.

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  3. What an incredible story, and sad that no one knows who she is or how she died. I guess that the more time that passes, the less likely it is that anyone will ever identify her. I was interested in the theories posted by Steve Howarth, they do sound plausible.

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    1. It’s so sad to think that if Mary Ellen really was homeless she died alone and unloved in that cellar, and such a shame that she was down there for so long before being discovered 😦

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  4. Thank you for the compliment Malc πŸ™‚ I’ve enjoyed getting my teeth into this story even though it’s so sad – maybe in earlier years I should have become an investigative journalist πŸ™‚

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  5. It would have been a good outcome if that had been the case, however Lily Jones did eventually find out what happened to her mother Ruth but it’s a separate story so I didn’t want to include it here. It’s so sad that Mary Ellen remains unidentified but it’s been an interesting story to work on.

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    1. You may very well have done Anabel as it was widely publicised at the time of her discovery and again in later years. It’s so sad that nobody has ever come forward to identify her but probably no-one ever will now 😦

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  6. All a bit ghoulish for me, but I can tell you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to unearth the facts, Eunice. What a miserable ending for anyone, and how sad for Lily, who thought she’d found her mum.

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  7. It must be a dreadful shock for anyone to find a decomposed body in their cellar, it’s so sad that Mary Ellen has never been identified but it’s been a fascinating story to research. Thanks to the Angel of the Meadow being featured on Crimewatch in 2011 Lily did eventually find out what happened to her mum though it was rather a bittersweet conclusion.

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