Book: “Jack the Ripper”/Francis Thompson — yet another wild guess

29 11 2010

In the autumn of 1888, London was terrified when a series of bestial murders of prostitutes occurred. The murderer — infamously known as “Jack the Ripper” — was never caught, and his identity was never established. For some reason the Ripper phenomenon is still alive, more than one hundred years after that autumn of terror. And there is a special genre of books about the Ripper, where typically a book suggests that some specific individual was the Ripper.  This short book (or, rather, booklet) proposes yet another person as the culprit.

The Ripper murders

During August to November 1888, five women were murdered in the Whitechapel area in London East End. This slum district was populated by the poor, the unemployed, prostitutes, vagrants, criminals, and all sort of people that established society did not want to hear of. A strong tale of life in this part of London is provided by Jack London’s “People of the Abyss” (1903).

The five women were prostitutes — or “unfortunates”, as they were euphemistically called. They were all murdered during the night, and all but one were murdered outside, in streets or backyards. Throats were slashed, they were disembowelled, internal organs removed, etc. And all this happened without anyone noticing that a crime was being committed. And even though some of these victims were discovered just a few minutes after the crime was committed, the murderer was never seen.

At the time, some locals were suspected, like the “Leather Apron” (a Jewish shoemaker named John Pizer), but none could be bound to the crimes.  From a police investigation point of view, the Ripper case remained unsolved (what is now often called “cold case”).

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a resurge of interest in the Ripper case, and a steady stream of books were published, typically promoting some so far not suspected person as being the true identity of the Ripper. This ranged from insanity cases (James Kelly) to nobility (Royal Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria).

The new suspect

This short book by Richard Patterson proposes another suspect — the poet Francis Thompson (1859 – 1907).

Why suspect Thompson? It seems that there is nothing but the most far-fetched circumstantial evidence. He lived in London at that time. He may have stayed for certain periods in the East End. He was an opium addict, so may have behaved strangely under the influence of that drug. He had some medical training (the knife cuts done by the Ripper could imply that this person possessed some knowledge about human anatomy), but never practices as a physician. Some of his poems contain lines that, with some effort, can be said to express some aggressive attitude towards women.

Taking a step back, that kind of argumentation is really worth nothing at all. One can look at it from the point of view of the three crime components: means, motive, and opportunity. As to means (ability to commit murder), Thompson probably had no more ability than most men-in-the-street. As he never practised the medical profession, it is most likely that he was not skilled with the knife.

As to motive (reason to commit murder), there is nothing that indicates a real reason for Thompson to perform one or more murders.

And as to opportunity, we must realise that London East End was crowded with people, and many of them could possibly be said to have had the opportunity to perform each murder.

Unfortunately, the socio-cultural space of Ripperologists exhibits many of the characteristics of conspiracy theorists. Firstly, that official statements should be doubted as they are probably just false and intended to be misleading. Hence the crime may have been solved by the City police, but it was kept secret for some reason.

Secondly, unless something can be proved to be impossible as an explanation, it is a likely explanation, and may even be proposed as the only explanation.

A sceptics way of looking at Patterson’s book “Jack the Ripper” is very much based on that last perspective, where in effect, the book is saying “as Thompson is not proved to be innocent of these Ripper murders, he is probably guilty”.

Conclusion

A not very rewarding book. The description of the facts of the murders is inadequate, and sometimes misleading. The life and times of Francis Thompson is not systematically described, so we do not get any coherent picture of him as a person. And the connections between Thompson and the Ripper murders is weak, to say the least. Not worth the effort to read it. Read  Donald Rumbelow’s “The complete Jack the Ripper“, to get the known facts, rather than more or less fantastic speculations.

Data

Richard A. Patterson : “Jack the Ripper” (Self-published, Victoria, Australia, 2002), 49 pgs (book at openlibrary.org)

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