Jack the Ripper and the Defaming of a Catholic Poet

In the late autumn of 1888, five women were brutally murdered in Whitechapel, London. All were prostitutes; all were living in squalor; all died horribly in the dead of night. The killings were as vicious as they were to become infamous. They were not the first, nor, indeed, the last, of such slayings in London, but they have become legendary. The person who carried out these murders was never caught. The murderer was, however, given a name: Jack the Ripper.

There are few who are unfamiliar with this name. Many, however, are less familiar with the gory details of what actually took place. Films, books, plays, and a never-ending cavalcade of television documentaries have added to the notoriety of the murders. It could be argued that Jack the Ripper is now more “famous” than ever. In a matter of weeks, London will host yet another conference dedicated to “solving” the crimes. Each year or so, a new book is released and received with inevitable media interest. Another suspect, another solution with a denouement: naming the murderer “once and for all.” In the not too distant future, another announcement follows, amid yet more media buzz, that an altogether different perpetrator has been unmasked. And so it goes on.

In 1911, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Hilaire Belloc’s sister, published a short story, called The Lodger, about a mysterious Ripper-like suspect. Thereafter, Jack the Ripper made endless appearances in novels, plays and short stories. In 1927, Alfred Hitchcock filmed the Belloc Lowndes story; he titled it: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, thereby starting the screen appearances of the killer that continues to this day. Fantasy is one thing, but when fiction purports to be fact and is paraded as truth, it takes on a more disturbing aspect.

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Theories about the murderer’s identity proliferated almost immediately after the killings stopped. The number of suspects down the years is legion: a physician to the Royal Household, a German sailor, a Polish tailor, a Russian conman, an English barrister, an Irish-American quack, and many more besides. There are dozens of suspects, all with their advocates—these being a curious type of scholar known as “Ripperologists.” These individuals meet one another online and compare theories about the identity of Jack the Ripper. They write books, pamphlets and articles. Some appear on television and radio. Conferences are held. It is a gruesome business; and yet the cult continues to grow apace with no sign of abatement. The thrill of the chase is, apparently, everything.

Does it matter? Could time be better spent praying for the souls of the dead, for example, the last victim, Mary Kelly, now buried in a Catholic cemetery in east London? It could also be argued that the naming of suspects is morally dubious. While the “Ripperologists” relentlessly dispute and pontificate, adding little light but ever more heat to an already dismal discourse, one is left wondering if it is right to slander and libel those who have no ability to reply? Especially as once accused of these crimes, that person is forever stigmatized as a suspect.

Just recently, it was dispiriting to come across a reference to the murders on a Catholic website. In the article, Francis Thompson, the Catholic poet, was named as Jack the Ripper. It is an old allegation; but given the esteem that both Thompson and his poetry were and, to some extent still are, held by his co-religionists, that a Catholic website should stoop to repeating such claims is disappointing to say the least.

For the record, Thompson was first named as the murderer in an essay as long ago as 1988. The case against him runs as follows:
He was living in Whitechapel at the time of the murders.
He had some knowledge of medical practices—one line of enquiry has always been that the murderer was medically trained.
He carried a scalpel—the murderer used some such weapon to commit his crimes.
He had befriended a young prostitute whilst living in London. (The Ripper’s victims were prostitutes.)
Coming out later this year, a new book claims that Thompson was involved in the murders but with little more to add, it seems, than these paltry few facts. All of which are merely circumstantial, and none of which would pass muster in a court of law—then or now—as evidence. In fact, there is no hard evidence to connect the poet Thompson with the maniac Jack the Ripper. The fact that Francis Thompson lived peacefully without any hint of criminal activity for another 19 years after the murders ceased, appears to his accusers to be an irrelevance. Regardless of the facts, he is now destined to join the ranks of those indicted, accused of crimes they are never able to gainsay, especially now, as all available contemporary evidence is stale and all concerned are long since dead.

People have a right to a good name. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that it is wrong to defame others. In the section on the 8th Commandment entitled: OFFENCES AGAINST TRUTH, there is the following:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury…
He becomes guilty of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
Presumably this extends to the dead when the facts can never be ascertained definitively one way or another. There is an old and wise saying: never speak ill of the dead; and an even older and wiser practice of praying for the departed, and leaving it at that.

With his poetry out of fashion and his memory fast fading from the public consciousness, the publication of this latest book will make Francis Thompson, in the eyes of many, just another “Ripper suspect”—the shadow of suspicion cast forever over a man who almost certainly, like the vast majority of “suspects,” was innocent of any crime other than living in a part of London then beset by the murderous rampages of a madman. Nevertheless, Thompson’s poetry will be mined not for its transcendent beauty or its autobiographical hints of a man pursued by the Hound of Heaven, but, instead, pored over by the self-appointed latter-day “bloodhounds of Scotland Yard.” His work will be dissected for “clues.” His life, thereafter, carefully reconstructed to fit with an ugly design that leads to a verdict of “guilty” in a court comprised of those wishing to find only guilt. In the last decade, this was the lot that befell the artist, Walter Sickert. Now, it seems, it is Thompson’s turn to be posthumously suspected, and, by some, condemned.

Not just for the sake of Thompson, but for all concerned, suspects and victims alike, is this the moment to call a halt to the ghoulish game of who was Jack the Ripper? The crimes committed can never to be undone. The time dissipated on this endless trawl over the same old ground makes it seem less the ‘harmless pursuit’ some maintain, and even less—as others argue—an “academic study.” No, the whole industry around these crimes brings out the worst in some, and makes no one better for having come into contact with its murky world. What the “Ripperologist” fails to grasp is that the murders were, and are, part of a greater darkness that is with us still. Rather than shining imaginary torches down the alleyways of a long since vanished Victorian Whitechapel, one would do better to have recourse to a much greater Light, one that dispels this darkness.

Like the last victim, Francis Thompson is buried in a Catholic cemetery, albeit in west London. Unlike the five women murdered, however, the poet had the benefit of the Last Rites when he died aged 47 in 1907. In the end, the greatest tragedy of a life cut short, violently or unexpectedly, is the unpreparedness for that final court where all—sinner and saint, guilty and innocent, killer and victim—render an account of their lives, thankfully not before an online forum of self-appointed accusers, but rather before an all-knowing Throne of Mercy.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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