A new book makes the explosive claim that Jack the Ripper was the poet Francis Thompson, who studied as a priest in County Durham.
Richard Patterson’s book, ‘Jack the Ripper, The Works of Francis Thompson’, brings to light the early life of the poet in the North East.
Between August 31 and November 9, 1888, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were all knifed to death in Whitechapel, East London.
The enduring mystery to the Ripper’s identity has meant that today there is a virtual industry built around the history of the crimes with those interested in it dubbed ‘Ripperologists’.
Thompson, who was born in Preston in 1859 and died in London in 1907, spent several years as a student at Ushaw College in County Durham.
The Roman Catholic seminary was the principle place of training for Catholic priests for northern England.
Ushaw opened in 1808 and closed in 2011. Now the abandoned college lies derelict and attracts photographers keen to capture images of its decaying buildings. Though when Thompson attended from 1870 to 1877, the college was in its heyday with 300 student priests.
Its extensive religious library had amassed hundreds of rare manuscripts and with 45,000 volumes was the largest in Britain.
Thompson proved to be secretive and withdrawn and had found it difficult to make friends. In the library, he was often found at a desk with spare books set up as a barrier to shield him from paper bullets, catapulted from other pupils.
Thompson’s description of his schoolfellows, when he arrived at the age of 10, introduces his world view in which outsiders were treated with hatred and paranoia. This is how he related his memory of them, “… a veritable demoniac revelation. Fresh from my tender home, and my circle of just-judging friends, these malignant school-mates who danced around me with mocking evil distortion of laughter ... devilish apparitions of a hate now first known; hate for hate’s sake, cruelty for cruelty’s sake. And so such they live in my memory, testimonies to the murky aboriginal demon in man”.
Thompson failed in his studies. The reason given by his masters were due to a “natural indolence, which has always been an obstacle with him”, and who concluded that “not the holy will of God” that he should be a priest. This is despite Thompson early exhibiting signs of genius.
He won 16 of the school’s 21 competitive exams in essay writing, and the head of the school said that Thompson’s essays were “the best production from a lad his age I have ever seen in this seminary”.
This ending of his hopes to become a priest meant his life took a very different path and, upon returning to his family home in Manchester, his mother had him apply to study surgery at Owen’s medical college.
Although Thompson showed a fascination in dissection, that brought one of his sisters to remark, “many a time he asked my father for £3 or £4 for dissecting fees; so often that my father remarked what a number of corpses he was cutting up”.
Thompson skipped the college exams three times, forcing him to repeat his studies of surgery and human anatomy. A fellow student remembered Thompson at this time, “a vacant stare, weak lips, and a usually half-open mouth, the saliva trickling over his chin”.
Thompson’s refusal to complete his years of studies or find full-time work, led to conflict with his family and in 1885 he ran away from home and headed to London.
A series of misfortunes quickly saw him become a homeless vagrant, before being rescued from the streets within days of the final Ripper murder.
Patterson’s book, which has been published by Austin and Macauley, is the result of 20 years of research, in which he travelled around the world gathering information to show Thompson was a serial killer.
His research took him to Burns Library in Boston, which holds the world’s largest collection of Thompson’s letters and papers, and on to Thompson’s birthplace in Preston and London’s East End, the location of the infamous murders.
Patterson (pictured) also spoke at length to Texan forensic pathologist Dr Joseph C Rupp, who first posted the theory that Thompson could be Jack the Ripper.
In 1988, Dr Rupp, wrote an article in a magazine devoted to criminology, which asked if Thompson was the Ripper, but it was largely ignored.
Patterson strengthened the theory through his research and, in return, Dr Rupp wrote the introduction to Patterson’s book.
More recently, Patterson presented his findings when he spoke at the 2016 London Jack the Ripper Conference.
Patterson first received widespread media attention, in 2015, when his findings were made public.
Patterson’s book tells how Francis Thompson, in 1888, an ex-medical student with a dissecting scalpel, had a history of mental illness and also of trouble with the police.
He had just broken up with a prostitute and had written about cutting women’s stomachs open.
At the same time, a few yards from his refuge, a woman was knifed. Her name was Mary Kelly, and she is considered, by most, to be the last victim of Jack the Ripper.
Her slaying was part of a spate of prostitute murders, which one coroner said were by someone who had considerable anatomical skill and knowledge.
As Patterson’s book shows, Francis Thompson was once a medical student and learned the very techniques of dissection and organ removal that were made to the Ripper’s victims.
Patterson sets out a compelling case for Thompson as the prime suspect for Jack the Ripper.
“I do not claim to have solved the murders,” Patterson said. “Read my book and judge for yourself.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, Thompson’s poetry was highly regarded, even though he had died in 1907.
A great fan of his works was JRR Tolkien, who is known for his Middle Earth Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit novels.
Tolkien said that the ‘profound expressions’ in Thompson’s poems were an important influence.
Tolkien lectured on Thompson and praised him, saying he was, “in perfect harmony with the poet”. Tolkien even took words that Thompson coined and littered them throughout his Middle Earth books.
Tolkien’s elf-maiden, Lúthien, came from Thompson’s Luthany, from his poem The Mistress of Vision. Tolkien’s use of the word ‘Southron’ for ‘southerner people’ in his Lord of the Rings comes from Thompson’s poem At Lords.
Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven, which describes a man being pursued by God, in the form of a hound, is his most famous.
At one time it became one of the most widely printed poems in the English language.
Placed under the light of the theory that Thompson was the Ripper, however, this poem, with the line, “I pleaded, outlaw-wise” takes on a far deeper meaning and the symbolisim of the hound may be more real than we think, when we consider that, during the Ripper investigation, the Chief Police Commissioner trailed the use of bloodhounds to try to track down the murderer.
This poem’s influence has been far reaching. In February 1943, Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian civil rights leader, while in detention and behind barbed wire in Poona, India, began a 21-day fast, protesting British occupation. To console himself he read his copy of Francis Thompson’s most famous poem, The Hound of Heaven written, in 1888, the year of the Ripper murders, and asked a visiting relative their interpretations of it.
Ghandi found its words to be so comforting that two years later, on March 9 1945, he wrote to a friend, prescribing it as a remedy to nervousness. “Try and see if you can steady your mind. Read The Hound of Heaven, think over it and understand its meaning. You will not be happy anywhere if you turn your back upon the Hound.”
Another well-known civil rights leader, who took this poem to heart, was the American Martin Luther King Jr. In his sermons, 1945 to 1950, King reminded himself of “God’s Search For Man” in which he preached that God seeks man as much as man seeks God, to quote Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven.
There is one area in which Thompson’s Hound of Heaven poem may have had the greatest impact and that is in American legal history. In 1955, the US Supreme Court made Brown v Board of Education decision, a landmark ruling that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Many legal experts see it as the most important legal decision made in US history. The ruling turned on a phrase taken from The Hound of Heaven. The judges, used the term “with all deliberate speed” when they gave the period of time in which the Southern States had to allow racially mixed classrooms. This vague description hindered de-segregation.
Significant reforms were never achieved. It took another decade of protests, before the Supreme Court made a new ruling. Today, civil rights historians say that this delay brought needless suffering and a lasting distrust between African Americans and white people.
One can only imagine the consequences if the American people come to realise that their highest court in the land, when they made their ruling, relied on the words of the multiple murderer, Jack the Ripper?
•“Jack the Ripper, The Works of Francis Thompson” by Richard Patterson is available priced £9.99 from Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.