Fact or Fiction? by Saul David
When writing a novel about a subject as well documented as the Whitechapel Murders – the series of prostitute killings by ‘Jack the Ripper’ that rocked the East End of London in 1888 – it’s best, I think, to stick as close to the historical record as possible.
So apart from my protagonist George Hart VC and his immediate family, Sergeant Jack Fletcher of the CID and one or two others, all the characters that appear in The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders are based on real people. Chief among them is Prince Albert Victor (known to his family and friends as Prince Eddy), grandson of Queen Victoria and heir apparent to the throne. As a young officer Eddy was suspected of harbouring dark secrets that included a liking for young men of ‘questionable morals’, gay brothels and, worse, the dubious pleasures of the slums of London’s Whitechapel. It was to protect him from criminal blackmail and Fenian terrorists that the book’s hero, George Hart VC, agrees to return to the UK.
Most of the details in the book about the actual murders are from contemporary documents: from the killing of the victim generally acknowledged as the Ripper’s first (Martha Turner or Tabram) on 7 August 1888, to the last just over three months later. They include the two ‘Jack the Ripper’ letters sent to the Boss of the Central News Office, the chalk message and torn apron found in Goulston Street, and the package (containing a letter and half a female kidney) sent to the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The descriptions of Whitechapel are partly gleaned from author Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, an eyewitness account of life in the East End at the turn of the 20th Century.
Yet despite countless books on the subject, the identity of ‘Jack the Ripper’ (and his accomplice, if he had one) has never been established beyond doubt. Among those identified as chief suspects by recent books are Prince Eddy, his friend and former tutor Jim Stephens, the artist Walter Sickert, the author Lewis Carroll and the American singer and composer Michael Maybrick, the protagonist in Bruce Robinson’s They All Love Jack (2015).
Prince Eddy first entered the frame in ‘Jack the Ripper – A Solution?’, an article by eminent physician Dr T. E. A. Stowell that appeared in the Criminologist in 1970. Though Stowell did not name the Prince, his description of ‘S’ could not have been anyone else. ‘After the education traditional for an English aristocrat,’ wrote Stowell, ‘at the age of a little over 16 years, “S” went for a cruise around the world with a number of high-spirited boys of approximately his age group.’ Later Stowell later refers to his subject’s nickname as ‘Collars and Cuffs’. Stowell’s theory is that ‘S’ contracted syphilis on one of his ‘many shore parties’ and it was during the periodic fits of madness brought on by this illness that he killed his victims.
The theory has been repeated and embellished by various writers, and is not without some foundation. Eddy was almost certainly bisexual, a frequent visitor to the East End and, as newly discovered letters reveal (Daily Mail, 26 February 2016), was receiving treatment in 1885 and 1886 (and possibly later) for a venereal disease like gonorrhea that he probably caught from a prostitute. Yet contemporary documents – in the form of the Court Register – indicate that Eddy was not in London at the time of the murders.
So who else might have been responsible? The policemen involved in the case narrow the possibilities down to just two or three people. In a famous memorandum of 1894, CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten wrote: ‘A much more rational and workable theory…is that the Ripper’s brain gave way altogether after his awful glut in Miller’s Court and that he then committed suicide, or, as a less likely alternative, was found to be so helplessly insane by his relatives, that they, suspecting the worst, had him confined in some Lunatic Asylum… I enumerate the cases of 3 men against whom Police had very reasonable suspicion: Mr M. J. Druitt, [Aaron] Kosminski and Michael Ostrog. Of Druitt and Kosminski he wrote:
No. 1 Mr M. J. Druitt, a doctor of about 41 years of age & of fairly good family, who disappeared at the time of the Miller’s Court murder, and whose body was found floating in the Thames on 31s Dec. i.e. 7 weeks after the said murder…. From private information I have little doubt but that his own family suspected this man of being the Whitechapel murderer…
No. 2 Kosminski, a Polish Jew, who lived in the very heart of the district where the murders were committed. He had become insane owing to many years indulgence in solitary vices [masturbation). He had a great hatred of women with homicidal tendencies. He was (and I believe still is) detained in lunatic asylum about March 1889. The man in appearance strongly resembled the individual seen by the City P.C. near Mitre Square.
Macnaghten added: ‘I have always held strong opinions regarding No. 1, and the more I think the matter over, the stronger do these opinions become.’ In his memoirs he wrote: ‘The Whitechapel murderer, in all probability, put an end to himself soon after the Dorset Street affair in November 1888.’
Sir Robert Anderson, head of the CID from early September 1888, was convinced Kosminski was responsible. He wrote: ‘One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sex maniac of a virulent type; that he was living in the immediate vicinity of the scenes of the murders; and that, if he was not living absolutely alone, his people knew of his guilt, and refused to give him up to justice… The Police had made a house to house search for him, investigating the case of every man in the district… And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were low-class Jews, for it is a remarkable fact that people of that class in the East End will not give up one of their number to Gentile justice.’
He added: ‘The only person who had ever a good view of the murderer [Israel Schwarz] unhesitatingly identified the suspect the instant he was confronted with him; but he refused to give evidence against him. In saying that he was a Polish Jew I am merely stating a definitely ascertained fact.’
Donald Swanson confirmed that Anderson was referring to Kosminski when he wrote in the margin of Anderson’s book: ‘He knew he was identified. On suspect’s return to his brother’s house in Whitechapel he was watched by police (city CID) by day & night. In a very short time the suspect with his hands tied behind his back, was sent to Stepney Workhouse and then to Colney Hatch [Asylum] and died shortly afterwards – Kosminski was the suspect.’
A recent book by Russell Edwards (Naming Jack the Ripper, 2014) claims to have DNA evidence (taken from Catherine Eddowes torn shawl) that Kosminski was the killer.
Was he? Was Druitt? Or was Prince Eddy? Might any two of them – as the evidence suggests - have acted together? We will probably never know, but it’s all fertile ground for a novelist’s imagination. And who’s to say my fictional version of events is any less credible than the many non-fiction theories?
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