Francis Thompson as a Ripper Suspect? Interview with Richard Patterson
The thing that scares me most about the Jack the Ripper case is not the murders. Oh, no. It’s the number of suspects!
The list of men accused of the world’s most famous serial killing spree now far outstrips the number of victims, and fresh suspects appear every decade. With the publication of each new Ripper book comes totally convincing arguments that the newly introduced suspect could have murdered and mutilated at least five women in Whitechapel in 1888. That always leaves me with lingering questions:
Were Victorian men really that depraved? Were there so many of them really capable of history’s most famous serial killing spree?
The answers suggested in the Ripper literature frighten me more than the crimes, because collectively, they say yes.
With that ripe fodder, I’m opening a new historical true crime blog category: Ripper suspects. I don’t really have a favorite candidate and won’t advocate for one over the other. This category will present the suspects objectively.
One suspect, however, more than any other, gives me goose bumps. It’s not because I’ve singled him out as the most likely candidate. It’s because I knew him – through his poetry – even before anyone ever fingered him as Jack the Ripper, and viewed him as an eloquent champion of the Christian faith. Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven, accompanied me through my childhood with its haunting images of a God who pursues the fleeing sinner:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
– Francis Thompson, excerpt from The Hound of Heaven
As it turns out, Francis Thompson knew a few things about sin. At La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia, Richard Patterson discovered a Thompson-Ripper connection in a research project. He’s continued investigating Thompson for twenty years and just published the book, Francis Thompson – A Ripper Suspect. Patterson will be a featured speaker at Ripper Conference this coming November in London. (You can read more about him at the end of the post.)
Reading Patterson’s book gave me a wholly different view of the poet who inspired both J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. Now I’d be afraid to travel back in time and meet him. Here’s why.
Mr. Patterson, What are the strongest arguments for Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect?
Apart from his prose and poetry in which he wrote on killing prostitutes with a knife before the murders and writing about killing women with a knife after the murders, Thompson had the means and opportunity to have committed the Whitechapel murders. In researching the life of Francis Thompson it can be shown that during the final murder Thompson was living in the Providence Row night refuge. This was a homeless shelter situated at the end of Dorset Street, the street that the last Ripper Victim, Mary Kelly, was killed in. As well as being only yards away from Kelly, Thompson, during the murders, lived within walking distance of all the murders. I can also show that Thompson was carrying a dissecting scalpel, and being homeless at the time, it was always in his coat pocket. Added to this, Thompson had trained as a surgeon for several years. He had been trained in dissection techniques that are similar to the wounding done to the victims. Thompson also may have been a suspect who was questioned by the London City Police, at the time of the murders. Thompson’s motive can be primarily traced to the fact that not long before the murders began, Thompson was rejected by a prostitute, who broke up with him and fled him. All the victims were prostitutes.
Who first recognized Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect? When and why?
In 1988, the year that coincided with the anniversary of the Whitechapel murders, Dr. Joseph Rupp, a Texan forensic pathologist, published an article “Was Francis Thompson Jack the Ripper?” It came out in a British journal the ‘Criminologist’. His article examined Thompson’s medical skill discussed Thompson living as a vagrant in London during the murders. Rupp explained that Thompson was seeking out a prostitute who had left him. I have spoken with Dr. Rupp many times, since making contact with him in early 2015. He told me he had studied the works of Francis Thompson and as well as his pathology, he had in interest in poetry. Rupp, who had been introduced to the works of Francis Thompson in college and knew a little about his life, could see how Thompson could be the murderer. Rupp’s article was the first to openly suggest Thompson was the Ripper. My book shows that it appears that other writers have also hinted, before Dr Rupp’s article, that Thompson was the Ripper
Thompson wrote a poem, Nightmare of the Witch-Babies, about a knight stalking and killing a prostitute and then cutting out her uterus to find two unborn children. Was that a usual topic for Victorian literature?
And its paunch was rent [her belly was ripped]
Like a brasten drum [burst drum];
And the blubbered fat
From its belly doth come
It was a stream ran bloodily under the wall.
O Stream, you cannot run too red!
Under the wall.
With a sickening ooze – Hell made it so!
Two witch-babies, ho! ho! ho!
– Francis Thompson, excerpt from Nightmare of the Witch-Babies
Victorian literature has always had a dark gothic element and the industrial revolution with the accompanied rise of science and medicine brought with it a morbid fascination in anatomy. Novels and serialized magazines, which dealt with the exploits of criminals like the body snatchers Burke and Hare and highwaymen, were also very popular. Even with all this interest in crime and medicine, the gruesomeness and visceral intensity of Thompson’s poetry, in which he reveled in the gory detail of killing and disembowelment of women, surpasses the darkest fiction of the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Dequincy. No other works by any other author focuses so strongly or takes such delight in describing the mutilation of women. Only the sardonic Jack the Ripper letters provide any comparison.
Did Jack the Ripper ever cut the uterus out of any of his prostitute-victims?
Yes. Annie Chapman, who is known as the Ripper’s second victim, had her uterus removed.
Has anyone performed handwriting and/or linguistic analyses to compare Thompson’s poems to Jack the Ripper’s purported letters?
Yes. In my research I visited the Kew archives in London and took forensic photographs of the Dear Boss letter. This is a letter that has become infamous for the belief that the killer had written it during the murders and sent it to Central News Agency in London. The letter boasted of the crimes and it is from this letter that the name Jack the Ripper originates. I believe I am the first and only person to have taken photographs of the Dear Boss letter, using a template superimposed over it, so that it could be used as evidence in a court of law. I also travelled to Boston College’s Burns Library in the United States. Here are the most comprehensive archives of Francis Thompson’s letters and manuscripts. I also took photos of Francis Thompson’s handwriting. In 2009 I sent samples of Thompson’s writing and the Dear Boss letter to a document forensic examiner. He concluded that the handwriting did not match. I have not sought a second opinion. Proving that Francis Thompson wrote the Jack the Ripper letters would only show that Thompson knew about the murders and not that he was the Ripper, but I still believed that once my research was complete, people would enquire if it could be shown whether Thompson wrote the Ripper letters, the Dear Boss letter, in particular. Others, such as Dr. Joseph Rupp, have urged me to get a second opinion and also see if Thompson’s handwriting matches other purported Ripper letters, such as the From Hell, letter that was sent to a member of a Whitechapel vigilance committee. The letter was accompanied by a piece of kidney preserved in a cardboard box and some believed that this kidney matched a Ripper victim. As of now, I believe that some of the Ripper letters may have been written by Thompson, and that the Dear Boss letter was written by another person who knew both about the Ripper crimes and about Thompson’s personal circumstances. I detail this in my book and provide an explanation for who wrote the Dear Boss letter and why.
Some authors say Jack the Ripper displayed anatomical knowledge in mutilating his victims. True? Or just a Ripper myth?
I believe it is true. That the Ripper held anatomical knowledge was also something that some of the doctors who examined the victims and some of the police who investigated the case also believed.
In your book, you describe how the poet mutilated dolls as a child. How does that strengthen the argument for Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect?
When criminal psychologists have studied serial killers and looked at the formative years, they have seen that serial killers show a propensity for mutilation themes in their childhood. Although acts of mutilation does not automatically lead to serial killing they are considered as factor which shows a latency of serial killing. Childhood mutilation acts are one of three indicators which psychologists have named the Triad. The other two are fire-starting and arson as well as bedwetting. Of the bedwetting, I have seen no evidence that this can be applied to the poet, but Thompson, on several occasions, started fires.
As a medical student, Francis Thompson paid money to dissect extra cadavers. Was that usual for a medical student of his time? To what extent might it have pointed to a pathological interest in dead bodies?
Paying extra for anything was unusual for medical students at the time, and probably is still unusual. It should be noted that Thompson’s medical school saw the practical study of anatomy as far more instructive then the reading of textbooks. So it could be argued that teachers would have urged that students spent their extra money on working on more cadavers than was usually allowed. None the less, his family expressed surprised that Francis Thompson spent so much on extra cadavers.
How close did Francis Thompson live to the victims at the time of the murders?
Because Francis Thompson was a vagrant from 1885 to 1889 and spent most of his time living on the streets, it has been hard to track his whereabouts. What we do know is that he used the Salvation Homeless shelter in Limehouse which was the district adjacent to Whitechapel where the murders happened. We also know that he spent nights walking along Mile End road, which is a busy thoroughfare in Whitechapel. It can also be established, by Thompson’s own admission that he stayed in Providence Row. The most likely time, given the strict entry conditions of the Row, was during the first weeks of November 1888. Mary Kelly was killed on November 9th. From the building Thompson had his bed in, a resident could look out the window down the 80 or so yards to the covered archway that led to Mary Kelly’s bed. No other known suspect can be shown to have lived so close to one of the murder sites.
Did Thomson experience any significant life events when the Ripper murder series started?
Yes. Criminal psychologists look to what stressors where in in play, when a serial killer first begin murdering. Just before the Ripper murders, a prostitute who he had been living with for a year dumped Thompson. She fled him after she found out that he had become a published poet. Included in the submission of poems delivered to the editor that published a poem of Thompson’s was his ‘Nightmare of the Witch Babies’ poem that detailed the killing of prostitute. Previous biographers have stated that Thompson’s friend left him because she did believed that their relationship, if he became an established writer, would cause a scandal. Thompson was devastated by her leaving him and this emotional upheaval happened at the same time of his transition from a homeless man to a working journalist with responsibilities. Thompson was also a long time opium addict, just before the murders Thompson also began to withdraw from a drug that he had been on for many years. I believe that all of these things as well as earlier traumatic episodes in his life and a previous mental breakdown contributed to his mind snapping and him living out in reality what he had only previously reserved for the pen
Why do you think Thompson stopped killing?
Because doing so became physically impossible. Only days after the last murder, Thompson was placed in private hospital for exhaustion and taken to a faraway, male-only country monastery. He spent most his remaining years in monasteries and when he did live in London it was under supervision and within a limited area, far away from where the murders happened. As my book explains, his return to London, however, coincides with other murders, some of which have attributed to Jack the Ripper.
In his book, “The Cases that Haunt Us,” FBI behavioral scientist John Douglas offers a criminal profile of Jack the Ripper. He says the extent of the mutilation of the Jack the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, indicates the Ripper was at the end of his rope, psychologically speaking. Such a person would have trouble functioning in society. Does that speak against Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect? In other words, do you think Douglas’s assessment still would apply to a former medical student trained in the Virchow technique of organ removal at autopsy, and who had already “mutilated” a number of bodies, albeit for medical school dissection?
Yes it would. Thompson’s physical condition and his letters and written work reflect a man at the brink of a complete nervous breakdown immediately after the murders and on several occasions in the following years.
You’ve indicated that Thompson’s editor covered up evidence of the poet’s guilt. How?
After Thompson’s death, in 1907, his editor, who lived until 1948, took complete control of Thompson’s papers. Within days of Thompson’s death, his editor orchestrated the revising of Thompson’s life by suggesting that Thompson hated his medical studies and spent all his time in libraries instead of the surgery. That Thompson stayed at Providence Row, which Thompson himself wrote about in essays and articles, was erased from subsequent publications. Other works of Thompson which showed Thompson in a bad light were burnt by his editor. His editor also made unauthorized alterations to Thompson’s work, removing references to murder and killing women. His editor saw nothing wrong in forging Thompson’s signature so that it would appear that the altered poems were original works.
Thank you, Richard Patterson!
Were you already familiar with Francis Thompson through his poetry? Given what you just read about him, would you feel comfortable meeting him in a dark alley?
Literature on point:
Robert Patterson, Francis Thompson – A Ripper Suspect (self-published, February 2016)
Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (1893, public domain)
Francis Thompson, Nightmare of the Witch-Babies (unpublished, 1887, public domain)
Richard Patterson biography:
Born in Melbourne in 1970, Richard Patterson, a High School Teacher, independently determined that Thompson may be the Ripper in 1997. Patterson’s continued research has made him a guest speaker at the 2005, UK Jack the Ripper Conference, held in Brighton. He has been invited to speak again on his book and his latest findings at the 2016 Conference to be held in London. He has had articles published on the theory in newspapers, magazines and journals. He authored the Francis Thompson page on the Ripper Casebook, the world’s most visited Ripper website. His research into this suspect has made news headlines around the world. Media interest includes, The UK Express, The Lancashire Evening Post, The UK Daily Mail, The UK Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor Magazine, The New York Daily News, The UK Sun, The UK Daily Star, The Examiner.com, The UK North West Tonight News & Sydney’s 2UE Radio Station, The Echo, and The Northern Star.
Patterson’s research relies on press reports, police documents, letters, biographies, uncut-volumes, and the first hand examination of historical and artifacts relating to the case. These include the Ripper’s infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter of which Patterson personally handled, at London’s Kew Archives. He also visited the Burns Library at Boston College in the US, where Patterson read Thompson’s notebooks of 1888, and many other original documents including Thompson’s private letters.