My jaw dropped when I first read about it. How did a Sioux medicine man end up on the suspect list? Native Americans must be among the most exotic – and ridiculous – explanations for the series of murders and mutilations that rocked the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. Nevertheless, Black Elk’s name crops up regularly in discussions about the case.
I’ve said before that I’m opened minded when it comes to Jack the Ripper. I don’t favor one suspect over the other. But with Black Elk, I’ll come out and make an exception. It wasn’t him. No way. He had a great alibi, and historical documents back him up.
Although we can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect with a high degree of certainty, the story of how the popular mind connected him with the world’s most famous serial murders is an interesting piece of history in itself.
Here’s the story.
Black Elk as a world traveler
Outside of the crown prince, Black Elk probably has the most name recognition of any Ripper suspect. North Americans acknowledge him as one of the continent’s greatest religious leaders. The Oglala Lakota participated in the battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and later became a medicine man and holy man. Although he converted to Catholicism in midlife, his biography, Black Elk Speaks, has become a classic of native spiritualism.
But he was more traveled than you might think. Twenty-four-year-old Black Elk participated in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in New York during the winter of 1886-1887. When Buffalo Bill continued to Europe in March 1887, Black Elk went with him. He embarked along with cowboys, sharpshooters, musicians, 96 other Native Americans, and Annie Oakley. Buffalo Bill also brought 15 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 head of Texas steer, 150 horses, and a stagecoach.
Black Elk in England
Over the course of the following fourteen months, Buffalo Bill’s troupe performed in London, Birmingham, and Salford (now part of Greater Manchester), playing colorful scenes of the American west. Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands came to watch. Cowboys lassoed steers and rode bucking broncos, Indians danced, erected teepees, and chased buffalo, and Annie Oakley shot a cigar from her husband’s mouth. The tour’s highlight was Queen Victoria. She requested a private performance on May 11, 1887. Black Elk sang and danced for her, and after the show, even shook her hand.
Then personal disaster struck Black Elk. The Wild West show left Manchester by train on May 4, 1888, for one last show in Hull. From there the troupe sailed back to America. But somehow, Black Elk and three other Native Americans got left behind in Manchester.
On to London and France
The four Lakota Sioux left behind spoke only rudimentary English and would have been in a real fix if they hadn’t run into an English-Lakota interpreter. Buffalo Bill’s group had at least two, Bronco Bill and Yellow-Striped Face, but it’s not clear whether this interpreter came from his troupe or a rival’s. One theory is that the interpreter came from a rival troupe and manipulated the Native Americans into missing their train. In a form of human trafficking, he corralled them to the other show group.
The stranded Sioux traveled to London. There the interpreter helped them find reemployment in another, smaller western show, Mexican Joe’s “Western Wilds of America.” Like Buffalo Bill, Mexican Joe performed with cowboys, Indians, and sharpshooters. Black Elk performed at least once with Mexican Joe before the troupe continued to Paris on June 13, 1888.
Black Elk arrested and interrogated
A policeman arrested and interrogated Black Elk and his companions on their third day in London. He wanted an account of their whereabouts and later let the group go. Black Elk assumed the police blamed them for something that had happened but he never specified, any maybe never even learned, what it was. Some people have speculated that interrogation was part of the Ripper investigation, but as you’ll see below, the timing is all wrong.
When Mexican Joe’s troupe opened in Paris around June 15, 1888, Black Elk was with him. Mexican Joe then toured Belgium, returning to England sometime that autumn. Half a year later, around April 1888, Black Elk fell ill and Mexican Joe dropped him from the troupe’s roster. Buffalo Bill, however, returned to Europe for another tour in May 1889. When Black Elk heard about it, he traveled to Paris. There Buffalo Bill brought him a return ticket and sent him home. Black Elk arrived in New York on June 17, 1889, and from traveled back to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre just 18 months later.
Why Black Elk as a Ripper suspect?
Jack the Ripper terrorized London in the late summer and fall of 1888. He killed at least five victims on August 31, September 8, September 30 (two murders), and November 9. All but one victim was mutilated. Englishmen had trouble believing one of their own could commit such an act and their thoughts turned to the mutilations they’d heard about from the American West. Following the second murder, one newspaper drew an analogy to the recent Wild West performances: the murderer was a ghoul who stalked down his victims like a Pawnee Indian.
Apparently, letters to the editor followed, reporting the stranded Indians from Buffalo Bill’s show. Rumor had it that the Indians were still in London’s East End. They might have been angry about getting stranded and started taking it out on the English.
The Native Americans’ dubious connection to the Ripper case anchored itself in the public imagination. Black Elk, Buffalo Bill, and Mexican Joe feature in a cartoon and film about the Ripper, both called From Hell. Fear and prejudice may have played a role the finger pointing, but to be fair, I should point out that the police also investigated two of Mexican Joe’s cowboys.
An airtight alibi
And so, as the rumor went, Buffalo Bill’s stranding four Native Americans in Manchester put them in the right place at the right time – in England during the Ripper murders. But it’s not as easy as that. If you track down Mexican Joe’s performance schedule, you’ll see that for all but two of the murders, Black Elk has an alibi as waterproof as a birchbark canoe.
Mexican Joe is harder to track than Buffalo Bill because he tended to advertise with posters, not newspaper ads. Nevertheless, Tom F. Cunningham of the English Westerners’ Society has done an excellent job reconstructing Mexican Joe’s performance schedule through newspaper reviews of his shows. Mexican Joe opened in Paris in June 1888 and then traveled to Belgium to open there in August. He remained there until at least September 21. By October 8, he was probably back in England, because a British paper identified two of his cowboys as Ripper suspects. On October 13, he opened a show in Birmingham, and by November 9, was in Sheffield.
The only time for which Cunningham could not account for Mexican Joe’s location was the period between September 21 and October 13. Two Ripper murders occurred on September 30. But if one person was responsible for the canonical five murders, it couldn’t have been Black Elk. He wasn’t even in the country for the first two, and for the last, he was in another city. And he had a troupe of hundreds to attest to that.
Even though more murders than the canonical five might be ascribed to Jack the Ripper, I’m not aware of any that happened in May 1888, when Black Elk was arrested, interrogated, and released in London. Whatever crime that policeman was investigating, it wasn’t the Ripper killings: officially, they hadn’t started yet. Finding the file for that investigation would make an interesting research project — if anyone in London wants to take it up.
I won’t usually say this about any other suspect, but I will for this one. We can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect. The Oglala Lakota holy man didn’t do it.
Who do you think was the craziest Ripper suspect ever?
Literature on point:
Peter Carlson, Encounter: Buffalo Bill at Queen Victoria’s Command, American History Magazine, Sept. 29, 2015.
Tom F. Cunningham, Black Elk, Mexican Joe & Buffalo Bill: The Real Story (London: The English Westerners’ Society, 2015).
Raymond J. DeMallie, ed. The Sixth Grandfather – Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Lincoln: Univesity of Nebraska Press, 1985).
John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (William Morrow & Company, 1932).
Michael F. Steltenkamp, Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).
“The Queen at the Show: Victoria Attends Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus,” Washington Post, May 13, 1887.
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.Read More