NOTE: After this column appeared, I received a very polite note from Richard Patterson, the author of the theory discussed below, to correct me on several points. The major issue he took is that there was a second work, other than the one I cited, that proves to him that Thompson was Jack the Ripper. I have revised the piece to include this extra poem and his comments. Needless to say, it does not substantially change the case against Thompson. 

Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” is one of the most beloved poems about faith ever written. There was a time when Catholic schoolchildren learned it by heart.

Thompson was admired by J.R.R. Tolkien, whose early poem “Wood-sunshine” was influenced by Thompson. In his paper to the Stapeldon Society, Tolkien would later compare Thompson to his character Eärendil, observing their similar “burning enthusiasm for the ethereally fair.”

In “A Dead Poet,” G.K. Chesterton sings his praises as a “great poet” and a “shy volcano” who had “the greatest poetic energy since Browning.” About one poem, he writes:

But there was one poem of which the image was so vast that it was literally difficult for a time to take it in; he was describing the evening earth with its mist and fume and fragrance, and represented the whole as rolling upwards like a smoke; then suddenly he called the whole ball of the earth a thurible, and said that some gigantic spirit swung it slowly before God. That is the case of the image too large for comprehension.

“The Hound of Heaven” is a cultural staple, with its images and phrases cropping up in other works and inspiring people to conversion. Its image of God pursuing the fleeing soul perfectly captures the way we try to avoid His grace.

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
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
    Up vistaed hopes I sped;
    And shot, precipitated,
    Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

Australian teacher Richard Patterson claims those weren’t the footsteps of God that pursued Thompson, but of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, because in 1888, Thompson butchered Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly.

Sure, why not. Everyone else gets to be a Ripper suspect. Why not Thompson? 

From Homeless Addict to Successful Poet

Thompson’s dissipated early life is no secret. Although Chesterton’s encomium brushes aside “some charges of moral weakness,” the poet’s rocky road to redemption is well-chronicled.

He studied medicine but was an indifferent student and wound up in London trying to make his way as a writer. He ended up as vagrant addicted to opium and ultimately attempted suicide, being stopped only by a mystical vision of another suicidal poet: Thomas Chatterton. A prostitute took him in and supported him around this time, and he called her his “savior.” She ended the relationship when his poetry career began to take off because she though their association would harm his reputation.

In 1888, his poetry was discovered and championed by a couple who published his work in their magazine Merrie England, provided him a place to live, and saw to the publication of his first book. They helped him recover from his addiction by sending him to Our Lady of England Priory, but years of privation and abuse had left his health shattered, and he never really recovered fully. He died of tuberculosis in 1907 at the age of 47, leaving behind a body of work that included many deeply spiritual and Catholic poems.

You may have noticed something interesting that little biography: the year of his first success was also the year of the Ripper murders, which occurred over 10 weeks in 1888, from August 31st (Mary Ann Nichols) to November 9th (Mary Kelly). The Ripper was the first modern serial killer: a butcher of startling brutality who appeared to taunt the police (although most, if not all, of the Ripper letters were fake), with everything played out in the lurid headlines of the London papers. It was homicide as media phenomena and entertainment, and the city was whipped into a frenzy by reporters. When Alan Moore’s Ripper in From Hell suggests that he gave birth to the twentieth century of brutality, sexual obsession, and murdertainment as a kind of “ghastly midwife” (in the words of Moore), he’s not that far off.

Yet Another Ripper Suspect

Ripper suspects are like potato chips. You can't have just one!

Patterson’s theory about Thompson being the Ripper is based on the usual thin gruel of circumstantial evidence and dimestore psychology. Thompson lived in the area at the time of the murders. He was a drug addict. He had “surgical skills” from his time in medical school. He hated prostitutes. (You know: like the woman he called “his savior.”) He carried a scalpel and was was taught “a rare surgical procedure that was found in the mutilations of more than one of the Ripper victims.”

The idea that the Ripper needed to training as a surgeon is a myth. Any butcher could do what the Ripper did.

Patterson’s theory is that Thompson became consumed with hatred for prostitutes after his lover left him, and that he wrote about a violent knife murder around the time of the murders. His dates for these events, of course, are pure speculation, as is his psychoanalysis. We don’t even know the name of the prostitute who helped Thompson, so the particulars of the relationship are unknown.

Patterson’s theory rests on Thompson's creative work, which is never a sound foundation for an accusation of murder. First, there is a story called “Finis Coronat Opus,” which Joseph Pearce describes as

one of the finest short stories the present author has ever had the pleasure of reading. A cautionary tale in the Faustian mode, it tells of a poet who sells his soul to the devil and sacrifices his marriage on the altar of “art”. It was a stinging sideswipe against the rising aesthetic movement with its mantra of “art for art’s sake” and its desire to divorce beauty from morality. Here, as elsewhere and always, Thompson’s art was always at the service of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

Of course, the story is really a secret confession to murder. In it, a man kills his love in return for the promise of genius from an evil spirit. This passage is the peg on which Patterson hangs his theory:

“I swear I struck not the first blow. Some violence seized my hand, and drove the poniard down. Whereat she cried; and I, frenzied, dreading detection, dreading, above all, her wakening, I struck again, and again she cried; and yet again, and yet again she cried.”

The story seems influenced by the work of Thomas deQuincy and Thompson’s opium use, with visionary passages that try to capture the heightened sensations of the addict. It is, of course, just a story, and appears to have been written after the murders.

The "Murder" Poem?

In an email, Patterson corrected me: "I see his poem, ‘Nightmare of the Witch Babies,’ carries far more weight [than the short story]. The US historian John Walsh wrote in his 1988 book, ‘Francis Thompson, Strange Harp Strange Symphony.’

The most painful of these poems was The Nightmare of the Witch Babies, never revived in a fair copy. But in the last of the notebook drafts, he added a reminder, rare for him, of the date of its completion: “Finished before October 1886” – that is within a year of his departure from home.

Thus, it was written before the Ripper murders. I'll let Patterson take it from here:

Perhaps you are unaware of the contents of that poem, written before the Ripper murders. This poem was about a ‘knight’ who hunts for women on the London streets and then kills them with a knife. Here are some excerpts from the poem.

‘A lusty knight,
Ha! Ha!
On a swart [black] steed,
Ho! Ho!
Rode upon the land
Where the silence feels alone,
Rode upon the Land
Rode upon the Strand’

[As he rides through a desolate landscape of the metropolis, the knight catches sight of a suitable prey.]

‘What is it sees he?
Ha! Ha!
There in the frightfulness?
Ho! Ho!
There he saw a maiden
Fairest fair:
Sad were her dusk eyes,
Long was her hair;
Sad were her dreaming eyes,
Misty her hair,
And strange was her garments’

[Soon he begins to stalk her.]

‘Swiftly he followed her
Ha! Ha!
Eagerly he followed her.
Ho! Ho!;’

[Then she disappoints him. He discovers she is unclean.]

‘Lo, she corrupted!
Ho! Ho!’

[The knight captures her and decides to kill her.]

‘And its paunch was rent
Like a brasten [bursting] 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!’

Examining The Nightmare of the Witch Babies

These glosses and excerpts wildly misrepresent the poem, which appears unfinished. This a medieval moral adventure about a knight hunting a witch, with the form typically used by poets to express a struggle with sin. It has Gothic overtones that would have been familiar to the readership of the 1880s. Indeed, the Gothic began a revival in the 1880s with Robert Louis Steven's Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, published the same year this poem was written. The revival would produce The Picture of Dorian Gray, Trilby, The Beetle, The Turn of the Screw, the stories of MR James and Arthur Machen and, finally, Dracula. In the 1880s, the First British Folk Revival was also in its early stages, and the repeated use of phrases like "ho! ho!" suggest forms of folk songs and medieval lyrics, which were known for their murder ballads. Furthermore, none of the imagery in the poem would be out of place in the Arthurian corpus. If you want gruesome murders by knights, look no further than the Perlesvaus. Finally, the last poem of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, "Balin and Balan", was published in Tiresias and Other Poems in 1885. We have a perfect storm of influence. 

Nowhere does the poem say he went "through the streets of London." A knight is unlikely to hunt witches on the actual Strand in London, and the old meaning of strand was the area along a body of water. That's how the Strand got its name: it ran along the Thames. Both Strand and Land are capitilized, so there's no reason to believe Strand is a street name. (The capitlization is not present in the version I have.) Given the archaic form and setting, it seems more likely that he's riding through a forest along a river, which is born out by the fact that he rides "upon the land" (not in a city) where "the silence feels along" (the Strand was busy from about the 12th century and unlikely to be silent). The "land of the Bare Shank-Bone" (a shank-bone is a femur) is quite obviously a cemetery. He's in a phantasmic land of death and rot in which evil dwells. It's a common setting for allegorical struggles in medieval adventure.

Although the "woman" is described as "fair," we already have a clue to her otherworldliness: "Misty her hair, / And strange was her garments." She grows more hideous as the poem proceeds, eventually revealing her evil nature. This is a creature, not a woman. She is a "demon-ridden witch, / And the consort of hell-fire." The beautiful woman who attempts to lure men to their doom, only to reveal herself as a demon in disguise, is a standard element in folklore. She doesn't "disapppoint" him because there's no indication he loved or even knew her. She's a stock symbol: Temptation. There is no passage where the knight "captures and decides to kill" a woman, or that "she is corrupted" means something other than her being a demon. 

Most startling, the passage used as evidence that the woman is killed ("And it's paunch was rent") isn't about the demon woman, but about the Witch Baby of the title. It's referred to in the line "Comes there a babe." The knight has no active part in the murder (the passive voice "was rent" is used) and previous lines seem to suggest that it burst of its own foul corruption and evil. Indeed, we learn that the demons he pursues are personifications of Lust. One grasps him (after it bursts, showing that in fact he has not killed it at all) and they ride away as it rots his armor (the protection of faith?) from his body. The knight is defeated. There is no dead woman in this poem. There never was. 

The entire case against Thompson as the Ripper is based on a gravely flawed literary interpretation, circumstantial evidence, and wild speculation. You need more than that to defame a dead man.

Apparently, though, everyone who was alive and in London in 1888 gets to be Jack the Ripper for fifteen minutes.

Further Reading: The Houd of Heaven and Other Poems, with an introduction by G.K. Chesterton. The standard work on Jack the Ripper is The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow. 

UPDATE: With permission, I am printing the letter from Richard Patterson below. 

Hi Thomas.

I read you article on the Catholic National Register. I am writing to enquire if you are willing to make a correction to your article, ‘Was A Famous Catholic Poet Jack the Ripper?’ You are wrong on a few points about my theory. Most are minor, but you write that my theory rests on that he wrote a short story “Finis Coronat Opus.” This is not true. The several newspaper articles in the public domain detail that in fact I see his poem, ‘Nightmare of the Witch Babies,’ carries far more weight. The US historian John Walsh wrote in his 1967 book, ‘Francis Thompson, Strange Harp Strange Symphony.’

‘The most painful of these poems was The Nightmare of the Witch Babies, never revived in a fair copy. But in the last of the notebook drafts, he added a reminder, rare for him, of the date of its completion: “Finished before October 1886” – that is within a year of his departure from home.’

Having been written before the murders, it could not have been inspired by them, and I believe that even the works of De Quincey can not be compared to it. Perhaps you are unaware of the poem's contents? It is about a ‘knight’ who hunts for women on the London streets and then uses a knife to kills them and cut their stomachs open. Here are some excerpts from the Witch Babies.

Perhaps you are unaware of the contents of that poem, written before the Ripper murders. This poem was about a ‘knight’ who hunts for women on the London streets and then kills them with a knife. Here are some excerpts from the poem.

‘A lusty knight,
Ha! Ha!
On a swart [black] steed,
Ho! Ho!
Rode upon the land
Where the silence feels alone,
Rode upon the Land
Rode upon the Strand’

[As he rides through a desolate landscape of the metropolis, the knight catches sight of a suitable prey.]

‘What is it sees he?
Ha! Ha!
There in the frightfulness?
Ho! Ho!
There he saw a maiden
Fairest fair:
Sad were her dusk eyes,
Long was her hair;
Sad were her dreaming eyes,
Misty her hair,
And strange was her garments’

[Soon he begins to stalk her.]

‘Swiftly he followed her
Ha! Ha!
Eagerly he followed her.
Ho! Ho!;’

[Then she disappoints him. He discovers she is unclean.]

‘Lo, she corrupted!
Ho! Ho!’

[The knight captures her and decides to kill her.]

‘And its paunch was rent
Like a brasten [bursting] 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!’

I am writing to you in good faith and believing you somehow missed this important piece of information. I am sure you would agree that yourself should make your good readers aware of this rather that they do so through secondary means. I accept that many people believe that Thompson held only kind feelings to the prostitute friend whom, in early 1888, he parted company with. However, I do have grounds to believe that he disliked the profession. In the 1913, ‘Life of Francis Thompson’ by Everard Meynell, we have Thompson quoted,

'These girls whose Practice is a putrid ulceration of love, venting foul and purulent discharge- for their very utterance is a hideous blasphemy against the sacrosanctity [sacred ways] of lover's language!'

The background to this theory is that it was first proposed, in 1988, by Dr. Joseph Rupp, a Texan Criminal Pathologist, with his article, ‘Was Francis Thompson Jack the Ripper, in the journal ‘The Criminologist.’ Even earlier, that the police, may have questioned Thompson for the crimes, was first suggested by Walsh in 1967 biography on the poet. They and I do not suggest, from Thompson’s writing alone, that he was Jack the Ripper.

My research, these past 20-years, shows that he lived yards away from the murder of the last Ripper victim, Mary Kelly, at the Providence Row night refuge. It stood opposite the intersection to Dorset Street, where she was killed. That Thompson carried a dissecting scalpel comes from Thompson. He stated this in a letter that he wrote to his editor, in February 1889. In it, he requested a razor blade and explained that, until then, he had used a dissecting scalpel to shave with. As to his medical studies, Owens College in Manchester, where he was a student, held practical studies and knowledge in anatomy as vitally important. The college register shows he signed his name, daily, for attendance during his six years of study. The suggestion that he disliked his studies did not arise until after his death, in 1907.

I should stress that even if Thompson had been illiterate, that he was carrying a dissecting scalpel, had surgical training, and was in the very area that the murders occurred, only to seek a prostitute, makes him a person of interest already to many Ripper theorists.

I appreciate that many Catholics, for its spiritual beauty, cherish Thompson’s poetry. I have tried, from the outset, to be sensitive to Catholic needs. In 1997, when I first saw that Thompson might be the Ripper, and at that time being ignorant of previous suggestions that he might be, I deemed that the church should be made aware of this. Through my university tutor, a retainer to the Catholic Church, I made contact with Melbourne’s then Archbishop, and now cardinal, George Pell. I was informed that the Archbishop said that Thompson’s influence had waned and that I would not ruffle too many feathers. I also wrote to Burns & Oates. This respected Roman Catholic British publisher was responsible for many of Thompson’s publications. Paul Burns, now deceased, wrote in reply that he appreciated notification and saw that I was acting through goodwill. I performed a great deal of research at Boston University’s Burns Library, where the bulk of Thompson’s papers are housed. That I have remained open and honest in my research is reflected in the fact that Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian and Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, has written to me congratulating me on the media recognition and has wished me well on my book that is currently with a British publisher.

I thank you for reprinting this letter of response. I can see why many Catholics would wish to defend Thompson. I am not saying that he was Jack the Ripper. I am saying that he should be looked at more closely. He is still the subject of study by many and for their sake, if there are holes in this theory, I would rather that they be shown sooner rather than later.

Yours Respectfully,

 

Richard Patterson