In 1895, several American newspapers carried a bizarre story that Jack the Ripper had, in fact, been apprehended and has been incarcerated in an Islington asylum, under the name of Thomas Mason.
According to the decidedly far-fetched story, Thomas Mason, was, in reality, a well known West End physician who had been tracked down by the medium Robert James Lees.
Although the articles didn’t actually name the physician, their suspect did, it must be said, bear certain similarities to Sir William Gull.
Now, I am not for a minute suggesting that the story is true; indeed, many of the facts contained in the story are demonstrably wrong, so the story should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.
However, it is an interesting early example of a Victorian conspiracy theory and, as such, is most certainly of historical interest in that it demonstrates how some newspapers were happy to publish any nonsense when it came to trying to solve the mystery of who Jack the Ripper was.
ROBERT JAMES LEES
Robert James Lees (1849 – 1931), the central person to the narrative of the story, was a medium, spiritualist preacher, philanthropist and educator, who frequently pops up in films on the Whitechapel murders as the clairvoyant who knows the identity of the killer, but who is ridiculed by the police authorities as a crank or crackpot. Until, that is, another murder takes place in the exact circumstances that Lees has predicted.
However, when the story about his amazing psychic hunt for and capture of Jack the Ripper, hit the American newspapers in 1895, his name had not really been associated with the East End crimes; and, it is worth noting that, although the story of his capture of the Whitechapel murderer was covered extensively by the American press, it received scant coverage by the British media.
JACK THE RIPPER’S CAPTURE
The following version of the story appeared in The Boston Sunday Post, on Sunday May 5th, 1895:-
“It Reads Like Fiction And Yet Is Vouched For By Excellent Authorities.
Was A High-Toned London Physician And Was Tracked To His Home Through A Wonderful Manifestation Of Clairvoyant Power.
It only seems a short time ago when the whole civilized world was startled by the fearful crimes of Jack the Ripper, and then, just as suddenly as his murderous work’ had begun it just as suddenly ceased.
Then the same startled world began to wonder what had become of the frightful phenomenon.
A RESPECTED LONDON PHYSICIAN
He had, in fact, been captured and his capture kept a secret.
This capture and the intensely interesting methods employed in so doing make one of the most remarkable stories ever printed. It is vouched for by a gentleman who is now travelling in this country, and in a measure confirmed by Dr. Howard, the well-known London physician, who is also in this country travelling, and who sat as a court of medical inquiry or as a commission in lunacy upon a brother physician, for it was definitely proved that the dreaded “Jack the Ripper” was no less a person than a physician in high standing, was in fact a man enjoying the patronage of the best society in the West End of London.
SWORN TO SECRECY
When it was absolutely proved beyond peradventure that the physician in question was the murderer, and his insanity fully established by the commission of inquiry, all parties having knowledge of the facts were sworn to secrecy.
Up to the time of Dr. Howard’s disclosures, this oath had been rigidly adhered to.
The gentleman above referred to, who is a London club man and an acquaintance of Dr, Howard, is of the opinion that being in a foreign country and perhaps under the influence of wine he had permitted his tongue to wag too freely.
“JACK’S” NAME A SECRET
Coupled with this conjecture he said yesterday:-
“I notice that Dr. Howard has not revealed the name of the physician who committed the murders. For this he has reason to be thankful, as such an act would have resulted in the total destruction of his London practice.
As it is, he will doubtless be privately reprimanded by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, as an oath administered under such circumstances is considered of the most sacred and binding nature.”
HE WOULD TORTURE ANIMALS
The story of Dr. Howard is substantially correct as far as it goes.
When “Jack the Ripper” was finally run to earth, it was discovered that he was a physician, in good standing and with an extensive practice.
He had been, ever since he was a student at Guy’s Hospital, an ardent and enthusiastic vivisectionist. Through some extraordinary natural contradiction, instead of the sight of pain softening him, as is the case with most devotees of scientific experiments, it had an opposite effect. This so grew upon him that he experienced the keenest delight in inflicting tortures upon defenceless animals.
One of his favorite pastimes was to remove the eyelids from a rabbit and expose it for hours in a fixed position to a blinding sun. He would take a seat near it, totally forgetful of meals, of the passage of time and of everything except the exquisite sensations he experienced in watching the agonized contortions of his victim.
HIS WIFE DISCOVERED HIS TRUE NATURE
This passion for inflicting pain so grew upon the man who was afterwards to rank as a disciple of cruelty with Nero or Ghengis Kahn, that as he approached manhood and his softer nature impelled him to seek a wife, he could hardly restrain himself from an indulgence in his barbaric pursuits long enough to woo and win her.
He had scarcely been married a month before his wife discovered that he had a mania for inflicting pain.
In testifying before the commission she gave the following extraordinary evidence:-
“One night, we were sitting in the drawing room. It was quite late. I arose to go to bed. When I arrived upstairs I remembered that I had left my watch upon the drawing room mantlepiece. I descended the stairs. As I approached the drawing room I heard the sounds of a cat mewing piteously. Looking through the door, which happened to be open, I was horrified to see my husband, holding a cat over the flame of the moderator lamp. I was too frightened to do anything but retreat upstairs. When my husband came to bed along toward daylight I felt that I was occupying the same couch with a monster. I discovered later that he had spent almost the whole night in burning the cat to death.”
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE
As will be recalled, the first crime of “Jack the Ripper” was coincident with the publication of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and in this respect, the physician was an exact counterpart.
“The next day he was as kind and loving as possible. I discovered later that he was subject to an unconquerable mania for inflicting pain.
It was quite possible for me, as I studied him closely, to tell when these moods were coming on.
On such occasions, some apparently trivial act would put me on my guard. He was apt at such times to begin by catching a fly and twirling it impaled upon a pin. He was a strange contradiction. When our little boy, only 4 years old, imitated him once in this respect, the father was actually shocked, and was so indignant that he gave the child a sound whipping.
As the boy screamed with the pain of the punishment, the ferocious side of my husband’s nature asserted itself. He would in all probability have beaten the child to death if I had not interfered.
In his normal moods, he was an excellent husband and father and one of the gentlest and most tractable of men. I have frequently heard him express sincere sympathy with persons in misfortune.”
HOW HE WAS CAUGHT
The circumstances which led to the detection of this inhuman monster with a dual nature are extraordinary and altogether unparalleled in the history of crime.
As the fact of the arrest and imprisonment of Jack the Ripper has now been divulged by Dr. Howard, it is only right that proper credit should be given to the man who put the London police upon the track.
He himself has sacredly observed his promise – he refused to take any oath on the ground of religious scruples – not to divulge the identity of the Ripper.
ROBERT JAMES LEES’S WONDERFUL POWER
Robert James Lees, the gentleman to whom the unfortunates of the East End of London owe their present immunity from the attacks of a monster who for long years made every one of them venture out at night literally with their life in their hands, is the person entitled to the credit of tracking Jack the Ripper.
Mr. Lees is at present the proprietor of a novel institution for the higher education of workingmen at Peckham, a suburb of London. Over 1800 workmen attend his classes, and he has invested a large sum of money in the enterprise, which is now on a paying basis.
Mr. Lees is recognized today as one of the most advanced labor leaders in England, and is an intimate friend of Kier Hardy, the leader of the independent labor party. He at present resides at 26, The Gardens, Peckham Rye, London, S. E.
In his early years, Mr. Lees developed an extraordinary clairvoyant power, which enabled him to discern, as with the eyes of a seer, things hidden from the comprehension of ordinary men born without this singular gift.
At the age of 19, he was summoned before the Queen at Birmingham, where he gave evidence of his powers as a clairvoyant which excited her Majesty’s utmost astonishment.
Having considerable means of his own, however, he devoted himself to literary pursuits, became a profound theologian, and ultimately took up the study of Spiritualism and Theosophy.
He is at present the recognized leader of the Christian Spiritualists in Great Britain.
CLAIRVOYANT POWERS OF MR. LEES
At the time of the first three murders by the “ripper,” Mr. Lees was in the height of his clairvoyant powers.
One day he was writing in his study when he became convinced that the “ripper” was about to commit another murder. He tried in vain to dispel the feeling. As he sat at his table the whole scene arose before him.
He seemed to see two persons, a man and a woman, walking down the length of a mean street. He followed them in his mind’s eye, and saw them enter a narrow court. He looked and read the name of the court.
There was a gin palace near this court, ablaze with light. Looking through the windows he saw that the hands of the clock in the bar pointed to 12:40, the hour at which the public houses are closed for the night in London.
As he looked, he saw the man and woman enter a dark corner of the court. The woman was half drunk. The man was perfectly sober. He was dressed in a dark suit of Scotch tweed, carried a light overcoat on his arm and his light blue eyes glittered in the rays of the lamplight which dimly illuminated the dingy retreat the pair had chosen.
HE SAW A MURDER
The woman leaned against the wall and the man put one hand over her mouth. She struggled in a feeble manner, as if too much overcome by liquor to make any effectual resistance.
The man then drew a knife from his inside vest pocket and cut the woman’s throat. The blood streamed out from the wound, some of it spurting over his shirt-front. He held his hand over the woman’s mouth until she fell to the ground.
Then divesting the lower limbs of his victim of their apparel, the butcher inflicted sundry gashes upon her with a long knife. These were delivered in a scientific manner, and resulted in the “ripper’s” laying certain organs beside the body of his victim.
He then deliberately wiped his knife upon the clothes of the woman, sheathed it, and, putting on his light overcoat, he deliberately buttoned it up so as to hide the blood stains on his shirt-front, after which he walked calmly away from the scene of the murder.
Such was the extraordinary clairvoyant vision presented to the second sight of Mr. Lees.
HE WENT TO THE POLICE
So impressed was he by what he had thus miraculously witnessed that he at once went to Scotland Yard and detailed the whole matter to the detectives.
As they regarded him as nothing short of a lunatic, and had been for some months visited by all sorts and conditions of cranks with “Jack the Ripper” theories, he naturally received little attention.
By way of humoring one whom they considered a harmless lunatic, the sergeant on duty took down the name of the place where Mr. Lees said the crime would be committed, and also noted that the hands of the clock in the mythical public house had pointed to 12:40 at the moment when the ripper and his victim had entered the court.
A WOMAN MURDERED
At 12:30 on the following night, a woman entered the public house facing on the court in question. She was quite under the influence of liquor, and the barkeeper refused to serve her. She left the place swearing and using vile language.
She was seen by another witness to enter the court again at 12:30 in company with a man dressed in a dark suit and carrying a light overcoat upon his arm.
The witness thought the man was an American because he wore a soft felt hat, and added that “he looked like a gentleman.”
This was evidence given before the deputy coroner, who held an inquest on the body of a woman who had been found in the very spot described by Mr. Lees, “with her throat cut from ear to ear, and otherwise indecently and horribly mutilated” – to quote from the coroner’s records.
SHOCKED WHEN HE HEARD THE NEWS
Mr. Lees himself was indescribably shocked when he learned of the murder the next day.
Taking with him a trusted manservant he visited the scene of the outrage.
To use his own language:- “I felt almost as if I was an accessory before the fact. It made such an impression upon me that my whole nervous system was seriously shaken. I could not sleep at night, and under the advice of a physician I removed with my family to the continent.”
FIRST MEETING WITH “JACK”
During his visit abroad, Mr. Lees was no longer troubled by these strange hallucinations, notwithstanding the fact that while he was absent the “ripper” had added to his list of crimes no less than four additional atrocious murders.
It then became necessary for Mr. Lees to return to London.
One day, while riding in an omnibus from Shepherd’s Bush, in company with his wife, he experienced a renewal of the strange sensations which had preceded his former clairvoyant condition.
The omnibus ascended Notting Hill. It stopped at the top, and a man entered the interior of the vehicle. Mr. Lees at once experienced a singular sensation.
Looking up, he perceived that the new passenger was a man of medium size. He noticed that he was dressed in a dark suit of Scotch tweed, over which he wore a light overcoat. He had a soft felt hat on his head.
Over a year had elapsed since Mr. Lees’s clairvoyant vision, but the picture of the murderer had been indelibly impressed upon his mind.
Leaning over to his wife, he remarked earnestly:- “That is Jack the Ripper!'”
His wife laughed at this, and told him not to be foolish.
“I am not mistaken,” replied Lees, “I feel it.”
HE FOLLOWED THE MAN
The omnibus traversed the entire length of the Edgware-road, turning into Oxford-street at the Marble Arch.
At this point, the man in the light overcoat got out.
Mr. Lees determined to follow him. Bidding his wife continue on her journey in the direction of her home, he followed the man down Park Lane.
About halfway down the thoroughfare, he met a constable, to whom he pointed out the man in the light overcoat, informing him that he was the dreaded “ripper,” and asking that he be arrested.
A POLICEMAN WASN’T INTERESTED
The constable laughed at him, and threatened to “run him in.”
It seems that the “ripper” must have entertained some apprehension that he was in danger, for, on reaching Apsley House, he jumped into a cab and was driven rapidly down Piccadilly.
A minute later Mr. Lees met a police sergeant, to whom he confided his suspicions.
“Show me the constable who refused to arrest him!” exclaimed the sergeant. “Why, it was only this morning that we received news at the Bow-street station that the ‘ripper’ was coming in this direction.”
That night, Mr. Lees again received premonitions that the “ripper” was about to commit another murder.
The scene of this outrage was not so distinct as on the former occasion, but the face of the murdered woman was clearly defined.
Mr. Lees noted with great particularity the aspect of the “ripper’s” victim.
A peculiarity of the mutilations, which were somewhat similar to the first, was that one ear was completely severed from the face and the other remained hanging by a mere shred of flesh.
As soon as he recovered from his trance and the consequent shock he experienced in witnessing this dreamlike tragedy, Mr. Lees hastened to Scotland Yard, where he insisted on having an immediate audience with the head inspector of police.
That functionary listened with a smile of far credulity to the first portion of his visitor’s story, which died away at once, however, upon his reaching that portion of his narrative which spoke of the victim’s ears being severed from her head.
With a trembling hand and a face which plainly betokened the effect of Mr. Lees’s communication, the officer drew a postal card from his desk and laid it before his visitor.
It was an ordinary postal card, written in red ink.
In addition, it bore the marks of two bloody fingers, which had been impressed upon it by the writer, and which remained as a kind of bloody sign manual upon its calendered surface.
This postal card read as follows:-
“Tomorrow night I shall again take my revenge, claiming, from a class of women who have made themselves most obnoxious to me, my ninth victim.
JACK THE RIPPER.
P. S. – To prove that I am really “Jack the Ripper” I will cut off the ears of this ninth victim.
HE FAINTED DEAD AWAY
Dr. Lees was no sooner confronted with this awful confirmation of his second vision than he fainted dead away and remained as one absolutely insensible to what was going on around him.
WARNING SENT FROM HEAVEN
It must be recollected that, at this time, the entire British metropolis, comprising within a radius of twenty miles of Charing Cross, a population of nearly 7,000,000 souls, was completely terrorized by this awful series of murders, which shocked indeed the whole of Christendom by their unparalleled barbarity, the frequency of their occurrence and the apparent complete immunity enjoyed by their inhuman perpetrator.
The inspector himself, who was a religious man, looked upon the extraordinary coincidence of the receipt of the postcard – with the contents of which he alone was familiar – and the story of Mr. Lees as a warning sent from heaven, and as a divine intimation that he must leave no stone unturned to bring this monster to justice.
All that day, he concentrated his entire energies upon the problem of how best to cover the intricate territory known as “the Whitechapel district.”
THE MURDERER STRUCK AGAIN
He had at his command a force of nearly 15,000 constables.
By dusk of the next day no less than 3000 of these in Citizens’ clothes, in addition to 1500 detectives, disguised as mechanics and dock laborers, were patrolling the courts and alleys of Whitechapel.
Notwithstanding these precautions “Jack the “Ripper” penetrated the cordon, slew his victim and made his escape.
The inspector, when told that the victim had been discovered with one ear completely severed from her body and the other hanging from her head by a mere shred of flesh, turned deathly pale, and it was some time before he recovered his usual self-possession.
Mr. Lees was so affected by this last tragedy that he at once removed to the continent.
While he was thus abroad the “ripper” completed his sixteenth murder, and had coolly informed the Scotland Yard authorities that he “intended to kill twenty and then cease.”
GREAT GOD! HE HAS STRUCK AGAIN
Shortly after this, Mr. Lees returned to England, where he made the acquaintance of Roland B. Shaw, a mining stock broker of New York, and Fred C. Beckwith of Broadhead. Wis., who was then the financial promoter of an American syndicate in London.
These three gentlemen were dining one day in the Criterion, when Mr. Lees turned to his two companions suddenly and exclaimed:- “Great God! ‘Jack the Ripper’ has committed another murder.”
Mr. Shaw looked at his watch and found it was 8:11.
At 8:10 a policeman discovered the body of a woman in Crown-street, in the Whitechapel district, with her throat cut from ear to ear and her body bearing all the marks of the “ripper’s” handiwork.
TRACKING THE RIPPER
Mr. Lees and his companions at once went to Scotland Yard.
The news of the murder had not yet reached the inspector, but while Mr. Lees was relating his story a telegram arrived giving full details of the outrage.
The inspector, taking with him two men in plain clothes, at once drove to Crown-court in company with Mr. Lees and the two Americans.
THE MESSAGE ON THE WALL
As they entered the court Mr. Lees exclaimed:- “Look in the angle of the wall. There is something written there.”
The inspector ran forward and, not having a dark lantern with him, struck a match. As the tiny flame flared up the words, “Seventeen. Jack the Ripper,” done in chalk upon the wall, were distinctly visible.
BORDERING ON INSANITY
The inspector by this time was in a condition closely bordering on insanity.
It must be borne in mind that this madman had for years baffled all the resources of the greatest police force in the world – that, rendered desperate at last, the British authorities had summoned to their assistance the most experienced detectives in France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and America: that they had lavished immense sums in an endeavor to trace the fiend: that there was then pending an aggregate reward of £30,000, together with a life pension of £1500 per annum, all to go to the man who should first deliver to justice the terrible “ripper.”
A NIGHTTIME HUNT
As before stated, the inspector seemed to recognise in Mr. Lees as an instrument of Providence, and he determined then and there to avail himself of his marvellous, though altogether incomprehensible, power.
After an earnest appeal from the inspector, Mr. Lees consented to try and track the “ripper” – much in the same way as the bloodhound pursues a criminal.
There seemed to be some magnetic wave connecting an impalpable sense he possessed with the fugitive.
All that night Mr. Lees submitted himself to this strange magnetic influence and traversed swiftly the streets of London.
The inspector and his aids followed a few feet behind him.
At last, at 4 o’clock in the morning, with pale face and bloodshot eyes, the human bloodhound halted at the gates of a West End mansion, gasping, with cracked and swollen lips, as he pointed to an upper chamber where a faint light gleamed.
“There is the murderer – the man you are looking for.”
“It is impossible,” returned the inspector. “That is the residence of one of the most celebrated physicians in the West End.”
THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY PART
The most extraordinary part of this well-nigh incredible narrative is now to come.
The inspector had been so strongly impressed with the clairvoyant powers of Mr. Lees that he determined to put them to the crowning proof.
“If you will describe to me,” he said, “the interior of the doctor’s hall I will arrest him, but I shall do so at the risk of losing my position, which I have won by over twenty years’ faithful service.”
“The hall has a high porter’s chair of black oak on the right hand, as you enter it, a stained glass window at the extreme end, and a large mastiff is at this moment asleep at the foot of the stairs,” replied Mr. Lees, without any hesitation.
THEY ENTERED THE HOUSE
They waited then till 7 o’clock, the hour at which the servants begin to stir in a fashionable London residence.
They then entered the house and learned that the doctor was still in bed.
They requested to be allowed to see his wife.
The servants left them standing in the hall, and Mr. Lees called the inspector’s attention to the fact that there was no mastiff visible as he had described, though his description of the hall in all other respects tallied exactly.
Upon questioning the servant as to the whereabouts of the dog, she informed Mr. Lees that it generally slept at the foot of the stairs. and that she let it out into the back garden every morning.
When the inspector heard this he exclaimed: “Great heavens!”, adding in an undertone to his companion, “It is the hand of God!”
HIS WIFE’S SUSPICIONS
In the course of half an hour’s searching examination, the doctor’s wife, who was a beautiful woman, confessed that she did not believe her husband was of sound mind. There had been moments when he had threatened herself and the children. At such times she had been accustomed to lock herself up.
She had noted with heart brooking dread that whenever a Whitechapel murder occurred her husband was absent from home.
In this connection, it may not be out of place to note here that Angus Gilbert, the fellow arrested at Dorchester for the murder of little Alice Sterling, set up the defence that there were periods when he practically lost all knowledge of an existence.
There is a similarity in this claim to that set up by the London murderer.
EXAMINED BY OTHER DOCTORS
An hour later, the inspector had completed his arrangements for the examination of the doctor, and had summoned to his aid two of the greatest experts on insanity in the metropolis.
When accused, the doctor admitted that his mind had been unbalanced for some years and that of late there had been intervals of time during which he had no recollection of what he had been doing.
When told that they believed he had been guilty of the Whitechapel murders during these intervals, he expressed the greatest repugnance and horror of such deeds, speaking as if the murderer was quite a different person to himself, and expressing great willingness to bring him to justice.
He told the physicians that he had on one or two occasions found himself sitting in his rooms as if suddenly aroused from a long stupor, and in one instance he had found blood upon his shirt front, which he attributed to a nose bleed. On another occasion, his face had been all scratched up.
AMPLE PROOF OF HIS GUILT
On hearing this, the inspector caused a thorough search of the house to be made, when ample proofs were found that the doctor was the murderer.
Among others, the detectives brought to light the famous Scotch tweed suit and soft felt hat, together with the light overcoat.
When convinced of his guilt, the unfortunate physician begged them to kill him at once, as he “could not live under the same roof with such a monster.”
As stated in the early part of this article, an exhaustive inquiry before a commission in lunacy developed the fact that while in one mood the doctor was a most worthy man, in another he was a terrible monster.
He was at once removed to a private insane asylum in Islington, and he is now the most intractable and dangerous madman confined in that establishment.
A MOCK FUNERAL
In order to account for the disappearance of the doctor from society, a sham death and burial were gone through, and an empty coffin, which now reposes in the family vaults at Kensal Green, is supposed to contain the mortal remains of a great West End physician, whose untimely death all London mourned.
THOMAS MASON, ALIAS NO. 124
None of the keepers knows that the desperate maniac who flings himself from side to side in his padded cell, and who makes the long watches of the night hideous with his piercing cries, is the famous “Jack the Ripper.”
To them and to the visiting inspectors he is simply known as Thomas Mason, alias No. 124.”