Thought Reading And Detection

Stuart Cumberland (1857–1922) was an English “thought-reader” whose act was extremely popular at theatres all over the United Kingdom in the years around the Jack the Ripper murders.

He was famed for such “impossible” acts of mentalism as identifying an object that a person had chosen at random and had hidden somewhere in a room, or asking a member of his audience to imagine a murder scene and then attempting to read the subject’s thoughts and identify the victim and re-enact the crime.

His act was a huge success and audience flocked to any theatre at which he might be appearing to be amazed and entertained by his impressive feats of prestidigitation.

Cumberland was vociferously emphatic that he possessed no genuine psychic ability, and he maintained that his thought reading demonstrations were achieved by holding the hand of his subject and then reading their muscular movements.

A photograph of Stuart Cumberland.
Victorian “Thought Reader” Stuart Cumberland.


Needless to say, the Whitechapel murders provided him with the perfect opportunity to include a popular series of current events in his act, and, by October, 1888, he was holding forth on the East End crimes, which, by that time were being attributed to “Jack the Ripper”.

On Saturday, 20th October, 1888, he gave a demonstration of his skills in Dundee; and, two days later, The Dundee Courier treated its readers to a summary and review of the wonders that the audience had witnessed:-


“On Saturday evening a series of experiments to illustrate the possibility of detecting crime by thought-reading was conducted in the dining-room of the Queen’s Hotel by the Chevalier Stuart Cumberland, F.R.G.S.

The great interest taken in this matter at present, owing undoubtedly to the failure of the police to discover the perpetrator, or perpetrators, of the Whitechapel murders, was attested by the large attendance, which was also representative of the various classes in the community, those present including merchants, manufacturers, clergymen, lawyers, medical men, educationists, police officials, &c.

Mr T. S. Ross complied with the request to take the chair.


Previous to commencing tho experiments Mr Cumberland made a short statement, explaining that murderers were not professional killers of men and women, but that as a rule they were highly emotional beings, but committing their crime through jealousy, hatred, or some other uncontrollable feeling, and that, therefore, it was possible to give physical interpretation of their thoughts.

He also gave instances of cases where he had successfully read the thoughts of actual criminals.


Having produced an ugly looking dagger, by means of which a real murder had, he said, been committed, Mr Cumberland invited one of the gentlemen present to personate a murderer.

Mr John Lowson, who responded, was requested to imagine that he was in love with a young lady, but that he had a successful rival, also present, for her hand, and that he had conceived and carried on a plan to murder him.

Mr Cumberland, who was then blindfolded, took the hand of Mr Lowson containing the dagger, and, in a few seconds, selected a young gentleman at the back of those in the room as the successful rival, and after some difficulty indicated the spot in the neck of the victim where the dagger had suppositiously entered.

Mr Lowson admitted that he had intended to cut the throat of his rival, but that the wrong man had been picked out.

Mr Cumberland, however, speedily found the real victim – the Rev. C. M. Grant – and explained that his dubiety had arisen through Mr Lowson not having continuously concentrated his thoughts upon the person operated on.


Mr Henry M’Grady proved a much better “subject,” Mr Cumberland at once selecting Mr Dewar, the Chief Constable, as the “murdered” individual, in his case the only discrepancy being that instead of a fatal stab in the abdomen, as indicated, Mr M ‘Grady explained that he intended to “rip up” his victim, an explanation which elicited great laughter.

Rev. James Drummond. Mr Wm. Lowson of Balthayock, and Mr Walter Shepherd then thought of various subjects in the room, and these, although one of them was the polished cranium of one of the gentlemen present, were in succession readily pointed out by Mr Cumberland.

In Mr Drummond’s case, however, one failure occurred before the success was recorded.

An interesting dramatic tableau was then witnessed.


Mr Cumberland having gone out, along with the Rev. Mr. Macrae, and the Chairman, Mr Lowson, seized upon Professor Ewing of University College, dragged him to the middle of the room, when he was thrown down upon the floor and “murdered” with two dagger thrusts by Mr Shepherd, after which Mr Lowson rifled the pockets of their victim, and hid the “stolen” valuables.

When the incident had been completed, Mr. Cumberland returned, and, having taken the hand of Mr Lowson, which he placed across his forehead, he proceeded straight to the seat of the Professor, and was accurate with all the details, the “murder” and “robbery” which those present had previously witnessed, finding also the hidden abstracted property.

Mr. Cumberland then said that it might occur that when the real murderer had been apprehended some necessary link in the chain of evidence, such as the knife or dagger with which the deed had been committed might be missing, and that the murderer himself might unconsciously be made to declare the place of its concealment.


He then requested Mr Macrae and Mr Dewar to hide the dagger in any part of the hotel.

This having been done, Mr Cumberland, holding the hand of Mr Dewar, proceeded up the staircase to the top of the building – where Mr Dewar and Mr Macrae had actually formerly been – but finding some difficulty with the former, who apparently could not realise himself in the position of a criminal, he took the hand of the latter, and then at once returning downstairs, proceeded straight to the coffee room annex, where he discovered the hidden dagger lying behind some books on a shelf of a cabinet.


This concluded the experiments, and, keeping in view the fact the names of the gentlemen selected as subjects precludes the slightest idea, of any collusion between them and the principal performer, it must be admitted that they were, so far at least as they went, thoroughly successful.

At the close, a hearty vote of thanks was, on the motion of the Chairman, awarded to Mr. Stuart Cumberland for his interesting seance, which was a foretaste of the extraordinary experiments which are to be performed tonight and tomorrow night in the Kinnaird Hall.”