Monday, 25 January 2016

Is this the face of Jack the Ripper?

Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail & I, has spent 15 years investigating the Whitechapel murders. He tells us whodunnit

Jeff Dawson Published, Sunday Times Culture: 4 October 2015

  • Nailed? Robinson argues that Michael Maybrick, a touring popular singer, killed prostitutes in Texas as well as Whitechapel (Roc Canals Photography)

  • As the title of Bruce Robinson’s book has it, They All Love Jack. Indeed they do. Certainly publishers do — they have made a killing out of the quest to nail the Ripper. Lewis Carroll? Randolph Churchill? Prince Albert Victor? A century and a quarter later, the dragnet trawls on.
    In 2002, in Portrait of a Killer, Patricia Cornwell fingered the artist Walter Sickert as the East End Eviscerator. (He had a deformed penis, she imagined, strangely.) Last year, in Naming the Ripper, Russell Edwards collared the Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski by genetically fingerprinting a shawl he had bought, purportedly belonging to Catherine Eddowes, the fourth (or possibly 94th) victim of “Saucy Jacky”.
    Mention of both books causes Robinson to harrumph. “I don’t mean to be rude about anybody, but that shawl’s been around for about 30 bloody years,” he says, pointing to the scientific backlash against fundamental errors in Edwards’s data. “Unfortunately, in his DNA extraction, he’s got his decimal point in the wrong place. It’s bullshit.”
    Walking tours, waxworks, Whitechapel weekenders... Women’s groups are picketing a new Jack the Ripper Museum on Cable Street (the moral equivalent, one supposes, of opening a Peter Sutcliffe Centre in Leeds). It is also reportedly the next target of the group that attacked the Cereal Killer Cafe last weekend. “There is a perverse, almost heroic status that has evolved around this prick,” Robinson writes, “as though he were someone special rather than the epitome of all that is cruel and goddamned repugnant.”
    And don’t even mention the “Ripperologists” — the Trekkies of the trade, “the self-appointed experts and guardians of flat-earth thinking”. “Dozens of books clogging the market, all quoting each other,” he howls. “Part of my motivation for writing this was getting rid of all this junk. I wanted to discard it all and go back to the beginning.”
    We know the official story. In the autumn of 1888, a serial killer emerged to slash and dismember five Whitechapel prostitutes; the last one (Mary Jane Kelly) was so mutilated that the country, the world, was gifted a bogeyman. There were few material clues, some taunting letters and a welter of contradictory descriptions, before the perp slinked off into the peasouper.
    Therein lies the problem, Robinson says. The literary sleuthing, all of it, has been predicated on a false assumption — that the rozzers were telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. “It’s an absurdity, an utter absurdity, to take these Victorian police at their word,” he protests. “You just simply cannot do it.”
    It’s taken 15 years for him to “bust the Ripper”, a mission that has been self-financed at huge personal cost, his research filling the stables of his country pile in Herefordshire: documents, letters, photographs, ranging from the findings of philatelists to the musings of maggot experts. The resultant 800-page deconstruction of the case is monumental. Dense and detailed, it is also savagely funny. One would expect nothing less from the writer-director of Withnail & I, a film that’s become one of Britain’s best-loved comedies.
    Its opening chapter is part social history, part legal treatise, and worthy of the GCSE syllabus: a scathing attack on 19th-century Britain, its Establishment and empire. What did the Victorians do for us? Well, they created a seething underclass of “sub-British”, Robinson writes, where a mother would whore herself “for the price of a mug of tea”, and a West End toff who “liked an arse” could stroll east for some penny-pinching pederasty.
    So let’s cut to the “ta-daa” moment. He declares that Jack the Ripper was a man named Michael Maybrick, previously peripheral to the Ripperati, but now front and centre. We’re talking literally. For, under his stage name, Stephen Adams, Maybrick was a popular singer/songwriter, the Paul McCartney of his day, a man who could shift 100,000 sheets of his ditties (They All Love Jack being one), but who was, as Robinson explains, carving out an unsavoury sideline.
    His case against Maybrick is compelling and complex. From the pool of hoax “Ripper letters” sent to the Met, a series are in fact genuine, he asserts, containing cryptic clues that suggest first-hand knowledge of the killings. Cross-reference the postmarks — from Aberdeen to Penzance, from as far afield as New York and Johannesburg — and they, and other slayings, coincide uncannily with Maybrick’s whereabouts on his exhaustive musical engagements. “In our day, you’d say, ‘What could his job be? He could be a pilot, he could be a long-distance truck driver [as was Sutcliffe].’ In the Victorian period, he could have been a singer or musician travelling from gig to gig. He was Jack the Ripper on tour.”
    We have been down the Maybrick road before. James Maybrick, Michael’s older brother, a Liverpool cotton merchant, has long been a Ripper suspect, courtesy of a confessional “diary”, unearthed in 1992, the veracity of which has been argued over ever since. But it’s a case of “up the right arsehole on the wrong elephant”, Robinson says. James was murdered in May 1889 (allegedly poisoned by his wife, Florence, who copped a death sentence in what was considered a serious travesty of justice). Did Michael do that, too? Then go on to frame his brother as the Ripper? Robinson thinks so. “I believe 100% he was who I say he is.”
    Jack the Ripper would not seem obvious Robinson territory. He has attained cult status as a sort of reclusive — and profanely garrulous — writer, having spent the past 20 years holed up in the countryside, bashing out unproduced scripts or children’s books with his illustrator wife, Sophie Windham, coming out of exile only to direct The Rum Diary (2011) at the behest of No 1 fan Johnny Depp (who, coincidentally, appeared in the Ripper film From Hell. Don’t get him started...).
    Delve further, however, and victimhood is at the heart of his work: the bleak, semi-autobiographical Withnail; his nine-tenths autobiographical novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. One can add The Killing Fields (for which he won a screenwriting Bafta), with its Khmer Rouge horrors, among other screenplays. “What helps me with that victimisation thing vis-à-vis the Ripper is that I have a huge distrust of authority.”
    Withnail was a bittersweet experience, the stardust swept aside by the acrimony over lack of financial reward, followed by a disastrous sojourn in Hollywood. It was while making his first American studio picture, the serial-killer flick Jennifer 8, back in the early 1990s, that the Ripper came his way. Intrigued by true crime, he had intended to do something on the case of William Herbert Wallace. “Chandler [in his 1962 memoir, Raymond Chandler Speaking] rated this as one of the two greatest crime mysteries of all time. The other is James Maybrick.”
    A call to a researcher led him serendipitously to Keith Skinner, an old actor buddy since refashioned as a Ripper expert. “There seemed to be something going on here. Here’s Chandler writing about it, and here’s this so-called diary turning up 100 years later, accusing [James] Maybrick of being the Ripper.”
    It is James’s sibling Michael, though, who fits Robinson’s bill: tall, powerful, clever, egotistical, homosexual and quite the misogynist. “You don’t have to be insane to cut people up, you just have to hate enough,” Robinson contends. And, importantly, he was a Freemason: the Ripper letters (like the crimes) were laden with allusions to Masonic ritual, taunting Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan police commissioner and “Boss Cop”.
    Masonry is the nub of it. Warren was a leading “Bro’”, an amateur archaeologist who had excavated King Solomon’s Temple. From there it’s a “funny little game”, with Boss Cop eliminating clues as fast as Maybrick can lay them (including Warren’s expunging of the crucial “Goulston Street graffito”, found on a wall near victim number four).
    The police, the coroners, the courts — it was about containing one of their own, Robinson suggests, with Warren bent on preserving the “mystic tie” to the “government within government”, all the way up to the most powerful Freemason of all: “Fat Ed”, better known as Edward, Prince of Wales. “My God, you could have boxed it up and sold it like Cluedo,” Robinson splutters. “He was dumping clues everywhere, and every time Warren covered up the clues, the Ripper upped the ante.”
    Robinson adds other murders to the roster — the female torso found hidden, “like Hitchcock”, in the foundations of Scotland Yard on October 2; the prostitutes Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (“non-canonical” to his Ripperology chums). And he doesn’t restrict the killings geographically. An eight-year-old child found mutilated in Bradford was the Ripper/Maybrick’s handiwork, he insists.
    So just how many did he kill? “I’m thinking 25, 30, something like that. It just suited the authorities to reduce the murders to these old hags in the East End who no one’s gonna give a toss about. There were seven prostitutes killed in Texas in 1884, and the policeman running that case came to London because of the similarity to the East End hits. In 1884, Michael Maybrick, of course, was touring the USA. But you can only research so much. There comes a point when you’ve just got to say, ‘That’s it.’ I couldn’t get into all of these, because I’d be doing this until I was 91 years old.”
    Maybrick had had enough, too. In 1893, he seems to have hung up his blade, forgoing the Café Royale and champers with his boyfriend for a curious retirement on the Isle of Wight, “married to a fat butcher’s daughter from Hammersmith”. He died in obscurity in 1913.
    Robinson’s book is delivered with characteristic, entertaining vituperation. I wonder, though, whether the catherine wheel of rage might be spinning too furiously. He digs at Blair and Thatcher; there are blistering but digressive passages on General Gordon and Khartoum, Irish oppression and Fat Ed’s reinforced fornicating chair. Even Danny the dealer from Withnail — crafter of the Camberwell Carrot — pops up.
    No less apparent is Robinson’s — how shall we say? — fragile tolerance for those of a contradictory disposition. Detractors are derided as “imbeciles” or as “lying like a back-alley slut”. “The reason I’m so harsh on Ripperology is I’ve got to kill ’em off. I’ve got to swat these guys like flies.”
    He laughs, but he’s deadly serious. “I think any bright 12-year-old could have caught Jack the Ripper. I genuinely believe that.” The only thing one can add with equal certainty is that there will be another book round the corner, alleging someone else. Robinson knows this. “I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think it is the last word. But if people want to break this book, they’d better know what they’re f****** talking about... every damn thing in it is very, very closely researched and sourced. It’s not opinion. This is not a theory. It’s an explanation.”

    They All Love Jack is published by Fourth Estate at £25. To buy it for £22.50, inc p&p, call 0845 271 2134 or visit Bruce Robinson will be talking at The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday at 8.30pm (