Poet, priest and serial killer? A new book claims Jack the Ripper was a failed clergyman from Durham. Kate Dean sifts the evidence

IN August 1888, the body of Mary Ann Nichols was discovered in Whitechapel, the first in a string of brutal murders which shook London.

In what appeared to be the work of a single killer, five prostitutes were killed and their bodies dismembered. After a series of letters to the police claimed to be from the perpetrator, the mysterious murderer became known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and remains infamous today.

The Ripper eluded capture and many theorists and scholars are still trying to find his or her identity. Now an Australian teacher has become the latest to believe they have discovered the true identity of the killer, a failed Durham priest.

Richard Patterson, an English teacher from Australia has identified English poet Francis Thompson as the prime suspect for the killings in his new book Francis Thompson – A Ripper Suspect.

Thompson was a well-known poet, who studied at Ushaw College, in Durham for a period until moving to Owen’s College, Manchester in 1877 where he studied medicine. The poet subsequently moved to London, the location of the murders, where he became a homeless opium addict, while writing poetry and short stories.

The streets of Whitechapel are a far cry from Ushaw, a Catholic seminary founded by Douai priests, boasting building designs from Neo-Gothic architects such as Pugin. The buildings also contained a library filled with manuscripts which Thompson was a frequent visitor to. The college opened its doors to students and staff in 1808 with the aim to prepare novice priests to take holy orders.

Thompson attended St Cuthbert’s (the junior seminary in Durham) where he learnt numerous languages including Sanskrit and Latin. He then attended Ushaw itself and often worshipped in Durham Cathedral. However, he failed to take holy orders and was declared unfit to become a member of the church. Instead, he discovered a talent for poetry; the high quality of which was recognised by journal editor William Meynell. Subsequent to his failing to become a priest, Thompson was medically trained in Manchester. The surgical skills he learned there, plus the possession of a scalpel during his time in London, constitutes the cornerstone of Patterson’s accusation of the poet as many skilled surgical procedures, including disembowelling, were discovered on the victims’ bodies.

After twenty years of researching Thompson’s connections to the murders, Patterson has published a book he claims proves that the poet is Jack the Ripper. Shortly after moving to London, the poet started a romantic relationship with a prostitute who offered him a place to stay after a period of homelessness. The eventual failure of their relationship, Patterson argues, was Thompson’s motivation for the brutal killings which targeted sex-workers across London. Heartbroken, he wrote extensively on the subjected of killing women with knives shortly before and after the murders took place.

According to his website, the book also contains proof that Thompson was within metres of the location of the final murder and information on how he eluded capture by authorities. Patterson also examines Thompson’s literary work for evidence with particular interest his short story Finis Coronat Opus which contains a detailed description of the murder of a woman. The book was reviewed by Paul Begg in ‘Ripperologist Magazine’, who said: “Richard Patterson has made a very good case for Francis Thompson to be taken o? the shelf of neglected Ripper candidates and to be looked at more closely.”

However, Thompson is by no means the first suspect to be identified as being the notorious Ripper. In 2014, Russell Edwards published a book accusing Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski of committing the murders. Kosminiski, Edwards claimed, arrived with his family in London in 1881 and worked in the city as a barber. In this case DNA evidence was allegedly discovered on a bloodstained shawl the author acquired which belonged to one of the victims. The shawl was found to contain traces of the killer’s semen, the only forensic evidence on the case known to exist. Other suspects include the author and poet Lewis Carroll, the wife of a surgeon and the painter Walter Sickert.

Patterson accused Thompson in his book Francis Thompson and the Ripper Paradox which his website describes as an ‘experimental horror novel written as a biography’ and has now strengthened the claims in this non-fiction book. Patterson has also been invited to speak at the annual Jack the Ripper Conference in London.