… there was nothing illaudable about being a Victorian Mason, any more than it was improper to enjoy membership of a tricycle club. But … this narrative is about the bad guys, and about one in particular who went rotten, and what that did to the rest of the barrel. Beyond that, I have no opinion on Freemasonry, no animosity towards it … My interest in Masonry is only inasmuch as it relates to ‘the mystery of Jack the Ripper’.
Perhaps you know Bruce Robinson from his early acting career, playing Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet. He went on to become a successful, cult-classic writer and director of Withnail and I, among others. Recently, he spent a decade obsessively researching Jack the Ripper, claiming to have conclusively unmasked the culprit.
They All Love Jack is Robinson’s dense yet page-turning, rambling yet intelligent study of what he believes to be at the heart of the Jack the Ripper story. In exhaustive detail, he dismantles previously accepted narratives, theories, and official lines. His obsession is not that of other ‘Ripperologists’ – those devoted to the study of the Ripper mystery. This is because Robinson claims it’s not much of a mystery at all, rather a conspiracy – that the investigation was purposely obfuscated to hide the Ripper’s identity. The hefty but surprisingly fast-reading book is his rebuttal to Ripperology, and makes his case for composer and singer Michael Maybrick, brother of another Ripper suspect, James Maybrick.
The stories he tells are odd to the point of surreal and require some suspension of disbelief. I love a good conspiracy theory, especially one backed by heaps of suspicious evidence, and even more so when the indisputable history around it is strange going on stranger. For example, James Maybrick’s wife Florence was convicted of murdering her husband, who was an arsenic (!) addict. Just one of many bizarre details and side stories told here in Robinson’s singular, profanity-laced voice.
I’ve never read anything quite like it – both in tone and structure. It’s haphazard but smart, almost like listening to someone you know is a mad genius, but worrisome in their intensity, lead you through their meticulously documented and catalogued research, and punctuating their diatribes frequently with swearing. It’s equally exhilarating, intriguing, and confusing, but undeniably entertaining.
I’m not quite sure what’s given Jack the Ripper his staying power, even while I also feel drawn to it when I encounter it. It’s not necessarily more horrifying or vicious than other murders that inspire morbid fascination; he wasn’t especially prolific (five ‘canonical’ murders over the span of a few months, though Robinson disputes this low number); and as far as unsolved cases go, it lacks the kind of curiosities or spookiness that make other stories unforgettable. Not to dismiss the severity of any of it, but I wonder why this story in particular has held our fascination when it’s not necessarily unique. Robinson’s study reveals the complexity around what seems deceptively simple, and he’s successful at dragging the reader down the rabbit hole with him.
Fundamentally, Robinson’s belief is that Jack was a Mason, and the Masonic Order dictates that members protect one another, apparently at any cost. He identifies Masons involved in the case, including among the police. The book’s backbone is his thoroughly researched account of the investigation being purposely bungled and pushed in wrong directions to protect someone. He analyzes Masonic symbols, stories and history and how those elements are present in the crime scenes – like in the removal of money and any metal from the body – and in Jack’s prolific correspondence with police.
When the Victorian police declared all the Ripper letters a ‘hoax’, Ripperology jumped on it like free money. It was a birthday present for the ‘experts’, and it gave a leg-up to every daft candidate in the book. If you didn’t have to worry about the letters, you didn’t have to worry about much at all.
This use of the letters was fascinating. I remembered from The Cases That Haunt Us that most were deemed hoaxes aside from the few frequently quoted (like the “from hell” letter). Robinson uses them to illustrate that there’s so much available material in this case if you try to piece it together instead of unquestioningly accepting previous theory and dismissals. He sifts through which letters seem likely to have actually come from the Ripper, and in addition to supporting his narrative, they contain some quotable gems. “They’ll never catch me at this rate you donkeys, you double faced asses,” was a favorite.
Robinson makes short work of the theory that most often links Freemasonry to the Ripper, as he isn’t the first to allege this connection. Masonry comes up in the gonzo theory that Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, had gotten a prostitute pregnant, who then told several of her colleagues and enlisted their medical help. One of Robinson’s strengths is showing through historical evidence and common sense how bunk previous Ripper theories are: “This had the potential of a cataclysmic scandal, and obviously required careful handling from the authorities, who decided the best way to deal with it was with a spree of ritualistic disembowelling.”
Another tidbit that’s sparked much speculation in Ripperology was the writing on the wall near one scene on the night of the “double event” when two women were killed. The graffiti (“The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing“) was taken as an antisemitic slur, though its interpretation is dicey given its ungrammatical structure and misspelling. Robinson uses it to highlight investigators’ strange behavior: “Would today’s Commissioner fire up the Jag at four in the morning to expunge the words ‘Fuck Islam’ written on an East End wall? He might, in certain circumstances, want it secured, but with two cut throats on the slate, it wouldn’t exactly be the place he visited first.”
He makes his points effectively.
And really, his sense of humor is delightful sometimes, like describing one particularly bizarre detail of witness statements about Elizabeth Stride’s hands and whether she held grapes (the vendor who sold them to her may have seen her murderer):
“Did you examine her hands?’ Lamb replied: ‘I did not. But I saw that her right arm was across her breast, and her left arm was lying under her.’
These dead hands will shortly start dancing around like an Italian describing a car crash. They will be open, closed, hidden, exposed, each new witness proffering a new untruth to try to make them fit the required point of view.
The elements of Masonic stories, primarily that of the murdered Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum that Robinson fits to the details of the murders weren’t always convincing. Not because he doesn’t make a strong, detailed case for them, but because I could still always see them as being coincidental. In this story, Jubelo was cut open with entrails thrown over his shoulder, as at Ripper scenes, but it seems a stretch to make some of it fit.
Ripperology and its devotees earn a whopping amount of Robinson’s ample ire, particularly as he criticizes their forest-for-the-trees shortcomings: “It’s always peering through a microscope, but blind to the bigger picture … the question isn’t where he slung the flesh, but why the authorities wanted to cover it up.”
That was Robinson’s guiding principle: follow what the police had denied and disregarded: “It had become almost a maxim of my research to go after whatever the authorities tried to dismiss.” It led him to the very strange Maybrick family and a compelling, if not definitively convincing theory.
There are two theories of history, the ‘cock-up’ and the ‘conspiracy’. This was both. It was a conspiracy that cocked up. A majority of Ripperologists don’t care much for the word ‘conspiracy’, fearing, I suspect, mission-creep into the unfathomable purity of ‘the mystery of Jack the Ripper’. But one day, even if it takes a thousand tomorrows, they’re going to have to come to terms with ‘the Conspiracy of Jack the Ripper’.
He wasn’t a criminal genius. He was a psychopath shielded by servants of the Victorian state. Had Warren really wanted to nail this miscreation, he could have done so in short order.
This isn’t the book to read to get a primer on Jack the Ripper, as it’s laser-focused on illuminating where things went wrong and why, but not always the clear details of what happened. Robinson expects you to keep up with him, so if you’re not overly familiar with the Ripper story (me) or Masonry in general (also me) expect to do a lot of googling.
It’s a compelling, funny, historically rich and curious read, but not a light or easy one. Still, for a long, dense book, it flies by even with its sometimes messy structure, meandering segues, and onslaughts of information. I kind of loved it, despite not always understanding his complex and many-layered case, and I think some cultural/historical and Masonry-specific bits went over my head.
He’s thorough in his explanations and in laying the groundwork so a reader can follow, but there’s just so much to take in. And to caution, he doesn’t mince words or care much for political correctness, so there are slings and arrows that will offend just about everyone at some point. If you’re not bothered, it’s a wild, engrossing tour through Robinson’s dedicated research.
They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper
by Bruce Robinson
published September 2015