On December 16, 1959 the poet Francis Thompson was born in circumstances which could not have been more ordinary.
His birthplace was a plain brick, three-storey home in Winckley Street, Preston, and he was baptised at nearby at St Ignatious’ Church. His father, Charles Thompson, was a humble doctor who at one time had a dispensary in Bristol before meeting his future wife in Manchester and later settling in Preston.
Thompson’s mother, Mary, was an ex-governess, who had come from a successful business family in Manchester.
The first years of Thompson’s life consisted of walks with his sisters and the children’s governess to see the shops around the corner at Fishergate and watch the trains emerge from railway tunnel by the railway station.
Other outings for young Thompson were to see the Ribble and the open countryside beyond it. Thompson’s parents were newly converted Roman Catholics, who were protected by the strong Catholic community.
Although Francis Thompson would, at the age of eight, be witness to the worst of anti-Catholic sentiment, when he moved to Manchester, and saw riots. His first years, before his family moved to Ashton-under-Lyne, when he was aged five, were unremarkable in every way.
From such humble beginnings, who could have known that, after his death, in 1907, he would be recognised as the greatest Catholic poet of the modern age. Now a new book asks was he also the nation’s most notorious multiple murderer? The incredible claim, by Australian author Richard Patterson (pictured inset), in his ‘Jack the Ripper, The Works of Francis Thompson,’ suggests Thompson was the man behind the mysterious slaying of at least five women in London’s East End in 1888.
Between August 31 and November 9, 1888 Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were all knifed to death in Whitechapel, East London.
Their killer was never found and the case has gone down in British folklore.
Patterson’s book, which has been published by Austin and Macauley, is the result of 20 years of research, in which he travelled around the world gathering information to show Thompson was a serial killer.
His research took him to Burns Library in Boston, which holds the world’s largest collection of Thompson’s letters and papers, and on to Thompson’s birthplace in Preston and London’s East End, the location of the infamous murders.
Patterson also spoke at length to forensic pathologist Dr Joseph C Rupp, who first posted the theory that Thompson could be Jack the Ripper. More recently, Patterson presented his findings when he spoke at the 2016 London Jack the Ripper Conference. Patterson first received widespread media attention, in 2015, when his findings were made public.
Patterson was not the first to cast suspicion on the poet. In 1988, a Texan pathologist, Dr Rupp, wrote an article in a magazine devoted to criminology, which asked if Thompson was the Ripper, but it was largely ignored. Patterson, strengthened the theory through his research, and in return Dr Rupp wrote the introduction to Patterson’s book.
Though little known outside of literary circles now, in the 1940s and 1950s Thompson was a very popular poet, even though he had died in 1907. A great fan of Thompson’s works was JRR Tolkien, who is known for his Middle Earth novels.
Tolkien admitted that the ‘profound expressions’ in Thompson’s poems were an important influence. Tolkien lectured on Thompson and praised him, saying he was, “in perfect harmony with the poet”.
Tolkien even took words that Thompson coined and littered them throughout his Middle Earth Books. Tolkien’s elf-maiden, Lúthien, came from Thompson’s Luthany, from his poem The Mistress of Vision.
Tolkien’s use of the word ‘Southron’ for ‘southerner people’ in his Lord of the Rings comes from Thompson’s poem At Lords.
Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven, which describes a man being pursued by God, in the form of a hound, is his most famous. At one time it became one of the most widely printed poems in the English language.
Placed under the light of the theory that Thompson was the Ripper, however, this poem, with the line, “I pleaded, outlaw-wise” takes on a far deeper meaning and the symbolisim of the hound may be more real than we think, when we consider that, during the Ripper investigation, the Chief Police Commissioner trailed the use of bloodhounds to try track down the murderer.
This poem’s influence has been far reaching. In February 1943, Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian civil rights leader, while in detention and behind barbed wire in Poona, India, began a 21-day fast, protesting British occupation.
To console himself he read his copy of Francis Thompson’s most famous poem, The Hound of Heaven written, in 1888, the year of the Ripper murders, and asked a visiting relative their interpretations of it.
Ghandi found its words to be so comforting that two years later, on March 9 1945, he wrote to a friend, prescribing it as a tonic to nervousness.
“Try and see if you can steady your mind. Read The Hound of Heaven, think over it and understand its meaning. You will not be happy anywhere if you turn your back upon the Hound.”
Another well-known civil rights leader who took this poem to heart, was the American Martin Luther King Jr. In his sermon notes and outlines of 1945 to 1950 King reminded himself, for his sermon “God’s Search For Man” in which he preached that God seeks man as much as mean seeks god, to quote Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven.
There is one area in which Thompson’s Hound of Heaven poem may have had the greatest impact and that is in American legal history. In 1955, the US Supreme Court made Brown v Board of Education decision, a landmark ruling that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Many legal experts see it as the most important legal decision made in US history. The ruling turned on a phrase taken from The Hound of Heaven.
The judges, used the term “with all deliberate speed” when they gave the period of time in which the Southern States had to allow racially mixed classrooms. This vague description hindered de-segregation.
Significant reforms were never achieved. It took another decade of protests, before the Supreme Court made a new ruling. Today, civil rights historians say that this delay brought needless suffering and a lasting distrust between African Americans and white people.
One can only imagine the consequences if the American people come to realise that their highest court in the land, when they made their ruling, relied on the words of the multiple murderer, Jack the Ripper?
Patterson’s book tells how Francis Thompson, in 1888, was an ex-medical student with a dissecting scalpel, had a history of mental illness and also of trouble with the police.
He had just broken up with a prostitute and had written about cutting women’s stomachs open.
At the same time, a few yards from his refuge, a woman was knifed. Her name was Mary Kelly, and she is considered, by most, to be the last victim of Jack the Ripper.
Her slaying was part of a spate of prostitute murders, which one coroner said were by someone who had considerable anatomical skill and knowledge.
As Patterson’s book shows, Francis Thompson was once a medical student and learned the very techniques of dissection and organ removal that were made to the Ripper’s victims.
Patterson sets out a compelling case for Thompson as the prime suspect for Jack the Ripper in this must-read the world over.
“I do not claim to have solved the murders.” Patterson said, “Read my book and judge for yourself.”
* Jack the Ripper, The Works of Francis Thompson by Richard Patterson is available priced £9.99 from Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.