|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 52, March 2004. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.|
‘…retired to their tea and scandal,
according to their ancient custom,
- William Congreve
- The Double Dealer, Act I, Scene i.
The man behind the large mahogany desk tugged thoughtfully at his thick, grey moustache.
‘Fred,’ he said finally, ‘We are under pressure. From very high up.’
Even after the many years he had spent away from home - in England, in India, in Germany during his student days - Metropolitan Police Commissioner James Monro’s soft Scottish burr was unmistakeable. Across the desk from him, Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline shifted his considerable bulk in his seat.
‘From very high up,’ he echoed, a tinge of irritation rising in his voice. ‘And what is it they’d like us to do? My men are stretched thin as it is.’
‘It’s not that at all’, said Monro. ‘In fact, they’d like us to be a wee bit less efficient than we are. The trail is hot. But if we don’t ask the right questions, if we don’t make the right moves, it will get cold. The prey will get away.’
‘Too many years in bloody India’, thought Abberline. ‘Fancies himself the big-game hunter, now.’
‘So,’ he said aloud, ‘what do we do? Let the beggar go free? ‘E breaks the law, and we do nuffink?’ As Abberline grew more exasperated, his Cockney accent broadened.
‘It can do no good to prosecute him,’ said Monro sombrely. ‘He has gone and will never show his face in England again. He dare never come back to this country.’
‘Wot e’s done is go over to the Continent to pursue ‘is evil ways,’ said Abberline. ‘Why must we protect ’im?’
‘Not him, Fred.’ Monro touched his fingers lightly to the collar and then the cuffs of his shirt. ‘Him’.
Abberline sucked in his breath audibly. ‘You don’t mean...’ he started
‘Yes,’ said Monro sharply. Although they were alone, he looked carefully round his office. ‘There are witnesses,’ he added in a whisper. ‘They are ready to talk.’
Abberline’s shoulders sagged. ‘What am I going to tell my men?’ he asked.
‘You’ll think of something,’ replied Monro. ‘You always do.’
The preceding scene is, of course, fiction. It could be a page of a thriller unfolding against a Victorian background. It could even be a passage in one of those non-fiction, ‘faction’, books whose authors plaster over any cracks in their narrative with recreations of the dialogue or even the thoughts of historical characters. Like many such fictional or semi-fictional accounts, the present one is based on a modicum of truth. Like quite a few of them, it is also, notwithstanding its modest length, riddled with inaccuracies, some of which, at least, are deliberate.
Why? - might you ask. To see how much I could get away with? Not an awful lot, I suspect, in Ripperologist, whose average reader can recite the names of every medical student and Portuguese sailor ever suspected of the Whitechapel crimes. But it is beneficial, I think, to recall how easy it is to invent details and even whole scenes, and how these fictions may become accepted truth.
Monro was Abberline’s superior from 1884 to 1888. After a two-month gap, he took over from Warren as Commissioner, Metropolitan Police, and held that position until 1890. During that period, Abberline rose to the rank of Chief Inspector.
We can assume that Commissioner and Chief Inspector met from time to time to discuss their work. But neither of them left memoirs concerning their police service. What they said to each other, what their thoughts were, no one can say.
Their physical description is, in the circumstances, as accurate as it could be. We know what Monro looked like from photographs and other likenesses. As for Abberline, we have read that he was a portly, soft-spoken, dignified man who looked more like a bank manager than a detective. We are, moreover, familiar with several newspaper illustrations in which he sports luxuriant whiskers. But no photographs of him are known to exist.
I had Monro speak with a Scottish accent – or rather, I said he did - and Abberline with a Cockney one. But I don’t really know whether Monro kept his Scottish accent throughout his life. I’ve read that in film footage shot in 1930, a few months before his death, Conan Doyle still spoke with a strong Scots burr. Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, shed his Irish brogue within two years of arriving in Oxford. Which way did Monro go?
Abberline is portrayed as a Cockney by Michael Caine in the 1988 Jack the Ripper television film. But, since Abberline was born in Dorset, the odds are high against his having a Cockney accent.
In the tradition of Hollywood cop films, where senior policemen are always ready to contemporize while the men on the beat abide by a rigorous code of ethics, Monro is shown as ready to cave in to pressure from his superiors. But this was not true of Monro. He was a deeply religious and principled man. Far from being willing to compromise, he always stuck to his guns and, in the end, tended his resignation when he did not get his way.
As you have probably guessed by now, his big-game hunting metaphors have been invented. Two of his lines of dialogue, though, are authentic; but were uttered by someone else.
Fact - little of it - and fiction have been stirred together into a concoction that may typify only too well some examples of Ripper literature.
Now that we know most of what’s right and what’s wrong with this portrait of Monro and Abberline, shall we find out what they were up to? They were discussing a case involving a high-level cover-up designed to protect a personage easily identifiable as old Collar ’n’ Cuffs, Prince Eddy, second in line to the throne. Were we to mention a house in Cleveland Street as well, we might be in Ripper territory – that is, if we believe some tales we’ve been told.
But Monro and Abberline never worked together in the Ripper investigation. The case they did tackle together, only a few months after the Whitechapel murders, seethed with scandal, con-spiracy and links to the Royal family. It would be remem-bered as the Cleveland Street Scandal.
The origins of the Scandal can be traced back to the old superstition that intercourse with a virgin cured a man’s syphilis. Many clamoured for the protection of young girls against the worst consequences of that benighted belief. But they went unheard until their voices reached the ears of William Thomas Stead.
Each man in his time plays many parts. Stead was a journalist, a convict, a spiritualist, a Nobel Peace Prize candidate, a passenger on the Titanic’s last voyage and a much invoked ghost. In 1885, he was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. As much a moralist and a reformer as a precursor of tabloid journalism, Stead used the Gazette’s pages to wage war against the enslavement of young girls.
In preparation for his campaign, he immersed himself in the shadowy world of child prostitution with the assistance of a dedicated band of helpers which included many members of the Salvation Army. Stead uncovered a vast network of procurers, midwives, brothel-keepers, doctors and financiers profiting from the roué’s appreciation for the virgo intacta. To top his already sensational dossier, he needed a touch of showmanship. He set out to show how easy it was to procure a virgin in London and went about it with great audacity, as was his wont.
Through the offices of a reformed prostitute, he learnt that a 13-year-old virgin called Eliza Armstrong could be obtained from her mother through the disbursement of five pounds.
Eliza’s mother brought her in a long dark dress and a hat capped with a yellow feather. Stead had her cleaned up and her coiffure redone. Next, he took her to a midwife to have her virginity certified. They then jumped into a cab to go to a house in Poland Street. Stead’s assistant, the reformed prostitute, undressed Eliza, put her to bed and administered some chloroform – a common practice in the maidenhood trade. Soon the girl was asleep.
This was Stead’s greatest moment. Cigar in one hand, glass of champagne in the other, he fancied himself the perfect picture of the ruthless rake. He took a step forward. In the four-poster bed before him a drugged and defenceless child lay at the mercy of his basest passions. Of course, he had never intended to have his wicked way with her. But he wanted to prove that it was possible to buy a girl in London for as little as five pounds and, according to his lights, he had.
The occasion was somewhat marred, however, when Eliza, who had not been properly chloroformed, woke up, and Stead had to leave the room precipitately.
His assistant took the girl to a physician to certify that she was still a virgin. She then spirited Eliza away to a Salvation Army hostel in Paris while Stead girded his loins for battle.
On 4 July 1885, he warned the squeamish, the prudish and those who’d rather be oblivious to the horrors of reality not to read the Gazette the following week. From 6 to 10 July, the eager readership were treated to a series of four articles later collected under the title The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, an allusion to the quota of virgins sacrificed to the Minotaur in ancient times – though not in Babylon.
As could be expected, the highlight of the first article was the story of Lily, the name given to Eliza. Stead recounted how her dissolute parents had sold the little, warm-hearted Cockney girl into abhorrent slavery. He conjured up the shady procuress and the coarse midwife and evoked the pungent whiff of chloroform.
And, when the time came for his great scene, he could not resist embroidering upon it. He glossed over his hasty retreat and the subsequent exit of the unsullied child. This is how he chose to tell the tale:
A few moments later the door opened, and the purchaser entered the bedroom. He closed and locked the door. There was a brief silence. And then there rose a wild and piteous cry – not a loud shriek, but a helpless, startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb. And the child’s voice was heard crying, in accents of terror, “There’s a man in the room! Take me home; oh, take me home!”
And then all once more was still’.
The Maiden Tribute created an immense sensation, in Britain and abroad, as the Gazette sold out many times and the public jostled for its last copies or purchased them for many times their cover price. For a time, at least, Stead reigned supreme, a hero to the puritan and the radical alike.
But, as it emerged later, there were some flaws in the story Stead had told. Eliza’s mother had indeed brought her child to him and taken a sovereign in exchange. But she was led to believe that her daughter was going into service, not prostitution. When she recognised herself in the pages of the Gazette, traduced as a drunken mother who had sold her child into infamy, she went to the police. The Gazette’s rival newspapers were more than willing to assist her, particularly when the gratifying word ‘hoax’ was whispered in their ears. And when the girl’s father, whose consent had not been sought, showed up as well, the pack became heavily stacked against Stead.
Since he had taken Eliza fraudulently out of her parents’ possession, Stead was, at least technically, guilty of an offence. He was prosecuted, sentenced and briefly imprisoned. For years afterwards, he walked about London proudly wearing his prison uniform every 10 November, the anniversary of his imprisonment.
The public outrage caused by Stead’s articles provided much of the impetus for the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which raised the age of consent from 12 to 16, made procuration a criminal offence and established the penalty for assault on a girl under 13 as either whipping or penal servitude.
Late in the evening of 6 August, Liberal MP Henri de Labouchere introduced an additional clause. His amendment aimed at extending the provision of the law to any act of gross indecency committed by a male person with another male person, whether in public or - that was the catch - in private.
It seems that Labouchere derived the amendment from his own faulty translation of the French Penal Code provisions on ‘detournement de mineurs,’ whose objective was the protection of children. Be that as it may, the Bill was passed the next day and became law in January 1886.
Labouchere’s amendment was officially designated as Section 11, ‘Outrages on Public Decency’. But many described it as the Blackmailers’ Charter. Within a decade, it would result in Oscar Wilde’s downfall. Within three years, it produced the Cleveland Street affair.
On 4 July 1889, the police questioned a telegraph boy who seemed to have far more pocket money than he could have earned toiling away at his job. He told them that gentlemen he had met at the house of one Mr Hammond, 19 Cleveland Street, had given him the money. The police soon ascertained that several boys had similarly granted their favours to gentlemen for a consideration. The boys were eager to clarify, though, that they had never worn the uniforms supplied by the Post Office during their assignations.
Two days later, Chief Inspector Abberline went to Cleveland Street to arrest Hammond. But he was too late. The house was closed and Hammond had fled to the Continent. Abberline had to content himself with one of the telegraph boys, fittingly called Newlove. Annoyed at his misfortune, the boy said he would name names. And did.
Among those he named were the Earl of Euston and Lord Arthur Somerset. These were no ordinary people. Euston was the eldest son of the seventh Duke of Grafton and a prominent Freemason. Somerset was the third son of the eighth Duke of Beaufort, a much decorated major in the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues), Equerry to the Prince of Wales and superintendent of his stables.
During the next few weeks, the police kept the maison de passe in Cleveland Street under close surveillance. They noted the comings and goings of potential customers and observed their visible disappointment at finding the premises closed. Abberline crossed the Channel to enlist the cooperation of the French Sureté in extraditing Hammond, but failed to do so. Warned by the French, Hammond escaped to Belgium and then to America. In the meantime, several boys identified Somerset as an assiduous visitor to Number 19.
Soon the police felt that they had collected enough evidence to institute proceedings against Hammond, his accomplices, the telegraph boys and their gentlemen friends. But when Monro wanted to proceed, he met with unexpected resistance. Neither the Home Secretary nor the Attorney-General nor the Lord Chancellor nor the Prime Minister felt that the case against Somerset was strong enough. A prolonged tug-of-war ensued between the police and the government.
As Monro and his men chafed at the delays, Somerset instructed his solicitor, Arthur Newton, to see to the defence of his former associates, took leave of absence from his regiment and scarpered to the Continent. Newlove and his co-defendants were found guilty as charged, but given very light sentences. The Assistant Public Prosecutor, Hamilton Cuffe, called the trial a travesty of justice, but was glad that it ended early enough for him to catch the 6.15pm train at Waterloo.
On 30 September, Somerset returned to Britain. Monro’s men shadowed him everywhere. Two weeks later, he resigned his commission and fled again to the Continent. The warrant for his arrest, which had been hanging over his head since July, was issued on 12 November. It would never be served.
With all the main suspects gone, pressure to drop the case mounted. And then, Ernest Parke, the twenty-nine-year-old editor of the North London Press, published the names of Somerset and Euston and hinted that ‘they had been allowed to leave the country and thus defeat the ends of justice, because their prosecution would disclose the fact that a far more distinguished and higher placed personage than themselves was inculpated in these disgusting crimes’.
Parke was echoing the rumours - widely spread in Britain and freely printed in newspapers abroad - that Prince Albert Victor, the heir to the throne, had been a visitor to Cleveland Street.
Immediately he saw his name in the newspapers Euston sued Parke for libel. He claimed that he had gone to the premises in Cleveland Street under the impression that he would see poses plastiques - a sort of Victorian girlie show in which the women were naked but motionless. As proceedings against Parke moved on, with the defence calling in a string of witnesses to implicate Euston, the rumours about Prince Albert Victor’s involvement intensified. Yet the Prince himself was nowhere near. He had left for a royal wedding in Greece and an extended tour of India which would last the best part of seven months.
Hard as he tried, Parke was unable to prove his allegations against Euston. He hinted that he had other evidence which he could not divulge without betraying his sources – among whom, some said, was Abberline. It did him no good. He was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison.
As a side-show, Somerset’s solicitor, Arthur Newton, was caught attempting to pay off the telegraph boys to go abroad before they could testify. He went on trial for obstructing justice, was found guilty and served six weeks in prison.
And that was it. The Cleveland Street affair petered out without ever becoming the full-fledged scandal everybody expected.
In February 1890, Labouchere averred in Parliament that the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, had personally intervened to delay action against Somerset until he could get away. The Attorney-General, Richard Webster, answered his allegations at equal length. The debate ended with Labouchere expelled for a week for refusing to withdraw an insulting remark against the Prime Minister.
In May, Prince Albert Victor, home from India, was created Duke of Clarence and Avondale and Earl of Athlone. But he would not enjoy his new titles for long. He died of pneumonia in January 1892, at the age of 28.
How much evidence is there of his involvement in the Cleveland Street affair? Not much, in fact.
For all the rumours, the gossip, the innuendo, the truth is that no conclusive evidence was ever found placing the Prince at Cleveland Street. There are some letters by Somerset to the effect that, were he to appear in court, his testimony wouldn’t help the Prince. But that is a far cry from asserting that the Prince was an habitué at number 19.
Was there a cover-up of the Scandal? There was certainly intervention by the government, much to the annoyance of Monro and the Metropolitan Police. Were the authorities trying to delay action and thwart justice just because the Prince might have been involved? Or could it be that they did not quite believe that the Labouchere amendment made sense?
Labouchere himself may have thought so. In Tom Stoppard’s play, The Invention of Love, Stead asks Labouchere:
But - but surely you intend the Bill to address a contemporary evil?
And Labouchere replies:
Nothing of the sort. I intended to make the bill absurd to any sensible person left in what was by then a pretty thin house...
In the programme notes for the play, Peter Jones names Frank Harris as the source of Labouchere’s remark. For once Harris - who was known as an inveterate liar - may have been telling the truth.
The house at number 19 which was at the centre of the Scandal remained, in many respects, its deepest mystery. It was closed almost before the investigation started. It was never forced to reveal its secrets, never laid out for public obloquy. None of its visitors was ever exposed - with the exception of Somerset.
There was a contemporary rumour that Hammond’s staff kept a log listing every visitor to the premises. This log was later said to have disappeared en route from Scotland Yard to the Treasury. So frustrating, so inconclusive are this locked door, this closed house, this misplaced log, that the unsated appetite for closure may have given birth to further fantasies.
In its issue of 24 March 1975, Newsweek magazine recalled how the police raided number 19 Cleveland Street and apprehended Somerset. The raid was also mentioned by Ronald Pearsall, David Abrahamsen, L Perry Curtis and Dr Thomas E A Stowell. It is even more prominent in fiction. Robert Bloch places Abberline at the centre of the raid in The Night of the Ripper and Kim Newman describes it in loving detail in Anno Dracula, where Scotland Yard agents and Dracula’s Carpathian Guard descend upon number 19 together by gaslight.
But I have failed to find any corroboration for the raid in such sources as H Montgomery Hyde’s The Cleveland Street Scandal and Theo Aronson’s Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underground or, for that matter, anywhere else.
Yet there was no shortage of police raids in those years. In The Ripper Legacy, Martin Howells and Keith Skinner recount how Monro organised a raid on a gambling den during which a number of toffs, including Lord Dudley, were arrested. In The Trials of Oscar Wilde, H Montgomery Hyde mentions a police raid in Fitzroy Street. Alfred Taylor, a homosexual procurer who would later be Wilde’s co-defendant at his trials, recalled that the occasion was a benefit concert at which he played the piano. Yet, as soon as two men in women’s dresses came to take part in the concert, the police broke in and arrested everybody. Wilde thought it was monstrous. Though he didn’t know it at the time, worse was still to come.
The recurrence of raids did not diminish in later years. Even the Outlaws in the Just William stories knew that no night club outing would be complete without a good police raid.
Were all these raids, filtered through the thick fabric of memory, the common source for the raid in Cleveland Street? Was Joseph Sickert recalling old tales half-heard when he told Stephen Knight about yet another raid, not at number 19 this one, but at a house almost directly across the road, from where plainclothes men dragged Prince Albert Victor in one direction and Annie Crook in the opposite direction, never to see each other again?
Most senior policemen started retiring soon after the Scandal. The first one to go was Monro. Already displeased at the government’s handling of the Scandal, he resigned in June 1890, ostensibly over police pensions, and returned to India. Abberline retired in 1892; Littlechild, in 1893. Several senior police officials - Andersen, Macnaghten, Smith - wrote their memoirs.
Over the years, many must have asked the ageing men about their youthful days and their most famous cases, about their pursuit of the Ripper and the high-born gentlemen who frequented the house in Cleveland Street.
And others, whose role had been less significant, may have felt more at liberty to embellish the past. They may have recalled dialogues they never heard and described encounters at which they were not present - perhaps along the same lines as the imaginary scene a couple of pages back.
The Cleveland Street Scandal, unresolved and unfinished, would linger long in memory. Oscar Wilde, for one, was not involved in it. But when, in July 1890, he published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a reviewer for the Scots Observer stated: ‘Mr Wilde has brains, and art, and style, but if he can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals’.
A few years later, in 1893, the Marquess of Queensberry was strongly hinting that his son was involved in an improper relationship with an older man. He was not referring, as it might be surmised, to his youngest son, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Oscar Wilde. He was talking about his eldest son, Viscount Drumlanrig, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Rosebery. Following Drumlanrig’s mysterious death in a hunting accident the following year, Queensberry was free to concentrate on his other son and his friend.
In 1895, Oscar Wilde instituted libel proceedings against Queensberry, who had left a card at Wilde’s club describing him, with more acrimony than accuracy, as a ‘posing sodomite’.
For all that he had lent his name to the Queensberry rules for boxing, the Marquess did not play all that fair when it came to his own defence. He enlisted the support of rent-boys and blackmailers for his cause. He employed former Inspector Littlechild to gather evidence against Wilde. Littlechild forced his way into Alfred Taylor’s premises, where he found a list of boys with whom Wilde consorted and who were pressured into testifying against him. Years later, Littlechild would impart some gossip about Wilde in a letter to journalist George R Sims dated 23 September 1913, now in the possession of Stewart Evans.
Unlike Euston, Wilde was unable to disprove his opponent’s allegations. When the jury declined to find against Queensberry, Wilde was laid open to charges under the Labouchere amendment. Yet he might not have been prosecuted if Queensberry had been less vindictive or if he had left the country. As soon as his trial for libel ended in victory, Queensberry sent a full dossier on the case to Hamilton Cuffe, now Director of Public Prosecutions.
Even so, Wilde was given ample time to catch the boat train to France. Perhaps he was expected, like Somerset, to cross the Channel and never show his face in Britain again. Instead, he lingered in his hotel room, his suitcase half packed, until they came to arrest him. The rest is history. Wilde’s trial for gross indecency ended in a hung jury, whereupon he was tried again, found guilty and given the maximum sentence: two years’ hard labour. His health ruined, his wit dulled, he died in exile in 1900; Somerset also died in exile, in 1926. Neither of them is buried in Britain.
Lord Halsbury, the Lord Chancellor, excused the authorities’ inaction in the Cleveland Street Scandal stating that the offence alleged to have been committed was an offence created by a recent statute and only a misdemeanour. Years later, H Montgomery Hyde used almost the same words and expressed the same sentiment in saying that the offence of which Wilde was accused had been declared criminal by Parliament only ten years before and, according to most if not all continental codes of law, was not a crime at all.
It looks like the authorities agreed that the offences committed by Somerset and Wilde were not significant. In that case, why was Somerset protected and not Wilde? The answer is that Wilde enjoyed as much protection as he could be given at the time. As a matter of fact, he largely brought his disgrace upon himself, first by bringing a libel action against Queensberry and secondly by hiding from his counsel that there was a great deal of truth in his opponent’s allegations.
Besides, for all their common predilections, Somerset and Wilde behaved in diametrically opposed ways. Where Somerset was a war hero, Wilde was a long-haired, velvet-breeched aesthete. Where Somerset was discreet, meeting telegraph boys in the privacy of Hammond’s rooms, Wilde was flamboyant, inviting rent-boys for supper at the best hotels. Where Somerset scarpered obligingly as soon as the long arm of the law stretched out in his general direction, Wilde stayed to face the music.
Richard Ellmann asserts that Wilde’s life with Lord Alfred Douglas, including the publicity of their romantic passion, reflected his intention to oblige a hypocritical society to take him as he was. But society, which was willing to forgive Wilde a lot, as long as he did it discreetly, was not prepared to be preached the love that does not dare say its name.
One hundred years later, we blame the government and the society that let Somerset get away as fiercely as the government and society that would not let Wilde get away. Yet the press, which had clamoured for an investigation into the Cleveland Street Scandal, was equally strident in demanding Wilde’s prosecution.
It has been asked whether it was necessary to prosecute Wilde a second time and to bring the Solicitor-General, Sir Frank Lockwood, to do it himself. And it has been replied, as in the Cleveland Street case, that the survival of the government was at stake. The Prime Minister was the same Lord Rosebery whom Queensberry had accused, a couple of years earlier, of dallying with his eldest son.
In an unpublished letter to the Mercure de France, Douglas asserted that Wilde’s trial was the result of political intrigue. He maintained that the ranks of the ruling Liberal Party were swollen with men of Wilde’s persuasion. The European press was eager to echo these rumours in print. Lockwood was alleged to have said the government did not dare drop the case lest people say it had something to hide.
In fact, Rosebery himself had wanted to help Wilde but was warned by Balfour that his intervention might lose his party the coming elections. He denied Wilde his assistance but his party lost the elections anyway.
Poor Oscar Wilde would be often remembered, but seldom for the right reasons. In The Classic Slum, his memoir of Salford life in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Robert Roberts recalls how the working class, always fascinated by the great criminal trials, had been stirred to its depths by Oscar Wilde’s prosecution. As late as the First War World, he says, the ribald cry heard in factories, ‘Watch out for Oscarwile!’, still mystified young apprentices.
Wilde didn’t fare much better in worldlier circles. Among the chief mourners at his funeral had been his first lover, Robbie Ross, and his last and greatest love: Lord Alfred Douglas. Of them, Robbie Ross remained loyal to his friend’s memory. He became Wilde’s literary executor, paid off his debts and recovered the copyright of his works for his sons. In 1905, he published an abridged version of De Profundis, the long lament Wilde had written in prison in the form of a letter to Douglas. Ross was also unrepentant as to his sexual preferences and aesthetic tendencies.
Douglas, on the other hand, moved to put distance between himself and the disreputable heritage of his erstwhile lover. In line with his new respectability as a married man and a father, he became a fervent Catholic and conceived an acute distaste for his own past and those associated with it.
For a few more years, Douglas and Ross remained friendly. Then they fell out and started a feud which by 1913 had become open warfare. In that year Arthur Ransome published a biography of Oscar Wilde. Annoyed at the manner in which the book portrayed him, Douglas took out a libel action against it. In Ransome’s support, Ross produced the hitherto unpublished sections of De Profundis, which furnished conclusive evidence of Douglas’s homosexual relationship with Oscar Wilde and destroyed his case.
Douglas then launched a deliberately slanderous campaign against Ross. When Ross fought back, Douglas had to flee to the Continent to avoid a charge of criminal libel. When the war broke out, he returned to Britain, ostensibly to join the army. Since the charge against him was still pending, the police arrested him and threw him in prison for five days.
It was not a happy man who walked out of that cell. Since both Douglas and Ross moved at the highest levels of London society, their next encounter was at a party attended by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. Tempers flared and voices rose as Douglas was barely restrained from lunging at Ross, fully intent on bodily harm. A witness to this confrontation was Mrs Belloc Lowndes, a friend to Ross and the Wilde family, who was, no doubt, acquainted with at least certain manifestations of violence.
In a re-run of the Wilde-Queensberry confrontation two decades before, Douglas and Ross next faced each other in court. Evidence about Ross’s taste for young men mounted until he abandoned the case before a verdict could be reached. He paid his opponent’s costs and retired from public life. Douglas nonetheless continued to hound his enemy on each and every possible occasion.
As Douglas and Ross fought over their former lover’s heritage, either to embrace or renounce it, Wilde was making a quiet comeback. His name was still anathema in polite society but his reputation as a writer and a critic was growing steadily. Furthermore, his disgrace had never affected his European reputation. His most controversial play, Salome, had its world premiere in Paris in 1896, when Wilde was in prison. One year after his death, it opened in Berlin and afterwards in most European capitals. Richard Strauss had no qualms about choosing Salome as the basis for his eponymous opera. Nor did dancer Maud Allan see any reason why she shouldn’t herself become the living embodiment of Salome.
Maud Allan was born in 1873 in Toronto. When she was six years old her parents moved to San Francisco with Maud and her brother William Henry Theodore, known as Theo. In her early twenties Maud went to Berlin to train as a concert pianist.
Besides studying, Maud frequented Bohemian circles, took lovers and learned photography and sculpture. Once, when she was short of money, she used her artistic skills to illustrate a sex manual for women: Illustriertes Konversations-Lexikon der Frau.
Eventually she decided to leave the piano for a career as a dancer. Belgian composer Marcel Rémy encouraged her to explore and develop her own ideas and interpretations about dance and wrote the music for what would be her greatest triumph: The Vision of Salome.
Maud made her debut as a dancer in Vienna in 1903 with great success. In the following years she danced in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Paris. In 1907, Edward VII invited her to perform privately for him at Marienbad.
Britain was clearly the next step. In the spring of 1908 Maud appeared at the Palace Theatre in London. Although she danced to the music of Chopin, Grieg, Schubert and Mendelssohn, it was The Vision of Salome that made her reputation. Tall, alluring Maud moved seductively to Rémy’s sensuous music in a scanty costume which she had designed and sewn herself. Above her waist she wore only breastplates of pearls and jewels held in place by an open mesh of gold and pearls. Round her hips hung pearl strings over a transparent black silk skirt embroidered with gold and jewels. Her voluptuous partnership with the Baptist’s severed head brought Maud instant fame and earned her a fortune, but also tarred her with scandal and would eventually bring about her downfall.
In later years, she would claim that The Vision of Salome did not represent the actual dance Salome executed before Herod, but a repetition of it in half-conscious memory, as Salome revives in tragic reverie all the morbid excitements of an unforgettable incident. The severed head is not real: it is part of her vision, alternately repelling and attracting her.
Maud’s admirers included royalty, Prime Minister Asquith and his wife Margot, who became close friends, high society, hedonists, intellectuals, Frank Harris and the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley.
After several years of huge success as the prime sex symbol of the era, Maud went on an extended tour of the world. In 1916 she returned to England in hopes of reviving her waning career. As her dancing did not attract the same multitudes as before, she decided to essay a dramatic part. What could be a more logical choice than the title role in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome? In February 1918 she was scheduled to star in two private performances of Salome, the public performance of which was still forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain.
At this time, Britain was deadlocked in mortal combat on the Western Front. The daily toll in lives, horrifying as it was, did not bring the end of the war any closer. The idea that Britain’s strength was being sapped by traitors within enjoyed widespread support. Among the propagandists of this idea was Noel Pemberton Billing, an independent MP who held extreme right-wing views. He ran a journal variously called the Imperialist and the Vigilante. On 26 January 1918, he published an article alleging that the Germans had compiled a Black Book containing the names of 47,000 British subjects who, because of their sexual preferences, were being blackmailed into undermining the British war effort.
On 16 February 1918, a few days before Maud Allan was scheduled to open in Salome, the Vigilante ran a boxed paragraph under a heading in black bold type:
To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performance in Oscar Wilde’s Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, WC. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000.
When Maud Allan learnt she was being publicly described as a lesbian she instructed her solicitors to take action against Billing for criminal libel.
The trial presided over by Mr Justice Darling began on 29 May 1918 and lasted six days. Billing represented himself. In his Plea of Justification, he inveigled against Salome, which he described as a stage play by a moral pervert consisting of an open representation of degenerate sexual lust, sexual crime and unnatural passions. He also repeated his assertion that the German enemy was blackmailing British homosexuals into working against their own country.
Billing sprang a surprise attack against Maud early in the proceedings. As she concluded her statement for the prosecution, Billing began his cross-examin-ation by asking her for her real name. It was, in fact, Beulah Maud Durrant – and the reason why she had changed it to Maud Allan was that her brother Theo had been executed in America for sex murders likened to the Jack the Ripper killings.
In April 1895 the half-naked, blood-covered body of Minnie Williams, a broken knife blade still planted in her chest, was discovered in the library at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Mission District. A search of the premises revealed the body of Blanche Lamont, who had been missing for over a week, in the church’s steeple. She had been strangled to death. Both girls had apparently been sexually assaulted. Suspicion fell on Theo Durrant, medical school student and assistant Sunday school superintendent, who had been seen with both girls shortly before their disappearance. He was soon arrested and brought to trial. There appears to have been little doubt as to his guilt, though Durrant never wavered in the proclamation of his innocence and the defense underlined that the Church’s Canadian-born pastor, the Rev John George Gibson, spent hours alone in the church and had access to all parts of the building. On 1 November, the jury found Theo guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death, but appeals caused the execution to be put off three times. Theo was finally hanged for murder on 7 January 1898.
In a book I haven’t read, The Bell Tower: The Case of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved... in San Francisco, Robert Graysmith reportedly ascribes the murders for which Theo was hanged to none other than Jack the Ripper. His suspect, Rev Gibson, resigned his parish in Scotland in 1887. Nothing is known of his whereabouts between that time and his arrival at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in December 1888, a month after the last Ripper murder.
The title Bell Tower, however, is a bit of a misnomer, because there was no bell in the church’s steeple. Contemporary newspapers named it ‘the place where no bell ever tolled’. That is in fact the reason why no one went up to the steeple during the period when Blanche Lamont’s body lay there.
Back at the Old Bailey, Billing argued that Theo’s murders were evidence that sadism ran in the Durrant family. He also expatiated at length on the perversions to be found in Salome. The choice of the word clitoris, he revealed, was a calculated one. A village doctor had furnished the information that the clitoris was an ‘organ that, when unduly excited... possessed the most dreadful influence on any woman’. In those less sophisticated days, Billing could also asseverate that clitoris was a term that few outside the medical profession understood and that Maud herself understood it because of her own moral degeneracy. She had, moreover, studied in Germany and developed her art in that country. What more proof was needed?
Billing’s star witnesses included American-born Harold Spencer, who had been invalided out of the British Army for ‘delusional insanity’, and his own mistress, Eileen Villiers-Stuart, who claimed to have seen the Black Book and asserted that it listed the names of Herbert and Margot Asquith and Lord Haldane, along with that of Justice Darling, the judge presiding in the case. Billing also called Lord Alfred Douglas.
By then 48 years old, Douglas described Wilde as ‘the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe in the past 350 years’ and asserted that his former lover had found inspiration for Salome in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. He later made such a nuisance of himself that the judge expelled him from the court.
In his closing address, Billing insisted on the link between Salome, the Black Book and Britain’s inability to win the war. Following long and confusing instructions from the judge, the jury returned a verdict in Billing's favour, convinced, no doubt, that they had embraced the cause of good against evil.
After the trial, Maud tried to resume her career, but Billing’s victory had spelt out her defeat. She never reached again the heights of her fame. Maud Allan lived out her final years in California, where she died on 7 October 1956 at the age of eighty-four. Robbie Ross died soon after the end of the trial. At his request, his ashes were placed in Wilde’s tomb at the Père Lachaise in Paris. Douglas lived on until 1945, increasingly eccentric and quarrelsome, his beauty long vanished.
The passage of time had not brought an end to the rumours about Prince Albert Victor. In The World’s Tragedy, privately published in Paris in 1910, Aleister Crowley, of all people, claimed to own several compromising letters addressed by the Prince to a boy named Morgan, whose mother, Ann Elizabeth, had been a witness at Parke’s trial. She ran a tobacco and sweets shop at 22 Cleveland Street, oppo-site number 19. According to Stephen Knight, both Annie Elizabeth Crook and Mary Kelly worked in the shop.
In the sixties, Dr Stowell told Colin Wilson that Prince Albert Victor had been a visitor to 19 Cleveland Street. Rather exuberantly, he also named him as Jack the Ripper. Ten years later, Stowell publicly fingered the Prince as the Ripper - though not in so many words.
American author Frank Spiering came hot on his heels and, close behind him, Joseph Sickert, trailed by Stephen Knight. The tales they told have been largely discredited, though not before having inspired over half a dozen non-fiction books, novels, films and comic strips. The case against the Prince as the Ripper has been dismissed. The idea that he married Annie Crook in a secret ceremony appears to be a tale. But the Ripper case has lent itself more than most to speculation and legend, to rumour and fabrication. And, over the years, it may have picked up elements that rightly belong elsewhere. Some stories, or fragments of stories, told about someone else may have become stories told about the Ripper.
What was the source of the legend that Prince Albert Victor had fallen in love with a commoner, thus rocking the throne and endangering the Empire? Where did they come from, the star-crossed lovers, the Prince and the shop-girl?
Fear of the Ripper still gripped London when, on the last day of January 1889, a sensational headline was splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the world. There was in those days an heir to the throne of a mighty Empire who fell in love with a woman of lower birth. He was Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary and Empress Elisabeth. She was Baroness Mary Vetsera. On 30 January 1889, the Crown Prince shot her and then himself at his hunting lodge at Mayerling.
Or so they said; but not before trying very hard to hide the truth.
The first version they told was that, after hunting all day, Crown Prince Rudolf retired to his room, feeling poorly. His friends found him the next day, dead in his bed either of a stroke or the rupture of an aneurism.
Soon afterwards, the press reported a fatal heart attack. Next, the Neue Freie Presse dared print that the Crown Prince had died of gunshot. The police confiscated the news-paper and arrested anyone who discussed it in the streets. It was probably not the best way to discourage rumours.
On 1 February the Official Gazette announced that the Crown Prince had committed suicide while of unsound mind, thus ensuring that he could be buried according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.
But all sorts of rumours continued to circulate. They said that one of the Crown Prince’s foresters, whose wife he had seduced, had shot him and then committed suicide. They said that he had been assassinated on the orders of the Crown Princess, of her brother, of Bismarck, of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the Ochrana. Some whispered that Austrian security services had dispatched him because of his sympathies for the rebellious Hungarians. A few even remarked on the mysterious disappearance of Baroness Mary Vetsera at roughly the same time. Slowly, a far more dramatic story began to emerge.
At the time of his death, the Crown Prince was 30 years old. He had dutifully entered an arranged marriage with Princess Stephanie of Belgium, whom he did not love. To fill his time he had mistresses and he had principles: he was rebellious, liberal, anti-monarchic, anti-clerical, anti-German, a friend to Freemasons and Jews, a champion of Hungarian independence and the anonymous author of articles in the Wiener Tagblatt criticising his father’s regime. Always of an independent frame of mind, he ignored Court protocol and did not go from his assignations to his appointments in a large carriage with an Imperial seal on the door; he engaged instead the services of a private coachman, Josef Bratfisch, who drove him about in his fiacre as he sang old Viennese songs from his perch.
In October, the visiting Edward, Prince of Wales, accompanied Crown Prince Rudolf to the races at Freidenau. He spotted a lovely young thing he remembered vaguely and introduced her to Rudolf. She was a fashionable little parvenue with a touch of Jewish blood: 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera.
Apparently neither Rudolf nor Mary forgot their brief encounter. Within a few weeks, something was arranged – something can always be arranged – and in no time the handsome Crown Prince and the charming Baroness were whispering endearments in each other’s ears. She held out for some time, it seems; and then she held out no more. By mid-December, they were lovers.
It was rumoured that there had been a tempestuous meeting between the Emperor and his son on 26 January 1889, at which the Crown Prince had asked his father's consent to an annulment of his marriage to Stephanie. Others said the Emperor had heard that Mary was pregnant and commanded his son to break off his relationship with her. Another version was that Mary had a botched abortion - either in Mayerling or prior to it - and died of blood poisoning.
What is known is that Crown Prince Rudolf left for Mayerling on 28 January. On that bitter cold day, Mary Vetsera snuggled close up to her lover in Bratfisch’s fiacre. It would be their last journey.
When the Crown Prince’s friends found the lovers dead in their bedroom, they acted at once. Rudolf would not be allowed to rest next to his beloved Mary at Heiligenkreuz cemetery, as was his wish. Indeed, her very existence was to be denied.
Two of Mary’s uncles, Alexander Baltazzi and Count Georg Stockau, were peremptorily summoned. They dressed her body in her elegant clothes, linked arms with her and half walked, half dragged her across the frozen ground to a waiting carriage. They sat her between them, pushed a broomstick down the back of her dress to keep her upright and drove through the Wienerwald to Heiligenkreuz, where they buried her in the dead of night.
When Mary’s mother, Baroness Vetsera, came to the palace to ask about her missing daughter, Empress Elisabeth, who had just been told of her son's death, drew herself up and said: ‘Madame, our children are both dead’. The Baroness was subsequently told that Mary had poisoned Rudolf and was forced to leave the country at once.
The version that would survive was that the lovers made a suicide pact. Farewell letters found after their death show that Mary was in love with Rudolf and knew full well that there was no hope for their relationship. Or do they? Some have pointed out that no letter exists in the original except for one - which is undated.
In 1946, Soviet troops, probably looking for jewels looted Mary’s grave. The profanation was not discovered until 1955, when the Red Army left Austria. In 1959, funerary experts, accompanied by a physician and a member of the Vetsera family, examined the remains. They were shocked to discover that the body did not present any traces of death by firearm. What they did observe was a large trauma on the crown of the head. Yet all concerned ignored this macabre discovery.
A few days before Christmas 1992, Mary’s mortal remains were stolen from Heiligenkreuz cemetery. After some false starts, the local police tracked down the coffin and recovered Mary’s body. To verify that it was truly hers, they asked the Viennese Medical Institute to examine it.
The physicians’ findings echoed the results of the earlier examination. Mary’s skull bore no traces of the bullet that Rudolf had allegedly fired into her head. The cranial cavity showed signs of trauma, which could have been caused by a heavy object, but not by a bullet. It was unclear whether the Crown Prince battered his mistress to death before shooting himself or whether someone else killed them both.
A resulting re-examination of files about Rudolf’s death revealed major discrepancies between the official version and the factual evidence. The Crown Prince’s body showed signs of a violent confrontation before death. Lacerations in his hands hinted at a fierce struggle with several attackers. It also seems that the revolver used to kill both him and Mary was not his, and that, though Rudolf reportedly died instantly from the first shot, six shots were fired from the gun. Therefore Mary may have been not the victim of a tragic love affair but the unwilling witness to a political assassination.
Shortly before her death in 1989, Empress Zita, the widow of the last Habsburg Emperor, Karl, claimed that Crown Prince Rudolf was killed by French secret agents. She asserted that French politician Georges Clemenceau had engineered an international political conspiracy aiming at overthrowing Franz Joseph and placing his heir on the throne. Rudolf was expected to steer Austria away from her allegiance to Germany and enter an alliance with France. When he refused to join in the conspiracy they killed him to ensure his silence.
We have behind us a long tale of conspiracies and cover-ups, police raids, sex scandals, Freemasons, doomed lovers, assassinations and even a jolly coachman privy to the secrets of royalty. What is still missing? How about Walter Sickert? How about Sir William Gull? Where could anyone get the idea that the celebrated painter and the distinguished physician were involved in conspiracy and murder?
Pace Patricia Cornwell and her ilk, I suspect that Sickert earned his place in Ripper lore through his eccentricities and his constant talk about the Whitechapel stalker. As for Gull, we will one day, I promise, look into the story of Lady Harriet Mordaunt, who in 1870 confessed to her husband, Sir Charles, that she had been intimate with a string of gentlemen, including the Prince of Wales, and that her newborn daughter was a love child. Understandably distressed, Sir Charles moved to divorce her, but was prevented from doing so by a judicial determination that she was not in her right mind and could not be a party to legal proceedings. He said she was shamming; her family said she was not. After much legal and medical sparring, she was certified as a lunatic and ended her days in an asylum. And Sir Charles divorced her anyway. Among the many characters in the colourful cast of this society drama were the Prince of Wales’s personal physician, Dr William Gull, who signed the certificate committing Lady Harriet, and an alienist called L Forbes Winslow.
Unlike most of Ripperologist, these pages deal as much with fact as with the illusion of fact. I did not set out to prove or disprove a theory. I wanted to tell a few tales, conjure up some half-forgotten faces, marvel at how everything is related to everything else and explore the ways in which fiction may be served as reality and enduring myths launched. Some readers may have found slim pickings here. But others might believe, with Robert Louis Stevenson, that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. These pages are for them.Sources
Abrahamsen, David: Murder and Madness; Aronson, Theo: Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underground; Begg, Paul: Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History; Bloch, Robert: The Night of the Ripper; Clément, Catherine: Sissi, l’impératrice anarchiste; Crompton, Richmal: Just William; Curtis, L Perry: Jack the Ripper and the London Press; Daniel, Paul: A Diary of the Cleveland Street Scandal, Parts 1, 2 and 3, Ripperologist, Nos. 23, 24 and 27, (1999, 2000); Ellmann, Richard: Oscar Wilde; Hamilton, Elizabeth: The Warwickshire Scandal; Hoare, Philip: Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand; Howells, Martin and Keith Skinner: The Ripper Legacy; Hyde, H Montgomery: The Trials of Oscar Wilde; The Cleveland Street Scandal; Hynes, Samuel: A War Imagined; Markus, Georg: Crime at Mayerling: The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera; Morton, Frederic: A Nervous Splendour: Vienna 1888-1889; Newman, Kim: Anno Dracula; Pearsall, Ronald: The Worm in the Bud; Roberts, Robert: The Classic Slum; Stead, William T: The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon; Stoppard, Tom: The Invention of Love; Sweet, Matthew: Inventing the Victorians; Sweetman, David: Explosive Acts; Wilson, A N: The Victorians; Wilson, Colin: A Criminal History of Mankind; On Jack the Ripper and other Infamous Matters, World, Vol. 1, No. 9, 24 October 1972.