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By Jennifer D. Pegg.
Robert James lees was a Spiritualist, a preacher, a writer and a healer. He had also worked as a journalist. At the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, in 1888, he was residing in the London area. Numerous articles and books have often commented on the fact that through his “psychic powers” he was able to track down the Ripper and helped to detain him, keeping the public safe and ending the ‘Autumn of Terror’.
The Lees/Ripper story has often been used to advance arguments for certain suspects being the Ripper. In ‘Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution’, Stephen Knight used the story to help advance the carriage/William Gull theory. Lees has also appeared in Ripper novels and films, for example, Donald Sutherland played him in the Sherlock Holmes film ‘Murder By Decree’. The Lees/Ripper story first appeared in print on the 28th of April 1895, in ‘The Chicago Sunday Times Herald’. A version of this story was also circulated in ‘The People’, on the 19th of May of that year.
The ‘Chicago’ article claimed that over a number of years Lees had been troubled by psychic visions of Jack the Ripper at work. Each vision came true. Lees was so disturbed by his visions that he sought medical advice and went abroad as a result. Whilst abroad he was not troubled by any such visions. On his return to London, he and his wife Sarah were travelling on the London omnibus when a man got on at Notting Hill. This man, declared Lees, was ‘Jack the Ripper’. Despite his wife laughing at him when the man got off the bus at Marble Arch, Lees followed him. He bumped into a Constable along the way and told him the tale, but was again laughed at. After more murders, Lees was able to lead the police to a fashionable house in London which was home to a physician. The doctor was put in an asylum under the name of Thomas Mason 124, and a mock funeral held. A Dr. Howard of London, when drunk, told the tale to a man who informed the paper.
It is clear that this article is based on little truth. It sets the Ripper murders out on a grand scale in the article. They total 17 and span over a time period of years. In reality the Ripper victims are numbered at just five, and the murders took place in just a few months in the autumn of 1888. Melvin Harris in ‘Jack the Ripper, The Bloody Truth’, provides convincing evidence that the whole thing was hoaxed. He suggests the perpetrators were the ‘Whitechapel Club, Chicago’, their offices being behind those of the paper. He even suggests that they deliberately lace the article with falsehoods to make the hoax clear to the knowledgeable reader. Therefore little regard can be given to the article.
It is with this in mind that we view the second major story to appear on this subject which appeared in ‘The Daily Express’, in a series of articles published on the 7th, 9th and 10th of March 1931. These dates were just a few months after Lees death in January of that year. The article was not supplied direct from Lees estate, they did not profit from it. They did try to find out the articles source, but ‘The Daily Express’ were not forthcoming and stated it had come from a friend of the family wishing to remain anonymous. It is likely that it was a simple copy of the Chicago article, probably done directly by journalists at ‘The Daily Express’, though this is not clear. As the source of this article is almost certainly the untrustworthy ‘Chicago’ article, little credit can be given to its content. Though the Lees family never publicly dismissed the story, they are said to have been privately distressed by it.
Cynithia Leigh, (no known relation to Lees), reported in the Spiritualist magazine ‘Light’, in the autumn of 1970 edition, that Lees told her a variation on the story of his involvement in tracking down Jack the Ripper on several occasions. The article was however, written over 30 years after Lees death. Leigh was clearly biased in favour of Lees, writing for a Spiritualist journal. It cannot be clearly ascertained how well she knew Lees or what the exact nature of his comments were. Even if Lees recounted the story to Leigh, it still does not prove, in my opinion, that Lees captured the Ripper.
It is fair to say that though, the ‘Light’ article appeared only a few years before its publication in 1976, the Lees story was made famous again in wider circles with the publication of Stephen Knights book: ‘Jack the Ripper, The Final Solution’. It was Ian Sharp who rediscovered the ‘Chicago’ article when researching for a BBC documentary. He commissioned and screened it prior to the release of the Knight book, but on the same theme. Therefore ‘The Final Solution’, is the first time that the ‘Chicago’ article had officially been extensively quoted in a major publication since the ‘People’ quoted it in 1895. Knight also provided other evidence for the Lees connection. He was the first researcher to be allowed access to all the Ripper files and reports, (not made public until 1988 under the 100 years rule). It is in ‘The Final Solution’ that the Lees letter is quoted as:
You have not caught me yet you see, with all your cunning, with all your Lees, with all your blue bottles
Jack the Ripper”
Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner in ‘Jack the Ripper, Letters From Hell’ discredit this reading of the letter. They substitute the word ‘Lees’ from Knight’s reading with the word ‘tecs’, (London slang for plain clothed officers). This new reading would appear to make better sense and appear to be more logical. Therefore, there is little remaining evidence from the time of the crimes that can be classified as primary data.
Lees diary entries for 1888, point to the fact that in October, (a month when no Ripper murders took place), he went to both the City Police and Scotland Yard to offer his assistance. However he was turned away as a madman on both occasions, (though Scotland Yard offered to write to him).
Supporters of the Lees/Ripper story pointed to the ‘fact’ that, while Dr Howard furiously denied the claims in ‘The People’ and threatened to sue them, Lees never denied the story. However, not denying something can hardly constitute a fact that an event took place. The story could only enhance Lees Spiritualist profile, whereas its profile of Dr Howard as a drunken fool is hardly flattering especially for a medical professional. It is also highly likely that Lees did not know about the article, as he was ill and residing in St Ives, when it was published.
I feel that it can no longer be stated that there is any credible evidence that Lees helped the police to solve the murders. The original, often misquoted source for the story is almost certainly deliberately hoaxed.
* Lees diary of 1888, currently deposited at Stansted Hall,
* Records Office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland DE 5428, (letter from Daily Express, dated March 10th).
* Chicago Sunday Times Herald’, 28th April 1895.
* ‘The People’, 19th May 1895.
* ‘Daily Express’, March 7th, 9th and 10th 1931.
* Light’, Autumn 1970.
* ‘Jack the Ripper, The Final Solution’, Stephen Knight 1976.
* ‘Jack the Ripper, The Bloody Truth’, Melvin Harris 1987.
* ‘Jack the Ripper, Letters From Hell’, Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner 2001.