I've spent the last week reading and reviewing Bruce Robinson's remarkable new book on Jack the Ripper, They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, which has just been longlisted for the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize. It's a leviathan of a book – more than 800 pages long – and on one level Robinson has written a wonderfully scabrous exposé of the debauched lives of the Victorian aristocracy and upper classes.
Men like Henry James Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, whom Robinson describes with typical bluntness as “a classic pile of shit”, and Prince Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales, an “effete little useless pederast” but not, as some Ripperologists have suggested, a candidate for Jack the Ripper himself (“nonsense”, growls Robinson, who claims this theory is so ludicrous it had to be an attempt to divert attention from the real perpetrator).
Both men were implicated in a scandal involving young boys at a male brothel in Cleveland Street in 1889. The ensuing cover-up resulted in a journalist and the low-class working boys at the club being sent to jail but the upper class perpetrators, the “top nobs”, going free: “the law had to be made a whore to save the royal arse”. For Robinson this is an example of how the Victorian ruling classes closed ranks to protect their own, during both this scandal and that involving Jack the Ripper: “If the Crown was under threat – be it from a nancy prince or a Monster with a Blade – it was a threat to them all”.
Both the Earl of Euston and Prince Albert Victor were Freemasons and this secretive organisation is central to Robinson’s narrative: “Masonry permeates every fibre of this conundrum”. He does not claim that the concealment of Jack the Ripper was a Masonic conspiracy and he makes it clear that he is not hostile to the Craft: “The Ripper, and not I, is the enemy of Freemasonry.” Instead he blames “Her Majesty’s executive”, who were all Masons: “it was a conspiracy of the System”.
Robinson believes that honest policemen like Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline, who exposed the Cleveland Street brothel and worked on the Ripper case, could have easily caught the Ripper if they had been given full access to the evidence. But the System wouldn’t let Abberline (who was not a Mason) do his job.
As well as a wonderfully angry critique of the Victorian Establishment, Robinson's book is also a forensically detailed account of a cover-up of breath-taking audacity, a criminal conspiracy to conceal one of the worst crimes this country has ever seen. Using the letters sent to the police - which unlike many Ripperologists he believes to be genuine - he creates a portrait of Jack the Ripper as the “Masonic Joker” that is genuinely chilling and convincing. After years of painstaking research, Robinson has also uncovered a new prime suspect, the popular songwriter Michael Maybrick. He makes a powerful case for his guilt.
It has to be said though that after so many years, all we have is circumstantial evidence and newspaper reports, the latter usually dismissed by historians as unreliable. Most of the police files have mysteriously vanished. (Aha! exclaims Robinson.)
But his book is a bloody good read. Read it and make your own mind up about what really happened in the dark streets of Whitechapel at the end of the nineteenth century.
My review is in today's Guardian Review.