The chances are that we will never know the real identity of Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who terrified the streets of Victorian London in the late nineteenth century. Speculation over the Ripper’s identity has proven a perennial source of fascination, leading to a massive industry and huge body of literature. One of the most outlandish theories states that Jack the Ripper was Lord Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill.
Evidence connecting Lord Randolph Churchill to the 1888 Whitechapel Murders is at best tenuous, yet the very idea that Jack the Ripper could be associated with Winston Churchill is one which seems to capture imaginations, revealing a great deal about British views of the aristocracy through history.
On 31st August 1888, Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror started in East London with the murder of May Ann Nichols. Over the next few months another four women were murdered – Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. All of the victims were killed by having their throat cut. All of them with the exception of Stride had been horrifically mutilated. The name Jack the Ripper originated in a letter postmarked 27th September and sent to several news agencies. It boasted of being from the killer terrifying East London, and was signed ‘Jack the Ripper’.
Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill was born in February 1849, making him 39 at the time of the Whitechapel Murders. A divisive figure in the Conservative Party, his speeches in the House of Commons were legendary, and often hugely controversial. In 1886 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, an appointment which Queen Victoria opposed, describing him as “odd”, “mad” and “disloyal”. At some point in Lord Churchill’s life he contracted syphilis (exactly where and when is unclear), and he ultimately left the House of Commons after suffering paralysis as a result of the disease.
So, how did a well known politician, the father of Britain’s prime minister in the Second World War, become connected to the most infamous serial killer in British history? There are different versions of the theory, but most of them revolve around much broader government conspiracies, and the Freemasons in particular.
A common Jack the Ripper conspiracy theory connects the murders to a secret marriage between Prince Albert Victor (the grandson of Queen Victoria) and Annie Elizabeth Crook, a working class Catholic girl. The theory goes that the five victims of Jack the Ripper all had a connection to Crook, and were killed to stop news of the marriage spreading. Some, most notably author Melvyn Fairclough, claim that Lord Randolph Churchill was the man tasked with protecting the name of the royal family and covering up the scandal by any means necessary.
Different variations of the Jack the Ripper as royal conspiracy explanation exist. The Churchill connection usually comes from the belief that he was the highest ranking Freemason in Britain, and therefore responsible for protecting the royal family. The Freemasons are a fraternal and at times secretive organisation which are often named in Illuminati theories.
One of the few pieces of evidence linking Lord Randolph Churchill to Jack the Ripper is that he supposedly very closely resembled the description of a man seen with Mary Kelly shortly before her death. However, there is no documented evidence that Lord Randolph Churchill was a Freemason, and no evidence that the Crook-Albert Victor marriage ever took place. There is little proof to suggest that Lord Randolph Churchill was connected to Jack the Ripper in anyway – and yet the existence of the theory is itself a revealing historical event.
Nineteenth century East London was polluted, overpopulated and ravaged by violent crime. It was one of the poorest areas in a country with a clearly demarcated social and class divide, a fundamental sense of disconnection between the working class and the aristocracy. These features of Victorian London were hugely influential on people’s consciousnesses at the time, and also influence the way we remember the period now. Freemason conspiracy theories are in abundance, but tend to follow similar patterns – the wealthy or privileged carrying out clandestine, often malicious actions as a means to preserve their or their acquaintances’ position. At their heart they are fueled by the detachment between different segments of society.
The theory linking Jack the Ripper to Lord Randolph Churchill is unlikely to be true, but it serves to connect modern concerns with historical ones.