- Gavin Whitehead
Master Mason - Michael Maybrick (S1E7)
Updated: Jan 31
Singer and composer Michael Maybrick was the Victorian equivalent of a pop star in 1889 when his older brother, James, died under enigmatic circumstances. In 2015, writer and director Bruce Robinson nominated Michael as the Ripper, based on what he believes happened to James as well as Michael’s involvement in the Freemasons, one of the most secretive and talked-about fraternities in Victorian England. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Eminent Freemason and chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Charles Warren inspects the Goulston Street Graffito. Featured in the October 20, 1888 edition of the Illustrated Police News. Copyright held by The British Library Board.
Photograph of Michael Maybrick. Date of origin and photographer unknown.
This 1808 aquatint by Thomas Rowlandson depicts the interior of a Masonic Hall at Great Queen Street, London. Note the towering pipe organ in the background. Held by Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Accession No. B1977.14.17091.
1889 sketch of Florence Maybrick featured in The Graphic. By the time of its creation, she stood at the center of one of the nineteenth century's most sensational homicide trials.
British artist and card-carrying Freemason William Hogarth made this engraving in 1751. Titled The Reward of Cruelty, it represents the fourth and final plate in his series, The Four Stages of Cruelty. The engraving shows the wretched fate of a condemned criminal after his hanging--disembowelment at the hands of anatomists. By law, medical men could only dissect the bodies of condemned offenders throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--it would have been immoral and egregious to open up law-abiding citizens after they had died, the thinking went. In Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Stephen Knight contends that the Whitechapel murderer was perverting Freemasonic ritual when he eviscerated his victims, an idea rehashed by Bruce Robinson. At one point, Knight suggests that Hogarth was exposing similar rites in Reward of Cruelty. Held by Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Accession No. B1981.25.1443.
Sheet music for The Holy City, with music written by Michael Maybrick under the pseudonym of Stephen Adams and perhaps his most famous composition. Follow the link below to see a modern performance.
LINKS TO MUSIC BY MICHAEL MAYBRICK
"They All Love Jack"
"The Holy City"
---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third Edition. London: Headline, 1996.
---Colquhoun, Kate. Did She Kill Him? A Torrid True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and Murder in Victorian England. New York: Overlook Press, 2014.
---“History and Articles of Masonry,” Saturday Review of Literature, Politics, Science, and Art, (London, England), January 4, 1862.
---Knight, Stephen. Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. New York: McKay, 1976.
---Maybrick, Florence. Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years. New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1905.
---Pink, Andrew. “English Masonic Lodges, Pipe Organs and National History.” Journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies 31, no. 2 (2007): 14-21.
---Robinson, Bruce. They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper. New York: Infinitum Nihil, Harper, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2015.
---Stavish, Mark. The Path of Freemasonry: The Craft as Spiritual Practice. Rochester, V.T.: Inner Traditions, 2021.
---Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
This woman is poisonous, he thought to himself. Singer and composer Michael Maybrick locked eyes with Florence, his sister-in-law, and came out with it: he had strong suspicions about this case. They were standing in the well-appointed morning room of Battlecrease House, the Liverpool residence where Florence and James Maybrick made their home. Michael had never much cared for the mistress of the manor, this Alabaman belle his cotton broker-brother had picked up on a steamer from New York to Liverpool. Now, James was bedridden with an unexplainable ailment, and given the rumors Michael had heard, she could hardly have fallen farther in his estimation. Florence flinched, evidently stung by her brother-in-law’s statement. She had no idea what he was talking about, she responded. James wasn’t recovering, Michael shot back at her, and it was her fault. Had she possessed a less steely disposition, Florence might have broken down at the accusation, might have collapsed onto a sofa, unable to bear it. But she didn’t. If at first fazed by the confrontation, Florence by now had regained her composure. She alone had nursed James, she averred. And who but she, his lawfully wedded wife, had greater right to nurse him? In a matter of days, James would be dead, with foul play suspected. Both Michael and Florence would face allegations of killing Mr. Maybrick at one time or another, but only one of them stood trial for murder.
When his older brother died in 1889, Michael Maybrick was the Victorian equivalent of a pop star, having composed some of the period’s most celebrated ballads. His fame only intensified interest in the trial that followed James’s passing, a cause célèbre that got underneath the public’s skin like few others had in the nineteenth century. In 2015, writer and director Bruce Robinson nominated Michael as a Ripper suspect and he’s also got ideas about what happened to James Maybrick.
Robinson has laid the blame on Michael partly because he held a prominent position in the Freemasons, a brotherhood bound by solemn oath to safeguard its secrets from the uninitiated. In the most gargantuan conspiracy theory we’ve encountered thus far, Robinson contends that Masons past and present have banded together to bury the truth about Jack the Ripper—namely, that the killer belonged to their ranks. This episode, we’ll hear about why the Victorian balladeer has been accused of serial murder, how the Freemasons has gotten wrapped up in the Whitechapel slayings, and what it all has to do with the mysterious death of James Maybrick. This is The Art of Crime, and I'm your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 7 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
Master Mason: Michael Maybrick
Born in the western seaport of Liverpool on January 31, 1841, Michael Maybrick had music in his blood. His father, an engraver by profession, dabbled in composition. His uncle played organ at St. Peter’s church in town, wrote sacred music, and also conducted for Liverpool’s Choral Society. By the age of eight, Michael had already attained proficiency on the piano and before long he’d done the same on the organ, the little boy commanding that behemoth of an instrument. At fourteen, he’d already had one of his compositions performed at London’s storied Covent Garden Opera House, and within a year, he’d been appointed organist at St. Peter’s. Doubtless precocious, Michael was destined for a brilliant career.
In 1865, aged twenty-four, he left home for Leipzig with the intention of mastering keyboard. There, much to his surprise, he realized there that he had long underestimated his singing voice, a supple baritone. Now determined to advance as a vocalist, Michael took a train from Leipzig to Milan, where he studied under an instructor of international renown, Gaetano Nava.
By the early-to-mid-1870s, Michael was back from Italy and headed for the stratosphere as a singer and composer. Something of a Simon in need of his Garfunkel, Michael consolidated a creative partnership with a Bristol-born lawyer by the name of Frederick Weatherly. In most cases, Michael wrote the melodies under the pseudonym of Stephen Adams while Weatherly thought up the lyrics. When it came time to drop a new song, it was Michael who belted it out onstage.
Soon, the duo had won fame and riches. Several of their most beloved hits involved nautical themes. One of them, “Nancy Lee,” sold over 100,000 copies in a span of two years—an unprecedented success. It doesn’t take a degree in advanced musicology to understand why their music was popular. Especially famous for his refrains, Michael could have taught a master class on the art of writing a hook. Radios weren’t blasting in the 1870s, but you still heard his melodies wherever you went. A reporter for the New Era magazine captures the ubiquity of “Nancy Lee”: “Everyone was singing it, humming it, or whistling it in the street, dinned into every ear, morning noon and night. Mr Maybrick has much to answer for in having given forth this inspiration to the world, for it seems to have fallen like a spell on every individual capable of making musical sounds.” A succession of hits followed, including “The Tar’s Farewell,” “The Midshipmite,” and “They All Love Jack.” As the royalties streamed in, Michael and his collaborator made a fortune.
What you're hearing now is a quick extract from "They All Love Jack." You can hear the whole thing on the Art of Crime website.
Good looks have never hurt a pop star’s appeal, and Michael had them in ample supply. Mustachioed, muscular, and six feet tall, he cut an athletic figure and maintained his physique into middle age, yachting, cycling, and frequenting the cricket field.
In short, Michael was the kind of celebrity others of his stature wanted to have around. London’s leading artists enjoyed each other’s company at one of the singer’s favorite haunts, the Café Royal, which Bruce Robinson calls “about as close to Paris as London got.” Oscar Wilde was a habitué, and he would rattle off epigrams like a Gatling gun at one of the café’s marble-top tables, pausing for a sip of exquisite champagne before resuming fire. Wilde was far from the only notable to drop by. An accomplished musician in his own right, Jimmy Glover reminisced, “One sat there night after night, together with every sort of art, genius, and talent, all came to this, at that time, the only real ‘intime’ café in London.” Glover adds of his evenings at the Royal, “I have played dominos with Michael Maybrick, who composed a hundred great songs as Stephen Adams.”
The In-Crowd of all In-Crowds
Like many men of high social standing, Michael also hung out with an in-crowd of a slightly more occult character: the Freemasons. This highly secretive fraternity originated in England, though when precisely is difficult to say. Some histories pinpoint the Brotherhood’s inception to 1717, with the establishment of the Grand Lodge of England. More grandiose theories trace its lineage back to the Middle Ages, the Roman Republic, and even biblical times. Some have even maintained that Masons erected the Tower of Babel. In the beginning, the order is said to have consisted of professional stonemasons, tradesmen who built churches and cathedrals all across Europe. By around the middle of the 1700s, however, it’d transformed into more of a social organization, welcoming members of various professions, and many—if not most—initiates wouldn’t have had a clue as to how to lay a brick.
From the dawn of its recorded history, Freemasonry has been a mystical order with high-minded ideals. In his book, The Path of Freemasonry, Mark Stavish explains the society’s core tenets. The Brotherhood defines itself as “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” Its primary objective is “to make good men better,” to build them into superior beings through fraternity, philosophy, and charity. Such edified individuals are then expected to better society. The Craft’s activities are founded on a complex system of symbols, customs, and rituals, most of which derive from scriptural references to the construction of the Temple of Solomon in ancient Jerusalem, Masonry’s own unique mythology, and the handed-down traditions of medieval trade guilds.
If this sounds a bit abstract, that’s largely because the Brotherhood is shrouded in mystery. Outsiders have little insight into Masonry, and initiates are prohibited from letting them in on it. In fact, they agree to suffer horrendous violence should they betray the secrets of the Brotherhood. In Michael Maybrick’s lifetime, most people were cognizant that the Masons were out there, not least because many of the Victorian Establishment’s most prominent representatives were known to be members. For example, the Prince of Wales, later to reign as King Edward VII, held the fancy title of Worshipful Grand Master. Still, what happened in Masonry stayed in Masonry. You knew who they were but not what they did. On January 4, 1862, a writer for the Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art described the strange state of affairs this way: “We know everything about Freemasonry except what Freemasonry is.”
Masonry and Music
The Brotherhood might have attracted Michael and others of his vocation at least partly because music had long enlivened its private and occasionally public activities. In the organization’s early days, members held lodge meetings in the upper rooms of a tavern or perhaps in a coffee house. These gatherings incorporated the singing of songs, usually a cappella. In his article, “English Masonic Lodges, Pipe Organs and National Heritage,” Andrew Pink notes that the fraternity made use of marching bands in honor of freshly elected Grand Masters. On these occasions, Masons processed through the streets of Westminster and the City of London to the annual Grand Feast, to the delight (and perhaps annoyance) of passersby.
Over time, the pip organ became a fixture of the Masonic meeting-place. Toward the end of the 1700s, lodges had begun to convene not in taverns or coffee houses but instead in regional, purpose-built halls. A pipe organ could easily be installed at the time of construction. At first, this instrument served more of a commercial purpose than it would later. Like most other people, Freemasons had bills to pay. A lodge could rent out its hall to, say, a musical society in need of a space with an organ on site.
Every organ needed an organist, not just someone who could play the instrument but someone who could also lead other members in song. From the turn of the 1800s, Freemasonic organists shaped the content of the order’s musical offerings. In many cases, they had learned their way around a keyboard in religious environments. For this reason, Christian hymns, psalms, and other sacred music comprised a fair portion of Masonic melodies.
Michael was no ordinary Mason precisely because he was no ordinary musician. When it came to the organ, he was a maestro. In 1889, he received the title of Grand Organist, thereby becoming the most eminent instrumentalist in London Freemasonry. He inherited the title from superstar-composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.
By 1889, then, Michael had achieved tremendous recognition not only as a musician but also as a Mason. That same year, he would step into a murder mystery that would tarnish the name Maybrick and perhaps even alter the course of his career.
The Maybrick Affair
“Come quick. Strange things are going on here.” One Wednesday morning in May 1889, Michael received this message from Matilda Briggs, a Liverpool neighbor of his older brother, James. As Michael was aware, James had taken ill in the past week or so. Whatever was “going on,” Mrs. Briggs’ telegram didn’t bode well, and Michael likely assumed that James’s condition had worsened. The singer canceled whatever plans he may have had and booked it to Liverpool on an express train.
Edwin Maybrick, Michael’s younger brother, collected him at the station. As they drove to Battlecrease House, James’s estate, Edwin filled Michael in on the case. Their sister-in-law, Florence, had bought flypapers and left them to soak in a chemical solution, intended for use as a facial cleanser. This admixture contained a small amount of arsenic. Perhaps surprisingly, Victorians used this dangerous substance for a variety of everyday applications, including cosmetics. So long as they were careful, there was no need to fret.
At first, Florence’s facewash seemed more or less innocuous. Everything changed a day or two before Michael rushed to his brother’s bedside. Alice Yapp, the Maybricks’ nursemaid, went for a stroll with their daughter, Gladys. As they were leaving, Florence entrusted Yapp with a letter and asked her to mail it. The missive was addressed to a young colleague of James’s, a six-foot, broad-shouldered cotton broker of twenty-seven years called Alfred Brierley. His name alone would have stirred the nursemaid’s curiosity. Earlier that year, James had seen Florence walking with Brierley, arm-in-arm. That same day, James flew into a fury, quarreling with Florence in front of the servants and even striking her across the face. Yapp would have wondered why Mrs. Maybrick was writing to Mr. Brierley, especially with her husband laid up in bed.
While Yapp was taking the letter into town, it “just so happened” to fall in a puddle, sullying the envelope. The nursemaid could have purchased a replacement envelope at the post office, written Brierley’s address on it, and placed the soiled envelope inside, unopened. There was certainly no need to do what she did. She picked up the fallen stationary, broke the seal, and pulled out its contents. Scanning the letter, she immediately caught sight of its opening word, “Dearest!” which was punctuated passionately with an exclamation mark. It was as if this communication had come straight from the pages of a sensation novel. It was nothing short of scandalous for a married woman to address any man other than her husband as “Dearest."
Yapp now had all the material she needed for her fancy to run amok. The makings of a murder plot suddenly became clear to her, and only she had the power to thwart it. Yapp was certain that James had taken a turn for the worse in the past few days because Florence had been lacing his meals with arsenic derived from her flypapers. She wanted him dead so she could shack up with Brierley—it made perfect sense. Thoroughly appalled and no less thrilled by her own deductions, Yapp presented them, along with the letter, to Edwin, who in turn communicated the theory to Michael.
No sooner had Michael crossed the threshold of Battlecrease House than he took control of the situation. He alone would confer with James’s doctors. His brother’s condition had grown worse. Among other symptoms, his throat was prickling with an ulcer, and he complained of searing pain in his lower abdomen. The physicians diagnosed him with dyspepsia, caused by an inflammation of the stomach. Begging to differ, Michael offered his own diagnosis, accusing Florence of poisoning his brother. This allegation took the doctors aback, and they cautioned Michael against jumping to conclusions. When he hinted at Florence’s overfamiliarity with Brierley, however, they started whistling a different tune. Maybe they had better run a few tests.
In seeing fit to share these suspicions with medical professionals, Michael lent credence—or at least appeared to lend credence—to Yapp’s hunch. Thing were not looking great for Florence.
The doctors examined James’s urine and feces and were relieved to report they hadn’t discovered any traces of poison. However, the afternoon of May 11 brought more unsettling findings. One of the medical men had tested a bottle of meat juice Florence was known to have handled, and it did contain poison. Incandescent, Michael banished her from her husband’s sickroom. Whether she was by his bedside or not, it had become clear there was no saving James. His pulse had slowed, and he rambled, delirious. At around 8:30 p.m. that day, James faded away, aged fifty-one.
Grief and shock mingled with horror after the autopsy. A small amount of arsenic, less than two grains, had turned up in his system. An inquest was held and a verdict of willful murder reached. Like many others, the police eyed the widow as the likeliest culprit and charged her with the crime. The nation looked on as Florence Maybrick went to trial at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool.
Disorder in the Court
The prosecution needed to prove that Florence had murdered James by arsenical poisoning, and they wouldn’t have an easy time of it. James’s body had contained less than two grains—an amount most considered insufficient to kill—but that was only part of it. As became evident, James was an addict, and his drug of choice was none other than arsenic. Many Victorians knew that when consumed in tiny quantities, this colorless, flavorless, and odorless substance provided a high. James treated it much like a condiment, adding it to his food, his wine, and his tea. No wonder he was in and out of the apothecary all day. “He used to call continually at my shop,” a Liverpool druggist recalled, “sometimes four or five times a day for what he called his ‘pick-me-up,’ but which was liquid arsenicalis.” So, James’s autopsy found less than what many deemed the minimal lethal dosage of arsenic in his system. Moreover, he could have stomached more than most because he had built up tolerance by feeding his addiction. On top of it all, experts couldn’t reach a consensus as to whether he had shown symptoms of arsenical poisoning before or after his death.
That James had taken a vast assortment of other foreign substances only further muddied the waters. His dangerous drug habit notwithstanding, he was an inveterate hypochondriac, often purchasing new medications in hope they would cure this or that imagined malady. At the time of his death, he could have stocked a small pharmacy, with 163 medicine bottles scattered between his office and home. Had James’s obsessive self-medication contributed to his illness?
Or had his doctors offed him without meaning to? In the days leading up to his demise, after all, they had prescribed nearly two dozen poison irritants as part of his treatment.
As the trial progressed, one irrefutable truth shone through: Florence had done more than pen sweet nothings to Alfred Brierley. Florence had grown sick unto death of her husband long before he’d battered her, not least because he appeared to have been cheating on her. She had resolved to file for divorce and also arranged an out-of-town tryst. On March 21, a little over a month before Yapp went snooping around in her mail, Florence took a train into London, disembarking at Euston Station and heading from there to Flatman’s hotel, nestled in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. There, she rendezvoused with dearest Mr. Brierley. The hotel staff knew him as Mr. Thomas Maybrick, however, because that was the name that Florence gave them while booking their rooms. As far as they could tell, she was staying there with her spouse. After a private dinner, Florence had fallen asleep in the arms of this younger, comelier, more tender Mr. Maybrick—a much-needed respite from her passionless marriage.
This London dalliance came up again and again throughout the courtroom proceedings. Michael testified that his brother died without knowledge of his wife’s infidelity. In a prewritten statement, hotly anticipated by the general public, Florence set the record straight. She got to her feet in the dock, tearful and wan, her gloved hand clutching a rail for support. In a disclosure that knocked the wind out of the courtroom, she declared that on the eve of her husband’s passing, before Michael banished her from his sickbed, she made a “full and free confession and received his entire forgiveness for the fearful wrong I had done him.” It took extraordinary audacity to admit to her adultery in public, and Florence would have done so unsure whether it would work for or her or against her.
Judge Fitzjames Stephen, father of James Kenneth Stephen, whom we discussed in episode 5 of this season, presided over the trial. Fitzjames’s summation permanently tarnished his reputation. Like some kind of death march, it dragged on for two days, clocking in at twelve hours. On day two of his confusing, confused, and prejudicial monologue, Stephen appeared to advise the jury to disregard the overwhelming scientific uncertainty surrounding James’s death and to focus instead on the circumstantial evidence against the defendant. Later that day, Stephen’s blood came to an instantaneous boil as he launched into a tirade about what he termed Florence’s “disgrace.” Her affair with Brierley would have given her motive to kill, he contended, and if she could stoop as low as adultery, who was to say she would stop at murder?
When his dreary rant had come to an end, the jurymen rose and exited the chamber.
Despite Judge Stephen’s out-of-line diatribe, many observers expected an acquittal. Surely, the contradictory medical testimony provided room for reasonable doubt. Forty-three minutes after the jurors had departed, they filed back in and blew these predictions to smithereens. They found Florence guilty of murder.
In the eyes of many commentators, Florence had stood trial for flouting the norms of womanhood and wifehood more than anything else. According to Kate Calquhuon, author of Did She Kill Him?, Florence’s story riled up the nation the way it did because it’d touched multiple nerves at once, laying bare the disappointment felt by many married women and the Victorians’ hypocritical readiness to condemn adulterous wives while shrugging off the misdeeds of a wayward husband. The trial caused even greater agitation because it’d taken place amid a climate of enormous political and social change, when a new breed of women was striving for opportunities to lead a more fulfilling life in the modern world. I’ve only scratched the surface of the case’s significance, and if you want to know more, I highly recommend Calquhuon’s book.
After the verdict, Florence prepared to hang by the neck. Men and women on either side of the Atlantic were outraged by this flagrant miscarriage of justice. The morning of Florence’s scheduled execution, she received word that her sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment. She was released after fifteen years of miserable confinement—a too-little-too-late acknowledgement that Florence should never have gone to prison in the first place. Later, she moved to the state of Connecticut, where she died in poverty.
At the time of her sentencing, Michael expressed a fervent wish for her life to be spared. His wish came true, but who was he kidding? He denounced Florence as a scheming murderer even while his brother was clinging to life. Thanks to his testimony, he helped send his sister-in-law to trial, knowing full well that a noose could be waiting if she were convicted. He had played his part in her utter ruination.
As Bruce Robinson would have it, Michael had done worse than facilitate Florence’s downfall. In a sense, Robinson is a Master Mason in his own right. In his 2015 book, They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, he constructs a conspiracy theory more titanic than any we’ve encountered thus far this season. His argument unfolds over 800 pages of miniscule print, two appendices included, so it’s no simple task to scale it down to a size appropriate for a single podcast episode. Here’s a basic blueprint. Think of Robinson’s theory as a bridge connecting James Maybrick’s death with the Whitechapel homicides. The structure rests upon three large pillars: First, Michael’s hatred of Florence; second, his eminence as a Freemason; third, his alleged association with a controversial document known as the diary of Jack the Ripper. Only by isolating each of these pillars and looking at them carefully can we understand how they prop up Robinson’s reasoning. For the time being, we’ve said enough about the first pillar, Michael’s flaming loathing for Florence. Now, let’s move on to Pillar Number Two. Why would Michael’s involvement in Freemasonry implicate him in the Whitechapel nightmare?
Robinson’s book is not the first to cry foul of the Masons. That distinction belongs to Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight, first published in 1976, which names Walter Sickert as an accomplice to the crimes. Robinson has read Knight and recycles many of his key points. For this reason, over the next few minutes, I’m going to talk about both their books.
We begin with blood that was shed in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago—at least according to Masonic legend. Our tale revolves around Hiram Abiff, the brilliant master builder who oversaw the construction of King Solomon’s Temple. Light and shadow danced on walls of pure gold as lamps flickered inside. Outside stood two pillars known as Jachin and Boaz, said to have measured six feet thick by twenty-seven feet tall, cast from bronze by Hiram Abiff. Envious of his genius and wrathful when he refused to share his occult knowledge with them, three lowly craftsmen, Jubea, Jubelo, and Jubelum slew the great architect. When Solomon learned of their transgression, he had them hunted down and hauled before him, doling out punishments of, well, biblical severity. Each would have his throat cut and suffer his own unique bodily mutilations. Most germane are those of Jubelo. “Vile and impious wretch,” Solomon declared to him, “It is my order that you be taken without the gates of the Temple, and have your left breast torn open, your heart and vitals taken from thence and thrown over your left shoulder, and carried to the valley of Jehosaphat, there to become prey to the wild beasts of the field, and vultures of the air.”
As Robinson would later, Knight sees parallels between the assassins’ executions and the Whitechapel homicides. Like Hiram’s killers, all five victims had their throats slashed. More specifically, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes had their entrails removed and thrown over one shoulder in what both regard as a conscious imitation of Jubelo’s penalty.
Masonic Plots and a Viennese Detour
So, according to Knight and Robinson, Jack was riffing on Freemasonic ritual when he mutilated his victims. These two authors also contend that more than one Freemason could tell that the killer was a fellow Brother and did everything in their power to prevent the public from discovering the truth.
As Knight points out, conspiratorial murder had been attributed to Masons before. According to some, adherents of the Craft did away with a composer of even greater esteem than Michael Maybrick. He’s been dead for 230-odd years, but I’m willing to wager you know his name because it was Mozart. On December 5, 1791, the prodigy succumbed to a mysterious, months-long ailment at, only thirty-five years old. Since then, commentators have advanced more than 100 theories about what killed him. At the time of his death, the rumor mill was running at peak productivity almost as soon as the composer was in the ground. It was whispered that someone had poisoned him. According to an early biographer, Franz Niemetschek, Mozart himself even entertained this notion in his final days. Morbid paranoia might account for these fears, but conspiracy theorists have linked the possibility of murder by poison to Freemasonry. Like many Austrian courtiers in the late eighteenth century, Mozart had sworn the Brotherhood’s oaths, and his commitment to the fraternity resounds throughout his music. Just months before dying, he completed “The Freemason Cantata,” celebrating a temple that Mozart’s lodge had opened. He also conducted the Viennese premiere of The Magic Flute, an opera replete with Freemasonic symbolism. The conspiracy theorists hold that Mozart ran afoul of the Brotherhood by revealing its secrets in The Magic Flute. Thus, the composer was taken out.
Such a plot is feasible because of certain oaths that Masons take, at least according to Knight. After ascending to the lofty rung of Royal Arch Mason, Knight explains, members make a series of disturbing vows. To begin with, they pledge, “a companion Royal Arch Mason’s secrets, given me in charge as such, and I knowing them to be such, shall remain as secure and inviolable in my breast as in his own, murder and treason not exempted.” In addition, they swear, “that I will aid and assist a Royal Arch Mason, when engaged in any difficulty, and espouse his cause, so far as to extricate him from the same, if in my power, whether he be right or wrong.” Knight would have us believe that where Royal Arch Masons are concerned, it’s against the rules not to participate in a conspiratorial cover-up when a Brother of that rank is running around town committing serial murder.
The Writing on the Wall
In the context of Whitechapel, Knight sees evidence of a cover-up in one policeman’s handling of “the most conclusive proof of all that the murders were Masonic.”
It was 2:55 in the morning. Alfred Long was patrolling his beat in Goulston Street, Whitechapel, when he spied a scrap of clothing lying on the ground. He may not have given it a second thought were it not for twelve words chalked in white on the black brick wall almost directly above it, near an open doorway leading to the basement of Nos. 108-19. The vandal had written with a schoolboy’s labored neatness. In the days and years to come, there’d be disagreement as to what precisely the message said. At present, however, it’s generally accepted that it read as follows: “The Juwes are the men That Will not be blamed for Nothing,” with “Jews” misspelled as “J-U-W-E-S.”
Unbeknownst to Long, about seventy minutes before this curious discovery, a policeman had stumbled upon Catherine Eddowes’ corpse in Mitre Square. The authorities would soon learn where the discarded tatter beneath the graffito had come from: it’d been torn from the apron that Eddowes was wearing at the time of her death and was smeared with her blood. The Ripper had passed through Goulston Street.
The location of Eddowes’ corpse vis-à-vis the graffito resulted in something of a jurisdictional snafu. On the one hand, Eddowes died just inside the limits of the City of London, the capital’s chief financial district. The City of London had long enjoyed its own separate police force, simply called the City Police. On the other hand, the writing on the wall was found outside the City of London, under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police.
When the Acting Commissioner of the City Police, Major Henry Smith, caught wind of the Goulston Street graffito, he suspected that the killer might have written it while making his escape. Smith authorized officers to photograph the message.
Meanwhile, Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Charles Warren was speeding to Whitechapel, roused from bed by word of the double homicide (Elisabeth Stride had perished the same night). According to Robinson, who has lifted this idea straight out of Knight, when Warren stepped out of his carriage onto Goulston Street, he took one look at the chalk inscription and immediately discerned its Masonic significance. Warren was one of the most learned Freemasons in Britain. As Robinson stresses over and over again, he had even taken part in an archaeological excavation of the Temple of Solomon. It was only natural for a Mason of Warren’s knowledge to zero in on the spelling of “Juwes,” “J-U-W-E-S.” Tipped off by the “J-U” at the beginning of this word, Warren concluded that it could only refer to the three craftsmen, Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum, all of whose names begin with “J-U.” They, of course, cut down Hiram Abiff, the masterful architect of King Solomon’s Temple. Like Knight before him, Robinson argues that with this inscription the Ripper was announcing his Masonic affiliation to the entire metropolis. Warren recognized as much and considered it his duty to protect his fellow Brother by undermining the investigation.
These, I hasten to add, are Knight and Robinson’s interpretations of Warren’s thought process. What happened next is undisputed fact.
Warren forbade City policemen to photograph the writing on the wall. They were on his turf, so what he said went. An officer at the scene copied the message down in his notebook. Warren ordered another policeman who was standing at the ready with a sponge to wipe the wall clean. In doing so, he obliterated what many commentators—past and present—have regarded as the one and only tangible clue the Ripper ever left before it could be photographed.
Why the Masonic Conspiracy Theory is Probably Wrong
Most Ripper authorities have laughed off the notion of a Masonic plot to conceal the murderer’s identity.
Some have chalked the allegedly Freemasonic mutilations up to mere coincidence. Philip Sugden notes in The Complete History of Jack the Ripper that Chapman and Eddowes’ injuries differ slightly from those of Jubelo. The Whitechapel knifeman had deposited their intestines, not their hearts and other vitals contained in their chest, above their right shoulders, not their left. Attaching no particular significance to this act, Sugden supplies a perfectly plausible—and purely pragmatic—explanation. The killer could have knelt to the right of Chapmen or Eddowes’ body with the knife in his right hand. In this case, he may well have have lifted out the entrails using his left, which would have been free. Alternatively, I would add, he could have put away his blade and used his right hand. At any rate, assuming he had positioned himself to the right of the corpse, the shoulder on that side would have been closer than the one on the other, and the area right above it would have made as suitable a place as any to put what he was holding.
As for the message on Goulston Street: there’s much disagreement as to what it means, but most have dismissed the Masonic reading as implausible, partly because “Juwes” was not in use as shorthand for the assassins of Hiram Abiff. But what was the message trying to say about Jews? Was it laying blame on them? If so, for what? The Whitechapel atrocities? Did it mean to suggest that the Ripper was Jewish? Or, conversely, was it exonerating the Jews of any wrongdoing? Did the Whitechapel slasher even write the message? Or had some other hand done it, in which case the Ripper might have simply stopped to examine it while fleeing?
Whoever had defaced the wall, police on the scene believed the writing to have been hostile toward Jews. Warren is said to have had it erased because he feared it would cause an anti-Semitic riot, a rationale that many have called into question, partly because the Metropolitan Police had a checkered history with Jews in the neighborhood, to put it mildly.
The Diary of Jack the Ripper
That about does it for Pillar Number Two in Robinson’s argument: the Ripper’s alleged affiliation with the Freemasonry. Now it’s time for the third: Michael’s supposed connection with the diary of Jack the Ripper.
In 1992, an unemployed scrap metal dealer named Michael Barrett brought a curious document to Doreen Montgomery of Ruper Crew Literary Agency. It was a journal—or a scrapbook, more precisely—sixty-three pages written by hand, the first forty-eight of which had been excised with a knife. Jumbled and rambling, it purported to chronicle the mental breakdown of a man driven mad with jealousy over his unfaithful wife. In his crazed state, he carries out the Whitechapel murders. On the final page, the author signs off with, “I give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentle man born. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” Researchers reckoned that if they could ascertain who wrote this scrapbook, they could work out who committed the Whitechapel spree. Lucky for them, the text gave them just enough clues to arrive at the answer. The adulterous wife was key to the solution, as were several other details. The author of the scrapbook was none other than James Maybrick, or at least it seemed that way. In the years to come, he would emerge as a serious Ripper suspect.
At first, Barrett claimed to have inherited this century-old artifact from a friend at a pub. Later, his estranged wife, Anne, contradicted this story, saying that she had given it on to him. According to Anne, she’d first flipped through it in 1968 as a teenager. At that time, it belonged to her family, and in the late ’80s, she took possession of it, a version of events confirmed by her father. Knowing that Michael Barrett aspired to become a writer, Anne had passed the diary on, hoping it would spur his imagination toward a story. As if these conflicting accounts weren’t bewildering enough, Barrett added another piece to the puzzle. He admitted to having forged the entire document only for his solicitor to make a follow-up statement instructing everyone to ignore his confession. Still, the document went to press in 1993, under the title of The Diary of Jack the Ripper, edited and introduced by Shirley Harrison.
Ripperologists descended on the volume like sharks on a wounded elephant seal. In evaluating this document’s authenticity, Rippperology brought the brightest minds from some of academia’s darker recesses to bear on the issue, calling in experts from fields of study I didn’t know existed—Paper Science being the one that most delighted me. The tests have resulted in a tangled mess of contradictory views. Many—maybe most—regard the scrapbook as a hoax, though its date of origin is uncertain. Some consider it a late-twentieth-century forgery while others have speculated that it could have been fabricated much earlier, even as early as 1890. Others insist on its authenticity.
Robinson is one of them. In making his case for its genuineness, he places a minute detail underneath a microscope. This all-important clue derives from a line of doggerel verse in the scrapbook. Referring to the murders of Stride and Eddowes, the nonsense poetry reads as follows: “One whore no good, decided Sir Jim strike another / I showed no fright, and indeed no light. / Damn it, the tin box was empty.” The salient line is “Damn it, the tin box is empty,” which has leapt off the page for Robinson because it appears to contain knowledge only a contemporary of the killer could possess. At around the time of Eddowes’ autopsy, officials made a list of her personal effects. Among them was a “Tin Matchbox Empty.” The public hadn’t been aware of this detail until 1987, when Ripper guru Donald Rumbelow uncovered the original list in the City of London archives. Following in the footsteps of Ripper writer Martin Fido, Robinson argues, “If whoever wrote the scrapbook had means of knowing about the ‘Tin Matchbox Empty’ contemporaneously with the Ripper, then it is genuine, and has an unimpeachable association with the name Maybrick.” Robinson does identify what he regards as an unimpeachable association with the name Maybrick, just not with James. If you ask him, Michael wrote it.
A Frame-Up for a Frame-Up
With that, we’ve established the three pillars of Robinson’s argument. Now, at long last, we can begin to wrap our heads around his case against Michael Maybrick.
Let’s start with motive. Over the course of this season, Ripper suspects have supposedly murdered their victims for reasons of profound personal, professional, and even political significance. Willy Clarkson killed to conceal his part in a blackmail racket, one that if exposed could have cost him his appointment as Royal Perruquier and Costumier. James Kenneth Stephen murdered to spite the royal family for standing between him and his beloved former pupil, Prince Eddy. Sir William Gull, Walter Sickert, and their coachman John Netley kidnapped a band of Whitechapel extortionists who were butchered by Gull in the name of national security, keeping Prince Eddy’s illicit marriage under wraps.
Next to these, Michael Maybrick’s alleged motive for murder is so mundane it almost hurts. He hated his sister-in-law. Like, a lot. As her friends and family knew, Florence was a spendthrift, and by the middle of 1888, she had racked up a mountain of debts, forcing her to seek loans from Michael, among others. Robinson claims that Michael, even though he needed the money himself, spotted Florence £100, a hefty sum in the Victorian period. According to Robinson, making this loan filled Michael with such overwhelming, uncontainable rage, he sharpened the nearest knife and headed straight for Whitechapel. The women he preyed upon were surrogates for Florence, enabling Michael to act out a fantasy of murdering her.
Robinson produces a Ripper letter seldom cited by other writers as proof of this claim. It says, “When I was in San Francisco in July 1888, I lent three women from London about 100 pounds sterling to pay some debts they had got into, promising to pay me back in a months time, and seeing that they had a ladylike look I lent the money.” The agreed-upon date of reimbursement came and went without the debtors’ paying their dues. “I swore that i would have my revenge, the revenge was this. That I would go to London and kill as many women as possible.” In a stunning display of analytical calisthenics, Robinson stretches and bends this letter’s content to bring it in line with his theory about Michael’s loan to Florence. The Ripper is playing a Funny Little Game, Robinson explains, in which the killer never means exactly what he says. Michael’s letter converts his single debtor--that is, Florence--into three and furthermore hints at Florence’s American origins with a sly allusion to San Francisco. Robinson posits, “I think this text is about as near to a confession of motive as we’re ever going to get.”
Unlike the vast majority of researchers, Robinson maintains that “much” of the Ripper correspondence is legitimate, regardless of disparities in handwriting, spelling, ink, and paper. Letters came to London from all over England not because far-flung hoaxers had put them in the mail, Robinson explains, but rather because Michael was a traveling singer, covering hundreds upon hundreds of miles on tour. In other words, the killer’s métier would have enabled him to post his taunting dispatches from all across the country.
So, the Ripper was livid over £100 he had lent to his in-law—that much is clear. But why did he make a mockery of Masonic my while carving up his victims? Robinson never provides a straightforward answer, other than to intimate that Michael secretly hated all of Freemasonry. Like, a lot.
As we’ve seen already, They All Love Jack rehashes many of The Final Solution’s arguments about the Ripper’s Masonic ties. Yet compared to Knight, Robinson enlarges the scale of the cover-up. It wasn't just Royal ArchMasons who helped out. If I had to make a conservative estimate, Robinson names between one and two dozen conspirators, many of them involved in policing or the justice system. These colluders variously destroyed evidence, ignored important leads, and fabricated red herrings to conceal the killer’s identity. The confederates include chief police commissioner Sir Charles Warren, chief inspector Donald Swanson, Whitechapel coroner Wynne Edwin Baxter, police surgeon Dr. George Bagster Philips, and medical student Thomas Openshaw, to list but a few. Countless other bad actors are assumed to have chipped in, even when Robinson cannot put a name to them. The lying continues to this very day. Freemasonry has what Robinson calls “[a]n ethos of institutionalised deceit,” whereby it denies any link to the Ripper. If at the time of the killings it had let the truth out, Robinson argues, the entire fraternity would have come under fire. And since Freemasonry was more or less synonymous with the Victorian establishment, all the powers that be would have, too. They all loved Jack, Robinson quips, borrowing his title from a song by Michael. The system protected him to protect itself.
After carrying out the Whitechapel murders (plus a few others along the way), Michael needed someone to pin them on. So why not James? Robinson never explains why Michael’s brother made the most opportune patsy, but here’s what happened, according to him.
At some point, Michael authored the diary of Jack the Ripper, framing his brother as the Whitechapel murderer.
Aided by Edwin, his younger brother, the singer poisoned James. Robinson bases this claim in part on the testimony of a twenty-year-old felon named Robert Edward Reeves, who had been in and out of prison and also deserted Her Majesty’s Liverpool Regiment. Under cover of darkness one night, Reeves claimed to have been lurking around Liverpool, keeping an eye out for a purse to plunder, when he happened to overhear a conversation between Edwin and Michael. As Reeve would have it, the two were talking over a dastardly scheme to knock off James with laudanum (not arsenic), assuming that blame would fall on Florence. It seems not to strike Robinson as dubious that the Maybrick brothers were openly discussing their machinations in public, nor does his star witness’s dishonorable past raise questions about his credibility.
To be fair, Michael did look shady to some of his contemporaries. One of them even said so in print. On August 15, 1889, The Manchester Courier published a letter from a Mr. R.E. Muckley, in which the author all but accuses the singer-songwriter of homicide. He points out that Michael had access to James in the lead-up to his death, that he made questionable choices about his brother’s treatment (including the administration of an unprescribed pill), that he had taken charge of the bulk of James’s assets, and that on top of it all he loathed his sister-in-law, who he made sure was charged with the murder. Michael threatened a lawsuit, and Muckley piped down.
Once Michael had framed James as the Ripper and done him to death, the singer faced yet another conundrum. He needed a fall-man for James’s murder—or a fall-woman, to be more accurate. He incriminated Florence, watching her tried and then convicted. Robinson claims that Florence’s lawyer, Charles Russell, a card-carrying Mason, bungled her defense on purpose, somehow understanding that one of his brethren had set her up. With his much-reviled sister-in-law finally behind bars, the Ripper had finished his Funny Little Game.
Triumph and Retreat
So much for Robinson. The controversy surrounding Florence's tral and the resulting notriety of the name Maybrick may have brought about major changes in Michael's career. Again under the pseudonym of Stephen Adams, he came out with one of his best-loved songs, “The Holy City,” still performed today. I’ll play an excerpt now, and there’s a link to a video in the show notes. Curiously, Michael followed up his soaring triumph with a swift retreat. It was at this moment, when the singer was at the top of his game, that he retired from public performance. He would never cease to compose, but he would no longer grace London, the provinces, or anywhere else with his honeyed baritone. Instead, he withdrew to the village of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, located in the English Channel, having tied the knot with his forty-year-old housekeeper, Laura Withers, on March 9, 1893. After relocating, Michael took an interest in civic affairs and was elected mayor of Ryde five times.
In conversation with her fellow inmates, Florence cursed Michael as her “bitter enemy,” perhaps believing that her brother-in-law was spiting her even as she languished in prison. Consider what happened with her children. Michael and Laura would never raise a brood of their own, but the singer took at least partial responsibility for the wellbeing of Florence’s orphaned son and daughter, James and Gladys. He arranged for them to live with his London physician, Dr. Charles Fuller, making a yearly payment of £100 to help fund their upbringing. Throughout the early years of Florence’s imprisonment, another Maybrick brother, Thomas, sent annual letters which included photographs of her boy and girl. Among the most treasured contents in her tiny cell, these pictures to some degree enabled Florence to watch her children grow from afar. Then, one year, without explanation, the pictures came to a sudden stop. In her 1905 memoirs, Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story, Florence reveals that Michael wrote a letter to the prison governor “to inform me that my son did not wish either his own or his sister’s photograph to be sent to me.” James Jr. was twelve at the time, and it may have struck Florence as strange for the boy—not his adoptive father or even his Uncle Thomas—to have made this decision. At any rate, this explanation wouldn’t have tallied entirely with Thomas’s reason for why the photographs stopped coming. Judging from a letter he sent to her, James wasn’t the one who did the protesting: “Mr. Michael Maybrick refused to permit it.” It was as if Michael were reaching his hands through the bars of her solitary cell to needle her where it hurt most.
Michael Maybrick is the last of our six unusual suspects. Next episode, we’ll wrap things up and consider what we’ve learned about the Whitechapel homicides and the theories they've inspired. We'll also answer one burning question: Why have so many artists been suspected of these crime?