Master of Disguise: Willy Clarkson (S1E2)
Updated: Jan 31
For decades, Willy Clarkson reigned as London’s most famous theatrical wigmaker and costume designer. Also renowned as a master of disguise, he did business with countless customers intent on concealing their identities. According to Clarkson’s early biographer, Jack the Ripper was one of them. However, documentarian P. William Grimm has recently argued that Clarkson and Jack were one and the same person. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Photograph of Willy Clarkson. July 3, 1931. Copyright held by National Portrait Gallery, London. Catalogue No. NPGx83658.
Early twentieth-century portrait of Willy Clarkson. Copyright held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In many respects, the French elevated wig-making to the level of an art form. Taken from Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia, this page illustrates various tools used for carding hair and then weaving it into tresses, techniques that Clarkson no doubt employed.
As the autumn of terror wore on, police grew more resourceful in their hunt for Jack the Ripper. Apart from resorting to the occasional disguise, they experimented with bloodhounds Barnaby and Burgho to see if they could be used to track the killer. Taken from the October 20, 1888 edition of the Illustrated Police News, this illustration depicts the trial of three hounds. Copyright held by The British Library Board.
The cover of an early twentieth-century German dime novel pitting Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, titled How Jack the Ripper was Caught. As discussed in this episode, disguise played a two-sided role in the Whitechapel murders. On the one hand, some Victorians believed the killer was altering his appearance while committing his crimes. On the other hand, journalists as well as agents of justice--both professional and vigilante-disguised themselves while pursuing the miscreant. We find a similar dynamic in this dime novel. The Ripper wears false whiskers to conceal his identity while Sherlock Holmes dresses as a woman to entrap the murderer. The cover depicts Holmes in a wig and a skirt.
Martha Tabram died at the hands of an unidentified knifeman on August 7, 1888 in Whitechapel. Though Tabram is not one of the canonical Ripper victims, many researchers view her murder as possibly the Ripper's first. Taken from the August 18, 1888 edition of the Illustrated Police News, this series of pictures shows the events leading up to Tabram's murder as well as the discovery of her body at the George Yard Buildings.
---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third
Edition. London: Headline, 1996.
---Booth, Michael, ed. Victorian Theatrical Trades: Articles from the Stage, 1883-1884. London: Society for Theatre Research, 1981.
---Greenwall, Harry. The Strange Life of Willy Clarkson: An Experiment in Biography. London: J. Long, 1936.
---Grimm, P. William. The Wigmaker of Wellington Street. Gray Sky Records, 2019.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_2mEYyFGZ0&t=3s.
---Jenkin, Roger. The Wig-making Clarksons: In Search of their Lives and Times. Elms Court, Ilfracombe, Devon: A.H. Stockwell, 1982.
---“London’s Perruquiers: A Chat with Willy Clarkson.” Era (London, England),
Nov. 10, 1900.
---McDonald, Deborah. The Prince, His Tutor, and the Ripper: The Evidence Linking James Kenneth Stephen to the Whitechapel Murders. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2007.
---McLaren, Angus. “Smoke and Mirrors: Willy Clarkson and the Role of Disguises in Inter-war England.” Journal of Social History 40, no. 3 (2007): 597-618.
---Schoch, Richard. Queen Victoria and the Theatre of Her Age. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
---Snedden, Christopher. Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
---Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
One autumn morning in 1888, a detective paid a visit to Britain’s best-known costume and wig shop. Situated at 45 Wellington Street in Central London, the establishment belonged to Willy Clarkson. Upon entering, the policeman passed between show-cases filled with wigs of every shape, size, and color and proceeded past a portrait gallery honoring the kings and queens of London theater. Introducing himself as an officer of the law, he requested an interview with the owner, a stocky fellow with gingery whiskers, aged twenty-seven. Inside Clarkson’s private office, the lawman opened a bag he had brought with him and pulled out a curly, light-brown wig. Without explanation, the policeman asked if it’d come from Clarkson’s workshop. On inspection, the wigmaker recognized it as one of his own. The officer then inquired if Clarkson could locate a bill of sale for the wig, hoping to see who had purchased it. The proprietor and his team searched high and low without success—there was simply no record of who had bought the hairpiece. When Clarkson asked why they had gone to such trouble, the officer’s answer took him aback. The owner of this wig was a person of interest in a murder investigation. Police recovered it from Dutfield’s Yard on Berner Street, Whitechapel, where a man named Louis Diemschutz had stumbled across Elisabeth Stride’s body in the early morning of September 30. The Ripper, it was thought, had left the wig behind as he made his escape. Bent on looking like somebody else while wielding his knife, London’s most infamous serial killer appeared to have done business with its most famous wigmaker.
Clarkson’s friend, Harry Greenwall, tells this story in his gossipy and occasionally unreliable biography, The Strange Life of Willy Clarkson. Whether this anecdote is true or not, it raises a compelling question: did the Ripper wear a disguise while committing his crimes? It may sound outlandish, but some Victorians speculated that the murderer disguised himself to evade detection. More than one Ripper theorist has argued the same since. In fact, the first two artists profiled this season have fallen under suspicion largely because they could alter their appearance in the blink of an eye—a skill they’d honed as part of their craft. I call this theory the disguise hypothesis, and today we’ll get a sense of why it caught on and why it has proven so attractive over the years.
First, we’ll hear about how Clarkson achieved unfathomable renown as a theatrical wigmaker and master of disguise. From there, we’ll explore the double-sided role that disguises played in the Whitechapel homicides. As already noted, some have suspected the Ripper concealed his identity while out on the prowl. This may or may not have been the case, but we know for a fact that agents of justice—both professional and vigilante—donned disguises while hunting the killer. Some are even claimed to have gotten their outfits at Clarkson’s.
Finally, we’ll learn why documentarian P. William Grimm has fingered Clarkson as Jack the Ripper, even though the wigmaker supposedly aided the authorities in their investigation. For all his fame and flamboyant glamor, Clarkson had parts of himself he wanted to keep secret, including apparent ties to some of the period’s most notorious criminals. One of these underworld connections forms the basis of Grimm’s case. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 2 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
Master of Disguise – Willy Clarkson
Born to Make Wigs
William “Willy” Berry Clarkson was born on March 31, 1861, the son of a wigmaker also named William. Setting aside whatever genetic predisposition he may have had toward his trade, Willy was all but forced to learn to love false hair in childhood. While other boys might have played with spinning tops, marbles, toy soldiers, or kaleidoscopes, Clarkson’s father handed him an old wig and told him to have fun, or so we’re informed by Harry Greenwall.
Little more is known about Clarkson’s boyhood. In 1870, his father shipped him off to someplace in France for schooling—most likely Paris, according to the wigmaker’s later biographer, Roger Jenkin. On New Year’s Day of 1871, Clarkson’s mother, Eliza Berry, was laid to rest, appearing to have died of complications related to childbirth. By around this time, Clarkson Senior was also unwell, afflicted with a chronic, unspecified ailment. In need of an extra set of hands around the shop, he called his son back to the British capital before he had completed his education in France.
As something of an apprentice, Clarkson would have gained greater insight into the business of making wigs and also taken strides toward mastering the craft. Like other London wigmakers, Clarkson and his father fashioned the bulk of their wares using hair purchased from continental Europe. Traveling buyers hoofed it from village to village, paying two marks for a head of hair on average. The largest share of blond locks came from northerly nations like Holland and Germany whereas darker colors originated in southern countries like Italy and Spain. Once the raw materials had made it to England and undergone processing, Clarkson and his peers were ready to turn them into toupees, moustaches, and whatever else they pleased. This required the skills of an ordinary hairdresser—combing, curling, cutting, and trimming—but also included tricks more specific to the wizardry of wiggery. One of them, a process called “carding,” allowed the wigmaker to mix hair of two different colors to form a new hue. Thus, brown and white could be combined to create a reddish-gray hairpiece.
Unfortunately, while Clarkson was making progress with his clippers, his father remained in poor health. The elder wigmaker soldiered on for several years before finally succumbing to his malady in 1878, aged fifty-six, leaving his only son to helm the family business. He was seventeen years old.
Taking the Helm
This responsibility would have daunted anyone, let alone a recently orphaned teenager. Clarkson had inherited a massive enterprise. He became famous for his work in theater, to be sure, but he served anybody and everybody in want of a wig. Whatever patrons were looking for in a hairpiece, Clarkson had thousands of them. An 1885 advertisement published in a playbill at the Gaiety Theatre makes as much plain. It might as well scream and shake you by the shoulders: “WIGS! WIGS!! WIGS!!!”—each of these “WIGS” in all capital letters, the first followed by one, the second by two, and the third by three exclamation points. Clarkson catered to the swankiest of patrons, offering “Elegant Fancy Wigs for Fancy Dress Balls.” Yet customers shopping on a budget needn’t have worried. “Thousands of second-hand wigs” were available for cheap.
Managing a business of this magnitude required considerable acumen. Clarkson oversaw a sizable staff, numbering as many as 100 at the height of his career, who assisted in serving customers, making wigs, and attending to various day-to-day operations. Even with their support, he had his work cut out for him.
Everybody Wants Some
By the 1880s, the biggest names in show business favored Clarkson’s wigs above all others. One of them was Henry Irving, hands down London’s most celebrated actor. Make a note of his name because he’ll become something of a recurring character this season. Seemingly every artist worth his or her salt in Victorian London entered his orbit on at one time or another. In any case, starting in 1878, Irving assumed management of the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End, which under his guidance emerged as the capital’s foremost playhouse. The easiest way to convey Irving’s historical and cultural significance is simply to cite the precedent he set. In 1895, he became the first actor ever to receive a knighthood, thanks primarily to his work at the Lyceum. A star of Irving’s stature never spent all his time at home. He routinely hit the road, taking the stage and spreading his fame across the English provinces, Western Europe, and even the United States.
Since Irving was playing in an international arena, so was Clarkson. In 1883, Irving hired him while preparing to embark on his inaugural tour of North America. This extravagant undertaking would incorporate a repertoire of twelve plays as well as dozens of actors and actresses, many of whom would don multiple wigs throughout a single performance because they were playing more than one character. In the end, Clarkson supplied Irving with a staggering 1,100 handmade wigs. In addition, three assistants traveled overseas to take care of them all as well as to help the cast put them on and take them off.
Irving and other thespians trusted Clarkson partly because he understood that hair reveals much about a character’s personality. In an interview published in the Era on November 10, 1900, Clarkson observed: “Wigs, like men, have character. To simply make a wig, say, for an ordinary old man, is a mere nothing, if it is only a wig. [B]ut every man, from rogue and rapscallion to prince and pauper, has some peculiarity about the hair. [….] And it is in the peculiarity of the wig that the man, on the stage at his first entrance, so to speak, is foreshadowed.” Put another way, a wig spoke volumes about an actor’s character before he had so much as opened his mouth.
Clarkson’s Greatest Customers: A King and a Queen
If Clarkson hadn’t proven he could pull off anything by wigging for Irving’s North American tour, he certainly proved it two or three years later when the circus came to town. Sometime around Christmas, perhaps in 1886, disaster struck at Covent Garden Theatre in London. William Holland’s “Grand Circus” was slated to perform there, and it would feature animal acts. Much to his dismay, the showman discovered that one of his four-legged co-performers—a lion—was in no condition to appear before the public. As cats will, the beast had been shedding, and his mane lay scattered in sad little heaps across the floor of his cage. The issue was self-evident. No king of the jungle could look majestic without his mane. A circus with this lion would have been akin to a royal procession for a queen without her crown. Luckily, somebody knew who to talk to. If anyone in the metropolis could remedy this biological wardrobe malfunction, Clarkson could. He was duly notified and brought backstage at Covent Garden Theatre later that day. When the lion’s keeper asked him to step inside the predator’s cage to take measurements, Clarkson declined, probably keen on keeping both of his arms. The keeper ended up doing it himself, and once Clarkson had the numbers he needed, he flew back to his shop and threw together a faux mane. According to Jenkin, the lion disliked his new accessory in the beginning but he had gotten used to it by the end of the show.
Clarkson not reached a new height of fame in 1888, the very same year as the Whitechapel homicides. That spring, he traveled long distance not only to wig but also to costume a troupe of amateur performers. This might sound unworthy of the great wigmaker’s time, and in most cases it would have been, were it not for the fact that Queen Victoria was the one hiring.
Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Keeper of the Privy Purse, summoned Clarkson to one of Victoria’s royal residences, Osborne House, located on the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. Her Royal Majesty desired theater, the wigmaker discovered, and she wanted to watch it at home. Mounted by members of the extended royal family as well as other denizens of Victoria’s household, the Osborne House revels entailed what were known as tableaux vivants. A peculiar nineteenth-century entertainment, the tableau vivant was an elaborate stage picture, a sort of three-dimensional painting, in which performers held carefully orchestrated poses for extended periods of time, usually in silence. In cinematic terms, you could think of it as a freeze frame. Tableaux vivants were meant to be studied like pictures in a gallery, and partly for this reason theater historian Richard Schoch argues that modern audiences might have trouble appreciating them, accustomed as we are to more or less constant movement and sound instead of silence and stasis in performance. During the first evening of the Osborne House theatricals, Victoria took special pleasure in the final tableau, “Homage to the Queen”—a most “unexpected surprise,” she enthused in her journal. This tableau featured ladies of the royal household decked out like maids from ancient Greece, striking stately attitudes, and assembled around a bust of Victoria herself. Garlands lay tastefully arranged on the floor, others draped over the performers’ bodies.
With this tableau and others, Clarkson acquitted himself well, even if the festivities ended in a mortifying surprise for him. He was helping Princess Beatrice, the monarch’s youngest and best-loved daughter, out of a wig when he received a summons from somebody or other. He hadn’t caught the name of who was asking for him, but he presumed it was someone who needed help with a costume. Off he dashed to meet whoever it was in the appointed drawing-room. Much to his astonishment, Victoria herself walked through the door a short while later, dressed to kill in resplendent black satin, her tiara gleaming with diamonds, pearls, and emeralds. She certainly hadn’t called him there to help with her wardrobe. “Mr. Clarkson,” she intoned, “we [that is, the royal ‘we’] are more than pleased with your part of the performance.” No sooner had she praised him than she burst into laughter. Nothing stings quite like having a queen laugh in your face, or so I’d imagine, but at least in this case it wasn’t mean-spirited. She’d merely caught sight of what he had on his feet. While flitting about between dressing rooms, Clarkson had ditched his dress shoes and opted instead for a more comfortable pair of purple bedroom slippers, elegantly embroidered with silver and gold. The slippers sound fabulous, don’t get me wrong, and we should expect nothing less from a fashionista like Clarkson. But finding yourself in the unexpected presence of your queen in such informal—and thus disrespectful—footwear might have been enough to make you blush for a week. Clarkson thanked Her Majesty for the kind words and backed out of the chamber—royal etiquette dictated that subjects face their queen at all times. This embarrassment notwithstanding, Clarkson was named “Royal Perruquier and Costumier,” perruquier meaning wigmaker in French, a title supposedly minted by Princess Beatrice herself. The appointment gave him bragging rights few enjoyed, and Clarkson most assuredly was the type to boast.
Master of Disguise
A peerless wigmaker and costume designer, Clarkson was also a master of disguise. If anybody needed to conceal their identity, they went to him. Husbands suspecting their wives of infidelity—and vice versa—procured disguises at Clarkson’s to tail their spouses and uncover the truth. According to Clarkson, a prominent politician—the wigmaker was much too discreet to name names— left his shop with a get-up enabling him to sneak past picketers protesting outside his office. Another affluent gentleman picked out a set of beggar’s rags so he could pass as a pauper and slip into a workhouse or maybe walk around the East End to witness firsthand how the poor of London lived.
The Ripper in Disguise
Now that we’ve gotten to know Clarkson, let’s circle back on that curious hairpiece, supposedly discovered in Dutfield’s Yard, the scene of Elisabeth Stride’s murder.
There is some reason to question this anecdote’s veracity. If there was a wig in Dutfield’s Yard, I haven’t found any verification of it. Countless police documents have gone missing since 1888, so maybe some record of it simply vanished into the vortex of time. Even so, there are several source that probably would have mentioned it if indeed it existed, and none of them do. Policeman Walter Dew reminisced about working the case nearly fifty years later in his 1938 memoir, I Caught Crippen. According to him, investigators came across grape skins and seeds while combing over the scene of Elisabeth Stride’s murder, but he makes no reference whatsoever to a wig. Nor do several other senior officials who wrote about the investigation. For all we know, Clarkson or his biographer manufactured the account. It does make for a good story.
Whatever the case, it’s worth thinking about why the disguise hypothesis came about in the first place. As far as I can tell, people have latched onto this theory because it answers a question that has dogged investigators ever since the Ripper committed his crimes: how on earth did he evade the police? Walter Dew was still puzzling over how the killer had outfoxed him and everyone else fifty years later. “I was on the spot, actively engaged throughout the whole series of crimes,” he recalls in his memoir, “I ought to know something about it. Yet I have to confess I am as mystified now as I was then by the man’s amazing elusiveness.”
The way the Ripper killed and then slipped past policemen undetected does boggle the mind. Consider the murder of Catherine Eddowes, the second to occur on September 30, the night of the so-called “double event.” Police Constable Watkins happened upon her body in Mitre Square at 1:44 a.m. Fourteen minutes earlier, at about 1:30, he had found the area empty when passing through on patrol, leaving by way of Mitre Street. At 1:41 or 1:42, another officer on his beat, PC James Harvey, approached Mitre Square from the opposite direction, stopping at the edge of it without entering. All the same, Harvey swore at Eddowes’ inquest, “I saw no one [and] I heard no cry or noise.” A third police officer, PC Pearce, was also near the scene at the time of the killing. In fact, he lived at Mitre Square, and he and his wife could have looked out their window and witnessed the murder if they hadn’t slept through the entire incident. Had he been awake, Pearce could have intervened or gotten a look at the killer. Furthermore, former member of the Metropolitan Police George Morris was on duty as a night watchman at the nearby Karley & Tonge’s offices. He also claimed not to have seen or heard anything amiss around the time of the killing, and he had cast a glance out the front door of the building toward Mitre Square maybe one or two minutes before Watkins chanced upon the grisly spectacle. In less than fifteen minutes, the Ripper had lured his victim into the square (or found her there already), murdered and mutilated her, carving up her face and cutting out her kidney and uterus, and then escaped into the night—under the noses of four current or erstwhile officers of the law.
How did he do it? Dumb luck could have accounted for the Ripper’s “amazing elusiveness.” Or, as some have speculated, he may have lived in or near Whitechapel and known the area inside and out, allowing him to head home or to another safe haven after a murder by taking a circuitous route through less trafficked streets and alleys. Some have conjectured that he could have studied local policemen’s beats, giving him a sense of where they would be and at what time, making it easier for him to avoid them. For those who credit the disguise hypothesis, perhaps the least likely of these explanations, a clever costume could have done the trick. As we’ll see later, documentarian P. William Grimm makes precisely this argument in his film about Clarkson.
Regardless of how the Ripper brought it off, it’s easy to see why the public was fuming over the police’s failure to capture him. The East London Advertiser fulminated: “It is clear that the Detective Department at Scotland Yard is in an utterly hopeless and worthless condition; and that if there were a capable Director of criminal investigations, the scandalous exhibition of stupidity and ineptitude revealed at the East End inquests and the immunity enjoyed by criminals, murder after murder, would not have angered and disgusted the Public feelings as it has done.” Even the queen was seething. After the double event, Victoria telephoned the Home Office to register her shock and request information. On November 10, one day after Mary Jane Kelly’s killing at Miller’s Court, the monarch fired off a telegram to Lord Salisbury, her prime minister, taking a more critical and imperious tone: “'This new most ghastly murder shows the absolute necessity for some very decided action. All these courts must be lit, and our detectives improved. They are not what they should be.” Condemnation emanated from across the Atlantic as well. According to a hard-hitting article in The New York Times, “The London police and detective force is probably the stupidest in the world.” Ouch.
The Police in Disguise
Likely owing at least in part to the public’s outrage, the police grew more resourceful in their methods as the killing spree continued. They even experimented with two bloodhounds named Barnaby and Burgho to assess whether they could they use them to track the murderer. But that’s beside the point. Hunting for a criminal whom some assumed was wearing a disguise, the police endeavored to beat the Ripper at his own game, altering their appearances to bring him to justice.
In his biography of Clarkson, Greenwall claims that the wigmaker furnished Scorland Yard detectives as well as vigilante medical students with disguises to aid in the manhunt. While novody has corroborated this story, there is hard evidence that law enforcement and journalists were prepared to play dress-up in pursuit of the killer.
From the time of Polly Nichols’s demise, it was assumed that the Whitechapel slasher targeted prostitutes. The authorities reasoned that one of their own could pose as a streetwalker, enticing the murderer into an attack while other officers lay in wait, ready to ambush the would-be assailant. While cunning, this scheme came with major challenges. Women were not allowed to join the Metropolitan Police before World War I, so a male would have to act as the decoy. According to hard-and-fast rules, moreover, officers had to be at least five-foot-seven, and based on what little we know about the median height of Victorian women, the shortest policeman would have probably stood taller than the average female. Simply put, the ruse required an actor who could play the part even though he didn’t look it.
Sensational as ever, the press makes it seem like there were dozens of police officers patrolling Whitechapel dressed in drag. At least one intrepid undercover agent definitely was, and we know so for a fact because his efforts ended in an all-out brawl. On the night of October 9, a rumor reached the ear of Detective Sergeant Robinson that the Ripper was lurking about Phoenix Place. He descended on the scene wearing women’s apparel. Between the hours of midnight and one, accompanied by a fellow named Henry Doncaster, among several others, Robinson spied on a man “in company with a woman under circumstances of great suspicion.” Appearing to loiter, however, the cross-dressing constable and his companions drew the attention of a pair of washmen, William Jarvis and James Phillips, at work in a nearby cab-yard. In PC Robinson’s version of events, Jarvis and Phillips accosted him with an intimidating air. “What are you messing about here for?” Jarvis demanded. In an effort to explain himself without blowing his cover, Robinson removed his feminine hat and replied, “I am a police officer.” “Oh, you are cats and dogs, are you?” Jarvis retorted before punching Robinson. When the constable defended himself, grabbing hold of his attacker’s arm, Jarvis pulled a knife. In the washmen’s telling, it was Robinson—not they—who had escalated the situation. After the two of them asked what the incognito copper and his associates were up to, the officer ordered him to mind his own business and then socked him in the chin. Whoever landed the first blow, a melee ensued, and it’s a small miracle nobody died. Robinson sustained two stab wounds, one above the left eye and the other on the bridge of his nose. Henry Doncaster was not only knifed in the face but also walked away with a dislocated jaw. Meanwhile, Robinson cracked Jarvis over the head with his cudgel. Reeling from the impact, Jarvis called for backup, “Come on George, cats and dogs!” A fresh pack of potential combatants emerged from the cab yard—armed with pitchforks, among other weapons. Robinson and company must have counted themselves lucky because police reinforcements showed up before they could make use of these armaments, preventing what could have erupted into a bloodbath. Instead of arresting Jack the Ripper, Robinson had Jarvis and Phillips taken into custody. Later that day, the brawlers appeared in Clerkenwell Police Court, surgical tape and bloodstained bandages covering their wounds. Near the end of October, Jarvis and Phillips stood trial for assaulting an officer on duty. The latter was acquitted, but the former got slammed with six weeks’ imprisonment with hard labor.
Reporters in Disguise
The police were not the only ones to pull on disguises. An outspoken critic of law enforcement’s failure to apprehend the Ripper, noted journalist George R. Sims claimed to have taken matters into his own hands with the help of a costume. At about 9 o’clock one Saturday night. Sims left his home dressed as a ship’s engineer in the company of a man called Albert Edward. Having made himself up as a “foreign sailor,” this Albert Edward dazzled when it came to the art of dissimulation. According to Sims, he “looked capable of all the murders that have ever been committed and a good many that haven’t been thought of yet.” Within an hour, they had ventured to Whitechapel, where they roamed the main thoroughfares along with the labyrinthine web of back alleys, visiting the crime scenes and keeping an eye peeled for suspicious individuals. Come midnight, they had Buck’s Row, the scene of Polly Nichols’s murder, all to themselves. Flummoxed by how the Ripper could have committed this crime without a sound, they “tried to work the murder out and get a theory.” Much to Simms and Albert Edward’s disappointment, their gambit wouldn’t end in the Ripper’s detainment, though it would attract the notice of patrolling police officers, who demanded they explain what it was they were about.
Sims may have fabricated some or all of this account. Still, there’s ironclad evidence to suggest other journalists were disguising themselves in search of the Ripper. As Philip Sugden reveals, the night after the murders of Elisabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, one PC Ludwig was on patrol near Cannon Street Road and Back Church Lane in Whitechapel when he came across a woman remarkably tall for her sex, taking long, assertive strides. “Stop,” commanded the constable. “You’re a man, aren’t you? I can see that you are.” Asked whether he was part of the police force, Ludwig’s interlocutor confessed that, yes, he was a man—and more than that, a newspaperman.
Clarkson as the Ripper
Undercover crime-fighters were clearly out and about in 1888. According to a 2019 documentary by P. William Grimm, they were in pursuit of the greatest perruquier and costumier in the land, who as a boy he’d made the most of an old wig at playtime and as a man had made a fool of himself with a pair of purple slippers. Titled The Wigmaker of Wellington Street and viewable on YouTube, Grimm’s film argues that Clarkson may have committed the Whitechapel slayings to conceal his involvement in other illegal activity.
When he wasn’t consorting with celebrities and royalty, Clarkson kept company with some unsavory individuals. Grimm’s theory hinges on his suspect’s connection with William Cooper Hobbs—“the most infamous blackmailer of the inter-war period,” in the words of historian Angus McLaren, whose scholarly essay, “Smoke and Mirrors: Willy Clarkson and the Role of Disguise in Inter-War England” is a must-read for anybody interested in the wigmaker. In 1886, two years prior to the Whitechapel horror story, Hobbs became acquainted with the great Clarkson while clerking for a solicitor near the shop on Wellington Street.
More than three decades after their first encounter, Clarkson made an unexpected cameo in a scandal swirling around Hobbs. In about 1921, the incorrigible crook caught wind of a love affair involving Hari Singh, presumptive maharajah of Kashmir. Around this time. Singh journeyed to London where he became smitten with a prostitute named Maude “Maudie” Robinson, who had separated from her husband. Not unlike Mary Jane Kelly and other upmarket sex workers, Robinson embarked on an amorous adventure with her lover to Paris. Singh’s French dalliance came to a bitter end. With Robinson’s collusion, it would appear, Hobbs and several other underworld goons threatened to expose the liaison, which doubtless would have disgraced the maharajah to be. Wishing to avoid scandal, Singh paid the ungodly sum of £300,000. Two or so years later, in 1923, authorities identified the extortionists and hunted down Hobbs just as he was preparing to flee the country. At the time of his arrest, he was carrying £1,500 in cash. In an unpredictable twist, who should show up at the Bow Street Police Station but Willy Clarkson, claiming to have advanced the sum to Hobbs and producing a deed to that effect. Seeing no reason not to, the magistrate ordered that the funds be handed over to Clarkson. This surprise appearance raised eyebrows, and it was suspected that he had acted on Hobbs’s behalf to prevent his ill-gotten gains’ from falling into the hands of the authorities. Hobbs was sentenced to two years’ penal servitude, and after his release he lost no time in resuming his criminal ways. Less than a decade later, it so happens, it would be Hobbs who acted as an unexpected walk-on in a controversy engulfing Clarkson. But more on that in a minute.
Based primarily on the Hari Singh blackmail, Grimm makes a series of leaps to implicate Clarkson in the Whitechapel homicides. First, the documentarian intimates that Clarkson may have aided Hobbs in entrapping the future maharajah. Then, he suggests the two may have been in cahoots as early as 1888—they had met for the first time two years prior, remember. The pair may have done then what Hobbs and his confederates would do later around 1921, Grimm conjectures. Like Maude Robinson, prostitute-informants could have disclosed the identities of wealthy customers to them. In return, Clarkson and Hobbs could have rewarded this information with a few shillings and then threatened to expose these clients unless they forked over hush money.
But how did extortion lead to murder? Grimm founds his argument on the slaying of Martha Tabram, a non-canonical Ripper victim whose killing many researchers have pinpointed as possibly the first in his rampage. Martha met her end in the early hours of August 7, 1888, roughly three-and-a-half weeks before Polly Nichols perished in Buck’s Row. The night of August 6, a bank holiday, Martha partook of rum and ale during a pub crawl, accompanied by a prostitute, Mary Ann Connelly, nicknamed “Pearly Poll.” Along the boozy way, they picked up a couple of soldiers. At about 11:45 p.m., the four split into pairs—one man and one woman in each—and headed their separate ways, presumably for sex. Martha and her guardsman are supposed to have gone to George Yard, where the residential George Yard Building stood. Just before five in the morning, a dock laborer called John Saunders Reeves left for work from that property and spotted Tabram’s body, lying in a pool of blood on the first-floor landing of a stairway leading to the tenement’s entrance. Her killer had stabbed her thirty-nine times. These wounds differ markedly from those inflicted on the canonical victims—her throat wasn’t slashed, nor her abdomen ripped open. Still, the date of her homicide, so near that of Polly Nichols, its location in Whitechapel, as well as the unmitigated ferocity of the attack do call to mind the Ripper’s handiwork. As many have pointed out, moreover, it’s not uncommon for a serial killer to change his modus operandi with time.
According to P. William Grimm, Tabram could have been taking part as an informant in Hobbs and Clarkson’s extortion racket. One day before her homicide, the Evening Telegraph published an article about the wigmaker. The news item could have come to Tabram’s attention, the documentarian speculates, making her aware of his status and wealth. Tabram in turn could have blackmailed the blackmailer, vowing to go to the police or the press about his unlawful enterprise unless he paid her a more generous share of his winnings. Such a revelation would have ruined Clarkson, London’s most sought-after supplier of wigs, not to mention England’s newly appointed “Royal Perruquier and Costumier.” As Grimm would have it, “Clarkson was glamorous and on top of the world. Perhaps he would stop at nothing to stay there.” Desperate to retain his lofty perch, Clarkson killed Tabram, ushering in the autumn of terror.
As for the canonical victims, Grimm contends that they also could have been working for Clarkson as informants, and he may have killed them out of fear they would betray him. And the mysterious wig at Berner Street? Grimm offers a theory as to why Clarkson and his staff couldn’t produce a bill of sale: the Ripper never bought it. Instead, he plucked it off a display in his very own establishment, knowing full well that with thousands more where that came from, nobody would miss it.
More than motive, Grimm would have us believe, Clarkson had the capability both to carry out these murders and to evade capture. His grandfather had made his living as a barber-surgeon, and perhaps his family had held onto the sharper tools of his trade as well as his anatomy books, in which case Clarkson may have had access to the knives and know-how to open up a body. Thanks to his art, Clarkson could pull off swift transformations, permitting him to elude patrolling officers. Grimm puts it like this: “It would be easy for Clarkson to navigate the different neighborhoods of the East End and West End without detection. A master of disguise, it would be second nature for Clarkson to wear a poor man’s rags on one corner of a street and a rich man’s top hat and tails by the time he reached the next corner. Brown-haired one minute, a ginger the next.”
In making this case, Grimm does something that other Ripper theorists will do: he looks at murder scenes like works of art in need of interpretation. The killer dispatched his victims with such brutality, the filmmaker posits, so as to intimidate other informants who may have threatened to snitch. Grimm has this to say about Mary Jane Kelly’s homicide, the last and most gruesome of the Whitechapel atrocities: “It was so disturbing, it seems as though the scene had been arranged theatrically, staged as a final warning message.” In arguing for a man of the theater’s culpability, Grimm himself interprets the carnage in theatrical terms. It’s as if Mary Jane Kelly’s murder scene were a hideous tableau —wordless, motionless, sculpted with a knife.
There are holes to poke in Grimm’s theory, not least because much of it is pure speculation, but I’m not much interested in poking them. If you want to think it over for yourself, you should watch the documentary, which I’ve linked to in the show notes. There is an important element to highlight before moving on, however. In Grimm’s hypothetical version of events, the Whitechapel murders were not random acts of violence carried out by a sexual psychopath. Instead, Clarkson is proposed to have targeted his victims specifically to silence them. We’ll encounter a similar theory a few weeks from now.
Death and Scandal
As we near the conclusion of this episode, we turn our attention to the end of Clarkson’s life. Whatever you make of him as a Ripper candidate, the enigmatic circumstances his death and the courtroom drama that followed it certainly compelled the public to ask what crimes Clarkson might have committed while alive as well as what secrets he had taken to the grave.
On October 13, 1934, the wigmaker was found lifeless on his bedroom floor with a nasty gash on his head. The king’s personal physician, Lord Devon of Penn, rushed to the scene but he was unable to resuscitate Clarkson. Forensic scientist Sir Bernard Spilsbury carried out an inquiry and detected no evidence of foul play. The cause of death was never explained.
What came next was even stranger. Conflict erupted when Clarkson’s will was probated at the High Court of Justice in January 1935. His fortunes had declined since the pinnacle of his success in the early 1920s, yet it was still taken for granted that he would leave behind a sizeable estate. He’d reigned as London’s preeminent wigmaker for decades, after all, even working for Irving and Queen Victoria. The bigger question was who would inherit his wealth. Clarkson had lived and died a bachelor, never fathering children. Uncertainties aside, it’s safe to say nobody could have guessed whom solicitor Clifford Mortimer would name as the wigmaker’s sole beneficiary: convicted blackmailer William Cooper Hobbs, infamous for his role in the 1919 Hari Singh affair. Despite Hobbs’ claims, the court ruled to honor a later will which designated other parties as Clarkson’s rightful heirs. Three years later, in 1938, Hobbs was back in prison for a five-year sentence, this time convicted of forging the wigmaker’s last will and testament.
Then there were the insurance companies, several of which insisted Clarkson had repeatedly filed fraudulent claims. The insurance men conducted an inquiry into Clarkson’s company and discovered that over the course of forty years, he had received payouts for one gas explosion and no fewer than eight conflagrations, all of them having done extensive damage to his business. In a shocking turn of events, insurance fraudster Leopold Harris testified under oath that he had made Clarkson’s acquaintance in 1931 and that his partners in crime set his shop ablaze that same year. The arsonists employed the so-called “paper and tray” method, whereby a candle was lit and allowed to burn down until setting fire to a highly flammable photographic tray on which it had been placed. The blaze devoured the fire-starter itself, destroying all evidence of arson. Purporting to be Clarkson’s insurance agent, Harris bribed one of Clarkson’s employees to conceal an extremely incriminating piece of information: prior to the fire, somebody had arranged for most of the wigmaker’s theatrical stock to be removed to a safe location. Nevertheless, Clarkson or someone close to him averred that the blaze had consumed these hidden assets, thereby increasing the payout. Two insurance claims were deemed fraudulent, though the full extent of Clarkson’s involvement was never ascertained.
The ultimate outcome of these cases left many observers incredulous. By the time the insurance companies collected their dues, Clarkson’s estate was insolvent. His shop closed, rendering the family business defunct. For all intents and purposes, there was nothing left to his name.
Inquiring minds couldn’t help asking where his money had gone. More likely than not, the world will never know. However, more than one of Clarkson’s contemporaries harbored a suspicion that he himself might have been a victim of blackmail. He did have a lot to hide. The trial had laid bare his connection with arsonists, and historian Angus McLaren explores two further facets of his identity that could have made Clarkson vulnerable to extortion.
To begin with, he was widely believed to be of Jewish descent at a time when anti-Semitism cut across British society. McLaren admits that it seems improbable for a blackmailer to have used this information against Clarkson since it in itself would not have sufficed to compromise him. At the same time, Clarkson had a strange habit of adamantly denying any Jewish ancestry, and closeted Jews had fallen prey to blackmailers before.
Perhaps more likely, McLaren intimates, somebody had threatened to out Clarkson as gay, which he was. Earlier in life, he had made eyes at the opposite sex. When he was seventeen, the wigmaker fell in love with a woman named Jennie Glover, proposing marriage only for the engagement to drag on and dissolve after seven long years. After the romance petered out, Glover returned a diamond ring her fiancé had given her, which Clarkson is said to have worn around his finger for the rest of his days. After this relationship, there was never another woman, and Clarkson’s preference for men became an open secret among the theater industry. Some who knew him described him as “effeminate,” a euphemism for “gay,” and his earliest biographer remarks that Clarkson had a “sexual kink.” While many of the wigmaker’s friends and colleagues tolerated his proclivities, his enemies could have weaponized them. Throughout Clarkson’s life, it was a criminal offense for men to have sex with other men. Conviction met with a two-year prison sentence and could easily decimate a reputation. All the same, McLaren stresses that any evidence pointing in this direction is circumstantial.
What is certain amid all this uncertainty is that those who knew—or thought they knew—Clarkson presumed that he was keeping secrets, secrets the rest of us may never uncover. In death as in life, Clarkson remains a master of disguise.
Next episode, we’ll meet another man of the theater, this time the American actor who originated the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and took the show to London right before the Ripper’s reign of terror. Not unlike Clarkson, his ability to disguise himself in an instant would bring him under suspicion.