The Ripper and The Lyceum: The Significance of Irving’s Freemasonry by John Pick & Robert Protherough
Henry Irving became a Freemason in 1877, the year that he entered into the management of the Lyceum. When Sir William George Cusins initiated him into Jerusalem Lodge, (1) it was at a time of unprecedented growth in Masonry—the number of Lodges in England having risen from a mere one thousand in 1864 to twice that number—and most successful men in the London theatre were already on the square. Irving was however looking beyond his immediate career prospects; within Freemasonry’s ranks, with ready access to the rich and powerful in government and the professions, he could more easily pursue his wider ambition to take the whole of the British theatre ‘onward and upward’. In this respect, the Jerusalem Lodge was well chosen. It was one of the nineteen élite ‘Red Apron’ Lodges, and its members—including the Duke of Albany, the Earl of Fife and the architect Charles Barry—were only slightly less well-connected than those of London’s premier Red Apron Lodge, the Grand Masters’. Irving’s Royal ally, the Prince of Wales, who had been installed as Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Masonic Order in England on 28th April 1875, was inter alia a member of Jerusalem Lodge, Grand Masters’ and (the significance of which will be later apparent) the Royal Alpha Lodge.
The actor remained a practising Freemason throughout his life, and, in spite of all later troubles, remained true to the Craft and kept its secrets close to him. In 1882, five years after his initiation, he was raised to the Third Degree and became a Master Mason. In February 1887 he joined with other members of the London arts establishment to found the Savage Club Lodge. Throughout his professional life he was a regular, and generous, supporter of masonic charities and during his profitable London seasons he ran the Beefsteak Room backstage at the Lyceum as a neo-masonic pressure group, using its regular largely all-male gatherings, thickly peopled with influential members of the Order, to elevate the status of drama in the minds of the British establishment.
However, in the late 1880s senior Masons were to be burdened with a dreadful new responsibility, keeping secret what they knew (and suspected) about the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders in East London. That onerous task, we shall suggest, bore heavily in different ways upon both Irving and his business manager Stoker, and was the main cause of the coolness of their later relationship, and of the omissions and strange formality in Stoker’s later account of the actor’s life. Hitherto most writing about the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders has focussed upon establishing the identity of the killer. We shall suggest that the murders were themselves only one facet of a complicated and dangerous intrigue which tangentially involved members of London’s leading Masonic Lodges, and which left its mark upon almost every aspect of London society. For this purpose we shall draw upon four hitherto unconnected strands of inquiry—the history of Henry Irving’s Lyceum management; the social history of the late nineteenth century; Ripperology (the systematic study of the ‘Ripper’ crimes), and the significance of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula—and shall suggest a new and revealing connection between them
There is much that is puzzling about the events which surround the Whitechapel murders. First is the extraordinary speed with which Jack’s reign of terror seems to have been established upon London’s streets. In the words of a frequently-quoted editorial in the Star, first published in September 1888:
‘London lies today under the spell of a great terror. A nameless reprobate—half beast, half man—is at large. The ghoul-like creature who stalks through the streets of London, staking down his victim like a Pawnee Indian, is simply drunk with blood and he will have more.’
The fact that a ‘great terror’ was already said to hold London in its thrall, after only two Whitechapel murders, is puzzling. For, although it seems callous so to phrase it, when set within the context of London crime figures, the Ripper killings were in fact too few in number to cause much of a stir in London’s East End, (2) for we have the clear assurance of Sir Melville Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, that in spite of all rumour, ‘The Whitechapel Murderer had 5 victims and 5 only’.(3) Nor, as is usually alleged, were the bodies found scattered throughout ‘the streets of London’—but were all discovered within five hundred yards of the Whitechapel Road. And though the ‘great terror’ was to last for years—the final communication from Jack was received on 14th October 1896, eighteen months after the conferment of Irving’s knighthood—the truth is that from the discovery of the first victim, Mary Ann Nichols on 31st August 1888, to the last, Mary Jeanette Kelly on 9th November, the actions of the killer spanned a mere ten weeks. Finally, although the poor women were certainly mutilated, they were not haphazardly butchered by the ‘half beast, half man’ of sensational journalism, but dispatched with a grisly precision, their throats slit and their entrails removed and displayed (in a quasi-sacrificial manner) by some person, or persons, with considerable anatomical knowledge.
Thus there was from the first a marked dissonance between the calculated manner of the murders and the popular image of the killer as a bloodthirsty ghoul attacking women at random in the ill-lit East End streets. And that image of the Ripper did not derive, as so often alleged, from a spontaneous upsurge of popular revulsion. Instead it was, like the ‘terror’ which accompanied it, deliberately fostered by a calculated campaign in the correspondence columns of the newly-established popular press. (4) From the day of the first killing shoals of letters poured in to the press offices—more than two hundred and fifty of them purporting to come from the killer—and it is the steady accumulation of that grisly correspondence which created the ‘half beast, half man’ of popular lore. It was in a letter dated 25th September 1888 that the killer first christened himself Jack the Ripper. It was through letters to the press that the Ripper spread terror by constant threats to strike again.
Re-reading those letters now (5) it is clear that although a few came from isolated cranks and some from genuinely concerned members of the public, a large number seem to have been written in concert by persons intent upon generating a lurid terror in those that read them. The character of the Ripper is, however, a paradox. His letters purport to come from a rough-and-ready ‘working man’ who had learned his penmanship in a ‘National School’, but their contents—cleverly headline-seeking—and the astuteness with which they were targeted, suggest that the senders came from a different stratum of society. As George R. Sims wrote in The Referee in October 1888:
‘How many among you, my dear readers, would have hit upon the idea of “The Central News” as a receptacle for your confidence? You might have sent your joke to the Telegraph, The Times, any morning or evening paper, but I will lay long odds that it would never have occurred to you to communicate with a Press agency. Curious, is it not, that this maniac makes his communication to an agency which serves the entire press?’
Sims was by no means alone in suspecting that the authors of many of the letters, certainly of those purporting to come from the Ripper himself, were in all probability educated and worldly men who were fostering a reign of terror to underline their own political agenda.
From the first there were rumours that the highest in the land were involved in the killings. As the Star wrote in November 1888:
‘We have heard the wildest stories…it is believed by people who pass among their neighbours as sensible folk that the Government do not want the murderer to be convicted, that they are interested in concealing his identity…’
Be that as it may, there was always reason to doubt whether the conventional explanation (that Jack was a deranged loner who, for some conjectural reason, was ‘down on whores’) could ever satisfactorily explain either the way the mutilations were carried out in such heavily-patrolled streets, or the immediate and disproportionately intense public interest which they caused.
Then in 1973 a new and fuller account emerged which is now largely accepted by many (though by no means all) Ripperologists. (6) It was first given by Joseph Sickert, son of the painter Walter Sickert, to a BBC reporting team and then modified in the light of further developments. It explains much that has puzzled serious students of the Whitechapel murders. By this account ‘Jack’ was not one man but a carefully organised cabal. The killings and mutilations were not detected by the pavement patrols for good reason—four of them were not carried out at the sites where the bodies were found but in a moving coach, while the last was perpetrated in situ, in the victim Mary Kelly’s own room. Moreover the intended victims, far from being plucked at random from Whitechapel’s working 1,200 prostitutes, were already known to the murderers and to each other. Most startling of all—as had long been whispered—the murders did involve the highest in the land. They were carried out in order to avoid a Royal scandal by a ruthless and powerful group using Masonic lore as a cloak for their crimes.
Sickert’s story revolved around the Prince of Wales’ household. In 1883 his wife, Princess Alexandra, had asked the young painter Walter Sickert to introduce their eldest son Prince Albert Victor (Eddy to his friends) to the artistic and literary life of London. Sickert’s studio, where he spent most of his time, was at 15 Cleveland Street near to the Tottenham Court Road. He duly introduced the teenage Prince to many of the area’s bohemians, including the theatrical friends he had made when, for four years, he had been a minor member of the Lyceum company. Sickert also introduced Eddy to one of his models, a pretty Irish Catholic girl called Annie Elizabeth Crook who lived nearby at 6 Cleveland Street and who worked by day in a local tobacconist’s shop. They fell for each other and, according to Sickert, went through two clandestine marriage ceremonies, one Anglican and one Catholic. Soon afterwards Annie became pregnant and her employer wanted someone to deputise for her during her confinement. Walter Sickert was asked if he knew anyone suitable and, after consulting friends, found a young girl called Mary Jean Kelly from the Providence Row Night Refuge for Women in Whitechapel. For some months Kelly worked alongside Annie Crook in the shop and the two became friends. In due course, on 18th April 1885, Annie gave birth to a daughter, Alice, in the Marylebone Workhouse. When she returned home, her new friend Mary Kelly moved in as the child’s nursemaid.
In that fashion Eddy maintained his secret family in Cleveland Street. However, the menage raised a vital constitutional issue. It was contrary to the 1791 Act of Settlement which disbarred any person marrying a Roman Catholic from succession to the Throne. Eddy’s indiscretion moreover occurred at a particularly dangerous time. The tide of Republicanism was rising and would culminate during Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year in the Bloody Sunday riots of 1887. So when the Palace authorities were tipped off by one of Eddy’s coachmen about the happenings in Cleveland Street they acted swiftly and ruthlessly. Prince Eddy was dragged from his love nest and thereafter rigidly confined to court. On the same day the luckless Annie Crook was abducted and confined for a hundred and fifty-six days in Guy’s Hospital by no less a figure than Queen Victoria’s Physician-in-Ordinary and Physician to the Prince of Wales, Sir William Gull. Certified insane by Gull, Annie lived for most of her life in institutions, spending her last days in the Lunacy Observation Ward of St George’s Union Workhouse.
According to Sickert’s account, when the Prince and Annie were taken from their Cleveland Street rooms, Mary Kelly was out walking the baby. When she returned and learned what had happened, fearing she was in great danger she fled back to the district she already knew well from her days in the Refuge—Whitechapel. The baby Alice then passed into Sickert’s care. (Many years later Alice became the painter’s mistress and was the natural mother of Joseph Sickert, the man who finally broke the secrets of 1888.)
There the matter might have ended, but for Mary Kelly’s greed. Back in Whitechapel Kelly befriended three local streetwalkers to whom she boasted of her Royal connections. In the Spring of 1888 the quartet, led by Kelly, demanded money from Walter Sickert, threatening otherwise to make the story public. Walter immediately passed word to Eddy who informed his father. The Prince of Wales discussed the threat under terms of the greatest secrecy with trusted fellow Masons in the Red Apron Lodges and with Brothers in the Royal Alpha Lodge. It was agreed that for the sake of the realm Kelly and her friends must be silenced—although the group which undertook this mission, according to Sickert’s account, went far beyond what had originally been contemplated. The action group was largely drawn from the Royal Alpha Lodge and included Sir Richard Gull, Lord Randolph Churchill, Eddy’s former Cambridge tutor J. K. Stephen, and Sir Charles Warren, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (who took no active part in the killings but who helped mastermind the cover-up). To drive them about their business they recruited the coachman who had betrayed Prince Eddy to the Palace authorities, one John Netley.
The group set about discovering the blackmailers’ whereabouts, then systematically plotted their executions. The campaign opened on 31st August with Mary Ann Nichols as their first victim and continued with the killing of Annie Chapman on 8th September. In turn each woman was lured inside the coach, then killed and mutilated in the way that the three ‘Juwes’—Jubela, Jubelo and Jubelum, the murderers of Hiram Abiff—were executed in the old Masonic legend. Their throats were ‘cut across’, their bodies torn open and their entrails ‘thrown over’ the left shoulder.
On 30th September there were two further killings but on that night things did not go so smoothly. As the murderers were dumping that night’s first victim, Liz Stride, in Berner Street, they were interrupted and had to abandon her corpse before its ritual mutilation had been completed. More alarming still, the night’s second victim, Catherine Eddowes, was, according to Sickert, almost immediately discovered to have been killed in error. It seemed that poor Eddowes had for some time lived with a man called John Kelly, had often used his surname, and so had been wrongly identified by the gang’s underworld informants as the leading blackmailer, Mary Kelly.
That mistake nearly led to the group’s undoing. In the belief that this was to be the climactic move of their campaign, the group had arranged Eddowes’ corpse, more completely mutilated than any of her predecessors, in Mitre Square opposite the Masonic Temple and close to the Whitechapel Road. They had chalked on a nearby wall a triumphant postscript to the whole affair. A policeman copied it down in his notebook:
The Juwes are
The men that
Arriving on the scene Sir Charles Warren, to the astonishment of his underlings, ordered that the chalked epitaph—presumed by observers to be in the killer’s hand—should be immediately hosed down and erased. The reason he gave was that he did not want anti-Jewish sentiment to be inflamed, but Sickert suggested the real reason was that too many insiders would recognise that the message referred not to the Jews but to the Juwes of Masonic legend, and would know the killers’ identity.
After this setback there was a pause of more than a month, the longest interval between the killings, while the group redoubled their efforts to find the real Mary Kelly. Meanwhile, rumours of the killer’s associations with Masonry and with the Royal Family continued to grow. It was not until 9th November that Kelly was finally tracked down. To use the coach again was too dangerous so she was dispatched in her own Dorset Street lodgings, more bloodily mutilated than any of her fellow-conspirators, her throat slashed, her body brutally cut apart and her intestines arranged ritually about the room.
Freemasonry was now riven. Some Masons, shocked by what they had heard and suspected, resigned from the craft. Others remained tight-lipped, for senior members of the Brotherhood were after all offered a choice. The oath they had taken stated that the secrets of another Master Mason ‘shall remain as secure and inviolable in my breast as in his own, when communicated to me, murder and treason excepted; and they left to my own election…’
As a Master Mason Henry Irving elected, then and for the rest of his life, to keep any secrets he may have learned ‘secure within his breast’. It is, however, likely that the turmoil over the Whitechapel killings lay behind his unexpected decision to drop the still-popular Faust from the Lyceum programme, and instead open his tenth season with Macbeth, a play in whose title role he had previously enjoyed only modest success. The timing, with the production opening on 29th December, 1888, was surely deliberate. One can readily imagine the frisson in the Lyceum when Irving’s Macbeth, gaunt, with straggling moustache and looking, as Ellen Terry commented, ‘like a great famished wolf’, padded across the shadowy hall in Dunsinane, thrust aloft the glittering blood-stained daggers and hissed triumphantly to his fellow-conspirator, ‘I have done the deed!’.
Stoker, too, attempted to shut out the secret nightmares, but his was a more volatile nature. He was a far less committed Freemason than Irving (7), and after the Ripper killings confined his activities to occasional visits to the Masonic literary society, The Golden Dawn. But the ritualistic horrors of the Whitechapel murders were later to erupt onto the pages of his most famous novel. For Dracula is a gothic fantasy whose imagery derives in large part from the gruesome particulars of ‘Jack’s’ reign. Indeed, in an introduction to a 1901 edition (8), Stoker says as much. Dracula’s crimes, he says, ‘originated from the same source, and…at the same time created as much repugnance in people everywhere as the notorious murders of Jack the Ripper…’
Dracula (9) is an extraordinary book. For the most part it is set in late Victorian Britain, but it is a world way from the music and gaiety of fin de siècle society. Its characters play out its drama in near-darkness and for the most part in an anxious closeted silence. The group pursuing Dracula speak to each other, and to themselves, in strangely encrypted passages, as if they are somehow complicit with his activities. Again, although he generates a general terror, the Count’s victims—all women—number no more than five, and we are never told why, from all thousands available to him, the Count selects those few ‘brides’. His victims, when found, are arranged in the same quasi-sacrificial fashion as those of the Ripper:
‘On the bed lay two women, Lucy and her mother. The latter lay furthest in, and she was covered with a white sheet, the edge of which had been blown back by the draught through the broken window, showing the drawn, white face and the look of terror fixed upon it. By her side lay Lucy, with face white and still more drawn. The flowers which had been round her neck we found upon her mother’s bosom, and her throat was bare, showing the two little wounds we had noticed before, but looking horribly white and mangled.’ (p177)
The wounds in the throat—recalling the Apprentice Mason’s pledge to uphold all secret mysteries on pain of ‘having my throat cut across’—are one example of the book’s frequent allusions to Masonic practice. Another is Harker’s first meeting with Dracula, where he waits in darkness outside the door and, after a ritual exchange, is led into a windowless room and thence into the light (p25ff). Throughout the book ‘darkness’ and ’light’ are as symbolically important as in Masonic ritual. Cumulatively the effect is to make the cult of vampirism an inverted reflection of the cult of Freemasonry.
Many commentators have observed that Stoker’s Dracula resembles Henry Irving in appearance:
‘His face was a strong—very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and particularly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with particularly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.’
Nina Auerbach has gone further and claimed that it was Irving as Mephistopheles which ‘gave Dracula his contours’. (10) Mephistopheles was not the prime inspiration for Dracula. Stoker did not begin making formal notes for the novel until 8th March 1890, when Irving’s portrayal of the clean-shaven Mephistopheles was a distant memory. With his wolf-like, pallid features, straggly locks on high forehead and heavy moustache, the Count most certainly resembles Irving—but Irving in his role as Macbeth.
Irving no less than Stoker will have recognised the similarities between his own position and that of the character he was playing, for Macbeth is also tormented by the knowledge of murders which he did not commit but about which he cannot speak. But whereas Irving kept his secret knowledge, and his art, in separate compartments Stoker’s nightmares erupted on to the tormented pages of Dracula. None of Stoker’s books was so much revised and so frequently rewritten. It was not finally published until 26th May 1897, by which time the Ripper had receded from the newspaper headlines, the reign of terror had evaporated, and the trustworthy Henry Irving—at the specific recommendation of the Freemason’s Grand Master, the Prince of Wales—had been rewarded with his knighthood.
It is sometimes overlooked that the ‘vampirism’ of the novel is not an inherited but a transmitted condition. Dracula is not a supernatural figure, as Mephistopheles is, but a grievously blemished mortal. In his final second, the Count achieves redemption:
‘It was like a miracle; but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.
I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution there was in the face a look of peace such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.’
Yet in spite of its Christian denouement Henry Irving disliked Dracula intensely. This, we may surmise, was not because he had any rooted objection to horror stories—his frequent playing of The Bells and Eugene Aram testify to that—but because he read the book’s sub-text only too clearly. The route to redemption lay in ridding oneself of one’s secrets, i.e. shedding the Masonic code, just as the Count in his death agonies sheds the curse of vampirism. This Irving could never do.
Stoker’s most recent biographer (11) describes events at the Lyceum at the pre-publication copyright reading of Dracula on 18th May 1897, when the tension between the two was evident. Stoker had desperately wanted Irving to play the Count but he had adamantly refused. In the event:
‘Count Dracula was a Mr Jones, most likely Whitworth Jones, whose roles veered towards an assortment of wizards, kings and demons, including Mephistopheles. More than anything, though, Stoker wanted to woo Irving to a role he saw as the crowd-pleaser the financially-strapped Lyceum needed…
The reading concluded after four hours…Stoker approached Irving in his dressing-room…and asked “How did you like it?” “Dreadful!” he replied.’
The reading of Dracula was not mentioned in any of the first lives of Irving (including Stoker’s) nor in contemporary accounts of his Lyceum management. After it, there was a greater coolness between the two men. Irving no longer took Stoker’s advice on all things financial, and disastrously under-insured the Lyceum scenery stock before its destruction by fire in 1898. Stoker ‘had no part in the matter and no responsibility’ when Comyns Carr’s Syndicate then took over the Lyceum, after which, during the last seven years of Irving’s life, as Stoker himself observed with masterly understatement, he ‘was not able to see so much of him as I had been in the habit of doing throughout the previous twenty’.
In those last years Irving turned instead to his confidential private secretary, Austin Brereton, who wrote in 1908:
‘From the summer of 1898, I acted for Henry Irving in an official and confidential capacity. He found it necessary, for divers specific reasons, to have his interests guarded, in certain directions, in the newspaper world, and I was his trusted representative in these matters. From this time until his death, he told me much of his life’s story…
In these circumstances, I was not greatly perturbed when the tragic death of the actor caused a flood of biographical material to pour forth from the press. In regard to the various books which have lived through the intervening years, that by Bram Stoker has won a well-merited popularity. It is full of entertaining gossip and reminiscence…’ (12)
It is now possible to speculate more confidently on the reasons Brereton had for suggesting that Stoker’s ‘popular’ biography did not fully reveal the essence of the man. As a leading Freemason in those troubled times Irving had borne a moral burden to which Stoker’s loyal account dare not allude. Only now can we be certain about the real nature of those mysterious ‘interests’ to which Brereton refers, and of the terrible secrets Henry Irving took to his grave.
- Irving’s Masonic career is outlined by Austin Brereton The Life of Henry Irving, Longmans Green & Co., 1908. Vol 1 p234
- An indication of how common crimes against women were is given by the fact that, in the year preceding the first of the Ripper murders, there were 601 Coroners’ Inquests on missing women in Central London alone. – Return
- Macnaghten joined Scotland Yard in 1889 and, with access to all the confidential files, wrote up the Jack the Ripper case for police records.
- Newsprint was the prime means of mass communication, and circulations were beginning to grow rapidly. The number of newspapers had risen from 1,165 in 1850 to more than 2,200, while the number of magazines had risen in the same period from 213 to 1,770.
- Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell, Sutton Publishing 2001.
- See Stephen Knight Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Harrap, 1976, and Melvyn Fairclough The Ripper and the Royals, Duckworth, 1992.
- Stoker was introduced to Freemasonry in Dublin, but his Masonic interests seem to have declined when he took up his post at the Lyceum.. The Library of Freemasonry in London, after extensive searches, has been unable to uncover any evidence of Stoker taking an active part in London’s Masonic life.
- Stoker made this confession in the 1901 Icelandic edition Makt Mrykanna.
- All page references are to the Penguin Popular Classics Edition. The Dracula Notes are catalogued at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.
- In an essay likening Irving/Stoker to Byron/Polidori in a New Casebooks collection on Dracula, Macmillan, 1999. p149
- Barbara Belford Bram Stoker,Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1996.
- Brereton, op cit, Vol 1 vi-vii. Commentators who have remarked upon this passage have usually made the comfortable assumption that in his declining years the impoverished Irving must have paid Brereton simply to protect him from the manoeuvres of his estranged wife. In every way this is improbable.
John Pick and Robert Protherough’s most recent book is Managing Britannia: Culture and Management in Modern Britain (Edgeways Books 2002). They have a strong interest in late Victorian theatre and have been jointly researching the Masonic undercurrents in the Lyceum company for some years. They intend to publish their findings in a book provisionally entitled Creatures of the Night.